Spílǝxm takes the painful threads of one Indigenous woman’s story and weaves them into a vibrant sash. Part poetry and part prose, this challenging and experimental work intimately describes the journey of Nicola I. Campbell – the NeɁkepmx, Syílx, and Métis author of several award-winning children’s books – as she proceeds from trauma to transformation as a survivor of the intergenerational legacy of residential schools. Ultimately, it’s a memoir that uplifts, affirms, and empowers. But first it chronicles childhood and adolescent memories of pain, violence, abandonment, and addiction.
The book is written in a fragmentary, episodic style, and the first section reflects Campbell’s recollections of early loss: her father drowns when she is a young girl, and her mother, aunties, and grandpa – all residential school survivors – are engulfed in trauma. In the midst of these circumstances, Campbell finds solace in sewing. In the first chapter, she longs to Speed-Sew something (Speed-Sew, she explains, is a “special glue used for sewing fabric together really fast”), but the door to her godmother’s room is wedged shut. When it eventually opens, we learn that her mother is in hospital because “something happened and she’s all bandaged up,” and that “godmommy goes to the hospital too sometimes.” Empty pages and elliptical spaces evoke the grief and senselessness of it all.
Spílǝxm charts Campbell’s efforts to heal her inner child. Through the love of her ancestors, family, and community, she embarks on a process of renewal and reclamation. “The great lonely fissures in my heart are healing,” Campbell observes. As she progresses, she finds strength in her culture and its teachings.
The spirits of Campbell’s ancestors infuse her narrative, shaping its tenor and trajectory. With their inspiration, she destroys the “blankets of despair” – a metaphor that summons not only the legacy of colonialism through the blankets of smallpox contamination but also her personal struggle with depression and addiction. In their stead, she stitches something entirely new, a sacred gift for future generations.
The influence of Campbell’s beloved aunt, the esteemed Métis author Maria Campbell, is felt throughout. With its unflinching account of Métis women’s realities of violence and alcoholism and its affirmation of the strength and resilience of Métis culture, there can be no denying Spílǝxm’s parallels with the elder Campbell’s groundbreaking Halfbreed.
Campbell’s prose becomes more fluid as she releases her pain and begins to affirm and reconnect with her culture. In time, she comes to experience herself as exhilaratingly alive, as blessed and strong, enfolded by trees, breezes, birds, and sunshine. This is extraordinary considering that, for so long, Campbell found it painful just to breathe, so immersed was she in grief.
When all is said, Spílǝxm is a putting away of pain, a letting go of sorrow, a poignant unburdening, and a return to self and community. With it, Campbell establishes herself as a visionary with the capacity to gather what is broken and weave it into a new story.