An Interview with Sonny Assu about “This Place: 150 Years Retold”

Sonny Assu, This Place Retold 2019

Photo by Mark Mushet Photography

Sonny Assu is an interdisciplinary artist whose diverse practice is informed by a deep connection to Kwakwaka’wakw art and culture and melded with western/pop principles of art making. He is one of eleven Indigenous authors who wrote stories for the graphic novel anthology, This Place: 150 Years Old. “Tilted Ground,” illustrated by Kyle Charles and coloured by Scott A. Ford, talks about Sonny’s great-great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu, as well as the potlatch ban.

  • Why did you choose to tell this story?

I have a deep connection to my great-great-grandfather, even though I never met him. He’s come to inform my work in various ways, and this story pays tribute to his legacy.

  • How did you come up with the title “Tilted Ground?”

The old village site of Tsaqaluten, just south of our current village, translates to “Tilted Ground.” It’s now a site of a resort/lodge of the same name and the ground, is in fact, tilted.

  • If you could summarize the story with one line, what would you say?

A young man, groomed to become a legend, grapples with the continued colonial onslaught against his, and other, coastal Indigenous people.

  • Why did you pick these particular historic events for your story?

This era, particularly the potlatch ban era, has been a major focus for a number of my art works. I feel this information is readily hidden from the public. That if we know more about Canada’s past atrocities towards the First People, it will put our current atrocities in perspective. A story like this needs to be told, so we know where we come from and how we will get to where we are going.

Photo by Mark Mushet Photography.

  • Which character do you relate to the most? Why?

Chief Billy Assu. I think because the odds are stacked against him and he still manages to maintain the ways of the old while setting the path for the future. Back then, the future was uncertain, and if he were to witness where we are today, he would see what he was able to accomplish. But, he’d be left with a lot of questions and unease over what is happening now and where we are going next in this colonial ride called Canada.

  • If you could go back in time and meet with one of the characters in your story, or if you could meet one of the characters in real life today, what would you say to them or ask them?

I’d want to meet Chief Billy Assu… but not in the time of the story or in the present. Maybe 5-10 years before his passing. Just sit with him. Bring him tea and ask him to tell me all his stories as we eat cookies out of a blue tin. I want to hear his old-man elder voice.

  • Were any parts harder to write than others?

I think the most difficult part to write were the settler/colonial scenes. For someone like John A. MacDonald, I wanted him to be a caricature, and it was a delicate dance between tearing him down, making him a clown, and highlighting the legacy that no one talks about.

  • From where do you get your inspiration?

From many places, mostly nerdy pursuits such as video-games, comic books, and sci-fi. But over the last three years, my inspiration has come from my proximity to my community. Having moved to my unceded home lands has been life changing. I wake, walk, and work where my ancestors did.

  • What does your writing process look like?

Chaotic, yet focused. I like to divide my writing time between my studio or a coffee shop. Particularly when I lived in the city. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about the hiss and whirr of the espresso machine, coupled with the buzz of the atmosphere. It’s an interesting combination of white noises that are easy to gain focus from. My studio is the complete opposite. While I paint or make, I require music to sing to. While I write, I need silence.

  • What advice do you have for other storytellers?

If I can write, you can make art!

  • In the next 150 years, what would you want to see happening in Canada?

The patriarchy smashed, colonialism clobbered, and capitalism quashed! Nuff said.

 


 

Click here to order your copy of This Place: 150 Years Retold.

Explore the past 150 years through the eyes of Indigenous creators in this groundbreaking graphic novel anthology. Beautifully illustrated, these stories are a wild ride through magic realism, serial killings, psychic battles, and time travel. See how Indigenous peoples have survived a post-apocalyptic world since Contact.

Featuring Stories By: Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, Brandon Mitchell, Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, David A. Robertson, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Jen Storm, Richard Van Camp, Katherena Vermette, and Chelsea Vowel

Illustrated By: Tara Audibert, Kyle Charles, GMB Chomichuk, Natasha Donovan, Scott B. Henderson, Ryan Howe, Andrew Lodwick, and Jen Storm

Colour By: Scott A. Ford and Donovan Yaciuk

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This is one of the 200 exceptional projects funded through the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter program. With this $35M investment, the Council supports the creation and sharing of the arts in communities across Canada.

 

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