Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe on accepting failure as a path to creative healing in her debut memoir, ‘Red Paint.’
Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s debut memoir, Red Paint: An Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk, is many things at once, and brilliantly so; a punk coming-of-age story, a story of first loves, a story about taking on a namesake, healing from intergenerational trauma, and finding your true self. LaPointe (Nooksack and Upper Skagit) uses Red Paint to look at a childhood and young adult life spent seeking a sense of stability — between finding a place to call a “permanent home,” to understanding her purpose through her namesake, the renowned Lushootseed linguist, Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert. Her journey takes place against the vibrant Pacific Northwest underground punk scene, which serves as a continued creative outlet.
LaPointe tells a Coast Salish story in powerful prose that incorporates the many storylines of her matrilineal kinship — a healing kinship that helps her challenge the idea of “brokenness” and find her strength through a deeper understanding of the lives of her great-grandmother and her ancestor, Comptia Koholowish. Sharing these moments with LaPointe is a special experience for any reader; for me, her book’s arrival in the mail was accompanied by a feeling of surreal joy. LaPointe and I attended the Institute of American Indian Arts together as undergrads in our mid-to-late 20s, where we enjoyed being surrounded — for the first time — by other Indigenous creative weirdos, embarking on unknown paths to becoming artists and writers. Speaking with her now that she is officially part of the third wave of Indigenous literature, a published (and damn good) author, gave me a chance to remember that special time, and to cherish how much her work has grown in the years since.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Christine Trudeau: I’d like to start off by asking you about the inspiration behind your dedication for Red Paint?
Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe: I knew immediately that I wanted to honor these women — my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my ancestor Comptia Koholowish. In writing Red Paint, it really was an act of healing. The story feels active to me, as I was researching, as I was hearing more and more about the lives of these women and their immense strength. It was teaching me a lot about where I come from, about the strength that was within me. The woman called Aunt Susie, my ancestor, Comptia, even my mom is threaded throughout this book. I had such immense growth; they’re in the process, and I owe that all to them and their story. So I wanted to call attention to that from Page 1. It’s also why I start with my grandmother’s words versus my own, and then it goes into Aunt Susie’s Salmon Song. I wanted it to begin in their words, because they taught me so much.
CT: Memoir is a real history, tied to the land. Your story is from the Pacific Northwest, and I think it’s important for non-Native people living on that land now to understand that the stories from cultures Indigenous to that land are tied to its understanding, speaking languages that were born and developed there and no place else.
STL: You’re touching on something I felt was really important in Red Paint — that this is a Coast Salish story. When non-Native people think of the Pacific Northwest, they think of, obviously, how beautiful it is, and the music scene and Microsoft — things that put the Pacific Northwest on the map for them. I felt it important to write a memoir that celebrated those things but then tied that to the undercurrent — that it is a very Coast Salish story.
CT: The personal connection is very powerful in the book, considering how the landscape has changed so radically under colonization. What are your thoughts when looking at the land and waterways changed with the dams now?
STL: My aunt, Cecilia LaPointe, has done some beautiful paintings, and in one of them, right in Swinomish, if I’m remembering correctly, she had done these big panels of paintings on the waterfront before settlers came and built the dikes and changed the rivers and waterways. What is now Skagit Valley was tide flats and waterways, where there was an abundance of fish and shellfish and a very different landscape. Now they’ve made very fertile farmland by controlling and changing the river. Now we have farmlands and the Tulip Festival every year and it’s throwing recolonization and the changing of that land in our face every year. A bigger version of that is how devastated the Puget Sound, the Salish Sea, is becoming.
“It comes back to the idea of erasure. This was our land, we had these practices, we knew how to keep in balance.”
It comes back to the idea of erasure. This was our land, we had these practices, we knew how to keep in balance. And now that the world is fucked, you really think removing one little dam is going to help stop what’s coming with climate change? People shouldn’t be mad at us (for wanting the dams removed). People should be mad at oil companies. They should be mad at where the pollution is happening. It’s not with the individual people so much it is with industry. That’s been known for a while, and it gets frustrating because it is erasure by not acknowledging our experience and having generations of our family protest and try to bring awareness and not get acknowledged for so long.
CT: That also makes me think about the book’s potential audience and the ways in which we write and share information with non-Natives, balancing that line between what’s appropriate and not appropriate to share. It’s really an ongoing process that you’re going to always have as a writer. But for Indigenous writers, we have a different history and culture here and must respect that, and our elders and our people. How did you navigate that for this book?
STL: That was such a huge part of this process, and continues to be part of my writing process today. As Native writers, we’re held more accountable to know what to share and what not to. That was a part of my process, where I had let my parents read the manuscript. They absolutely came back and said, ‘You have to take this out, you have to take this out,’ and I — 100% —didn’t question them, and even had to push back against editors at times when they were, like, “You know, you’re pretty vague here. Can you go into more detail?” And I wanted to be, like, several times, “Do you want to get my mom on the phone? Because she’ll explain this to you.” (They both laugh.)
“As Native writers, we’re held more accountable to know what to share and what not to.”
CT: The way you weave together how the barriers that colonization cut you and your family off from the land and a sense of self in it really came together in “The Crucible” chapter, when your ex, Brandon put up a barrier by not wanting to include you with his band. It reminded me of how the whiteness of punk can feel really ostracizing. How did you come up against and respond to those challenges?
STL: There was a moment in a conversation between Brandon and me where he was really surprised I included “punk” in the book title, because he remembered how I kind of hated the word. Because punk spaces have been so predominantly white, and even when I was living on the rez in Swinomish, falling in love with Riot Grrrl, even within such an important movement, of course, it was problematic. Did it do good things? Yes. Riot Grrrl was so important to me because I’d never heard someone singing or even talk about sexual assault, so it opened up a doorway for me to kind of see more art, music, zines, spoken word. It helped me feel less isolated. Would that scene be that white if it happened today? Absolutely not, and that makes me happy, because — especially as a Native person growing up in the Northwest — I never saw other Native punk kids at the shows. It made me feel isolated, even when I was standing in a crowded show, seeing a band I loved. There was a loneliness there. And then having this barrier within my relationship that sort of allowed me to come to the table, but not all the way. I went to the shows or tours (with Brandon) but I was not really able to fully participate until my 30s. That was something that I found and created on my own, when a badass group of folks approached me and were fem, queer, and not just this group of white cis dude punks. That felt really special. So including “punk” on the cover was an act of reclamation.
CT: The way you wrote about the idea of accepting “failure,” when you had to let go of publishing Little Boats — your first book really — and take some time away. But in that time you got to heal and create something new with your band Medusa Stare, taking space to look into an abyss and ask, “What am I gonna do next?” Can you talk a little bit about writing that?
STL: Oh my gosh, I love your brain — “into the abyss,” we’re on the same page. There was this moment after I finished my MFA and had a lot of internal pressure to finish the book, and when it was all said and done, it got several agents and publishers interested in it. And I know that it’s no shocker that, as a writer, you experience rejection. But the way that it happened was so interesting. People would be so interested and read the first 30 pages and immediately get back to me wanting to read the whole thing, and it became like a clockwork response that they’d get back to me to reject it. It happened again and again, until finally, it really did break me down. By the end of that first year and a half, I took a huge break. It felt like a failure. It was my moment of staring into the abyss like, “Well, I’m not going to be a writer, and that’s OK. This book is never going to be in the world and maybe that’s OK.” I was in Seattle, bartending and waiting tables, going to shows. I needed to let my heart rest.
It’s an interesting thing to kind of accept failure. I did, and I think that’s OK. People in our society feel pressure to be like, “Just gotta keep doing it, don’t give up,” and sometimes it’s OK to give up and have a break. I joined a punk band for a couple of years, and poured all of my creative energy into that. It was something that I needed to do. I let myself grow in a different direction for a while. I loved it, it was some of the most inspired years of my life. I got to tour and do something that scared me, which was performing. In doing that, I ended up working out a lot of my trauma, confronting the PTSD, and just healing and rebuilding myself. I had a different story to tell that was not one that focused and examined all the traumas as (my first unpublished book) Little Boats did. Instead, it felt more like a celebration of healing. When I made that shift in my head and heart, what came out of me was Red Paint.”
Christine Trudeau, Prairie Band Potawatomi, is a freelance writer, a former contributing editor for the Indigenous Affairs desk at High Country News, and the Indigenous Investigative Collective’s COVID-19 project managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @trudeaukwe.