Restorative Justice, Silence and Writing: Interview with Sue Goyette


Sue Goyette has published four collections of poetry, The True Names of BirdsUndone, Outskirts, and Ocean (the latter made the Canadian short list for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize in 2014) and a novel, Lures. Goyette has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the Atlantic Poetry Prize, the CBC Literary Prize for Poetry, the Earle Birney Prize and the Bliss Carman Award; she has also been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize. Goyette lives in Halifax where she teaches creative writing at Dalhousie University and works part-time at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. In this interview, Goyette speaks about another subject —her study of and interest in restorative justice.

Stephanie McKenzie (SM): Sue, it was so lovely to hear you read recently in Corner Brook. And I was delighted to talk with you and to hear about your activities outside of the realm of writing poetry as much as I was interested in hearing you talk about your writing. In particular, I was intrigued by the course you took in restorative justice and counseling. Could you tell me a little bit about this course and your interest in it and what led you to take it? And can you define what restorative justice means (at least to you)?

Sue Goyette (SG): Thanks, Stephanie. I recently took a course at Saint Mary’s University in conjunction with the Community Justice Society (Halifax Region) that trained students to facilitate restorative justice sessions for young offenders, the people they’ve harmed and their community. I really think the restorative approach is a radical and valuable way to communicate. A facilitated circle offers everyone affected by a situation the opportunity to talk and to actively listen to each other. It offers people who have been harmed the chance to propose what would help in their healing and gives the people who have caused the harm the space for accountability and reparation. It also gives them the chance to hear first hand how their behavior has had impact on real people and on their community. Members from the community are also invited to attend the circle and voice their position as well as participate in the reintegration of the person who caused the harm back into their neighbourhood and community.

I think what’s key for me is how restorative justice moves towards restoring our sense of a healthy, accountable and forgiving community. It gives the person harmed a safe and supportive environment to fully disclose how they were harmed and how that harm has affected them. It then invites them to participate in the actual reparation of that harm by suggesting what may help. If everyone is willing and the person who caused the harm is accountable for their actions, then this is a fair and effective way to deal with issues that occur in our communities. I like how it works from a place of accountability and reintegration. Both things are so important, I think, in dealing with problems in a healthy and healing way that affords real change.

SM: Do you see any particular role poetry or creative writing can play in restorative justice?

SG: I’ve recently begun training to facilitate sessions that teach empathy to young offenders. I can see how the creative process, the invitation to imagine, would give these young people a way to investigate how their actions impacted people in a safe environment before they have to face the actual people. It would also give these kids the space to explore their own feelings, process their experiences and offer them the opportunity to articulate who else they are and how they want to be in the world. This kind of self-reflection and practice, as you know, teaches us how to pause and choose to respond rather than to react to a situation. It also flexes our imagination, and, in that way, we’re honed and able to come up with different possibilities, different options than the obvious or habitual ones we get stuck in.

Also, when we’re truly creating, the idea of ourselves ultimately dissolves, and we’re caught up in the making. That is such a delicious and gratifying experience. It leaves us feeling replenished and expanded somehow, connected with something important. That alone is worth its weight in gold, I think, for any young person: that there is so much more to us than the mistake that caught up to us. In this way, writing could offer relief, an opportunity to put it all down in words rather than carrying the weight of it around, and, in writing it down, some perspective could be gained of what happened and how it all feels.

Listening to Winter, Corner Brook, Newfoundland
Listening to Winter, Corner Brook, Newfoundland

SM: On Crystal Vaughan’s blog (I don’t know Crystal), “Pebbles and Buttons,” Vaughan comments on a workshop you gave at Mount Saint Vincent University when you focused on and spoke about silence and its virtues. I have long been interested in silence as I have grown to feel that silence is aesthetically and culturally carried to the page in a lot of fine Aboriginal writing (in my book of literary criticism, Before the Country, I wrote about how I saw a cultural valuing of silence transfer to a significant amount of First Nations poetry—in terms of white space and space given to think/process.) What would you say are the aesthetics of silence? Its principles of beauty? What makes silence beautiful? Or is that a bad question?

SG: It’s a great question and it sounds like you’ve been thinking about and coming to understand the value of silence in a way that I’ve begun to as well. I’m a continual student of silence and appreciate all species of it. I’m really interested in how silence is a hospitable space in a poem. It’s where the poet/poem leaves room for the reader to encounter the poem, its ideas, and participate by connecting, corresponding and imagining the extension of those ideas, relating to them with their own experience. Does that make sense? Something is exchanged in that silence then, and, in that way, the reader collaborates with the poem, fills in its blank and brings it back to life with a renewed relevancy.

Silence is also restorative on the page. It offers shelter and a pause in the pace. It’s unpopulated and untarnished. Important, I think, and endangered in our day-to-day hurry. Beautiful, yes, and necessary.

SM: I have significant interest in restorative justice, as well, perhaps because of certain fields of literature that I have spent significant time reading and researching (such as Indigenous and West Indian literature) and have been led to consider–in terms of literature that speaks about collective PTSD, for example—that silence is, perhaps, necessary for restoration because people in recovery need to be heard. With that in mind (if you agree with that statement), does silence play a similar role in both poetry and restorative justice? Does silence play a different role in poetry than it does in restorative justice?

SG: One of the silences in the restorative process is the active listening that gives value and respect to the person speaking. Another silence is a pause, a break in both the talking and the listening that invites introspection and resists our feelings of awkwardness and resistance to such pauses in conversation. This silence is necessary in the process of real communication when we’re speaking with open hearts and vulnerability and when we’re considering everyone else’s open hearts and vulnerability. The going is slow and silence pollinates the eventual good talk.

What sometimes comes up in the restorative process is shame and anger. Culturally, we have a really hard time reintegrating back into community after feeling ashamed. We’re not that good at it. Silence is a salve in those moments when we feel like we’re burning, emotionally. It creates a pace that affords a reestablishing of our honour, I think, and in that way is also essential in a restorative process.

SM: I know you are particularly interested in restorative justice as it pertains to young offenders. And here I’m remembering (for whatever reason) a fine documentary I watched years ago about Frantz Fanon (when he was being interviewed about the work he did as a psychiatrist in Algeria during the Algerian War of Independence). He spoke about the dehumanizing element for both those who had committed crimes against humanity and those who were the victims of such crimes. Essentially, he understood both perpetrator and victim as being scarred in the process of crime. Both parties needed healing, as he saw it. What is your general philosophy regarding the need to heal in light of what Fanon suggests and your recent study?

SG: I’m going to look that documentary up; it sounds amazing. This is a huge question. I definitely have an opinion but, truly, am no expert.

When someone disregards someone else’s well-being and safety I think that, on some level, they’ve grown used to disregarding their own well-being and safety. The collision of harming and being harmed is evidence that there is an absence of care in the person who has caused the harm. This is a wound that needs to be addressed if that person wants to stop harming people. To face that wound instigates shame. We feel ‘less than’ when we finally see our wounds; we feel shame and, perhaps, anger or dread or deep sadness and grief for what we’ve not been given ourselves. We withdraw or we attack. It takes great compassion and humility to stay vulnerable and address that wound. To address it and, then, to do something about it.

Corner Brook in Silence, Newfoundland
Corner Brook in Silence, Newfoundland


We also feel shame when we’ve been harmed. We wonder what we’ve done to deserve that harm. We cower, thinking we’ve been singled out for whatever reason and that thinking instigates even more shame and bewilderment. Fear. We feel ‘less than’ when we finally see our wounds; we feel shame and, perhaps, anger or dread or deep sadness and grief for what’s been taken from us. We withdraw or we attack. It takes great compassion and humility to stay vulnerable and address that wound. To address it and, then, to do something about it.

Both these positions require a great amount of compassion, of understanding. Both these positions are vulnerable because they’re transitory and ripe with choice, with possibility, and with potential growth. The way they’re handled assigns the direction the people involved will head in. If there is accountability, remorse, forgiveness and reparation, then both positions feel heard and can then move towards more balanced and healthier relationships with themselves and with others.

SM: This might seem like a bit of a departure at first from the present conversation, but I think it inevitably points to a question I’d like to ask regarding the mediums artists and people use to do what they have to do–and the medium/mediums you use. I remember talking to you briefly about Van Gogh and mentioning that Van Gogh first and foremost wanted to be a preacher. That was his first love—preaching. However, he lost he job in the Borinage in Belgium, so to speak. He was regarded as strange and too overzealous, if you can believe it, for his ‘audience’ at the time: he preached in a very poor and incredibly rough area during the Victorian period! His brother, Theo, then suggested to him that he should become a painter. The Van Gogh family, of course, was an art-dealing family and had incredible experience and knowledge of the art world. Van Gogh took his brother’s advice to heart and started painting in earnest. The rest is history. I remember you remarking that you were glad he found an outlet for whatever he had to say and to get it out. Do you think poetry/writing is your own main vehicle for what you have to say, or could counseling work and/or other outlets provide a different medium for what you need to get out?

SG: I am so grateful for that conversation. Yes, I think poetry is the armature to contain and expand what I’m exploring and what I’m vitally interested in. It is both the wildness and structure I rely on. My writing practice is essential to me.

I also believe in balance, in contributing and being active in my community. I have to make a living, and, when I consider how I’d like to do that, one of the things I think of is the kind of work I’m learning about now.

SM: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Sue. Do you have any further comments you’d like to make or any questions you’d like to ask? Your latest book of poetry, Ocean, is simply beautiful, by the way. I read it aloud to myself in one sitting (actually, walking around my apartment) and felt all the sounds, as well as silence. Many thanks for this gift you’ve given readers.

SG: Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions, Stephanie. I’m still thinking of the invigorating conversation we had in Corner Brook and am happy to have had the chance to continue speaking with you in this capacity.

Click here to see Vaughan’s post “The importance of silence in writing: Some advice from writer Sue Goyette.”

Click here to see McKenzie’s study of silence in First Nations poetry; see pages 100-113, Before the Country.

Click here to see documentary about Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask.

Click here for more information about Goyette’s Ocean.