Queen’s Reads brings Katherena Vermette to campus

The celebrated author of The Break discussed the themes

Vermette discussed her writing process at length.

This article contains spoilers about certain plot points in The Break. 

Given the popularity of her novel both nationally and across campus, it’s no surprise Katherena Vermette’s much-anticipated arrival to campus saw a full house at her talk in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Wednesday night. 

Titled ‘In Conversation with Katherena Vermette’, the March 7 event was centered on Vermette’s novel The Break, which was this year’s Queen’s Reads book selection. 

The Break has garnered significant acclaim; the novel’s honest discussion of issues like racism, Indigenous life and sexual violence has resulted in multiple awards, including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Burt Award for First Nations. 

Since Queen’s Reads brought the book to campus, it’s been a well-received choice for the reintroduction of the program. 

Organized in conjunction with Kingston WritersFest, the talk featured Vermette and Dr. 

Terri-Lynn Brennan, an Indigenous activist and sociologist who acted as moderator for the event. Vermette began with a short reading of one of the novel’s introductory paragraphs, before they delved into an in-depth discussion of the book’s conception and various themes. 

“It took me forever [to write the book] … originally the book started off as a collection of short stories … but I knew it wasn’t quite finished because there were all these interconnected stories,” Vermette said. 

“When I decided to make it into a novel, I took about two years of really hard work and editing.” 

Vermette described the lengthy and taxing process of rounding out her novel’s characters, most of whom are women whose narratives all circle around a single event: a character named Emily is sexually assaulted by the character Phoenix.

This act serves as the impetus for a complicated, emotionally raw look at the lives of the characters, all of whom are directly or indirectly related to Emily, including their reactions to the assault and their own personal traumas. 

Phoenix in particular was a character Vermette said she struggled with.  After writing the scene about the assault, Vermette joked that “we didn’t talk for awhile. The advantage of writing a multiple-point-of-view story is you can ignore people for a really long time.” 

“[Phoenix] is the kind of character who I went through every possible [emotion] for her through the course of this book … her voice has been with me for 10 years,” Vermette detailed. “I didn’t necessarily know [when I began writing the book] that she is the one who commits such a horrendous act.”

The character serves as a reminder of the cyclical impact of trauma. “I think that there were multiple reasons in her history that add reason to the violence, not that anything ever excuses violence,” Vermette vocalized. 

“It’s the idea that ‘hurt people hurt people,’” she added. 

The author also touched on her use of multiple perspectives in the story.  “The idea was this one thing doesn’t affect two people – it affects everyone,” she explained.   

The book has also been praised for its portrayal of Indigenous peoples. Vermette was careful  to include multiple perspectives and personalities, and wanted to avoid the use of a singular, often tokenized Indigenous presence sometimes found in literature. 

“It was important that it was my story. I am a Métis person … I wanted this story to reflect the people around me,” Vermette said.

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