Rita Wong is the author of four books of poetry: undercurrent (Nightwood 2015), sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, (Line Books 2008), forage (Nightwood 2007), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang 1998). She was the first winner of the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award, for monkeypuzzle. Building from her doctoral dissertation which examined labour in Asian North American literature, her work investigates the relationships between contemporary poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization. Her recent work, beholden: a poem as long as the river, co-written by author Fred Wah, is comprised of two lines of poetic text flowing along a 114-foot-long map of the Columbia River. Authors Fred Wah and Rita Wong present language yearning to understand the consequences of our hydroelectric manipulation of one of North America’s largest river systems.
beholden: a poem as long as the river is an image-poem co-written by you and Fred Wah. What are the benefits and challenges of writing collaborative poetry?
It’s a joy to be in dialogue with Fred, whose work has been such an influence on me over the years. I feel grateful to have had the time and experience of spending time with the river with him, Nick Conbere, Genevieve Robertson and others who’ve been involved with the River Relations project. We were brought together by the question of how to reciprocate to a river that has given so much, and how to build a better relationship with the rivers that make our lives possible.
Your work often reflects your environmental activism – what drew you to write about the environment, specifically water systems?
I’ve been paying attention to what the flow of water teaches us for many years, thanks to the invitation of folks like Dorothy Christian and Denise Nadeau. I don’t think of it as activism so much as necessary homework – what do we need to learn about the land and waters so that we can fulfill our responsibilities to them and to the well-being of future generations? Colonial education systems have historically been impoverished in these areas. There is such a deep knowledge and respect for the land traditionally in Indigenous and Coast Salish communities that everyone needs to learn from and honour. I see this more as a necessary and beautiful learning journey.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have the time and space to learn from and with the Fraser River, the Columbia River, the Peace River. I feel devastated seeing how colonial governments (“BC” and “Canada”) are allowing BC Hydro to destroy the most precious inheritance we could pass on to future generations – what remains intact of of the Peace River Valley – I feel people need to urgently stop the Site C dam from inflicting further genocide on Indigenous peoples who have already suffered so much. If we understand that healing the people also means healing the land, we would stop clearcutting the very forests we need to be increasing. I write with the hope and faith that people are capable of learning from past mistakes like the WAC Bennett Dam that devastated & destroyed so much land and healthy water. Mega dams are not clean nor green when you consider the mercury & methane they release, as well as the destruction of the refuges and the very places we need to protect and enhance. Dams and pipelines are the road to mass extinction. We are capable of better as a species, I hope.
How do you foresee Canada’s future in terms of our current environmental degradation and climate change? What needs to be done?
The Site C dam needs to be stopped, and so does the TMX pipeline. These old technologies of colonization will be the death of our species if we allow them to continue. The vision put forward by the Green New Deal (and by groups like Iron & Earth, former oil workers striving to be retrained into renewable energy work) is part of the necessary transformation that needs to happen. The situation feels bleak, but Canada needs to be building lifeboats (massive reforestation looking at quality of wildlife habitat, not just quantity of money) instead of sinking billions into the Titanic. Climate crisis has been caused by massive industrialization – we need a paradigm shift that values the local, values the humble, values living well with enough rather than always emptily or greedily striving for the next new thing. The good thing is that there’s lots of meaningful work to do to make the needed transition, so let’s get on with it, and stop bullies like Kenney or Trump from taking our species down with greed and fear. We are capable of evolving to build communities based on love and respect, and there are many communities (Indigenous and not) that we can learn from and build better relations with, so let’s get on with the activities that nourish our spirits and the generations yet to come.