Collaborative Kinships: Reflections on an Evening with SFU’s 2020-21 Shadbolt Fellows

February 16, 2021

Isabella Wang
SFU English and World Literature Student

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Public Square or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

On January 27, 2021, over 140 people gathered virtually to celebrate the four scholars who have been selected for the 2020-21 Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship in the Humanities Program at an event hosted by Dr. Stephen Collis (SFU Department of English) and Dr. June Scudeler (SFU Indigenous Studies). Over the year, the Shadbolt FellowsFabian Romero, Otoniya Okot Bitek, Eden Robinson and prOphecy sun—will contribute their invaluable artistic and collaborative visions to their communities at large.

It will be a pleasure this year to follow each of the Shadbolt Fellows as their works unfold. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought innumerable challenges to the community of artists, scholars, and the public alike, it is assuring to know that communities are being made, and that different forms of art and collaborative projects have been mobilized to speak to our collective need for human connection and intimacy as physical distances continue to be maintained. The Fellows’ work shows an abundance of heart, commitment and generosity, as did their words tonight.

The panel discussion began with Dr. Scudeler, posing what seemed a formal question by all accounts: “[At a time when we are all] so starved for a future we can plan and anticipate, what are you looking forward to now and how are you getting through the stasis of the pandemic?” 

Otoniya Okot Bitek replied, “I am matching my nail polish to my scarf.” 

Eden Robinson, having stocked up on too many different kinds of beans from Costco, said, "following a more Marie Kondo approach, giving away my beans, making myself split bean soup and bean salad.”

prOphecy sun shared an anecdote about how her partner, thinking it was the apocalypse, began growing excessive amounts of potatoes. She herself, however, has taken to replaying certain conversations she has had with other people, reminding herself of the spaces she was in when it was possible to connect with people in public, physical spaces.

Fabian Romero showed everyone their new puppy. 

Scudeler’s question is a serious one met with funny anecdotes—meaning the fellows are less fixated on entering a conversation about the future, as they are staying and engaging in the present moment where plenty of work remains to be done. In Romero’s own words, “for me [. . .] thinking about the past is tricky and thinking about the future is a lot of anxiety, so living from moment to moment is the best.” 

Indeed, as a scholar embarking on their PhD dissertation, Romero has anticipated collaboration and engagement with Indigenous LGBTQ youths and peoples from their diasporic Purépecha community. They have been looking forward to coming together and writing, creating experimental plays, poetry and videos. Due to the challenges of the pandemic, Romero has had to address the vital components of their project which, at the moment, are no longer possible to carry out. As Romero articulates, however, “What I’ve been given is an opportunity to think about this moment in a historic way—the fact that using forced isolation to survive is not new to Indigenous people.” It is a time for pause and reflection. Once their fellowship is over, they intend to return to their dissertation focused on cultivating what they call “insurgent kinships.” 

For Okot Bitek too, big changes have been made to the ways in which writers must conduct themselves in virtual literary events, book launches, and online workshop settings. While serving as Writer in Residence for the SFU Department of English, Okot Bitek has begun a collaborative project entitled “un/settled,” in collaboration with poet and artist Chantal Gibson. The exhibition, on display outside the Belzberg Library in downtown Vancouver, features poetry from Bitek’s collection, 100 Days—100 poems reflecting on the losses and lingering resonances of the Rwandan genocide—as well as photographs of Gibson’s multi-media art, which has simultaneously been on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery this winter. Together, their artwork fosters a COVID-19-safe and alternative way for the public to connect with poetry and art in their city, all the while making a series of profound, lasting impressions. 

When the pandemic began, I had listened through all of Robinson’s Trickster series, as well as her novel Monkey Beach on audiobook. Her reflections tonight reminded me of the responsibility that storytellers bear in relation to land, and in Dr. Scudeler’s words, in relation to the “places that give us stories.” Putting aside the stimulus of the news, the noise of the outside, pandemic world—or as Robinson calls it, “insanity”—the present day has afforded her the space to become “hyper-focused” in her work and the stories set in her father’s community. It’s a process that can incur difficulties, nevertheless, while establishing the delicate balance collaborating with people from other cultures and adhering to your own culture’s protocols. At the same time, Robinson affirms, “sometimes these painful breaks in communication open doors you didn’t know existed.” 

Equally memorable were sun’s video vignettes of the sound and landscapes surrounding the marshlands of the Fraser River basin. Filmmaking is presented as a powerful lens of storytelling, imparting the atmospherics, artistic and geographical nuances of a storied place. One particular conversation stood out to me: when Dr. Collis remarked that “in your videos, prOphecy, someone’s always on the ground and they are moving around it.” In response, sun replied, “I’m in this place right now where I want to be observing things more; more witnessing than [exhibiting] action towards something. Seeing how things fold out[…] trying to step back.” Her words have resonated with me, as a poet myself, trying to become a more attentive observer and listener, and allowing my thoughts to remain in the present for longer. 

It takes creativity to create; adaptability and change. In spite of the obstacles presented by COVID-19 in the past year, the Shadbolt Fellows are each finding inspiring ways to engage their visions with the wider public, and foster their daily relationships to land and their individual communities.

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