SFU English department welcomes Carleigh Baker as newest Writer-in-Residence

Baker spoke about her plans as writer-in-residence and her forthcoming novel at the department’s reception

Carleigh Baker is an award-winning poet, short story writer, and novelist. Image courtesy of Callan Field / The Globe and Mail.

By: Isabella Wang, SFU Student

On Friday October 18, the SFU English Department hosted a reception and evening of reading to officially welcome Carleigh Baker as the department’s newest Writer-in-Residence. As the fifteenth writer inaugurated by the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence program, she is well-suited to follow in the footsteps of Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Wayde Compton, and, most recently, Ivan Coyote.

Baker is a nêhiyaw âpihtawikosisân/Icelandic writer whose award-winning poetry and short story work has been published in Best Canadian Essays, The Short Story Advent Calendar, and The Journey Prize Stories. She is currently working on a novel about paddling the Peel River Watershed, which examines matriarchal relationships with the river as a symbol of a mother figure. One of her current writer interests includes using the tools of storytelling to acknowledge climate change grief while firmly moving toward action.

The evening began with warm introductions made by Dr. Jeff Derksen, Dean and Associate Provost of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Dr. Derksen situated the Writer-in-Residence program as part of a cultural front that, through resistance, aims to “transform society through creative thinking, a new form of social relations within the university.” Past Writers-in-Residence were also present to celebrate the occasion, including Fred Wah, who was accompanied by his wife, writer Pauline Butling.  

Indeed, in what she has called a “brutalist rain palace,” Baker can be found in her office, listening to heavy metal and talking to other writers about their writing over her weekly community consultation hours. Her time in residency has also been spent towards finishing her first novel — a long time coming.

Baker’s novel arose following a canoe trip, paddling more than 100 kilometers through the 12 interconnected brooks linking the Yukon Watershed. Despite being well-intentioned, it was a fraught trip that drew into the problems of wanting to find oneself, and then finding oneself on someone else’s land. As she explained, however, she wrote the story in part with wanting to learn from the mistakes.

Baker went on to read from her short story “Where Were You?” a story about two girls questioning the ecological impact of hairspray on the ozone. On a deeper level, the duo-narrative is asking readers to consider the various forms of violence committed against the earth, in direct relation to the feminine beauty standards of the late 19th century and violence against women’s bodies. Thus, the story on climate grief draws into focus the notion of dark nostalgia, or memory as a safe haven. Simultaneously, this evokes a sense of shame, where, as she explained, “we can begin to look back and [identify] the places where we started to go wrong.”

In this way, Baker showed that through her story and the writing of her novel, we can grieve over loss, over poor behavior, or over the “lack of heroism in a situation [ . . . ] but [we] don’t move ahead until [we] acknowledge [our] grief.”

Baker also shared a powerful message with the audience: writing does not have to be a solitary act. She reflected on her canoe trip by saying that after she returned, “[I realized] community involvement needed to be my number one priority [ . . . ] It fills you up, whereas writing leaves me depleted until it’s over.” These are commitments that she is intent on carrying over to her time at SFU, through community engagement and through teaching.

For the remainder of the semester, Baker’s office is open for weekly writing consultations available to the general public, following which she will be teaching a creative writing course on ways to address ecological grief, civil disobedience, and apocalyptic narratives through poetry and fiction.