Layers of identity: On/Me hits the bookshelves

Francine Cunningham, author of On/Me | Photo courtesy of Francine Cunningham

As an Indigenous woman, Canadian writer Francine Cunningham hopes to bring understanding and empathy to a world that greatly needs it. Her first poetry collection, On/Me, explores the universal themes of identity and what it means to fit in.

On/Me, published by Caitlin Press in October 2019, is currently a finalist for the 2020 Indigenous Voices Awards.

Poetry from the heart

Cunningham hails from Calgary, Alberta, but now calls Vancouver her home. She says she has always been a natural storyteller, dabbling in both written and visual art forms. Filling sketch books full of doodles and bits of stories laid the groundwork for her future as a professional storyteller.

“I remember my mom telling me, after failing grade 9 math three times, that it was okay, I should just focus on my art instead, that it’s what I was going to do anyways so I might as well start practicing,” says Cunningham. “She made a spare room in her house for my art studio in high school and that was it for me. I was committed to an artist’s life after that.”

After conquering math class, Cunningham went on to complete a Master of Fine Arts at UBC, where she began to hone her craft as an author. Cunningham enjoys writing in all genres but has a special place in her heart for poetry. And it’s this love that brought On/Me to fruition.

“I write poetry, fiction, and non-fiction,” says Cunningham. “I would say I consider myself more of a fiction writer, actually. I write poetry because that’s where my heart lives, that’s where the truth of me lives. I wanted this book to come out first because I thought of it like an introduction to the world. I have always been into writing in all genres and experimenting as much as I can in my craft.”

Embracing identity

Within On/Me, Cunningham explores the idea of identity and what it means to not fit in a tidy box. A complicated identity is not a negative thing, but a beautiful asset that she hopes her readers and writing students will embrace. Existing in the margins of society can be mentally and emotionally taxing, but Cunningham’s book of poetry promotes the idea of uniqueness, even if it isn’t easy all the time.

“I’ve never felt like I fit in,” says Cunningham. “I don’t think anyone really has. I’ve always been the person on the margins doing their own thing and having fun doing it. I don’t try to take life too seriously, because it’s already really intense. In this book in particular I explore some of the ways in which I’ve felt different and like I didn’t belong, whether that was inside my family, in the world, or in my ways of thinking.”

More than just one experience

As an Indigenous woman who has felt the push and pull of identity politics, Cunningham hopes to bring more understanding to the vastness of Indigenous experience and what that means for her own identity. When asked about what she hopes to convey about living as an Indigenous person in Canada, Cunningham shares some powerful words that should be remembered long after a reader closes the spine of On/Me.

“We are not a singular person with one experience,” says Cunningham. “You can’t just read one of our writings and have that be the whole of what you read and experience. That our work shouldn’t just be consigned to one shelf in a bookstore, that you can find our words in all genres. That all I can share in my writing is my experience, my life, the weird little short fiction horror stories, the fantasy worlds I love to create. That I am not a spokesperson for the Indigenous literary world, that I am just me, writing what I love.”

To learn more about On/Me, visit www.caitlin-press.com/our-books/on-me.

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