Indigenous Dreams: The Literary Journey of Jessica Johns

Indigenous Dreams: The Literary Journey of Jessica Johns

Interdisciplinary artist and writer Jessica Johns is making her literary debut this week with “Bad Cree” alongside a unique hottest 100 playlist.

A member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta, Johns stands at the intersection of her Nehiyaw heritage and English-Irish ancestry.

Her work, which encompasses fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, has been widely published in numerous distinguished literary magazines and anthologies, including Cosmonauts Avenue, Glass Buffalo, CV2, SAD Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and Best Canadian Essays 2019.

jessica johns cree

She has been a featured speaker at literary and arts festivals across the world, such as WORD Vancouver, London’s Literary and Creative Arts Festival, and Blue Metropolis.

For Jessica, the process of writing “Bad Cree” was initially driven by a desire for revenge against a professor who advised her to not write about her dreams, claiming it would be uninteresting to readers.

This colonial mentality, which dismissed the significance of dreams in indigenous cultures, inspired her to craft a short story centered around the transformative power of dreams.

The short story was subsequently published and won the 2020 Writers’ Trust of Canada Journey Prize, but the characters continued to haunt her imagination, leading her to expand it into a full-length novel. As she delved deeper into the world she had created, her motivations shifted from retribution to a love for dreams, family, and kinship.

bad cree

In “Bad Cree,” a debut novel of extraordinary power, a young Cree woman embarks on a perilous journey of self-discovery, compelled by the vivid visions that haunt her dreams. Confronted with a legacy of violence that has traumatized her family, her community, and the land they call home, Mackenzie must unravel the mystery of a traumatic memory from before her sister Sabrina’s death.

As she wakes up with the severed head of a crow in her hands, Mackenzie is thrown into a world of confusion and fear. Each night, her dreams transport her back to a foggy memory of a family weekend at the lakefront campsite. But as her waking life is beset by threatening text messages and the relentless pursuit of crows, Mackenzie realizes she cannot confront this challenge alone.

Returning to her rural hometown in Alberta, she finds her family still grappling with the same grief that had driven her to flee to Vancouver. Their reunion is fragile, and it only intensifies the danger of her dreams. Determined to uncover the truth about what really happened that fateful night at the lake, Mackenzie is faced with the possibility that the answer to the mystery may have been inside her all along. But at what cost? Only a “Bad Cree” would put her family in harm’s way, but Mackenzie is determined to unlock the secrets of her past.

We caught up with Jessica to talk about process and a few of her favourite things.

HAPPY: What are you up to today?

JESSICA: Today I am packing and getting ready for a trip to Australia! It’s my best friend’s wedding in Adelaide in a week, so me and my girlfriend are flying out to be there for it. It’s perfect timing too because a fresh snowstorm is blowing through and I can’t wait to have a break from this winter wonderland.

HAPPY: Tell us about your suburb, what do you love/not love about where you live?

I live in Edmonton, Alberta, and I love it here. The city is very close to my home territory of Treaty 8, so I can visit my family regularly, including all of my nieces and nephews. The river that flows through the city is called the North Saskatchewan River (in Cree it’s called kisiskâciwan-sîpî which translated means “the swift flowing river”). The valley next to the river is one of the most beautiful urban green spaces I’ve ever seen, and I love spending time there.

HAPPY: Describe your average work day. 

JESSICA: I am the Indigenous Initiatives Lead at the Edmonton Heritage Council and a large part of my work is supporting Indigenous individuals and communities in the city who want to develop Indigenous resurgence projects. Last year, we supported projects like urban moose hide tanning and an Indigenous storytelling circle. So my average day is connecting with folks doing this great work and doing whatever I can to support them, which is incredibly rewarding.

HAPPY: What about your ultimate day?

JESSICA: My ultimate day is a slow morning with my girlfriend, reading and lounging with our cats. Then it would be going to our community garden plot, having a nice dinner, and then watching our shitty reality tv shows.

HAPPY: Tell us about your creative community.

JESSICA: I’m surrounded by amazing writers and artists in my life. I lived in Vancouver before Edmonton, so I feel very lucky to have a great creative community in both places.

HAPPY: Which tv show are you currently watching?

JESSICA: Reservation Dogs, The Last of Us, and trash reality TV of all kinds.

HAPPY: What did you read or watch growing up that fuelled your passion for storytelling?

JESSICA: I read a lot when I was growing up. I loved Stephen King, and anything magical realism and fantasy related. I watched strange movies like The Secret of Nimh, Once Upon a Forest, and The Labyrinth and was really obsessed with how creepy and sad they were.

HAPPY: What did you read or watch last that opened your eyes and mind to a new perspective? 

JESSICA: I recently read Buffalo is the New Buffalo by Indigenous writer Chelsea Vowel. She accompanies each short story with a thoughtfully-written explanation about where the story comes from and how it ties to her own knowledge as an Indigenous person, and it’s the first time I’ve read fiction that is accompanied by the direct perspective of the writer, and I loved the transparency and accountability of that.

HAPPY: What kind of things do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

JESSICA: I do a lot of puzzling and reading. I love getting stuck into a good puzzle or a good book!

HAPPY: Study or Self-taught?

JESSICA: I completed my MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, but reading, writing, and being in the world has taught me more in a lot of ways.

HAPPY: What was your favourite part of writing your novel?

JESSICA: I loved the beginning. It was so exciting to create the world I was writing before I had to think about editing.

HAPPY: What makes you happy?

JESSICA: My girlfriend, my cat, my community, and really good food.

With the release of her highly anticipated debut novel, “Bad Cree,” Jessica has curated a selection of songs that reflect the intensity, passion, and complexity of the themes explored in her novel. Johns presents a unique soundtrack that offers a powerful and immersive complement to the themes of the novel and a glimpse into the unique artistic vision of this remarkable artist and writer.

Give the playlist a listen below.

Bad Cree is out now via Scribe and all good booksellers.