When she moved to Toronto—not far from the windy, desolate plains where she grew up—Dawn thought she had escaped the traumas of her past. And yet, when her life doesn’t go as she hoped it would in the big city, she finds herself driving back to the small town of her childhood—where her mother passed away, where her brother committed a violent act that sent him to prison for seven years, and where her father still lives as he spirals deeper into alcoholism and grief. Now, three lives converge, each at the precipice of whatever may come next: Dawn must figure out what’s next for her; Cody, freshly released from prison, must do the same; and together, the two siblings wish to help their father however they still can. But Cody comes with Tyler, a mysterious man he met in prison, who seems to be connected to something supernatural. Tyler’s influence over Cody is immediately apparent to Dawn, an influence that begins to spread to the other people who begin to fall back into their lives. As Dawn tries to understand who—and what—Tyler is, she senses this opportunity for a fresh start for her, and that her family is gravely at risk.
In An Ordinary Violence, author Adriana Chartrand, a mixed-race Native woman born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, uses her education and experience in the film industry to create a cinematic, haunting debut that explores the many ways trauma and violence stay with us, the benefits and dangers of a physical reality merging with a spiritual one, and how the most dangerous monsters we ever face may be the ones we already know.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What myths or stories inspired you for this novel?
The novel isn’t based on any particular myths or stories, but it does incorporate what I would call an Indigenous worldview around the existence of a spirit world, or other realms, and explores different ways those realms may interact with our own.
Many of the horrors that appear in An Ordinary Violence are all too real. Why did you decide to tilt the story into the realm of the supernatural?
The supernatural/spiritual elements sort of have two roles. One is to reflect Indigenous beliefs/worldviews around spirit realms, and the intertwining of these realms, which I’ve been told used to happen a lot more often—that more Native people used to be able to see and interact with these realms, which is very interesting to me. I’m also very interested in horror as a genre, in particular how it can be used to further illuminate real social horrors. I used horror here to explore that foundational layer of white supremacy/colonialism that exists in our societies, (hopefully) demonstrating how insidious and large-spread it is, and how it can feel to live within those systems. How inescapable, widespread, obtuse, and horrifying it can be.
What inspired your title?
My editor came up with the title—it’s from a line in the novel during the part that describes how society reacts to a white serial killer targeting Indigenous women. It relates to the duality of that type of gendered and racialized violence (and “domestic” violence, a term I strongly dislike) being seen as mundane and ordinary (almost natural) while simultaneously many of us refuse to see that this violence is committed by ordinary people, that violence is a human reaction—not a demonic one.
That is not to diminish it, but to put it in the realm of something we can actually do something about—it’s about the choices being made by people, the actions being taken by people, the circumstances society is creating for people. [We make violence out to be] “monstrous” or “aberrant,” when we know how widespread it is in various forms. [We like to talk about it like violence is] an unsolvable problem, something that’s out of our hands.
Who are some of the writers, storytellers, filmmakers, and others who influence your work?
There are so many, for so many different reasons (and many I’m sure I’m not even conscious of), but to name a few in no particular order: Tracey Moffat, Gil Cardinal, Dan Chaon, Bright Eyes, Lil Wayne, Tupac, Olivier, Olivier, the original The Vanishing, Hereditary, Jafar Panahi, Gingersnaps, Tommy Orange, Eden Robinson, Nirvana, Hole, Hilton Als, Leolo, Grizzly Man, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Norval Morrisseau…
How has your experience as a social worker influenced this book and your writing?
I worked in the social work field as a care worker and activity worker. I am not an accredited social worker and did not go to school for social work, just to clarify. But that work allowed me to see the social work system in Canada up close, and how this largely white-led industry treats Indigenous women. There are some abysmal policies, like the birth alert practice, that really underscore how the system is designed to remove Indigenous children. There are sources that say there are more Indigenous children “in care” (as we euphemistically say) than were removed from their homes during the 60s Scoop.
Foster care and child apprehension, as it currently functions, is another form of colonial control, and targets Indigenous families and children disproportionately. We tend to think that the removal system—epitomized by residential schools and the 60s Scoop—is in the past, but it’s not. In the prairie provinces especially, the percentage of Indigenous children “in care” is completely disproportionate to the overall Indigenous population. This is also reflected in the percentages of incarcerated Indigenous people in Canada.
What does Tyler represent?
In a nutshell, you could say Tyler represents the voracious appetite and desire for power at all costs that are found in the ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism. And how society rewards, or empowers, those kinds of men. He’s a violent man who chooses to become something even more corrupted to gain some sort of influence or power—and I think we see that play out a lot, often on smaller scales than what happens in the novel, in real life. I also see a deep sadness in the idea of anyone corrupting themselves through horrible actions so thoroughly. I think several things exist at once within Tyler, as with all of us, and that the existence of nuance doesn’t negate certain actions.
Dawn encounters a foreboding rabbit. Tyler has a spooky interaction with what he believes is a cougar. Why these animals, and what do they symbolize to you?
So, the creepy rabbit is actually from a dream I had many years ago when I was a teenager that’s always stuck with me. I dreamed I looked down a dark alleyway and there was this massive, like wildcat-sized jackrabbit in the shadows—it was just there, looking toward me, but I felt such a sense of foreboding and ominousness that I woke up and made a sketch of the rabbit. It frightened me, but I was also intrigued as to why something as innocuous as a rabbit could seem so scary. That’s the origin of the rabbit, and I’ve been told a rabbit can symbolize change or transformation so I wanted to play off the idea of change, or the unknown, being frightening to us, even if it ends up being benevolent or even beneficial.
The possible cougar encounter I imagine as either in Tyler’s head or it was something other than a cougar—I want readers to draw their own conclusions about the rabbit and the cougar. To me, the encounter is part of the basis of Tyler’s vision of himself as somehow special, or singled out, and how that self-conception can lead to vile behaviors in some circumstances. He envisions himself as more connected to the land than he is, and that connection turns to control and dominance for him.
“A chilling horror novel about a young Indigenous woman haunted by the oppressive legacies of colonization.”
Alcoholism seems to be one. Tell me more about these legacies present in the book. Why do you feel it was important to weave them into the story, and is there anything else you’d like to say about them as they relate to the novel or about the effects of colonization in real life that you’ve experienced?
Martin is struggling with alcoholism in the book, and Martin is white. Dawn, Cody, Tyler, and Crystal drink often because there are many prairie people who drink often, so I wanted to reflect that part of the culture here, in a way that wasn’t judging it but just showing that it can be a part of life. Of course, I’m also conscious of how alcoholism and addiction have affected our people and communities (and yes, it is a legacy of colonization, not a genetic thing, which was the racist myth I grew up hearing), but I didn’t want that to be the focus of the story.
Everything in the book, in a way, everything that all Native people live today, is intertwined with the legacies and present-day manifestations of colonialism. We live in an actively colonial society still—it’s not in the past. The manifestations of that in the book include the pervasive silence around issues, feelings, and trauma that many Native people and families can relate to, how things aren’t discussed. Also, the unnamed serial killer who Dawn remembers from when she was younger is based on real life—there have been several serial killers of Indigenous women and white men caught in Winnipeg over the last decade or so (and how many have never been caught?) and that, for me, is one of the most tragic and pressing colonial legacies we live with. And that includes how police, the justice system, and society react when an Indigenous woman goes missing or is murdered. Again, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women is not the focus of the story, but I wanted to include it within the landscape of the story because it’s one of the most heartbreaking and unjust things that Indigenous families are forced to live with all too often. And it is, unfortunately, part of the shape of Indigenous realities.
“Violet is nearly colourless, like a faded photograph that’s been left in the sun. But her hair is long and beautiful, and her eyes are urgent but soft. Her hands don’t shake, like they often did in life. Dawn stares, unable to form any words, and as she stares at her mother, she hopes for the first time not that Violet will return but that Violet is free now, no longer trapped by the heaviness of who she was when she was alive, and of all the things that happened to her.”
Tell me more about this shift in understanding for Dawn in regards to her mother. Is tragedy necessary to gain deeper meaning—perhaps a necessary part specifically of becoming an adult? Do you think Dawn will ever experience other ghosts?
For me, I think Dawn is finally able to see her mother as a full person, and not just her mother. She sees clearly not just the pain Violet’s presence and absence brought to her own life, but the pain of Violet’s life before Dawn existed. While it is deeply sad, it also allows her to understand that part of her mother may be in a better spiritual place now. It’s also about Dawn coming to terms with these interactions with spirit realms and realizing her interpretation of them may not be the only one, or even the correct one. That we don’t or can’t know everything about the way our world works, but still have to try and interpret what we encounter. I think often of how the gaze influences what is gazed upon and vice versa, and I enjoy playing with that concept—sort of parsing out that Nietzsche quote that “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
An Ordinary Violence
by Adriana Chartrand
House of Anansi Press
Published October 31, 2023
Monika Dziamka is a Polish-American writer and editor living in her hometown of Albuquerque, NM. Visit her at www.monikadziamka.com