Theresa Kishkan, Sisters of Grass

 Two refrains run through Theresa Kishkan’s intimate novel Sisters of Grass, two little phrases that keep reverberating across the pages and that ought to keep the reader reflecting on the passage of time, both inside the novel and in their own lives: “I have dreamed of a girl,” and versions of “In such ways is the world remembered.” It’s a novel of imagination, Sisters of Grass, a novel of memory, that dramatizes in small ways and small lives the ways that readers and writers conjure up whole worlds out of nothing—except that somehow, and to the surprise of no one who’s ever read Theresa Kishkan, it’s an intensely place-bound novel that feels more real than it has any business feeling.

The plot is easily described. Anna, a museum curator and mother, is building a textiles exhibit for her small community: “If only,” she sighs, “there was a way to decode the memories contained in cottens and woollens, buckskin and beadwork, the shape of bodies impressed in fibres” (p56). At the same time, Anna finds herself trying to interpret the contents of a small wooden box that has been residing, uncatalogued, at her museum. Throughout the novel, Anna visits the Nicola Valley several times, a place beloved of her own family, but Anna’s own travels are braided with Anna’s dreams and imaginings of the Nicola Valley life that would’ve belonged to the box’s owner, young Margaret Stuart, a hundred years earlier.

Fundamental to the novel is the question of Margaret’s heritage, and her place in society. Margaret’s father has Scottish roots, as well as a wealthy childhood in Astoria, Oregon, while her mother is a Nlakaʼpamux woman: “You are as good as anyone alive,” her father tells her, “you have the noble blood of the Stuart kings in your veins as well as noble Thompson blood” (p71). Margaret’s parents meet in the late 1880s, while Jenny is briefly living serving a Father Lemieux, while technically in the household of Father Lejeune1. They’re married not long after, and some 18 months later, Margaret is born.

(And yes, there’s a whole section further down this page on the thorny question of cultural appropriation.)

Sisters of Grass can feel like Margaret’s story, because she’s the one whose life goes through significant changes over the course of these 200 pages, and in the hands of a lesser writer, that’s what we might’ve ended up with. Kishkan never stops reminding us, though, that we know nothing directly of Margaret’s life, seeing her only through the lens of Anna’s educated guesses (and intuitions). As a result, it’s Anna’s novel, and it’s a better read if you keep that in mind.

(It drives me batty that some of the novel’s early reviews failed to understand this, and yes, there’s a section about critical reception, too, further down this page.)

“I have dreamed of a girl”: working at her museum, Anna becomes captivated by the mystery of this small box containing items related to Margaret Stuart. Unaccountably, except through the accidents of her own connections to the places named by items in the box, Anna comes to be consumed by the box’s afterlife, her life becoming overlaid by Margaret’s own. Each chapter opens with a few pages of Anna’s life, as she works toward her textiles exhibit or travels with her family, but is mostly taken up with a detailed record of Margaret’s own days.

But of course these aren’t Margaret’s actual days, simply what Anna imagines them to have been. Driven by her own interests in horses, Nlakaʼpamux basketry, BC settler/ Indigenous history, and the Nicola Valley, Anna turns a few traces into a whole imagined life. As Anna says early on, to we readers rather than to anyone in her actual life, “little by little [she is] trying to piece together a life from the small scraps of ephemera” (p14). Margaret is present at the celebrated arrest of Billy Miner, she attends a concert by Madame Emma Albani in Kamloops, and she falls in love with a graduate student working with James Teit at Spences Bridge. Presumably Anna has dates and details for all these, but she wouldn’t have that information for the minutiae of Margaret’s life, and that’s really what we encounter throughout these pages.

Anna seems meant to be a profoundly trustworthy, open-hearted, clear-sighted narrator. Again and again, Kishkan gives us passages of deep beauty that capture crucial fragments of the Nicola Valley’s landscapes, both large and small: galloping a horse above Quilchena, crouching to admire a proliferation of moths in a campground outhouse.

As a result, unforgettably, we get the minutiae of Anna’s life in the same places where Margaret lived, such as on an early camping trip where Anna meant to sort out both the textiles exhibit and the small box:

“Hum of bees in the tall grass, quarrel of crows, ache of the distant hills dappled with sunlight. Each morning could begin this way, each evening end with the loons. To have grown up in this air, taking in the dust of this earth with each breath, dust of dried grass, animal skin, the bodies of collapsing stars. I have dreamed of a girl. Pollen falls into my coffee as I walk about the trees, wildflowers brushing my legs. A startled ground squirrel skitters away.” (p28)

And that’s why the other leitmotif is so important, versions of “In such ways is the world remembered.” More poignantly, Anna admits later in the novel “that what is remembered of a life fades to a few photographs, a receipt for train travel, some dates carved in stone propped up in a graveyard among cactus and stunted iris” (p145). Anna’s thinking here of Margaret’s long-ago short life, as well as the lives of the women whose work will fill her exhibit (tea-towels, pillowcases, samplers, and so on), but she’s thinking also of herself:

“I have so many questions and no one to ask. How bears can sustain themselves on roses, how wind can make such a subtle perfume of dust and laves, how a young girl can age in the blink of an eye and never understand, until she is a middle-aged woman in red boots riding a borrowed horse, that something irreplaceable is lost and no one recognizes the loss.” (p82)

(Now, I’m not saying this is autobiographical, but Kishkan’s book before Sisters of Grass, a collection of essays, was entitled Red Laredo Boots.)

Consistently, for all the clarity of her perceptions, Anna questions her own motivations in dreaming of Margaret this way, and questions her own ability to get beyond dreams. One has the sense that Anna is living with great intensity the moments of her own life in order to imagine her way into belonging to this place, which since time immemorial had been Nlaka’pamux territory. As a result, she’s imagining this young woman, born a century earlier of a settler father and a Nlaka’pamux mother, as something like a relation, like a sister riding her horse through the same grass. There’s something uncomfortable for me in how this craving gets expressed, which is why I’ve found myself needing to say something about cultural appropriation, below, after the review proper, but the idea of belonging genuinely here is close to my own heart, and to other BC writers I respect (Harold Rhenisch, for example).

Still, as I say, my sense is that for all her attractiveness and perceptiveness, Anna isn’t meant to be followed unquestioningly. It can slip past a reader’s notice, especially one who’s reading Margaret’s life as if it’s the main thread, but Anna isn’t nearly as confident in imagining Margaret’s life in the Nicola Valley as she is in recording her own sensory experiences there. The book’s structure means that we get first-person narration of Anna’s life, plus third-person narration of Margaret’s life, but the Margaret sections are regularly (if gently) interrupted by Anna’s self-doubts about whether she’s getting Margaret’s story right:

“Each item in the box of her life can be noted and commented on, and yet what distance between a jacket and its wearer, a little bag of earth and its connection to the human landscape, what distinction between photographs and memory, the way a place is remembered in all its colours and scents, the feel of its dust settling into the lungs.” (p40)

“What have I learned from dreaming her shape into my own life, and how can I know what is memory and what is desire? … What if the mind carries her as imagery of nostalgia, which is only a longing for home? And what is home but the cradle of the self?” (pp71-72)

In other words, there’s an uncertainty that runs persistently throughout Kishkan’s depiction of how memory, desire, imagination, and history overlap in a settler’s experience of place. Bluntly, I think that at least some early reviewers of this book read it too quickly for them to understand what they were dealing with. Of course the dialogue in Margaret’s story is a little stiff: of course Margaret’s story isn’t told as a single piece, but is regularly interrupted and disrupted by Anna. Kishkan’s narrator is a passionate, crushingly self-aware, and self-doubting settler museum curator, and she’s making up an entire life-story (which is in significant measure Nlaka’pamux) from a few photos, receipts, and bits of paper.

Is it possible that the dialogue is just plain stiff, unintentionally? Yes, of course. But I don’t think so, and reader, reader, I don’t know that I care anyway, because I loved this novel so very much.

It took me back to the Nicola Valley, through which I travelled uncounted times in my childhood and youth, giving it back to me with vastly more knowledge (of birds, grasses, and history) than I’d ever had back then. More precisely, Sisters of Grass gave me the Nicola Valley in a way that I hadn’t known it before, and that I don’t know I could’ve ever managed without Kishkan’s novel.

Cultural appropriation

But things can’t ever be quite as simple as “love,” when it comes to settler writing about place.

This novel was first published in 2000, during an earlier phase of Canada’s long-running discussions of cultural appropriation, a discussion traditionally said to have been sparked in 1991 by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias’ short Globe & Mail article “Stop Stealing Native Stories.” I’m not going to discuss cultural appropriation in detail, but the issue’s relevant here for two reasons. First, it’s just possible that potential critics’ and readers’ anxiety about appropriation mildly influenced its reception; I think it deserved better at the time, and I’m puzzled why it didn’t find more and friendlier reviewers. Second, 2020s readers of this novel will need to come to terms with the issue, because it’s live now in a way that it wasn’t in 2000.

After a particular 2017 furor loosely centred around writer and editor Hal Niedzviecki, Kanien'kehá:ka journalist Ka'nhehsí:io Deer (then Jessica Deer) wrote a sensible op-ed for CBC about the subject. If you’re wanting a more academic perspective, settler and historian Andrew Nurse wrote a three-part series for the website Active History. Although it’s a complicated issue, the key for most clear-thinking people is simply that one ought to adopt a sort of humility when writing from a dominant culture about a marginalized one. One ought to consult genuinely, to make sure one’s not getting things wrong, and one ought to be open to correction.

Andray Domise, writing at the time in Maclean’s, discussed among other things why some White artists could be successful when depicting marginalized communities they didn’t belong to, singling out David Simon’s TV series The Wire, Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire, or Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. In Domise’s view, these artists “had enough respect for their work to immerse themselves in the culture, drop their preconceptions, and represent both the culture and their characters in an authentic manner.”

In the same article, Domise proposed a succinct, multi-faceted definition of cultural appropriation:

“To be clear, ‘cultural appropriation’ is not creating art which deviates out of the racialized swim lane one was born into. It is superimposing one’s own understandings of another culture over that actual culture, slapping a package on it, modelling it, and often selling it.”

At the time of my writing, the Canada Council defines “cultural appropriation” this way:

“Therefore, the Council considers that “cultural appropriation” applies when cultural borrowings or adaptations from a minoritized culture reflect, reinforce or amplify inequalities, stereotypes and historically exploitative relationships that have direct negative consequences on equity-seeking communities in Canada.” (emphasis theirs)

My sense is that if she were writing Sisters of Grass in the 2020s, Kishkan is the kind of writer who’d engage in the kinds of consultation and reading exercises that are common now for thoughtful writers reaching out of their own communities. That’s not what was common at that time, but as I’ve written above, my sense is that Kishkan’s narrator is questioning her own right to imagine this story: the phrase “settler privilege” isn’t one that I’d expect a character to use in a novel published in 2000, but it’s one that I can imagine Anna using.

In other words, and without going on at more length defending against an imaginary charge, I don’t see any reason at all to worry about cultural appropriation in this novel. (And I’m someone who worries a LOT about that!)

Conflicting reviews

First, can I just say how much I love the idea that there’d be a Literary Sewing Circle that sews about books, choosing Sisters of Grass as one of their titles?

Reviewers often disagree about books, but I was struck by how disparate were some of the few reviews of Sisters of Grass that appeared when it was first published.

On the one hand, Robert Wiersema, a prolific reviewer and a novelist himself, greatly admired Sisters of Grass in Quill & Quire:

“Kishkan’s prose is clearly that of a poet, but it’s restrained in service to the narrative – rich and evocative, but never overwrought. Sisters of Grass is beautifully understated, with a quiet grace that succeeds in transforming the regional to the universal, filling the reader with a sense of the mysteries of the world, and humanity, that can never fully be resolved.”

Meanwhile, on quite the other hand, Helen Godolphin2 took a different view in Geist:

“The archival impetus and historical details of Kishkan's first full-length fiction are appealing, but while she can write beautifully about objects and places, she has difficulty with her characters' voices. Dialogue is stilted and the wording of private thoughts is often awkward. The climax of the story comes too soon, making the last chapter and a half a let-down. Sisters of Grass has good elements but too many of them, and Kishkan seems unable to create a satisfying whole.”

Godolphin, too, opens her thumbnail review with a flippant and unfair remark, even if it’s not inaccurate: “If you haven't read a book with a horse sex scene before, Theresa Kishkan's Sisters of Grass is one place to start.” Accurate or not, I’ll wager that Godolphin wasn’t aiming to make the book seem attractive to its potential readers.

How does one resolve such conflict, between Godolphin’s high-handedly sweeping objection “Kishkan seems unable to create a satisfying whole” with Wiersema’s even more sweeping praise of “a quiet grace that succeeds in transforming the regional to the universal, filling the reader with a sense of the mysteries of the world, and humanity, that can never fully be resolved”?

To break the tie, let’s look at what a well-read “public” amateur reader has to say about the novel, and that’s regular BookCrossing user Pooker3. Basically, their view was that although some formal decisions annoyed them (the dialogue seeming stilted rather than naturalistic, though really there’s not much dialogue here; and the frequency with which the reader is asked to flip between the novel’s two timelines), overall the book was a stunner:

“But those criticisms aside this was a lovely and sensuous read. I almost wish I had been born in the Nicola Valley area so that it would be a true homecoming for me. I didn't already know what the bunch grass was like at Nicola Lake, what it looked like, what it smelled like, what it felt like. Or the sunlight. Or the moths. Or the birds. Or flowers and trees. Or the cattle and horses. Or the water. Not truly. The author's descriptions were so exquisite. If I had known these things, been born into them, I'm sure I would have been transported there. And I was, almost. But not quite there.”

But as it happens, the real reason that Pooker3 didn’t get transported to the Nicola Valley is simply that the novel transported Pooker3 back to their own life:

“Instead I remembered the softness of my own buckskin jacket passed down to me by my mother from her mother, the press of sharp stones on the soles of my feet on my own dusty gravel road and chilling cold of dew wet grass on the morning dash to the outhouse, the sun-warmed sand on the afternoon's beach, the buzzing of bees, the wail of the loon and the seagulls' ruckus, the frogs' chorus, and the flutter of poplar and the whish of spruce in the breeze and always, always, the scent of pine and sumac and milkweed and clover and bulrush and lilypad and moss and fish and fishflies and granite that welcomes me home, wherever I am.”

In my own review above, I’ve explained why I think Pooker3’s objections are misguided, but I appreciate their desire to be more purely immersed in Margaret’s story (or more purely in Anna’s). That’s not the novel that Kishkan wrote, in Sisters of Grass, but Kishkan is the kind of writer who—as I’ve said many times—that I wish would publish even more prolifically than she has.

If only one could control the reviews of books that one loves!


Father Lejeune has a complex role in BC history. A Catholic priest whose parish included the Kamloops residential school, he was also responsible for founding and operating the Kamloops Wawa, a newspaper published primarily in the Chinook jargon that aimed at delivering news from Indigenous correspondents to the region’s Indigenous audiences.


I think Helen Godolphin’s an editor. At least, a proofreader by that name is currently working at UBC Press, if the copyright pages of some recent volumes are to be believed.


theresa said…
Richard, I've had a chance to read this carefully -- Sunday morning, rain falling -- and want to thank you for taking such care with my book. I appreciate every word. The prickly issue of appropriation: yes, I have feelings about that, for sure. Would I have written the same book now? I'm not sure. But I remember being struck at every turn at how complicated history can be. How many families in the Nicola Valley hold those complicated histories with grace and even humour. I remember also reading in Kamloops and in Merritt and have Indigenous people in the audience who told me they loved my book. (One of the best compliments I ever received for it was the man who owned the bookstore on Quilchena Avenue, no longer there (alas), who told me that people in the valley were impressed I'd got the lineage of the horses right.) So again, it's never simple. So thank you again. Sometimes it feels like books disappear and so it's lovely to know that this one hasn't entirely.

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