The Language of Family: Stories of Bonds and Belonging
Edited by Michelle van der Merwe
Royal B.C. Museum, 208 pp., $27.95
All families are different. No family is just like another, even though the families of people we don’t know might all look the same to us.
And what is a family, really? Is it defined by blood, or by love, or by some other measure? Do we have the right to declare who is in our family, and who is not?
These questions might seem ever so slightly esoteric, but they get right to the point of The Language of Family, a book that is a suitable tie to the Family Bonds and Belonging exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum.
The book brings together stories, poems and essays from 20 contributors. Their work helps remind us of the rich diversity found in British Columbia, and embodied in the families that live here.
One of the contributors was Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, who tells us the family history of the Guichon family and the Guichon ranch in the Nicola Valley near Merritt.
The family members are, as she says, stewards of the land, connected by the land and ensuring the land remains healthy for future generations.
Sadhu Binning writes of the close ties enjoyed by Punjabi immigrants to Canada, and tells a moving story of the death of the family matriarch, Bibi. “Since Bibi had lived a long, relatively healthy and happy life, her death was not treated in a tragic or entirely sorrowful way” — words that carry a message for all of us.
Don Bourdon deals with the family photo album, which is treasured by most of us. Biographies can emerge through collections of photographs.
These albums can also raise questions, such as who was taking the photos, and what the special occasions were. Photos without captions can be mysteries for the ages.
Bev Sellars writes of the meaning of family to an Indigenous person. “Being born into an Indigenous nation means that if you are relate, no matter how far removed, you are simply family — which can be a bit overwhelming,” she says.
Sellars also tells of the close connections felt between Indigenous people in Canada with those in South America, Australia and elsewhere — a common feeling based on shared, painful history that transcends the classic definitions of family.
There is more, much more, in this book. Odds are, it will shake the reader’s concept of what a family is.
A mother, a father, two kids, with roots in the British Isles? Families like that exist, to be sure, but they are hardly the norm in British Columbia, or probably anywhere else on the planet.
A family can be what we make it. A family can be what was made for us. A family can cross borders, cross gender lines and stereotypes, and cross any and all racial divides.
The concept of family varies with all of us. This book opens the door to new thinking, and encourages us to step through.
And again, it is the perfect complement to Family Bonds and Belonging. That exhibit is at the Royal B.C. Museum until Oct. 31.
The reviewer is editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.