By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com
For the second time in its short six-year history, Métis writer Falon Fayant has won the Kemosa Scholarship.
And it’s just as special the second time around, says Fayant, who will use the $3,000 prize money to complete the certificate in creative writing she began in 2019 through the University of Calgary’s Continuing Education program when she won the scholarship the first time for a creative non-fiction essay.
“The certificate is to take two years if you are doing it full time or taking courses regularly. But for myself, I’m a single mom … I’ve got my kids. I work full time. And COVID happened and that kind of threw my schedule off-kilter as well,” said Fayant, who resides in Redwater, north of Edmonton, with her partner and their four children.
The scholarship for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit mothers who write was established in 2017 by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies in partnership with Tlicho Dene author Richard Van Camp. It is open to Indigenous mothers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
Tran-Davies came to Canada at five years of age when her family escaped the Vietnam War. Her sponsor family advocated for social justice and often took the Trans to nearby First Nation communities to participate in powwows and feasts.
As a physician with income security, Tran-Davies felt she had the finances available to establish a scholarship geared toward Indigenous mothers. The scholarship is funded through multiple sources. Tran-Davies is also an author.
Fayant says the value of the Kemosa Scholarship is more than the actual dollar figure.
“I think it’s important that we’re recognized and given that opportunity. Especially with mothers. A lot of time we’re working full-time, we’re taking care of our children, whether we have partners or help or not. It’s a great achievement to have the opportunity for this award,” said Fayant.
It’s a sentiment Jacqueline Guest shares.
Guest, along with Van Camp and Ellen Kartz, communications and outreach coordinator with the Writers Guild of Alberta (WGA), which co-sponsors the scholarship, judged the submissions.
“When I started with small kids and a mortgage and part-time job, it would have been really nice to have someone validate me by saying, ‘Look, your writing is worthwhile. You are important. Your voice is important.’ And especially for Indigenous women. I really, really wanted that,” said Guest, who has been judging the award since Tran-Davies asked her to in 2021.
Guest, who used to live in the Calgary-area but now resides on Vancouver Island, is an award-winning author who is Métis. Her books are geared toward youth and young adults and range from sports escapades to historical adventures.
Guest says judging this year’s award winners was an unusual “clean sweep” as all three judges ranked the writers identically. Placing second was Ermineskin Cree Nation member Josephine Small, taking $2,000, while Brittany Whitford, a Cree writer from Edmonton, finished third and won $1,000.
Guest says one of the criteria she uses for judging is the commercial viability of a project and whether it can attract a publisher.
“Often, writing can be … very cathartic, but that doesn’t mean it’s commercial. And I think that’s the important part, for Indigenous women’s voices … their topics, their ideas (to be) broad enough that they will appeal to the mass market. And then people learn, not just people in their community, but everyone learns about their stories, their words, their imaginations,” said Guest.
Fayant’s winning entry, an excerpt from her young adult fantasy novel Shadow of the Moon, is arguably part-way there.
In March 2022, ECW Press short-listed Shadow of the Moon in their Best New Speculative Fiction Contest.
“They gave me some really good feedback. Great comments. But in the end it wasn’t the novel they chose to win the contest,” said Fayant.
Shadow of the Moon is the first novel in a trilogy. Fayant says sometimes knowing she has these long-term plans for her work can be exhilarating; other times, though, it can be overwhelming.
“I’m just on the first (novel). I’ve started a little bit on the second. Is this really where I should take it? Should I try and see if I can make it a stand alone novel? I certainly go back and forth and I think that’s something a lot of writers maybe struggle with as well,” she said.
Fayant, who was paired earlier this year with author Darcy Tamayose through the WGA Mentorship Program, has begun reworking Shadow of the Moon.
Fayant points out that her first iteration of the novel, which includes the chapter she submitted for the Kemosa scholarship, did not include any of her cultural background.
“I’ve always thought about incorporating my Métis heritage in my writing, but I wasn’t sure how to do that. I didn’t want to just make my character Métis because that’s what I said they are, but there’s really no reason for it,” said Fayant.
Her hesitancy, she explains, is because her father “turned away” from his Métis heritage because of the bullying he experienced while growing up.
Fayant says, through discussions and guidance from Tamayose, she is changing her lead female character, Gabby, to Métis. She is also incorporating her own story of not growing up with her Métis heritage to be Gabby’s backstory.
“So I’m not trying to write something I don’t intrinsically know. It’s my knowledge of it and that feeling of how do you belong to something without having grown up immersed within it?” Fayant said.
She also sees connections in the speculative realism in her novel as “kind of recognition to some of the folklore I read in Métis culture. I’m doing a significant rework in that I’m going to incorporate Métis culture and folklore in this book because it really fits.”
Guest applauds Fayant for being willing to do a rewrite, something she says many authors won’t even consider.
But even though work by Indigenous writers seems to be commercially viable at this point in time, Guest doesn’t want to see Fayant promoted as a Métis writer instead of a writer who is Métis.
“My only concern is that I don’t want it to be pigeon-holed with this niche writing, (that) it’s only for Indigenous people, because I want everyone to hear (the women’s) voices and not just say…‘That has nothing to do with me.’ Universal stories are universal stories,” said Guest.