Our blog series “Author Q&A” pulls back the curtain on the historical writing process, introducing local authors and hearing how their stories featuring aspects of British Columbia’s history were inspired.
This week, Monica Miller of Caitlin Press sits down with Shannon McConnell, the author of “The Burden of Gravity”.
In her debut poetry collection, Shannon McConnell explores the fraught history of New Westminster’s Woodlands School which later became a custodial training school for children with disabilities before its closure in 1996. Originally called The Provincial Lunatic Asylum and later the Provincial Hospital for the Insane, Woodlands was built in 1878 to accommodate the overflow of patients from the Victoria asylum. Drawn from archival research, The Burden of Gravity, challenges readers to consider how we, in the aftermath of deinstitutionalization, choose to remember institutions like Woodlands School.
As poetry of witness, the collection excavates the individual experiences through a variety of poetic forms that elicit an array of emotions, from heartbreak to anger. Partially set in the 1960s and 70s, The Burden of Gravity uses personas to imagine residents’ lives, giving voice to those who were unable to speak for themselves, to shift focus from the institutional authority to the experience of residents.
Q: You’ve been working on this collection for a while. Why is now the time to tell this story?
With the pre-1974 residents finally getting compensation in the last year or so, it is likely that Woodlands’ legacy will be fading from the public eye. And since the physical building was demolished in 2011, there is only the Woodlands Memorial Garden left to remember such a difficult part of British Columbia’s history. I think we are at a critical point in history where in the next 30 years as survivors continue to age the legacy of custodial training schools is going to disappear too.
I didn’t find out about Woodlands until long after its closure, which has bothered me for years. I grew up about a 20 minute drive away from the School and must have driven by there countless times never understanding its significance. We often think about history as mistakes of previous generations, but Woodlands was in my lifetime, and knowing that there are survivors are still alive makes it even more important to acknowledge their stories and also the failures of the provincial government.
Q: What do you hope readers will get out of, or connect with, in The Burden of Gravity?
I want readers to feel connected to the past and to recognize that as Canadians we have a responsibility to not let these troubling legacies to fade. History is complex, and we need to face the difficult parts of it in order to do better in the future. While the personas in my book are not based on specific people, they are created from instances found in archival materials. The first section of the book (“Confined Sp/Faces”) aims to connect the reader with a handful of residents, learning about them and empathizing with them. The second section (“Erased Pl/Faces”) forces the reader to take a more critical look at situation and challenging them to think about how we chose to remember or not remember Woodlands.
Q: What did you learn about yourself, Woodlands School, or the former residents during the process of writing your book?
One thing I learned while writing this book was that I have a real love of research and history. Woodlands served as the basis for my two Master’s degrees at the University of Saskatchewan (MFA in Writing ’17, MA in History ’20) and learning how to do archival research and learning how to read materials with a critical and analytical eye was incredibly important when putting these poems together.
In the summer of 2018 I took a research trip to Victoria, B.C. to spend some time in the BC Archives. I found a lot of interesting documents about the institution and how it was run. I did not have access to patient files as those are tightly regulated because of the personal nature of them and the fact that there are survivors who are still alive. Nonetheless, these documents helped me to further contextualize Woodlands within the Canadian context, considering the political, cultural, and economic climate in which it was run.
Additionally, I learned a lot about custodial training schools in Canada and that Woodlands shared a lot of commonalities and troubling histories with other institutions like Alberta’s Michener Centre and Ontario’s Huronia Regional Centre. Woodlands is unique in many ways, but it’s interesting to compare the practices and beliefs towards institutionalization in the mid-1900s and to see how each province eventually shifted towards deinstitutionalization.
Q:When researching for your book, what kinds of sources influenced your writing?
I found early on in my research that there wasn’t a lot of academic work written yet about Woodlands. There were two books (Memories of Woodlands andIn the Context of Its Time) written by former Woodlands employee Val Adolph that gave insight into some of the history of Woodlands. These two books, especially Memories of Woodlands helped to provide a perspective of how staff remembered working at Woodlands. That book was curated to highlight the happy times and therefore I had to read it against the grain to gain insight into what the patients perspectives of these experiences might have been. It was really important in writing this book that the residents were always in the foreground of the poems and that the experiences of staff were secondary. This idea pushes back against traditional historical narratives in which authority are the ones telling the history rather than those who experience it firsthand.
Additionally, I drew from newspaper articles that came out during the demolition of Woodlands’ centre block and the legal proceedings in which survivors fought for compensation. Some of these articles can be seen in the erasure poems which try to find an alternative narrative and push to hear what has been hiding beyond the surface level. Many of these articles had survivors of Woodlands speaking about their experience at the institution, highlighting some of the horrors they experienced and finally allowing their voices to be heard. Along with my archival research, the newspaper articles helped to give me a solid basis to start building poems. I like to build poems off of images or a vivid detail that catches my attention and so when reading through source material I would flag anything that piqued my curiosity and could serve as a starting image or setting for a poem.
Q: What authors/books is your work in conversation with?
There are two books that I think tie in with my work. Nadine McInnis’ Two Hemispheres focuses on the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum through using archival photographs as inspiration. While I don’t use photographs in my work multiple poems are ekphrasis, meaning they written by looking at photographs. I found this technique to really help with trying to capture a tone, and being able to see faces and body language, it gave life to the people I was writing about in a way that just reading archival documents doesn’t. As well, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s The Red Files also draws heavily from archival materials looking at another painful part of Canadian history, residential schools. I think my work and Bird-Wilson’s work both are trying to show instances of humanity within the horror of the past, the resilience of those who were placed in tough situations by a system that should have been protecting their most vulnerable, not hurting.
Q: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
The most difficult part of writing this collection was trying to find a way to look at Woodlands with the utmost respect for those who lived, died, and survived the institution. I was very deliberate in never using “I” in any of the poems. The goal was for these poems to be poems of witness, as if being a fly on the wall within Woodlands. I did not want take on the first person persona as I was never in Woodlands and I didn’t want to assume what that felt like. That is not my personal story to tell. This collection is more about getting a glimpse inside and trying to understand the institution during a critical time in the history of institutions.
The other difficult part was in reading some of the research and learning about the experiences of children and instances of abuse. It was difficult to read about some of the things that went on in Woodlands, and knowing that these were mostly children, it definitely can take its toll. That being said, Woodlands’ history is very complex. To say that there were not good things happening within its walls is just not true. For some children Woodlands was better and safer place than where they were before, and there were many staff who provided quality care and deeply cared for the residents. There are many layers to the institutional system, and each resident had their own experience. Woodlands’ legacy is incredibly complex and I hope that my book is able to demonstrate that.
Shannon McConnell is a writer, educator and musician originally from Vancouver, BC. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in untethered, The Fieldstone Review, Louden Singletree, In Medias Res, Rat’s Ass Review, The Anti-Languorous Project, and more. She holds degrees in English Literature and Education from the University of the Fraser Valley and Simon Fraser University, respectively, and is a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. In 2018, she won second place for the John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award for Poetry. She finished an MA in History at the University of Saskatchewan in 2020 and is now pursuing her PhD at Queens University in Kingston, ON.