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Author Katherena Vermette.vanda4/Handout

An online biography of Katherena Vermette notes that she is known primarily for her poetry, but that she also dabbles in prose. Clearly some updating is in order.

On Tuesday, the Métis writer from Winnipeg was awarded the $60,000 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel The Strangers, a potent, audacious intergenerational saga that explores race, class, inherited trauma and the strength of matrilineal bonds. The book is a companion piece to Vermette’s debut novel The Break, a finalist for the 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (now the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, in honour of Margaret Atwood and her late husband Graeme Gibson).

Vermette is among a trio of Indigenous writers who won Writers’ Trust awards. Gatineau-based Cree playwright and author Tomson Highway was given the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for Permanent Astonishment: A Memoir. Ontario-based Métis author Cherie Dimaline won the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, which honours a writer of fiction in mid-career.

Others receiving awards for their bodies of work are Calgary poet Weyman Chan, who won the $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize; Ottawa’s Frances Itani, recipient of the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award; and Vancouver’s Linda Bailey, winner of the $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.

Vermette, whose Winnipeg-championing North End Love Songs captured the 2013 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Poetry, spoke to The Globe and Mail from her hometown.

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The Stranger is billed as a companion to The Break. Does one need to read the first book before the second?

They’re connected, but The Stranger is its own beast, its own world. One character from The Break has her story sequeled in The Stranger. I felt I was more control this time. I felt like I knew a little bit more about what I was doing.

What you did with The Break and continued with for The Strangers was go from poetry straight into writing novels with multiple perspectives. Was it a matter of in for a penny, in for a pound?

Basically. I love the changing of perspective. I love unreliable narrators. I love learning the story through somebody’s eyes, and different eyes. We’re so reliant on character and what the character is doing, who they are, what they think, and the lies they tell about themselves and the world.

The jury praised The Strangers as a testament to those living on the margins. Can you talk about portraying the Indigenous experience in Canada?

I firmly believe in who my direct audience is. First of all, it’s myself. My perspective is myself. I’m only speaking for myself. But I am also speaking to other Michif women and other Indigenous women and persons, The narratives are very female-centric, and they are very Michif-centric and Indigenous-centric. I’m very conscious of that.

And yet there’s a universality to The Strangers.

I intended to write it as a family story. I didn’t intend to talk about the systems. I didn’t intend to talk about the oppression and the various attempts at genocide that have been imposed upon us. But you cannot tell an intergenerational family story of the Michif people without talking about those things.

You’re saying the politics are unavoidable?

I pick the subjects for my poetry, my novels, my graphic novels. I end up being very political, and I recognize that. I would be political just because of who I chose to write about and where I choose to write from. You can’t separate the two.

The one character who is in both your novels is Phoenix, who uses a lot of earthy language. Does that come naturally for you?

She’s a swearer. It accentuates and punctuates her language. It’s there for a reason, whether the reason is anger or setting herself apart or just because she’s so used to it she can’t get out of the habit. I think Phoenix is all of the above.

I noticed you haven’t used any four-letter words in our conversation.

I’m on my best behaviour [laughs.] Actually, in some parts of the book, I took out a lot of the F-words, only because it can look awful on paper. You have to balance out what it does visually versus how you hear it when you read it out loud.

Doesn’t that complicate the writing process, worrying about the visual aspect?

This is where I have a lot of discussions with proofreaders on how things are said and how things are written down. Because I don’t believe that voice is supposed to be proper. It’s more important to be true to voice than it is to be grammatically correct.

Could you talk to my copy editors about this? Because I can’t convince them on the merits of sentence fragments.

Isn’t there a rule about short and long sentences? This is me arguing on your behalf. If you want to get a proper rhythm when you’re reading something out loud, it’s best to balance short and long sentences. I also think everyone knows how to read and how to derive meaning from a sentence fragment. We’re not dumb.

So, who wins these arguments, or discussions as you call them, with your own editors?

I try very hard to listen, and there are times where I’m definitely convinced for notions of clarity or when there’s just too many [curse] words on one page. So, you have to balance it out and listen to your editors. But my name is on the book, and I have to justify what’s in it. The buck stops with me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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