Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Amanda Peters. (Photo: Audrey Michaud-Peters)

Amanda Peters perhaps perfectly signifies the writers’ adage “It’s never too late to make your big break.”

“The Berry Pickers,” her debut novel at the age of 46, has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal of Honour for fiction and has won the Barnes & Noble Discovery Prize for most exceptional debut novels, among others. Cambridge Day interviewed her Nov. 17 – and she had two other interviews that same day. “I never in a million years expected that it would get this much love,” Peters said. “I just feel so fortunate.”

Her book tells the story of an Indigenous family inspired by Peters’ own Mi’kmaq ancestors. She brings the novel to reading at the Cambridge Public Library on Dec. 7; this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What inspired you to write “The Berry Pickers”?

“The Berry Pickers” is inspired by my dad. He and his family are from Nova Scotia, and in the ’60s and ’70s they traveled down to the berry fields of Maine and picked in the summer to make money for things like school supplies. When I started writing, my dad told me I should write about the berry pickers, but I told him that I wrote fiction. Eventually he convinced me, and so he and I took that father-daughter trip in the summer of 2017, and he showed me the fields in Maine and told me so many amazing stories.

How did you decide you wanted to make your father’s story into a book?

I wrote it thinking it would be a short story, but people kept saying “This is a novel.” And I was like, “Okay,” so I just wrote it as a novel. I wrote a collection of short stories that are being published next year. I actually wrote them before “The Berry Pickers,” which is kind of funny. And I have a new manuscript I’m working on as well – I don’t know what will happen with it. It may turn out to be a book, it may not turn into anything. We’ll have to wait and see where the creative juices take it.

Were the characters based on people you know?

I’m a little bit of a Norma, just because she always wonders why she doesn’t fit in. I also always kind of wondered where I fit into the world because I am mixed-race – my dad is Mi’kmaq and my mother is non-Indigenous. I think I unintentionally wrote that confusion into Norma as well. There are also characters who are named after people I love, even though they’re entirely different and don’t represent them in any way. I just used my families’ names as a way to honor them. For example, I named one character Joe after my grandpa, even though they have very different personalities. My family has given me these stories, and I wanted to use their names to show my love for them.

What messages were you trying to get across?

When I wrote the book, I was just thinking, “I hope somebody closes it and says ’That’s a really good story.’” But I think by virtue of being an Indigenous woman in Canada and working with Indigenous communities for years, some of the things that Indigenous people deal with bleed through into this story. For example, Ruthie is an Indigenous person who goes missing in my book, and as we know, in Canada and America, there’s so many Indigenous missing women and girls. I think I unintentionally did portray what that does to families – how it can destroy them and how it can bring them together, solidified by love and hope.

What do you hope readers take away?

It would also be great if they start to think about the treatment of Indigenous children and Indigenous people generally. While it’s not stated explicitly, it’s kind of embedded within my novel that when a child is taken from a home, there’s devastating impacts. And that’s very common in Canada. We had residential schools for Indigenous children, and the U.S. had boarding schools. People need to understand that you can’t just take a child from their home, family and culture and think it’s going to be okay. There are always repercussions. Once people see that, I hope they start to research it and feel like they can contribute to a resolution or reconciliation.

What do you love about “The Berry Pickers”?

I love that I finished it, because it’s hard to write a book. I love the characters, because they really are important to me. They’re real people living in my head, and I’m loving that other people are relating to my characters as well. And I love the fact that other Mi’kmaq who used to do berry-picking are saying, “Oh, this reminds me so much of my time down there.” I just really love it when people relate to the story.

The Mi’kmaq people, the Indigenous people whom Peters descends from and writes about in “The Berry Pickers,” live in the Atlantic provinces. This includes Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. They’re also a part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, a confederation of nations politically active since contact with the Europeans, which includes peoples such as the Passamaquoddy of Maine. While the Mi’kmaq people are Indigenous people of the Eastern part of Canada, the border between Canada and the United States was always more of a colonial one than a native one, Peters said, and the Mi’kmaq have relationships with a lot of the tribes in Maine.