Conversations with Indigenous Students: Zoe Mix

July 07, 2023
Zoe Mix (Photo credit: Ruth Ormiston)

Thank you for meeting with me today. I am so excited to talk to you about your project report, but before we do that, I would love to learn about your culture and background, and who you are, as a person.

I am Métis, my dad is Métis and my mom is from a settler descent. My family is from the Red River area, but I grew up in Tacoma, Washington and I currently live here, so I am definitely far away from the homeland. Growing up, I knew within my family that I was Métis, but here in the US, Métis identity is not as recognized. Since people don’t really know what it means, I didn’t fully understand what it looked like to be recognized culturally from an external perspective. 

When I came back to Canada for my undergraduate studies at eighteen, I was exposed to a whole new world. Introducing myself, saying I was Métis, and then having other people actually know and recognize that was nice. Getting to be around other students and professors, who were Métis, made a huge difference. 

Back in high school, I did a presentation on the Métis and I remember how no one, not even the teacher, knew what that meant. It is crazy because I currently live in Tacoma, and I grew up close to a Hudson’s Bay fort, which is now a museum where people reenact and dress up as the Métis for events during the summer. You see people who still don’t recognize the Métis wearing traditional sashes. Although there are references to Métis people in the fort’s record, the effort to wash our identity, especially in the US, has been intense. 

For me, I think the last like eight years or so have been an act of trying to reconnect with other people in my culture. I’ve tried to learn from those who have lived in Canada for their whole lives. Understanding what it looks like to be Métis, especially in the current political climate, was important. As a white passing Métis, there is a whole other conversation about perception and privilege. It is something I'm always wrestling with and being considerate of. 

I recognize the privilege that I have. 

As you navigated your way and learned about your identity these last few years, did you reflect on your family’s history? 

My family history isn't unusual. Many people, including my family, went into hiding after what happened with Louis Riel in 1885. Back then, assimilating into white culture was the optimum thing to do. At the time, associating with Métis people or being an outspoken Métis or a proponent of Louis Riel and his vision was dangerous. 

I believe my great, great, great grandfather was the secretary of the Métis Union. He wrote speeches and made pamphlets that he was distributing when Louis Riel was killed. While he was extremely outspoken about being Métis and passionate about the cause, the generation after him focused more on trying to appear as white and assimilate. Specifically, my grandmother and my great grandmother’s generation. They had to deal with racism and the stigma of being Métis, which is why they took a different path. 

But yeah, it is definitely interesting to look back now, especially since my dad and I are the ones trying to reclaim that history. 

Wow! That is incredibly special. I appreciate you sharing your family’s personal story with us. You have such a rich history and background, but what led you to where you are now? 

Well, I joined the MPub in 2021. Even though it is a 16 month program, I am doing a SSHRC project which is just taking longer to do. Hopefully, this will be my last term. Although I am currently away from Vancouver, I’ve completed my internship already and I am working on finishing my project report. 

Before coming to SFU, I did my undergraduate degree in UBC. I double majored in opera performance and creative writing, and the through line with both of those focuses is storytelling, which has always been my main interest.

As I was learning about my family history, I realized how important publishing was, especially in putting stories out there. Publishing really is the center of culture. With time, I understood how crucial that was, and what it means to have the power or the control to decide what stories are important and what stories we tell ourselves; about our past, about our nation and about who we are as people. 

Given my own background, I specifically became interested in Indigenous publishing. I wanted to be someone who understood publishing, enough to at least help other Indigenous writers and artists have that agency to be able to get their own stories out there. So, that was my main reason for entering the program.

An illustration that Zoe made for SYMBI, a website her group created for their MPub Media Project in Term 2. Button (center) and his other mushroom friends are cheerleaders for the online writing community - something Zoe and her team had envisioned at that time. (Photo credit: Zoe Mix)
A cover design made by Zoe for the MPub Book Project in Term 1. (Photo credit: Zoe Mix)
Another masthead that went on the website mock-up for SYMBI. (Photo credit: Zoe Mix)

Are there any moments that you still think about from your time in the MPub program? Were there any faculty members that you formed a connection with?

Working with Hannah (McGregor) has been great. While in school, I transcribe episodes and manage the digital marketing for her podcast, Witch Please

Another part of my research focuses on alternative forms of scholarship including oral traditions. For example, my SSHRC project, that I mentioned earlier, is a podcast where I got to interview six different Métis publishing professionals. I made contact with a writer, a publisher and a few faculty members including Deanna Reder. In fact, Suzanne (Norman) encouraged me to meet with Deanna, who is Métis herself and cofounder of the Indigenous Editor’s Association (IEA).

For Hannah’s class, we read an article that Deanna did with a PhD student, Alix Shield. It was about uncovering Maria Campbell’s 1973 memoir, Halfbreed, which I think really stuck with me.

That’s amazing! Being a part of such a fun podcast, and simultaneously working on your project report must be overwhelming. Suzanne (Norman) mentioned how your project report speaks to that kind of advocacy that is needed in publishing, especially in regards to Indigenous voices. Can you discuss your efforts to elevate the cause and why it matters to you? 

I did my MPub internship at the Portland State University last fall, and my project report puts together the research I did during that time. As a matter of fact, Mitacs, which is a non-profit national research organization, is the funding body responsible for my internship and my project report. 

Anyway, I worked with Doctor Rachel Noorda who has been associating with other scholars on The Border Crossing Books Project. The project essentially looks at the transnational movement of books in the age of the internet. Initially, I was brought on to focus on how Canadian book titles enter into the US book market. However, I decided to narrow that focus further and examine Métis titles entering the US book market. Aside from being Métis, I was drawn to this topic given my experience visiting bookstores in Seattle and Portland the summer prior to the internship. At that time, I noticed that more Métis titles were on the shelves, and it was something I had never witnessed before. From Cherie Demaline to Katherena Vermette, Métis writers were visible and at the front of the shelves. In that moment, I realized that something was shifting in the US. 

After that, I decided to do case studies where I picked three different books that were on the best sellers lists in Canada. They had also been nominated for the Canada Reads Awards. So, I studied the reception those titles got in the US, and I discovered that they are still not as successful here. Hence, my research/project report focuses on understanding these barriers and the ways in which the publishing industry can change that.

According to your research, what is the foremost cause of that imbalance? Why are these books not as visible in the US market? 

What I’ve learned is that it has to do with cultural consciousness. Usually, best selling books reflect something that is going on within the consciousness of a culture. For example, in the US, there is no real understanding of the Métis identity. This unawareness is reflected in the way these books have been received. Since there is no larger conversation around our identity, when Métis titles or books enter the US market, people don’t know what to do with it. 

Through my research work, I also learned about the importance of BISAC codes. It is essentially a coding system used by both Canada and the US. Each book gets its own BISAC code which then allows booksellers to categorize them and figure out who they are selling it to or who the audiences are. However, Indigenous BISAC codes only came into being in 2017. This was in Canada. An organization called BookNet Canada conducts research and works on Indigenous specific BISAC codes. Although it is a new thing, BISAC codes form a crucial part of publishing. 

Surprisingly, two of the three Indigenous books in my case studies did not have their own BISAC codes. In fact, they only had general codes. My theory is that if a Métis book were to enter the US book market with an Indigenous BISAC code, the book sellers will have the ability to categorize it as an Indigenous book. In learning about these codes, I also had the opportunity to interview someone who is a board member of BISAC, and he shared that giving a book a general code means causing the book’s death. However, these systems are constantly changing and evolving, which is why it is important to address these issues. 

Although there is a lot of work to be done, I do believe that Métis books can be better received in the US. After all, as a Métis, I truly want for Métis books to get the attention and recognition that they deserve.

A poster designed by Zoe for the final season of Witch, Please, a fortnightly podcast co-hosted by Hannah McGregor, who is also an Associate Professor at SFU Publishing. (Photo credit: Zoe Mix)

You also mentioned working on Hannah’s podcast WitchPlease. How did that opportunity come about? Why was that important to you? 

When I joined the podcast in January of 2022, it started out as a work-study opportunity. In the beginning, I was only transcribing the show. Once that finished, Hannah and the rest of the team asked me to stay on and broaden my duties.

Since oral tradition is an integral part of Indigenous cultures, I was very interested in working with Hannah and learning more about podcasting. 

You briefly discussed Maria Campbell's memoir and Deanna's article uncovering an incident that had been removed from the publication. Can you tell us what it was about? 

Maria Campbell is one of those prolific Indigenous writers in Canada. Her memoir, Halfbreed, was a breakout book when it came out in the seventies because it was written by an Indigenous woman; in her own words and telling her own story. It was published immediately and became a huge success. I think her memoir was also one of the first Indigenous books to be taken up by universities as an academic text. 

For years, there were whisperings around the book and how there were versions of it with information that the publishers had purposely left out. So, Deanna Reder and Alix went into the actual archives and found the original manuscript. It included a whole page which described how an RCMP officer had assaulted Maria Campbell as a child. That was the part the publisher had decided to remove. Reading about that was a huge deal for me.

When I was sixteen, my dad actually gave me the same memoir. He wanted to help me understand my grandma’s experiences since they shared a similar history. For me, learning that something so significant was taken out of Maria Campbell’s memoir was a huge deal. I think it undermines her entire life story. If you take that part out, the rest of the book doesn't make as much sense. It invalidated her experience. 

This an example of how the powers that be, in publishing, are making these decisions about Indigenous texts that disregard Indigenous experiences. Having access to these untold stories, through the program, has radicalized me, in a good way. 

In the beginning, you mentioned that this might be your last term (in the MPub). Is there anything else that you're pursuing or interested in? What are your plans for the future?

I guess I have a few different ideas. Continuing to work on, and further, my current research is something I really want to do. Hopefully, I can apply for a PhD this fall. I want to do a bigger case study on Métis and other Indigenous groups’ books, as well.

Ever since I was sixteen, I’ve wanted to do a PhD. I always wanted to be a teacher in some way, so being a professor would be awesome. At some point, I would love to do workshops with Indigenous writers to share my knowledge of the publishing industry. My biggest qualm in the creative writing program at UBC was that we all came out knowing how to write but not knowing anything about the publishing industry. Once you finish the program, you feel a little lost. So, working with, and encouraging, other Indigenous writers is definitely something I want to do in the future. 

Although I need to have more knowledge of the industry before I can help anyone else, I am hoping to start working on it down the road. It is important to me. 

Besides that, I’ve also been working on a comic book for a really long time which I’m hoping to publish at some point. My undergraduate degree actually focused on the graphic novel genre. So even though I love writing and drawing, I haven’t had the time to work on those things due to my project report. Hopefully, I can get back to it once I am done. 

Currently, I am planning a vocal recital for sometime in August. I also did opera for my undergrad, and I’ve actually been working with a voice teacher for over a year now. So, I am just trying to keep that going too. 

My dad has been my biggest supporter for all of my pursuits. He always said, “Keep all the doors open, even if it's stressful.” It is stressful, of course, but I feel excited and extremely privileged that I get to do all of it. 

The love, passion and dedication you have is truly inspiring. Please share your advice for students who are maybe unsure about their future. I think it is important for young people, especially young Indigenous people, to know that there are opportunities out there and that that they can find a space for themselves here. 

For me, the MPub program was extremely valuable. Even though it is small, it allows you to engage critically with things that we are constantly consuming. More importantly, people should open up their definition of publishing, which I think the publishing program at SFU has been working on.

Moving away from traditional forms of publishing, such as books and magazines, and drawing attention to podcasting or marketing or communications is part of that. It is important to note that a lot of people are engaged in publishing in ways that may not be as widely recognized but is equally as important.

We should be thinking critically about the stories that we are highlighting. Whose stories are we telling? What do these stories say about the communities that they address? Everyone needs to think about the impact we can make, because there is value in that.

To learn more about the MPub program, go here

To see an excerpt from Zoe's Publishing History project, go here

About Maus: A Publishing History

"For this project, I made a short comic about the publishing history of Maus by Art Spiegelman. I designed the characters as animals to mirror Spiegelman's own work. However, rather than anthropomorphizing these characters, I drew them more realistically. In this excerpt, Art (the mouse) is going to speak with the Publisher (the owl) to ask about what different publishing houses had to say about publishing Maus. The cat in my comic represents racism, xenophobia, and hate."