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Last Modified: January 20, 2023
Feature image for "Supporting Those Who Speak of Place"
Supporting Those Who Speak of Place

by Jenna Butler

Although there is still much distance to go, a broader spectrum of voices than ever before in the history of Alberta publishing is speaking of our relationship to the land, and astute publishing houses are noting this essential shift. From university presses to smaller independent publishers with deep roots in local communities, a larger number of Alberta presses are releasing and uplifting books that interrogate, question, and celebrate diverse links to land.

Frontenac House, an award-winning independent publisher in Mohkinstsis (Calgary), well known for its annual Quartet poetry series, released Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut poetry collection This Wound is a World in 2017. Described by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson as “a decolonial wildfire,” Belcourt’s book sunders relationships—to the body, to other bodies, to place, to poetry—and refashions them into something radically new and rich with possibility. Along similar lines, Basma Kavanagh’s Niche (2015) interrogates human culpability during catastrophic climate change and species loss, but also considers how humans can look beyond their own self-absorbed destruction to environmental resilience and renewal. Kavanagh, based in Mi’kma’ki, specifically in Nova Scotia, delves into the Red List—the endangered species list—for Nova Scotia as she wonders what humans are losing within ourselves as we devastate multiple other species.

Publishing in the same city, but within a different framework, the University of Calgary Press has long been involved in the publication and support of texts about place. From works about the Canadian-American water relationship (Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship [OA]*) to teachings about Indigenous cultures within place (Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi [OA]), the press is increasingly producing multiethnic works about our relationships to place and the contemporary effects of climate change on how we connect to the more-than-human world. One upcoming collection that will prove both timely and necessary is Climate Justice and Participatory Research: Building Climate-Resilient Commons (2023), edited by Patricia E. Perkins, a collaborative effort between academic allies and diverse community members to enact climate justice while respecting and protecting vulnerable communities.

Similarly, in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton), the University of Alberta Press continues to extend and diversify its literary and academic texts dealing with place. In Nancy Holmes’ latest book of poetry in the Robert Kroetsch series, Arborophobia (2022), the author wonders at the possibility of solace during a time of human-created climate change. How can we sustain hope when the world around us is in crisis through our own actions, and do we deserve to hold that hope? Structurally dissimilar but following that through-line of hope, the forthcoming collection Walking Together, Working Together: Engaging Wisdom for Indigenous Well-Being (2023), edited by Leslie Main Johnson and Janelle Marie Baker, seeks complementary links between Indigenous medicine and Western biomedicine. Rich with traditional knowledge and land-based healing, the book promises to be of particular importance to all those working with Indigenous communities in the area of knowledgeable and respectful health care.

NeWest Press, an independent publisher based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan with an established connection to the Alberta literary community, continues to build on strong place-based works such as David Martin’s much-lauded 2018 poetry collection Tar Swan. A blending of lyrical and experimental voices, Tar Swan takes a deep dive into the history of the Alberta Tar Sands and looks at the brutal cost of extractive practices paid by both humans and land. Similarly imbued with loss, Sarah de Leeuw’s haunting essay collection Where It Hurts (2017) grounds itself in the diverse physical landscapes of Canada while roving in search of what goes missing: people (particularly missing women), places, and memories.

Relatively new on the Alberta publishing scene, but already making powerful contributions to diverse publishing, Laberinto Press (Amiskwacîwâskahikan) is perhaps best known for its anthologies Beyond the Food Court: An Anthology of Literary Cuisines and Beyond the Gallery. Third in the series, and promising to be an intriguing collection of diverse explorations of place, is Beyond the Park: An Anthology of Ecological Experiences. Poised to bring together immigrant Canadian writers on the themes of green spaces and olfactory experiences, the anthology will no doubt be a rich multiethnic offering from this energetic new publishing house.

Without a doubt Alberta’s best-known publisher of books about place, Rocky Mountain Books (Mohkinstsis) publishes a respected and increasingly diverse list of authors. Xenaksiala Elder Cecil Paul and Briony Penn’s book Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid (2019) traces the complex interlinkages between place and Xenaksiala culture, as well as the devastating effects of genocide on the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. This is a book of particular importance in the face of the escalating impacts of the climate crisis, and at a time when Indigenous traditional knowledge and longstanding stewardship of place continue to be defied on a nationwide—indeed, a worldwide—scale by colonial governments, industries, and institutions.

Where books about the land in Alberta might, twenty or thirty years ago, have predominantly taken the form of pocket guides, map books, or texts of colonial “exploration and discovery,” they now include a rich, many-voiced, and multi-genre selection. There is still, without a doubt, extensive work to do in opening the way further to BIPOC voices speaking of relationship to place, but between the larger presses and the innovative independent houses, intriguing progress is on the horizon.

*OA denotes an Open Access book.

Headshot of Jenna ButlerJenna Butler is an author and scholar whose research into endangered environments has taken her from America’s Deep South to Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, and from Tenerife to the Arctic Circle, exploring the ways in which we navigate the landscapes we call home.

Butler is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion. Her award-winning collection of ecological essays is A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, and her environmental travelogue, Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard, was released by the University of Alberta Press in Autumn 2018. Butler’s latest work is the essay collection Revery: A Year of Bees, was  a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction and a finalist for the High Plains Book Award for Woman Writer.

Feature image photo courtesy of Jenna Butler.  Author photo courtesy of Thomas Lock.

Seldom Seen Road

Jenna Butler (CA)

Published: Apr 01, 2013 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781927063316

Jenna Butler (CA)

Published: Apr 15, 2010 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781897126608
A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail

Jenna Butler (CA)

Published: Oct 06, 2015 by Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
ISBN: 9781928088080
Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard

Jenna Butler (CA)

Published: Jul 20, 2018 by University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9781772123821
Revery: A Year of Bees

Jenna Butler (CA)

Published: Oct 20, 2020 by Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 9781989496138