Mackenzie, a young Cree woman in Vancouver, British Columbia, is being haunted by her dreams. She returns night after night to the lakefront campsite where her sister, Sabrina, died, and parts of her nightmares are beginning to reach through into reality. Desperate for answers and relief, she returns to her hometown of High Prairie, Alberta, to ask her family for help—but once there, her dreams only grow stronger. We talked to Nehiyaw author Jessica Johns, a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, about the lingering nature of loss, Bad Cree’s journey from dream to short story to novel, and what makes a great dive bar.
You mention in the acknowledgements that this story began as a dream that worked its way out onto paper. Before you wrote the first sentence of what would become Bad Cree, what ideas were you certain you would include?
From the outset, I knew everything was going to center on this dream phenomenon, that this Cree woman could bring things back and forth from the waking world to the dream world. I didn’t know any of the details around this, like why it was happening or even the character’s name, but I knew that this was going to propel the novel.
I also knew the novel was always going to start with Mackenzie waking up with a crow’s head in her hands, one she was holding moments earlier in her dream. Maybe it’s because I’m an Aries, but there was something about starting in the middle of confusion and chaos that felt absolutely right for this novel.
Bad Cree first took form as a short story. Why did you choose to turn it into a novel?
In an interview about their poetry collection, Everything Is a Deathly Flower, the brilliant writer Maneo Mohale said, “I wrote this book because I wanted to sleep. Because there were dogs at my door, and they were awful,” and nothing has ever resonated with me more.
I wrote the short story version of Bad Cree, and that story haunted me. The dogs at my door were the characters, barking. They had more life to live, more places to go, than the short story allowed. So I knew I had to keep writing and expand the story. Like Mohale, I just wanted to sleep again.
One of the themes you explore in Bad Cree is the impact of separation from place, people, traditions, what’s “right” and so on. What drew you to this topic?
I think about the generational trauma and effects of the intentional separation of Indigenous peoples from their communities, languages, traditions and families by the Canadian state all the time. I think about it because I don’t have a choice not to.
I also think about the ways in which I, along with many Indigenous peoples separated from the teachings and knowledges that are our inherent rights to know, have tried to connect to that again. I think about the “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” ways I’ve tried to learn, the mistakes I’ve made, the shame I’ve felt in not knowing, when that shame doesn’t belong to me but to the people and powers who forced this separation in the first place. So I wanted to write characters who go through those same things. Characters who don’t always “do the right thing”—whatever that means—who stumble and struggle and are still loved.
Grief and all the ways the past can haunt the present are major elements of Mackenzie’s arc. Did you find yourself tapping into your own experiences with loss and grief when writing? Did working on this novel lead you to see these experiences or emotions in new ways?
I think losing people we love is one of the most horrific things someone can experience, so it makes sense that it’s often an element of horror. I’ve lost many friends and family members, including most recently my papa, Don Smith (my dad’s dad), who passed away as I was writing Bad Cree. I think I’ve been in a perpetual state of grief for many years. And I think, in many ways, I have been grappling with the same things Mackenzie is: trying to make sense of losses that feel impossible to make sense of; trying to continue a life that feels absolutely empty when someone you love leaves it.
I learned a lot more about death from a Cree worldview as I was working on the novel, thanks to teachings from Jo-Ann Saddleback and Jerry Saddleback, such as where our ancestors go once they leave this earth and how we can still honor and connect with them while we’re here. That helped me see my own losses in a new way, and those teachings helped inform the comfort Mackenzie eventually feels with her losses as well.
But there are other layers to the grief in this novel that go unreconciled: ecological grief as the land continues to undergo extraction and abandonment, for example. I think this is also fertile ground for horror because it’s a reflection of real life. It’s a horror we’re currently living.
Horror protagonists are often isolated, but Mackenzie is surrounded by a female support system. Why was it important to you to create this network of women? What did this element of the story open up for you?
It was important for me to show how Indigenous women and queer Indigenous people always show up for one another. I’ve never seen a fiercer kind of love and protection than when an aunty goes to bat for someone she loves. It’s terrifying and beautiful.
Mackenzie is surrounded by women and femmes who love her deeply, but it’s a love she’s not willing to accept because she doesn’t think she deserves it. In addition to grief, she feels a lot of guilt for some past choices she’s made. So a big aspect of this novel is seeing if Mackenzie will be accountable to those mistakes and let herself be loved again by people who never stopped.
What section of the novel was your favorite to write? Was there a particularly difficult aspect to get right?
I loved writing the gruesome, gory scenes that delve into body horror. They were technically challenging to write, and my Google search bar saw some shit.
I also based Mackenzie’s kokum in the novel off my own kokum, the late Eileen Smith (my mom’s mom). In one scene, Mackenzie’s kokum takes her, her sisters and her cousin on a walk through the woods. Kokum tells stories, points out plants and flowers and names them in Cree. It’s a pretty simple scene about these kids spending time with their kokum, but I loved writing it because I felt like I got to envision another world with my own kokum in it.
I could almost smell the stale beer when I was reading the scenes set at the Duster, the local dive bar. What do you think are the essential elements of a good dive, and did you base it on a real-life spot?
Yes! The Stardust (the Duster) is a real-life dive bar my mom used to go to when she lived in High Level, Alberta, before she married my dad. I visited High Level a few years ago, when I was around the same age my mom would have been when she lived there. I went out to the Stardust one night, and I loved thinking about the fact that I was walking around a bar that she had spent time in 20 years earlier, that we’d have different memories of the same place. It’s its own kind of ghost story.
The truth is, I LOVE a good dive bar. I always write them into my stories as places of significance. I think that bars, with the people who frequent them and the stories that live in the walls, are incredibly interesting spaces. As for what makes a good dive: comfy booths, karaoke and at least one working pool table.
Picture of Jessica Johns © Madison Kerr.