Small-press publisher Book*hug has removed Shannon Webb-Campbell’s new poetry collection, Who Took My Sister?, from sale and has halted further distribution and promotion of the title. The publisher has also cancelled Webb-Campbell’s launch dates.
The decision comes after Inuk author and activist Delilah Saunders became aware of a poem in Webb-Campbell’s sophomore collection that graphically describes scenes of her sister Loretta’s murder. When Loretta was killed in 2014, the Halifax-based criminology student had been working on her honours thesis at Saint Mary’s University, focusing on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her two killers were given life sentences in 2015.
On March 28, Delilah Saunders published an article denouncing the poem on the website Nova Scotia Advocate. The article states in part:
I was disturbed and very upset by the descriptive and unnecessary imagery that Webb-Campbell used when talking about my sister’s brain being bounced and her body being mangled. I can’t bring myself to share the poem with my parents or family. I’m unsure if she consciously decided to not reach out to my family because she knew no family would agree to having their loved one written about in such gory detail, or if she is just that out of touch with the protocols that exist in our Indigenous communities.
On March 29, Webb-Campbell apologized for the poem on Facebook, stating “my only intention with this collection is to raise awareness around MMIWG, decolonial poetics, trauma, and the land. … I am deeply sorry for any further harm the poetics of this work has inflicted, as it was never my intention to re-traumatize, reproduce, or retell the details of your sister’s murder for personal, public, or financial gain.” Webb-Campbell – who identifies as a mixed Mi’kmaq settler – promised not to read the poem out loud and wrote that she was in discussions with Book*hug to determine next steps.
The following day, Book*hug released its own apology, stating that co-publishers Jay and Hazel Millar were unaware that Webb-Campbell had not contacted the Saunders family or any other relatives of missing and murdered Indigenous women referenced in the collection. The publishers went on to say that they were “aware that this was a topic of discussion during the editorial process, and understand that her decision does not follow Indigenous protocol with regard to these matters.” They also apologized for failing “to ensure that this protocol was followed as part of the publication process with Shannon’s book.” Any revenues received by Book*hug from the sale of Who Took My Sister will be donated to the Loretta Saunders Scholarship Fund, which supports Indigenous women pursuing post-secondary education.
Who Took My Sister, which examines the effects of colonialism, violence, and trauma, also features letters written to various literary figures, including Lee Maracle, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Jordan Abel, and U.S. author Sherman Alexie, who is currently facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment. (Those allegations came to light following the creation of Webb-Campbell’s book.) In an interview that appears in the April 2018 print issue of Q&Q, Webb-Campbell says that the collection is based on the idea that “We should not be solely defined by our trauma, without voicing what happens after trauma.”
Webb-Campbell was slated to speak onstage at the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival later this month, at an April 26 event with Maracle titled “Decolonizing the Dialogue.” According to Sean Wilson, the festival’s artistic director, the event was originally conceived as a solo talk by Maracle, but Webb-Campbell was added due to a scheduling conflict. Wilson says that given the controversy and the theme of the event – and the fact that Webb-Campbell no longer has a book to promote – the evening will move ahead with Maracle alone.