Jesse Thistle’s memoir From the Ashes was the bestselling Canadian-authored book in Canada last year, selling over 100,000 copies, and the U.S. edition is being published today by Atria. The book tells of Thistle’s family falling apart, his father’s disappearance, and story of growing up Métis in Brampton, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. It is plainspoken about Thistle's own decent into addiction and homelessness, recovery, and, ultimately, reunion with his family.
Thistle didn’t re-learn to read and write until he was 32. Today, at 43, he is a professor of Canadian history at York University in Toronto and writing a PhD thesis on the history of Métis trauma. He spoke with PW via Zoom from his home in Hamilton, Ont.
From the Ashes is often compared with Tara Westover’s Educated and J.D. Vance’s HIillbilly Elegy¸ but unlike those books, you make it clear that yours is not a bootstrap narrative or a redemption story. Instead, you say it is a quest. How so?
In summary, the book is the journal of an adoptee who has been disconnected from their community, in this case the Métis Cree, and the lifelong effects of trauma, both intergenerational and personal, as well as the effects of childhood trauma and the effects of that through life. My book is a quest back to myself, back to my family, but it’s also to show the effects of colonization on this generation. The end result in this generation has been homelessness, addiction and cultural confusion. But it is also about showing how through human connection and love, I was given a pathway off the streets and into wellness. If you look at the whole book, it is actually a quest for love.
A quest for love?
I had it early on with my mother and father, but then my father went missing in 1982— he was an addict, homeless and an outlaw. All the things that I became. Subconsciously I was looking for him on the streets, living his life to give back my grandparents their missing son.
You say robbing a 7-Eleven saved your life.
I robbed that 7-Eleven because I needed healthcare that I wasn’t getting from the government – and I nearly lost my leg. But when I was arrested, I was court ordered to go to rehab, which saved my life. I don’t want to give the plot of the book away, but I will say when I found out my father was gone, I was also freed to live my own life for the first time in my adulthood and that is when I started to get better.
The book has resonated with readers over the world, but how is it they can relate to your very specific experience of Canadian indigeneity?
I do get emails from all over the world now. It might be someone from Haiti, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, or Turkey, or even a Black person from New York or a middle-aged white dude from Mississippi, all who tell me that they can relate to my story because they see the story of their own family in my own. It resonates with so many other different people because they've experienced adoption, they've experienced the destruction of their kin networks, the loss of their land, not knowing who they are in the world. And those things are all covered in the story, as is love and trust and, you know, trying to be our best. That’s what the last bit of the book is about.
At one point you assert the trouble you experienced was a natural outgrowth of colonialism.
Yes, it is about the consequence of the colonial history of North America. I didn't know that until much later and when I started actually looking at the history and understanding. We, the Indigenous, have the weight of history on us. It's not our fault that we're so dysfunctional. I believe the true front lines of colonialism are on the streets. The homeless are the ones suffering the most from colonial trauma. Then the prisoners in prisons, which also shows the way the state has treated our people.
Canadian multiculturalism also interacts with Indigenous cultures as well.
In the book I show how I experience modernity. In Canada we have a multicultural society -- Toronto is said to be the most diverse city in the world -- and the book includes my interactions with people who are Somalian, Cantonese, Rastafarian... I don't think another Indigenous book addresses this.
The U.S. publication of the book brings some interesting challenges, not the least of which is that the U.S. is far less engaged with its indigenous history than is Canada. How do you advise Americans to begin understanding their own history?
Look at the maps that show the progression of the state that you live in as it concerns the land occupied by Indigenous people. You will see something shocking. Start with the year 1763 and go forward. What you will see is a disease that spreads and consumes families. That history has not yet been heard and America has not even begun reckoning with it yet.