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Jessica Johns on her novel 'Bad Cree'


(Reading) Before I look down, I know it's there. The crow's head I was clutching in my dream is now in the bed with me.

That's the start of "Bad Cree," a gripping thriller all about a young Cree woman, Mackenzie, who finds out what happens in her dreams does not stay in her dreams. The living nightmares send Mackenzie on a journey from Vancouver to her hometown of High Prairie to face the grief and the culture she left behind. "Bad Cree" is written by Jessica Johns, a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in northern Alberta. Johns joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JESSICA JOHNS: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So, you know, I mean, that's a really striking image to start a novel with - a severed crow's head in someone's hand. Like, did you always have that image in mind as a starting point for the story?

JOHNS: You know, it wasn't a crow's head initially. Initially, I think it was a branch. That was the opening image. I really wanted readers to know what they were in for right from the bat. So, you know, I wanted to really set the tone, and I hope I did that.

RASCOE: It definitely set the tone - like, no, no doubt about that. But tell us about Mackenzie. You know, she's this young woman who's dealing with so much loss. And then she starts having these horrible dreams.

JOHNS: Yeah. Mackenzie is the protagonist of this story. She is a young Cree woman who has been separated from her family, from her home community, and self-separated. She makes the choice to leave years prior to the fictive present of the novel because of loss and grief and trauma. She leaves because she's incredibly avoidant. She leaves because she thinks leaving will be a way to help her ease a lot of the pain that she feels from losing a couple of very important family members.

But once these dreams, nightmares, start happening, she realizes quite quickly she needs to go back to her family. And that decision - she doesn't come to it lightly. She finds going home almost as terrifying as the dreams that are happening to her. And she has to confront a lot when she does that. I mean, she's hurt her family in leaving. She's - she has to be held accountable for the things that she does as well.

RASCOE: So there are forces at play here manipulating Mackenzie, even texting Mackenzie. I mean, without giving too much away, like, can you talk about what these forces represent?

JOHNS: Yeah, a lot of that is tied to her homelands and tied to settlement and the legacy of violence, of colonialism. So Mackenzie McKenzie is from is in Treaty 8 territory, in High Prairie. Oil was found in many places in the area. And so oil field companies have moved in to extract from the land. And that has changed the landscape in ways that when Mackenzie goes home, she sees a very different place than when she left. They extracted from the land and when the oil was depleted, the communities are still left there to live in the space where they have been for - since time immemorial. And they now have to deal with this devastated landscape. And similarly with Mackenzie's family, who experience loss and then have to deal with what that means, there's aftershocks of what that is, and these forces are very closely tied to that.

RASCOE: So I understand you started writing this story after an instructor told you that writers should not write about their dreams. Like, that wasn't a good thing to do. So why did that comment send you in the absolute opposite direction?

JOHNS: For Cree people, and the way I was raised, the knowledge that I have about dreams, is that they're incredibly important. They're a way of communicating with our ancestors. They're a way of knowledge production. My whole life I've been taught to listen to my dreams and interrogate them and to, you know, know that they're very valid forms of knowledge and forms of storytelling as well. So to have a prominent professor who has been, quote-unquote, "successful" in so many ways in the writing and publishing worlds, give this advice to a roomful of aspiring writers - and, you know, he was a white man - it really - it made me mad. I mean, I don't think in writing there should be any hard and fast rule anyways. But I was just like, you have no idea what you're talking about. Dreams are valid. In fact, I'm going to write a story about dreams that validate them in all their beauty and wonder and knowledge.

RASCOE: I have to ask you, have you heard from that professor since you - now you got the book published? Are you going to send him a copy?

JOHNS: I think he should buy multiple copies, so I won't be sending him one.

RASCOE: You got to get that - get them royalties. I feel you. I feel you on that.

JOHNS: It was such a flippant comment. It's one of those things that would mean nothing to him because he has no clue, that he wouldn't have given it a second thought. And for me, you know, that stuck with me. And that is, again, often something that happens with marginalized groups.

RASCOE: This is a book that's ultimately about grief. Did you learn anything yourself about what it means to cope with losing a loved one, and what we owe to those who have passed on and what we owe to those who remain?

JOHNS: I lost my kokum as well when I was - my grandmother - when I was younger, and through the course of writing this novel, I also lost my papa, my grandpa, two people who I was really close to and just held a lot. I think that a lot of "Bad Cree" and the navigation of grief and loss was in many ways my own. I'm still learning a lot about my own cultural knowledge, and throughout the past couple years I've received some teachings about what death means for Cree people, where we go, you know, where our ancestors live. And that has been really, really helpful. And I think because I try and imbue those teachings into the book, I'm hopeful that they were as comforting to Mackenzie as well.

RASCOE: That's Jessica Johns, author of "Bad Cree." Thank you so much for being with us.

JOHNS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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