Writing in (Good) Relation: How Writing Can Build and Create Community

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Composition courses can be some of the most challenging for students, particularly when they are embedded within a specific discipline. In this post, I share an open letter that I wrote for students in “Writing for Indigenous Studies” (FNIS 300), which I teach at the University of British Columbia. The year in question was particularly difficult, because it was the first we went into lock down with Covid-19. In the letter, I reflect on what writing means as a relational tool and how our words can build community and connect us to our family and kin.

This post is dedicated to the late Greg Younging, a wonderful mentor, friend, and writing teacher.

Writing for Indigenous Studies

Dear FNIS 300,

Writing for Indigenous Studies can be a challenging course, both for the students and for the instructor, because it aims to weave writing fundamentals (clarity, concision, summary, citation, etc.) together with theoretical approaches to writing as developed within, or alongside, Indigenous studies. We had the added challenges of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline and a global pandemic. If I could title the course retroactively, it would probably be “Writing against and in the Apocalypse.” As the instructor, my objective with this course was to provide you with tools and examples that would allow you to more effectively and confidently communicate your ideas while encouraging you to find and, hone, and expand your critical voice.

The texts and assignments that I chose were intended to extend this course beyond compositional grammar and syntax to emphasize instead what Vershawn Ashanti Young identifies as descriptive composition: the study of how writing functions from a variety of cultural perspectives. At the core of my own pedagogy for the course is what I identify here as “relational writing,” which I define as writing caught up in context, community, and living connections to its environments.

Engagement was a key element in this iteration of FNIS 300. We began by thinking about how to position our writing relative to other writers and their work. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing established the model for us, emphasizing the importance of clear and open engagement with other people’s arguments. Too often, they argue, “academic writing is taught as a process of saying ‘true’ or ‘smart’ things in a vacuum, as if it were possible to argue effectively without being in conversation with someone else” (3 original emphasis).

Writing clearly and effectively, in this sense, means being able to locate your argument as a thread within a larger, ever-expanding web surrounding your topic. In the sense that it is a conversation, good academic writing is therefore, first and foremost, good academic reading and listening. We show ourselves to be learned contributors to a discussion by attending to the voices that have come before us and by thoughtfully and artfully placing ourselves in the contexts, nuances, and subtleties of those conversations. This is the groundwork for relational writing: writing in conversation.

Writing in Relation

Our goal moving forward, was to explore relational writing within the contexts of Indigenous studies. Turning to Gregory Younging, then, we investigated what it means to engage Indigenous authors via the contexts of what he identifies as “Gnaritas Nullius,” or “no one’s knowledge.” We read Younging’s text, “Gnaritas Nullius (No One’s Knowledge): the Essence of Traditional Knowledge and Its Colonization through Western Legal Regimes” alongside Graff and Birkenstein in order to attend to the colonial histories that provide for the appropriation and misuse of Indigenous knowledges within academic writing. If Gnaritas Nullius is the erasure of Indigenous intellectual property in writing, as Younging suggests, then relational writing is the act of bearing witness to Indigenous thought and intellectual traditions in our own practices as authors and researchers.[1]

Building from Younging, relational writing, here defined as writing that addresses colonial histories and ethically holds up Indigenous voices, is based in protocols including (but not limited to): consent, collaboration, citation, and compensation. For Younging, writing in relation means understanding the ways in which copyright works to displace Indigenous authorship and the ways in which the public domain ignores ownership of traditional knowledge (TK). In class, we discussed how copyright systems are loaded against traditional knowledge and what we can do, as authors and scholars, to ensure that Indigenous authors and thinkers are fairly compensated and acknowledged in academic and creative writing circles.

The Pompous Style

At stake in Younging’s work is what it means to write for Indigenous audiences, as opposed to the colonial, white gaze that, for too long, defined academic writing. By reorienting our audiences through the protocols that Younging suggests, we open up the space to unpack and consider who we are as writers and what we want to do with our writing and research. In this sense, Younging also provided us with an Indigenous studies perspective to undo what Michael Harvey calls “the pompous style at school” (3): “windy, vague, and almost automatically evasive” writing aimed to insulate the author from critique through rhetorical subterfuge (xii). We (students and professors) often fall into the pompous style when we are unsure of our ideas or feel that we need to guard against critique by sounding smart.

The pompous style is aimed at an imaginary audience; it does not seek to clearly communicate an idea to anyone. Younging compels us to articulate our writing through Indigenous protocols and therefore to imagine Indigenous audiences as the recipients of our work. This does not mean dumbing down our prose. It means imagining stakeholders as the recipients of of our papers, paragraphs, sentences, and word choices. Clearly articulating our audiences means admitting that our grammars and syntaxes are not subjective—that writing is an act that manifests in relation to the other and therefore necessitates thoughtful consideration of effective delivery.

Writing in relation means clearly identifying our audiences, but it also means locating ourselves relative to the work we are doing or want to do. From Younging, we deepened our understanding of relational writing through Margaret Kovach’s meditations on positionality. Through Kovach, we learned that in order to be in relation with Indigenous research and writing, we first need to articulate where we are coming to that research from—both in terms of the lineages and histories we carry with us in terms of the places and people we write from and to.

In this sense, writing in relation rejects what Donna Haraway identifies as the “gaze from nowhere” (518). Instead, by writing in relation, we choose to firmly ground our research in the particularities of our own experiences and desires. Kovach argues that, “critically reflective self-location gives opportunity to examine our research purpose and motive. It creates a mutuality with those who share their stories with us” (97 my emphasis). In other words, by locating ourselves first, we facilitate the hospitality and reciprocity necessary for relationships in our writing and research. Writing with the “I” in this sense is a matter of principle.

Whereas Kovach asked us to address the “where” of writing and research, our next text, “Remembered Rapture,” by bell hooks, compelled us to confront the “why.” For hooks, writing is an act of passion and desire. Finding that passion means, for her, reveling in the labour of composition: the work that goes into honing and sharpening words, sentences, and paragraphs—so that they cut to the bone of meaning. She articulates this labour as “the longing to pattern the words and the ideas so that they are ‘in your face’—so that they have an immediacy, a clarity that need not be searched for, that is present right now” (4). The kind of work hooks articulates here (resonant with Sarah Ahmed’s definition of “homework,” which we considered at the end of the term) is not simply a matter of academic rigour, with all of the intellectual baggage that phrase carries with it.

Rather, as in Younging’s work, it is a matter of writing to and with her own community. For her, that is the “southern black working class” (4) she identifies in this essay, that sets the standard for her work. From this audience, she is able to produce writing that “engage{s} wider diverse audiences” (5).

In clearly identifying the community she writes for, hooks is able commit to the labour that necessitates immediacy and clarity. Or, in other words, through her audience she is able to think critically about how her words and sentences will be received and thus how to best shape her grammar and syntax so it arrives in the intended manner, which, for her, is often transgression (8). For hooks, this is where the passion of writing lies: in the poetics of composition imagined in relation to effect change and to incite critical thinking.

Rhetorical Sovereignty

While hooks helps to demonstrate the care enacted in writing for the other, writing in relation does not mean reducing difference or forgoing boundaries. Scott Lyons makes this plain in his articulation of “rhetorical sovereignty,” which addresses the ways in which composition is connected justice. Like hooks, Lyons is invested in the power of rhetoric to persuade and transform. More specifically, however, he wants to know what writing can do for Indigenous peoples—particularly given that writing has taken so much (in residential schools, in legal documents, in colonial literature, etc.). For Lyons, writing has traditionally been mobilized against Indigenous peoples as a discipline—with all the violent connotations of that word—brandished to punish and assimilate them in colonial institutions.

“Rhetorical sovereignty,” the phrase he coins in the essay, means reclaiming the written word and mobilizing rhetoric as a means for Indigenous peoples to “determine their own communicative needs and desires in the pursuit of self-determination” (462). While writing carries with it the resonances of colonial discipline, rhetorical sovereignty provides the potential to deconstruct those grammars while pursuing decolonization. As such, Lyons sees writing classes, such as our own, as politically charged spaces that necessitate “a radical rethinking of how and what we teach as the written word” (450). That is to say, within the contexts of Indigenous studies, it is not merely enough to study the grammars and syntaxes of colonial languages. Rather, we must look at how those grammars and syntaxes are deployed against Indigenous peoples and strategize, in turn, rhetorical strategies that aim to undo colonial writing.

Lyons is invested in the power of language to facilitate Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. For Jeanette Armstrong, however, sovereignty is bound up in the very materiality of Indigenous languages. Appealing to the connections she sees between land, language, and the written word, Armstrong coins the phrase “land speaking,” which she defines as the “experience of the land,” which “sources and arises in… poetry and prose” (175). Bringing Kovach back into the equation, land speaking offers a positionality grounded specifically in the environment and the languages it gives birth to.

In this sense, writing with the land is an exercise in materiality that closes the gap between signifier (the written word) and the signified (the thing that the written word describes). In Armstrong’s formulation, because the language was born out of the land, words therefore carry that land with them and are thus transportive—meaning that they connect the author and the reader to place in their enunciation. This deep connection that Armstrong identifies between words and the land offers a place to consider writing, not as an alienated, solitary act, but as a grounded, material practice, an idea that Leanne Simpson will develop as well in the subsequent reading.

Of course, taken within the contexts of FNIS 300, Armstrong’s work also demonstrates that Indigenous languages must be taken seriously in academic writing: it offers a theoretical vantage point from which to consider the relationship between land and the written word, thereby radically expanding the possibilities of rhetorical sovereignty. Further to this, the ways in which Armstrong approaches Indigenous languages is expansive and invitational, acknowledging the effects of colonization on Indigenous language learning while holding up the vernaculars that Indigenous peoples have developed despite those effects.

Specifically, Armstrong locates anti-colonial potential in what Young identifies as code-meshing, or what she refers to as rez english. Armstrong defines rez english as the adaptation of English words to match the “movement and rhythm” of community-specific vernaculars (175). That is to say that even when Indigenous peoples have been cut off from their languages, the ways in which they mobilize the colonizers tongue, or “ride English,” as Louise Bernice Halfe puts it, draws similar connections to land and community (8). In this move, Armstrong traces a lineage of Indigenous writing that finds its anchor in the land and foregrounds a promise of writing that connects Indigenous authors to their homes and communities.

The connection between land and writing is also a subject in more recent Indigenous thought. Indeed, Armstrong’s “Land Speaking” provided a strong context from which to engage Leanne Simpson’s “Bubbling Like a Beating Heart’: Reflections on Nishnaabeg Poetic and Narrative Consciousness.” While Armstrong and Simpson come from very different parts of Turtle Island, there are a number of cogent similarities between their philosophies on writing, namely its materiality. Like Armstrong, Simpson is also deeply engaged with what it means to write in relation to land and community.

Meditating on the Otanabee River and the Nishnaabeg word it is named after, “Odenabi,” Simpson explains the ways in which her language pulls her “into a Nishnaabeg presence, a decolonized and decolonizing space where… cultural understandings flourish” (108). As this quotation helps to demonstrate, in this essay, language and the materiality of maker culture, culture focused on the creation of material things including, for Simpson, writing, are key portals to Indigenous resurgence through which authors and readers find connection to ancestors, community, and the land.

It is the transformative power of Indigenous language, identified in the above quotation, that Simpson seeks to reproduce in her own writing. She tells her readers that she wants her “writing and creative work… to pull people into [her] consciousness as a Michi Saagiik Nishnaabeg… if only for a few seconds” (108). In her identification of the transportive potential of writing, then, Simpson builds on the ideas we began discussing with Armstrong, illustrating the power writing can hold when it is, quite literally, grounded in land and Indigenous languages.

Again, like Armstrong, Simpson reflects on the intimate and reciprocal relationships between land and the written word. Yet, building on the resurgent practices she develops in Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (where this piece was first published), she seeks to locate the power of this relationship within Indigenous bodies themselves.[2] Simpson writes that, “our bodies collectively echo the sound of our ancestors, the sounds of the land, and (o)debwewin, the sound of our hearts” (110). In other words, while Armstrong draws a direct connection between land and writing, Simpson identifies the connecting tissue of this relationship within Indigenous bodies. Both see the transportive power of land as something that can be awakened through the act of writing.

Writing as Process

Writing in relation is central to Simpson’s philosophy as well. On a practical level, she argues that engaging the land and community through writing means being attentive to the contexts and processes of the writing process—which is to say that it is the act of writing—of learning, listening, and engaging others—rather than the product it produces that authors should be most attentive to (113). In the sense that she foregrounds relationships in the writing process, Simpson brings us back to the concept of engagement that we began to unpack in the beginning of the course with Graff and Birkenstein.

For those authors, writing in relation means articulating ourselves relative to other writing. Yet for Simpson, it also means being particularly attentive to the deeply seeded connections Indigenous authors have with land and language and the relationships that unfold out of these networks. In this sense, writing in relation is much more attuned to the living contexts that surround the writing process: being in community, working collectively, and tracing language back to its origins in the land.

It is, of course, important to theorize Indigenous approaches writing, but how do students mobilize those practices in a university system that privileges Standard English and disciplines students against culturally specific grammars and syntaxes?  Where do writing practices such as those propounded by Armstrong and Simpson fit into academic writing?

Vershawn Ashanti Young gave us the space to tackle these problems with his article, “Should writers use they own English?” In this bold piece, which brings form and content together, Young takes on instructors who seek to justify the application of Standard English. According to him, those instructors appeal to a false universal and cling to the idea that all academic writing must follow the same grammatical rules. Young puts the lie to this defense, illustrating the ways in which writing is racialized, not just in the vernaculars that students of colour bring to their work (such as rez english), but in Standard English itself, which he maintains upholds Euro-Western forms of discourse and buries the subjective nature of academic grammars behind universal claims to clarity.

Writing in his own vernacular as a means to emphasize his point, Young assets that the prescriptive writing instruction that so many instructors apply in their grading practices,

force people into patterns of language that aint natural or easy to understand. A whole lot of folk could be writin and speakin real, real smart [instructors] stop using one prescriptive, foot-long ruler to measure the language of peeps who use a yard stick when they communicate. (112)

Young’s solution to the prescriptive violence of Standard English, which generated further space for us to consider the relational writing practices that Armstrong and Simpson advocate for, is for writing instruction that teaches composition descriptively, that is how language functions from a variety of cultural perspectives (112). In a practical sense, this does not mean that instructors must forgo that instruction in sentence construction, clarity, and rhetoric, etc. Learning how to translate an idea onto the written page and communicate it to an audience (even an idealized audience) is a skill and, like any skill, it requires training. It does mean, however, that students should be encouraged to bring their own dialects to their academic work in concert with these tools, using what Young calls “code meshing.”


Code-meshing is a strategic approach to composition that weaves vernacular into academic writing as a means to attend to the subjective nature of “clarity”. Graff and Birkenstein refer to a similar process in their work, which they term colloquialism (119), but Young highlights the positive effects that the inclusion of non-Standard writing can have on authors who have traditionally been excluded from the category academic writing. According to Young, “code meshing use the way people already speak and write and help them be more rhetorically effective. It do include teaching some punctuation rules, attention to meaning and word choice, and various kinds of sentence structures” (116-117).

This is to say that by dismantling the prejudice embedded in Standard English and making room for a variety of vernaculars in academic writing, we open the door for a broader range of students, particularly BIPOC students, to register their ideas in academic discourse. What we learned from Young then, amongst many things, is that “good” writing is not a stable category. He also taught us that teaching clear expression does not only mean teaching grammar and syntax; it also means engaging language from a variety of cultural viewpoints, as opposed to the monolithic gaze of Standard English.

Young’s article provided us with a space to think critically about the ways in which race is enacted in writing and, hence, how racism takes shape in writing disciplines. Moving away from Young, we continued to address writing and race via James Baldwin and his famous missive, “A Letter to my Nephew.” Whereas Young asked us to look at how racism plays out in writing classes, however, Baldwin, provided a lesson in what it means to write against racism and to family and kin. In both its form and its content, “A Letter to my Nephew” delivered an historical snapshot of what it means to write against racism.

Taking his nephew as his specific audience, yet simultaneously writing for the broader American public, Baldwin deployed an arsenal of rhetorical tools to convey the emotional weight of growing up black in the United States. “A Letter to My Nephew” details the ethical bankruptcy of the state and the white populace that proclaims innocence while reaping the rewards of racism.

While the letter was published in the 1960s, the picture that Baldwin paints of structural racism has clear resonances with the anti-Indigenous racism we see in Canada today—racism thrown into relief while our class was convening during activism held in support of Wet’suwet’en. As a whole, Baldwin’s writing instructed us further in the power of relational writing, the precision and care that writing for a particular audience allows, and the power of rhetoric to address race and racism.

The final text of the term, excerpted from Sara Ahmed’ Living a Feminist Life, was “Bringing Feminist Theory Home.” Ahmed’s writing worked as a conclusion to this course on a number different of levels. What Ahmed helped us to unpack, in her own rigorous and searching prose (her style, in many instances in this text, pays tribute to bell hooks), are the ways in which certain grammars—namely colonial and patriarchal—are embedded in our writing and can even flourish there without our knowledge. These grammars, she writes, “goes all the way down, to the letter, to the bone” (4).

Thus, while Armstrong, Simpson, and Young entreated us to embrace our community dialects and the vernaculars we feel most at home in, Ahmed draws our attention to the ways in which those homes can be rendered uncanny by inherited ideologies that echo out through our pens and keyboards. Her chapter was insightful then, for our own work in FNIS 300, insofar as it grappled with what it means to be “at home” in one’s own writing. Ahmed shares her journey as a writer and details what she sees as the path to feminist research: “I had to find ways not to produce [patriarchal] grammar in what I said,” she tells us, “in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was” (4). While her lessons are aimed against the patriarchy, there is much to be drawn from Living a Feminist Life that can also inform decolonial writing.

For Ahmed decolonial writing can be attributed to how she views the disruption of the structures that we write from, often without knowledge of doing so. For her, rethinking how we write means rethinking the structures through which writing our occurs. In this sense, finding a home in writing, as a feminist, an Indigenous person, or a person of colour, does not simply mean rearranging the furniture in that place (i.e. toying with grammar or punctuation), it means deconstructing the entirety of the residence. One very basic way in which Ahmed entreats her readers to take up this labour (what she designates as “homework”) is by compelling us to think critically about who we cite and why.

If writing is a structure in which we invite others to think, then the texts we build our ideas with are the beams and panels of that structure. Or, as Ahmed outs it, “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings” (16).

In this final reading for 300, then, we have a concluding reflection on the nature of relational writing. Here, to be in relation means to work with and in the texts that provide us sanctuary, i.e. the texts that resist and challenge colonialism and the heteropatriarchy, even when, or particularly when, those texts are deemed fringe or unacademic. Yet, what Ahmed is offering through her articulation of feminist citation is not immunity; a writing structure that is impenetrable replicates the colonial and patriarchal structures she is working against.

As such, the home for the kind of writing that Ahmed is gesturing towards is one necessarily left open to the uncertainty of new methods of research and composition. As she continues, “perhaps citations are feminist straw: lighter materials that, when put together, still create a shelter but a shelter that leaves you more vulnerable” (16). Framed in this way—as vulnerability—writing in relation entreats us to open ourselves up to the authors we work with, to shake loose some of the foundations we assume our work has to be built on in order to consider new structures of research and being in academic writing.

Writing in and Against the Institution

While we have faced a number of challenges this term, I always found refuge in structures we cobbled together in this class: be they in the sharing circles we formed, the presentations you offered, or the writing prompts we engaged. As a whole, I tried to formulate FNIS 300 as a composition course that had less to do with the rules of grammar and syntax and more to do with what fuels passionate, thoughtful, and relational writing. I wanted you to find the spaces to best express yourself in the writing you felt most at home in.

At some points I think we succeeded, particularly when you were engaging with authors directly in your summary presentations. Also, in our class conversation, which opened up larger issues of racism and inequity in the university and the structural problems that make writing difficult—even before the writing process begins. At other points, though, I think I failed. As Young gestures towards in his article, teaching composition beyond Standard English means delicately treading the line between descriptive writing instruction and compositional instruction. It is difficult not to be prescriptive in the latter and I know we all felt those moments: when the rules of grammar and syntax impeded on discussions of Indigeneity and the structural inequities of the university.

There are things I would do differently. Some of the questions I am left with are tied to Young’s article—which I will introduce much earlier in the syllabus if I teach this course again. Young points to the need to teach “punctuation rules, attention to meaning and word choice, and various kinds of sentence structures,” but he does not detail what this looks like within a descriptive composition agenda, particularly in an undergraduate classroom. Yes, we should be encouraging students to write in their own dialects, but what of those moments when we are struggling to communicate our ideas in any written form, colloquial or otherwise?

If writing is relational, and I maintain that is, our grammars cannot be purely subjective. To communicate to the other, be they a family or community member, a classmate, or an instructor, we must concede, at some level, a shared syntax. Of course it is necessary to illustrate how that kind of sharing varies and how it is informed by culture, race, colonialism, gender, etc., but it is shared nonetheless.

The question I am left with, then, is one that will continue to inform future iterations of this course, and perhaps one that should remain open: if we want to help students improve communication, while encouraging descriptive composition, how can we most effectively introduce prescriptive writing tools alongside a cultural engagement of writing?

It has been a pleasure reading your assignments this term and sharing with you these conversation about writing. Thank you for your patience as we laboured through the details of clarity and concision and for the vulnerability you showed in our discussions about writing as a discipline (and all the colonial connotations that are attached it). If anything, I hope this course illustrated to you the many different ways in which Indigenous authors and authors of colour use the written word towards dismantling oppression. Your work in relation to these authors and to each other is valuable.


Dave Gaertner

[1] Here I am drawing on Sarah Hunt’s definition of witnessing in “Researching Within Relations of Violence: Witnessing as research methodology.”

[2] The version of the essay I am referencing was published in Indigenous Poetics in Canada.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction: Bringing Feminist Theory Home.” Living a Feminist Life.    Duke University Press, 2017, pp. 1-18.

Armstrong, Jeanette. “Land Speaking.” Speaking for the Generations, edited by Simon Ortiz, U of Arizona P, 1998, pp. 174-94.

Baldwin, James. “A Letter to my Nephew.” The Progressive. 1 December 1962. https://progressive.org/magazine/letter-nephew/ Accessed April 15, 2020.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 4th ed, W.W. Norton and Company, 2018.

Halfe, Louise. Blue Marrow. Coteau Books, 2005.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies vol. 14 no. 3, 1988, pp. 575-599

hooks, bell. “Remembered Rapture: Dancing with Words.” JAC, vol. 20 no. 1, 2000, pp. 1-8.

Harvey, Michael. The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. 2nd ed, Hackett Pub Co Inc, 2013.

Hunt, Sarah. “Researching Within Relations of Violence: Witnessing as research methodology.”

Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices and Relationships. Restoule, Jean-Paul; McGregor, Deborah; Johnston, Rochelle, eds. Canadian Scholars Press, 2018, pp. 282-295.

 Kovach, Margaret. “Situating Self, Culture, and Purpose in Indigenous History.” Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures, edited by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016, pp. 95-106

 Lyons, Scott. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51 no. 3, 2000, pp. 447-468.

Simpson, Leanne. “Bubbling Like a Beating Heart’: Reflections on Nishnaabeg Poetic andNarrative Consciousness.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by Neal McLeod, Wilfrid Laurier Univesity Press, 2014, pp. 107-120.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies vol. 12 no. 1, 2010, pp. 110-118.

Younging, Gregory. “Gnaritas Nullius (No One’s Knowledge): the Essence of TraditionalKnowledge and Its Colonization through Western Legal Regimes Indigenous Elements of Style: A Guide for Writing by and About Indigenous Peoples. Brush Education, 2018, pp. 109-115.

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