Photos: Witches (MartiSaiz/Getty Images); Hands and crystals (Olga Ubirailo/Getty Images)
VenCo: How Métis Author Cherie Dimaline Conjured a Deeply Feminist Novel About Witches
In a Q&A about her latest novel, "The Marrow Thieves" author talks about ageism, Madonna, menopause and witchcraft / BY Kim Honey / February 24th, 2023
In VenCo, a spellbinding new thriller by Métis author Cherie Dimaline, a wannabe Toronto writer named Lucky St. James is stuck in dead-end temp jobs and facing eviction from the apartment she shares with her sassy, forgetful grandmother, Stella.
When she finds an old souvenir spoon from Salem, Mass., in a tunnel next to the basement laundry room, it connects Lucky to a community of kickass witches operating under cover of a headhunting company called VenCo (coven spelled backwards, get it?), who are trying to reclaim power from the capitalist, patriarchal system that has oppressed them for centuries.
With just 17 days to find another spoon and complete an ancient spell, Lucky and Stella embark on a hilarious and harrowing road trip from Toronto to Salem to New Orleans, with a hunky, shape-shifting witch hunter on their trail.
Dimaline grew up in Toronto, lives in Midland, Ont., and belongs to the Georgian Bay Historic Métis community. She is well known for Young Adult novels like her 2017 bestseller, The Marrow Thieves, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award and is being adapted for television. Now VenCo has been picked up by AMC for a TV series, and she is writing that script, too, as well as a sequel to the novel. I talked to Dimaline when she was in Toronto last week about Madonna, magic and her wickedly subversive feminist tale.
Kim Honey: I love your sentences. One of my favourites: “The moon watched Lucky cut a small figure down the gray sidewalk, giving her half a wink from between the streetcar wires and eternity.” Do these roll off your fingers or do you obsess over the image you want and the words to convey it?
Cherie Dimaline: Quite honestly, they’re the things that come first. My favourite kind of writing is where it gives you the feeling. It doesn’t necessarily work hard to go through description to move you physically from one place to the other, because then we all can attach our own personal understanding of it. Like those scenes with Lucky. If you’ve been in Toronto, it will mean something very different to you than somebody who’s never seen those streetcar lines or had that sort of walk home or doesn’t know what the east end is like.
KH: I had many favourite lines, but one of the best is in the acknowledgements: “In closing, I’d like to remind you that it’s always a good day to hex the patriarchy.” When and where did you come up with that?
CD: I didn’t come up with it. I would’ve loved to have been the person who did. My daughter has a very witchy store up in Midland, Ont., in our town. So I’m always talking to these young, brilliant, BIPOC young witches who are really taking back their power. It was something that I had heard being bandied around as a rallying cry, and I loved it. It sums up everything we’re talking about. It’s taking our own inherent power to fight this [patriarchal] system, and I just thought it was so beautiful.
KH: Do you remember where and when your feminism was born?
CD: I had grown up with very strong feminist women, but because they were Indigenous, that’s not the terminology that was used. It was just a way of life. It was just a part of the community. And that’s not to say it was perfect – they did have to struggle – but the struggle was done in different ways. It was done at the kitchen table. It was making sure that we took care of each other and that we remembered just who we were and what kind of knowledge we carried.
KH: Is it brave to write such a deeply feminist novel at a time when some women don’t even like to use the F word?
CD: It was something, to be honest, I didn’t really think about. I feel like we’ve forgotten the most powerful movement is when we stand together, and so I wanted to tell that story of how incredibly powerful that is. I wanted to talk about community, because the pandemic made it impossible to get together, physically, and we had to come up with new ways of finding one another. When it all came together, it was a very feminist novel. I mean, is it? I don’t know. I guess it is. It’s just these strong women, who I really, really love. I’m sure some people will take exception to it, but I hope they at least read it and get to the understanding of what the novel’s really about, which is just about all of us coming together.
KH: Have there been any male readers?
CD: I have no idea. The book seems very male-bad, female-good. I did see that in one review, where somebody took exception to it, and I was like, ‘No, I’m talking about the patriarchy, and I’m talking about it in the way that [feminist and activist] Bell Hooks talks about it.’ She does a much better job than I do, in the way that the patriarchy hurts everyone – male, female and non-binary. It’s this system that holds us all down, and that we should move away from. I’m not sure if men are really picking it up. I hope they do.
KH: The book is full of strong women, especially older women like Stella and Crone, the Los Angeles oracle who wears 1950s Chanel and has a boy-toy driver. I’ll ask the question one of the coven witches, Meena, asks in the book: “Why are elders, especially women, pushed away?”
CD: It was really, really important to me to include older women, because there is no moving forward without our elders. If we look at the recent kerfuffle that Madonna caused, when she shows up [at the Grammy Awards] and she’s dressed very sexy, and she’s had surgery – like everyone else – and people could not get over it, and they kept bringing up her age . And she did what Madonna does. She was basically like, ‘f–k you,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, Madonna!’ But how ridiculous that we would put these boundaries around who and what a woman can be or cannot be at a certain age. Do we see representatives of sexual, knowledgeable, brilliant elderly women? Not very often. As a larger society, we got into this habit of putting people into [long-term care] homes or moving away [from our parents], and I know there are a lot of reasons for that. How horrible for us as a society, and terrible for them, and especially for women, right? I’m 47 now, menopause is showing up, and I’m like, ‘Oh God, I’m not happy to see you.’ But I’m also not scared. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have to have babies anymore.’ This is a powerful time. But I really wanted to centre [the female characters], because this is a novel about people who hold knowledge and power, and who have the experience to know how to wield both. And that is going to be an older woman.
KH: You grew up with your grandmother, Edna Dusome, whom you called Mere, and even, at one point, shared a room with her. How much of Mere is in Stella?
CD: In all of my work, there is always an older woman, and my Mere is always in those women. Stella, to me, is a combination of my Mere and her sisters. I lived with my Mere, but we used to go back home to our community for months at a time, for holidays and summer. It would be just be me and my Mere, and we’d go and stay with her sisters. My Mere was the one who made all the home remedies. She was the one they’d come to for the stories about where the trap lines used to be, how the hunting patterns had changed and who was born when and how are people related, so she held a lot of knowledge. She had a really good sense of humour, but was quieter. Her older sister was outlandish. And I thought their other sister, Ethel, was very grouchy and blunt. So Stella is really a combination of all three – all of that joy of getting to an age where you have so much to give and you want to give – but also still being your own person.
KH: You’ve said you write for the Indigenous and Métis community, where elders are respected. Is this a lesson for the settler community?
CD: I hope it is. I can’t get outside of my perspective or my understanding, so it would be very unnatural not to have elders be this incredibly important part of any story I’m telling. Obviously, there are some stories very near and dear to me that I specifically write for my community, but I feel great that, with something like The Marrow Thieves – where the book went into schools and it was read by settlers and new Canadians – it was such a beautiful conversation to have. I felt honoured that, for a lot of young people, it was their first introduction to Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding. With VenCo, even Meena, the head of the coven, is 50, which is kind of unheard of for a leading lady. Lucky is young, but she’s kind of bumbling around and needs these older women. That just felt very natural. I do hope, as the story moves forward – and it’s been optioned for a TV series – that we see these dynamic, beautiful, older women. If I can shift a little bit towards the Indigenous perspective of the value of being older, especially for women, then that would be great.
KH: Let’s talk about witches for a minute. The dedication is to “Wenzdae, my favourite witch.” Is this your daughter who has the store in Midland, Ont.? What is it called?
CD: It’s called Culture Coven
KH: Does she identify as a witch?
CD: Wenzdae’s father’s family is from Barbados, so she comes from a history of Obeah, of hoodoo root workers. When I was researching the book, I wanted to think about witches in both the historical context and the ways that people were called witches, and then people who actually had beliefs and belief systems that were rooted in folk magic and feminine knowledge that would fall under this blanket term of witch. I found different communities, like Appalachian granny women, and Pennsylvania powwow, which has roots in early Dutch magical thought – all of these beliefs that are termed folk magic are in North America. That was incredibly interesting to think about the ways in which all of these beliefs exist on Indigenous land, and the ways in which that might push against, or support, people. Then there’s the other side of it, where the colonizing forces used the accusation of witchcraft to take land [and] to take whole industries away from women. It became really interesting to think about the ways the word was weaponized, but also the very real, very old and very intricate systems of belief that, predominantly, women and non-gender role conforming groups and individuals still managed to pass along.
KH: Is the store on Indigenous land?
CD: It’s right on the main street in Midland, and we are from Penetanguishene, which is right next door, so it is a part of the territory. The Culture Coven is really about supporting BIPOC female artists and small businesses, so she has skincare products from an Indigenous woman in B.C., she does bead work and then they have sort of the more metaphysical, or witchcraft, kind of stuff. It’s just this beautiful little community of people, and this is what I was trying to do with VenCo: [show] people who have very different beliefs coming together as a community and just being very positive and joyous.
KH: What do you love about witches? Have you cast any spells?
CD: No. I mean, who knows? When you look at spells, it’s largely about words that are written with intent to make an impact in some way – that go out and make change. Not to be corny, but when I really looked at it, that’s kind of what writing is. It’s words that I’m putting down in a specific order with a specific intent to take what’s in my head and in my heart, and put it into someone else’s, across the planet or across the street. It’s about sharing that knowledge. And ideally, when you’re reading it, it should be feelings and images that bring back memories.
Spells and witchcraft, none of that seems far-fetched to me. I think we see it every day in the ways that we influence each other. What I love the most about it is that when you get down into a lot of the texts, it’s about fully remembering who you are and the power that you hold, and really holding that space, like unapologetically being you. And that’s where the power is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.