I’ve been cleaning out my office in preparation for a new academic year (which starts today! I’m not ready….) and came across an essay by Aritha van Herk, first recommended to me by a good friend who recently relocated to Calgary (cue very sad face).
“Brisebois Drive” was originally published in The Walrus in 2009. In some ways, it is about Ephrem Brisebois, “the first French-Canadian officer in the North West Mounted Police,” and a murky figure in the history of Calgary. But really the essay is about history itself, about the stories we tell and about those we don’t, about how stories shift and change, and about how we use those stories to shore up our own.
As van Herk writes, “We would prefer the past to reassure us, and so enter into a false exchange with its fragments. Hardest of all for us to imagine is history as a dynamic space that hindsight cannot stop shape-shifting. So we read backwards, hunting for those turning points that impinge on who we have become.”
Later in the essay, after piecing together the fragments of Brisebois’ life, she looks at the gaps between, trying to figure who Brisebois was, and in relation this, why she is drawn to his story. There is little that is particularly appealing about this man, and those who worked under him complained about his leadership. For van Herk, many questions remain. But are those questions about Brisebois, or are they about van Herk herself?
“In truth,” writes van Herk,
the temptation of history is rooted in its instability. Even though the past is presumably complete, its rich contingency is evidenced by our revisiting stories, shaping them into a tale or a dish to tempt contemporary palates. We are treated to another book on Napoleon, on Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on crinolines and creosote, new details previously overlooked. History does its turn on the cultural boards, then retreats, a shabby coat in the back of the winter closet, shoved there on a spring day wanting to be done with the weight of wool. There it hangs, a scarecrow with aphasia, holding the rag and bone shop of experience but unable to transmit that to a constant audience. And so I marinate and barbecue Brisebois, give him ulterior motives and base desires, try to make him more interesting than the ineffectual or dreaming busboy he doubtless was.
Which stories do we marinate? Which stories do we discard? How do we build our own stories in the gaps that remain?
© Sonja Boon, 2019.