Michelle Sylliboy is a Two-Spirited L’nu (Mi’kmaw) artist, and Assistant Professor at St.FX University in N.S. in three departments: Modern Language, Education and Fine Arts. Sylliboy was born in Boston, MA, and raised on unceded Mi’kmaw territory in the community of We’koqmaq, Cape Breton. She gathers much of her inspiration from personal tales, the environment, and her L’nuk (Mi’kmaq) culture. Her interdisciplinary art practice has led her to work with emerging and professional artists from all over Turtle Island. Sylliboy is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Education from Simon Fraser University. Her dissertation combines her artistic background and education by writing about her Mi’kmaq Komqwejwi’kasikl living curriculum. Her recently launched Komqwejwi’kasikl clothing line is now available at legaleriste.com/en/artist.5.
Kiskajeyi – I AM READY is the first Komqwejwi’kasikl (Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic) poetry book ever to be published. What was your initial spark for this collection?
The initial spark happened a number of years ago. For many years I had wanted to publish a L’nuk (Mi’kmaq) poetry book written in the alphabet we adopted from English. And then, I started to do more and more work with the Komqwejwi’kasikl symbols, and I realized during my research and time with my community that I should do what I do best, which is use these symbols to write poetry. Initially, I had asked some people if they wanted to co-write the Komqwejwi’kasikl poetry with me, but there was this hesitancy and fear to do that. So I realized that I needed to write an example of what we can do with these symbols first. Poetry is something I’ve been writing since my early twenties, and I just love it. It’s how I see the world, it’s how I think about things, so it was natural for me to just use that as my medium to explore the Komqwejwi’kasikl language.
What else inspires you to write poetry?
With my regular poetry, I usually write about current events. If something really touches my heart or pulls my heartstrings, I will write about it. In the L’nuk language, you’re constantly describing what’s going on at that very moment, like a newscast. And I look at poetry in the same way. It’s a way to tell what’s going on in my life, or what’s going on in the world at that very moment. As First Nations Peoples, our own narrative has always been replaced by someone who never spent time with us, or by someone who decided to write about us but never asked us what we felt. And so as a poet, and as an interdisciplinary artist, it’s important for me to tell my own story about how I’m seeing things right then and there, whether I’m writing about COVID or the 215 children that were found at the Kamloops residential school.
In addition to that immediacy, your poetry has a holistic quality to it. For example, in your Author’s Note for Kiskajeyi – I AM READY, you talk about how the act of writing connects you to your ancestors, the land, and future generations all at the same time. Can you tell me more about the interconnectivity that’s present in your work?
Culturally speaking, as a L’nu person, I was brought up with this knowledge, this worldview, that we are interconnected with all life that exists. And so I communicate to Spirits and my Ancestors as if they’re sitting right here beside me. For example, there’s no word for goodbye in my language. We say Nm’ultes, which means “see you later,” whether I see you in person or I see you in spirit. So Nm’ultes has an infinite timeline, I’m going to see you regardless, because the dream world and the physical world are interconnected according to my L’nuk worldview. I often write poems where I’ll go back in time and I’ll connect it to the present, or I’ll connect it to the future. My poetry is quite layered. It’s connected to the way history was told and how I see history and what I think is going to happen next.
What was the editing process like for a book that incorporates Mi’kmaq and English text, Komqwejwi’kasikl symbols, and photographic images within its pages?
Michael Calvert is a very good editor and it was really nice to work with him. He was so gentle and generous.
I originally worked with another publisher, a children’s publisher. They approached me and asked me to write a book for young people, which was a challenging request because I’ve never written for children. But I’ve worked in education for many years and always felt it was important for me to leave something for the next generation. So when I was writing the Komqwejwi’kasikl poems, my target audience was youth, but when I sent in my manuscript to that publisher they said they thought my poetry was more for adults. They didn’t understand that I was writing for youth.
I remember sitting in my vehicle thinking that I really wanted this book to be done. I had just submitted some poems for an anthology with Rebel Mountain Press, and I thought, I’m just going to call them. It doesn’t hurt to ask. And it turns out they were already fans of my work! So I told them, listen, I’m doing my PhD and my dissertation is to create a Komqwejwi’kasikl curriculum. And I have this body of work, thirty years of poetry, and now this new Komqwejwi’kasikl poetry. Would you be interested in publishing it? And they were thrilled by the idea and because they’d already been following my career they asked if they could add my photography into the book as well. And I said yes, of course. So they took my poetry from the last thirty years and my new Komqwejwi’kasikl poetry and my photography and blended it really well into one book. I was really pleased with the end result.
The only thing was, I had a major art exhibition coming up, and I said I kind of needed this book completely finished before that exhibition, which was only a few seasons away. The publisher was able to negotiate with the printers to have it done on time, and my book launch and my art exhibition happened the same day. It was amazing! It was also two years ahead of schedule, normally books usually take that long to publish. When I think about it now, I think the Creator and the Ancestors knew this pandemic was coming. This is why I work with my Ancestors in my artistic practice and as my spiritual guides. They knew I couldn’t wait two years. I got it out there just in time.
I really love the self-portrait that accompanies your bio in the book. Your personality—and your styling fashion sense—really shine through! As a photographer, what do you think makes for a good author photo?
It’s so funny, I actually took that photo in my parents’ bathroom! I’m always playing around with light, looking for ways to focus or change an image with light. I didn’t have any fancy equipment at the time because I was a poor student, so I decided to just work with existing indoor lighting instead. And I’m a hat person, that’s my signature look, so I thought I’ll play with the light and I’ll wear a hat and I’ll show the camera lens because I’m a photographer. That’s my personality, that’s me. I was very strategic about that photo because I wanted it to represent who I was.
In addition to your poetry collection, you’ve recently launched a Komqwejwi’kasikl clothing line as well. How did that project come about?
I used to silkscreen clothes back in 1988 in Toronto, and that was the first time I started to look at the Komqwejwi’kasikl symbols. I decided to silkscreen the language onto clothing and I sold them as a twenty-year-old street vendor. So I guess I have been preparing myself since 1988, or since childhood really, to do something with this language that my Ancestors left behind for us. I remember seeing Elders reading from Komqwejwi’kasikl prayer books, and there was a scroll of the lord’s prayer on my parents’ wall growing up written with the symbols as well. It wasn’t translated, it was just there. I remember seeing that and wondering, why don’t I know this? So the seeds were planted at a very young age. I think each generation does something to ensure that the language lives on. Growing up, my own Elders put on workshops. Rita Joe put the symbols on her book cover. Marie Baptiste did her dissertation on the Komqwejwi’kasikl. And as an artist, I use my art as the medium to share it. I hope my book and the clothing line will plant some seeds in the next generation, to inspire them to use it as an everyday language. Even if not everybody gets poetry, that’s fine. These symbols are infinite, they can inspire people on different levels, to help you say, okay, I can do that too. I can explore this language in my own way.
Several of my artist friends were selling clothes online, but they were based in the US. I decided to wait until I found this company based in Montreal using sustainable materials, which was important to me, and I partnered with them to make the clothes. But then the line launched the same week that the children were found in Kamloops. That really broke my heart, it broke everybody’s heart. It was very heavy news. At first I thought, maybe it’s not the right time to launch this. But in the end I decided to launch it anyway to change the online narrative and spread some good news, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The symbols look great on the clothes, they’re quite stunning.
June is both National Indigenous History Month and Pride Month. As a Two-Spirit L’nu (Mi’kmaw) woman, who are some Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer writers you appreciate?
Chrystos is my favourite Two-Spirit writer. She wrote the forward to my book. And Beth Brant, as well, who was a Mohawk poet and writer. I think I first met Beth around 1990 when she launched a book in Vancouver. I was very intrigued because there weren’t many Two-Spirit writers at the time that I knew about. I met other queer poets, but within the Native community, Beth and Chrystos were the first women that I followed, and I really admired the work that they were doing. At that time, a lot of the Native writers across North America like Chrystos and Beth were speaking out to say we can tell our own stories. We can write our own poetry, we can write our own plays, we can write our own movie scripts. We have the knowledge and the education to write our own stories, you don’t need to write about us. And that was really important for me to hear as a young person because it activated my social justice buttons and validated what I always wanted to say and wanted to do within my own artwork.
But to be honest, I wish that the queer community would showcase my work more. I don’t know why they haven’t. I’m Two-Spirited and my publisher is a queer press, but I haven’t been invited into queer bookstores and queer communities to read. In my poetry, I write about the women that I fell in love with, that broke my heart, who inspired me, but it’s not always about my sexuality. Because as a Two-Spirit person, the focus isn’t on your sexuality, it’s about your gifts. So maybe that doesn’t line up with the queer community? I don’t know. Maybe after people read this they’ll invite me into these spaces to read and perform!
Speaking of Chrystos, you ended up with some really great blurbs for your book. What was it like to approach authors that you admire and ask them to publicly review your work?
Chrystos and I have been friends for many years, since the early 90s. When I chose writers to review my book, I asked Chrystos, Lee Maracle, Janet Rogers, and Jónína Kirton. With the two Elders, Chrystos and Lee Maracle, I trust their opinions. I knew that if this book was horrible they would tell me straight up. They’d be like “Go back to your editor and work on this some more!” So I felt very blessed when they wrote such positive reviews. It didn’t matter after that who liked the book or who didn’t, because two of the most incredible writers that I know of loved it. If anybody else wanted to review it after that, great. But I had the best reviews already. And I think that’s something that young writers or any writer should do. Approach the ones that will give you the most honest, critical feedback. Because I think that advice allows you to nurture your writing and hone it to a different level.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin