By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Wanda John-Kehewin is no stranger to the printed word, but she’s the first to admit that writing a graphic novel was a whole new experience.
“I learned the process about pictures painting more than the words show,” said John-Kehewin.
Dreams: Visions of the Crow is a graphic novel that tells the story of Damon Quinn, a Cree-Métis teen, who has a mysterious connection to a crow and a new girl in school. He also has a mother who is struggling with alcohol addiction and has moved them away from their reserve in Alberta.
The first two-page panel of the 76-page graphic novel depicts Damon lying on his bed in an over-the-top organized bedroom. The only word bubble in that panel is from a song that Damon is listening to: “Two hands gripping the steering wheel, like I could control a careening car…”
“I knew what Damon’s character was going to be like because I remember as a kid trying to make my own life normal. I lived with my mom on and off and she was an alcoholic. So I would try and make some sort of normal for us during that time. I would organize things. I would just clean up…to make some sort of normal out of a not so normal situation,” said John-Kehewin.
At 19 years old, the pregnant member of Kehewin First Nation hopped a Greyhound bus from northern Alberta to head to Vancouver where she resides now.
John-Kehewin got her masters in fine arts at the University of British Columbia, having started with the Writer’s Studio writing program at Simon Fraser University at a mature age, coming out of a stressful job and “on the other side of healing, still healing.”
“I told myself anything that I write is publishable. So that was my goal. It just sort of went from there. Maybe putting things in the universe helped. I just felt really…almost cheated that I had to take so long to heal, that I almost needed to double the speed of what I wrote to catch up,” she said.
Before tackling the graphic novel, John-Kehewin had written poetry. Now she can add to her resume a screenplay, a Young Adult (YA) novel (coming out in August) and a children’s book she’s writing.
“I’m up for trying new things all the time,” she said.
So when Garry Thomas Morse of Portage and Main Press approached her about providing a synopsis for a graphic novel, she did. Morse had been a “catalyst person” in John-Kehewin’s life, publishing her first poetry book in 2013.
For the graphic novel, John-Kehewin said she used script writing software.
“When I’m writing it, it sort of plays like a movie in my head,” she said.
She worked with editor Irene Velentzas to determine what parts of the story should be told in words and what parts would better be revealed in graphics.
“It’s not like writing a script because your word choice, your choice of diction, has to be spot on because you can’t have more than 15 words in a bubble. Fifteen words is a lot. If you’re going to have some person making a speech, you have to pick the most important part of that speech and use a picture to enhance,” she said.
Then she collaborated with illustrator nicole marie burton. Sometimes burton’s graphic was all that was needed to emphasize specific parts of Damon’s story.
There was a lot of back and forth between the pair, including determining what Damon and Journey, the lead female character, would look like. John-Kehewin chose Damon from character sketches burton presented her with, but they worked “more so together” to create Journey.
Dreams: Visions of the Crow is the first volume of a three-part series and the pair will be collaborating on the remaining two graphic novels.
John-Kehewin is confident that Damon’s story could be told just as effectively as a YA novel, but she also believes that employing graphics opens up the story to those who are more visual learners.
Graphic novels are also becoming more popular in telling the stories of residential schools and other Indigenous history.
And, John-Kehewin admits, she had fun writing the graphic novel.
“It’s almost like you can put yourself into someone else’s character. Everything Damon felt or everything Damon was doing…it’s kind of like I felt the way Damon felt,” she said.
John-Kehewin hopes that Indigenous youth and adult readers will draw from Damon’s spiritual journey. As a former employee with the Ministry of Children and Families, John-Kehewin is aware that although Indigenous youth and children may have their physical needs met, they don’t often have their emotional and spiritual needs met. She hopes Dreams: Visions of the Crow will help with that.
For non-Indigenous readers, she wants them to go beyond the stereotypes and understand that Damon’s mother’s alcoholism is “the residual effects of the residential schools and history itself.”
Dreams: Visions of the Crow is published by HighWater Press, a division of Portage and Main Press. The graphic novel will be available early April, but it can be pre-ordered online.
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