News and Interviews

On Writing, with Rita Wong


Water has captured countless writers' imagination, appearing as subject, image, and metaphor in every genre of writing, but with climate change and pollution, our collective relationship to water is changing.

Now editors Rita Wong and Dorothy Christian are digging into the literary, ecological, and emotional significance of H2O in downstream: reimagining water (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). They have gathered together authors, scientists, scholars, environmentalists, and activists for the definitive text on water and its importance in our lives; physically, environmentally, and imaginatively. 

We're speaking with Rita Wong today about downstream, and she tells us about how she and Dorothy selected their contributors, how Indigenous water protectors have led the way, and why it is important to know your watershed.

Open Book:

How did you shape the cast of contributors for downstream: reimagining water? What kind of balance were you looking to bring to the book?

Rita Wong:

We live in times where protection of water is becoming increasingly urgent. We need to nourish a culture that pays attention to and actively cares for water; creative practice and the arts play an important role in supporting the cultural shifts that are needed if humans are to survive on this earth in the long term. So in 2012, we organized a gathering called Downstream: Reimagining Water, to bring together artists, writers, scholars, scientists, activists, and key knowledge keepers to share their work with water. Many of the presenters also contributed to the book. 


Tell us a little bit about your own relationship with water.


In 2007, Dorothy Christian and Denise Nadeau organized a gathering called Protect Our Sacred Waters, with the goal of bringing together people from all different faith backgrounds to address the spirituality of water and people from different sectors of society who are addressing the politics of water.cultures together for the sake of water.  This was a wake up call to me; prior to this, I would say I’d taken water for granted, somewhat. In response to their call, I have been paying attention to how water shapes our world, and learning from and with water through visiting rivers, learning about watersheds, and much more.


Why was this the right time to delve into water and its significance? How did the project originally come about for you?


It’s been said that wars of the future will be fought over water, the way they are over oil. It’s also been said that wars are already being fought over water. We can see this with the US government’s persecution of the water protectors at Standing Rock, how it has sided with destructive oil corporations against the interests of its own people’s drinking water. For many years, Indigenous water protectors have been acting to uphold their responsibility to honour the water. For instance, the Mother Earth Water Walk and the Healing Walk in the Tar Sands are two examples of such spiritual and practical work. The Keepers of the Water ( up north have also been working to protect the Arctic Ocean watershed. Their work, among others, inspires us, as does the work of the Stewards of the Land up in Treaty 8, standing up to protect the precious Peace River from destruction by BC’s Site C dam. Our project arose from paying attention to these and many other key water struggles.


Each of the four sections contains a poem as well as the essays, and the theme of the importance of artistic and cultural support for healthy water systems runs throughout the book. How do you view the relationship between arts and water? 


As the courageous people at Standing Rock have made so clear, water is life. Arts arise from life too; part of our work is to honour life and to foster conditions for its continuance on a cultural level.


How would you most like to see people's attitudes about water change in reading this book and through other dialogues? 


I would love for them to spend more time getting to know their own watershed; where are the water bodies that have sustained their lives, and how would they like to give back to those water bodies? This is simultaneously a journey towards (re)conciliation, and acknowledging Indigenous people’s relations with water and land, that have been so violently disrupted by colonization, but we now have a chance to build better relationships through a shared cooperation to care for the land and waters in ways that support Indigenous values and philosophies. This could be as basic as knowing where your drinking water comes from and where your wastewater goes, as well as actively learning and stating whose traditional lands you live and work on, but water also scales up, so once you are more deeply engaged with the watershed where you live, I hope this strengthens your capacity to connect with other water protectors. Because water teaches us that we are interrelated and dependent on each other.


What will you be working on next? 


In the short term we have a book launch happening on March 21 and the next day, World Water Day (March 22, 2017), we have a Water Is Life roundtable happening – Carleen Thomas, Audrey Siegl, Helen Knott, and Caleb Behn will speak.

In the longer term I am working to stop the Site C dam from destroying what’s left of the Peace River and the Peace Athabasca Delta – it threatens a huge downstream area that is crucial for the Mikisew Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and other communities all the way to the Arctic Ocean. And I also hope to work in solidarity with the water protectors at Standing Rock.

In any future work/publications, Dorothy Christian is dedicated to building and strengthening any alliances with non-Indigenous communities who are open to hearing how Indigenous ways of knowing informs relationships amongst all living things, including the seen and unseen beings. 


Rita Wong has written four books of poetry: undercurrent (2015), forage (2007, awarded the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Canada Reads Poetry 2011), sybil unrest (with Larissa Lai, 2008), and monkeypuzzle (1998). She teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, on the unceded Coast Salish territories also known as Vancouver, where she learns from water.

Dorothy Christian is a visual storyteller from the Secwepemc and Syilx Nations of British Columbia. She is a Ph. D. candidate at UBC’s Department of Educational Studies and currently writing her dissertation “Gathering Knowledge: Visual Storytellers & Indigenous Storywork.” Publications include chapters in Thinking with Water (Chen et al., eds., 2013) and Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation Through the Lens of Cultural Diversity (Mathur et al., eds., 2011).

Buy the Book

downstream: reimagining water

downstream: reimagining water brings together artists, writers, scientists, scholars, environmentalists, and activists who understand that our shared human need for clean water is crucial to building peace and good relationships with one another and the planet. This book explores the key roles that culture, arts, and the humanities play in supporting healthy water-based ecology and provides local, global, and Indigenous perspectives on water that help to guide our societies in a time of global warming. The contributions range from practical to visionary, and each of the four sections closes with a poem to encourage personal freedom along with collective care.

This book contributes to the formation of an intergenerational, culturally inclusive, participatory water ethic. Such an ethic arises from intellectual courage, spiritual responsibilities, practical knowledge, and deep appreciation for human dependence on water for a meaningful quality of life. Downstream illuminates how water teaches us interdependence with other humans and living creatures, both near and far.