“Contracting. Expanding. Contracting.” With those words, Helen Knott ends the powerful passage from her first book, In My Own Moccasins. This is the first time Knott is reading her work aloud. Softly-spoken, her words are starkly beautiful and hard-hitting. The passage Knott has chosen describes a woman contorting her body, drenched in perspiration, in and out of semi-consciousness—symptoms of withdrawal from substance abuse. The passage also speaks of a woman leaning into what she believes is her destiny—disappearance. The scene takes place in a bedroom somewhere in Edmonton, Alberta, miles away from her hometown of Fort St. John, British Columbia. Edmonton is the kind of place Knott believes she’ll meet the same fate as other murdered or missing Indigenous women.
But here is Helen Knott—a woman who once believed she should disappear—standing at the podium with a presence that captivates this sold-out room on the opening night of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
“Why did you choose that passage?” moderator Jennifer Matsunaga asks Knott. Matsunaga is a University of Ottawa sociologist who studies Indigenous-settler relations. She also happens to be soft-spoken, making for an intimate conversation between author and interviewer.
“I wanted to [read] something I could do in front of people and not break,” Knott says earnestly, adding there’s “so much” in it (I gather she’s referring to “so much “of herself as well as the sensitivity of the subject). And yet, it’s likely because of that unabashed honesty Knott’s book is already a national best-seller receiving high praise from fellow authors such as Eden Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Maria Campbell, among others.
One of the central themes of the memoir is—as Knott’s reading signals—disappearance.
“Us native women know how to disappear,” Knott says. The cloak of invisibility started with the launch of the colonial project, when, according to Knott, “Indians only existed in an era of war and teepees.” Indigenous women have since learned to make themselves small—mostly for personal safety, Knott says, referencing her grandmother who averted her eyes in public places.
“I’ve learned how to make myself small,” Knott says, describing how it’s become common-practice for her to scan a room, make a personal safety calculation and ask herself questions like: Is it safe to have this conversation? It’s a learned behavior, Knott says, linked to dispossession of traditional lands. “Disappearance can’t happen without making individuals feel small,” she argues, adding once that dispossession and disappearance is internalized, a shrinking of self takes place.
Back in that bedroom in Edmonton, Knott herself was shrinking. It was through her process of remembering painful experiences like these she’s since been able to begin healing. Her memoir comes from three “spaces of remembering.” First, from sexual violence—telling her own story as well as the stories of other women who have experienced sexual assault. Second, from healing from addictions to drugs and alcohol. And third, from her experience as an Indigenous woman growing up in an era when Indigenous women routinely go missing, routinely without inquiry or consequence.
While the focus of Knott’s academic work is often to “educate and inform” non-Indigenous people, her memoir is for those who identify with similar experiences as her own – be it experiences of sexual assault and violence, substance use or racism and colonialism. Healing from the collective inheritance of intergenerational trauma takes considerable work, Knott adds. “It’s like a sadness you’re born with but don’t know how to deal with,” she observes, borrowing from the definition of Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. Nowadays, Knott says she takes responsibility for her own healing and she’s indebted to her family’s support, especially her mother’s. Her mother, acknowledges Knott, helped her put her life back together.