Ghost stories aren’t always scary. Yes, a ghost story can make for a compelling and unforgettable horror story, but if you were to make a Venn diagram of the overlap of “ghost story” and “horror story,” I think you’d find the overlap to be smaller than you expected (If you’re interested in what lies smack dab in the center of that overlap, check out Travis Heermann’s brilliant “Screaming Without a Mouth” in Apex Magazine issue 82). Even when a little unsettling, ghost stories can often be a comfort. The way we talk about ghosts can tell us a lot about how we view death, how we process things that are outside of our control. How we view death can tell us a lot about how we view life.
Allison Mills’s story “If a Bird Can Be a Ghost” is the opposite of the Heermann story. This is the soothing kind of ghost story. Without a doubt, your heart will be in your throat for certain scenes, but not because you have anything to fear. Seeking ghosts, speaking to them, helping them get on their way to where ever they are going, this is what Shelly’s grandmother does. As Shelly says, her grandma is a Ghostbuster. She teaches Shelly how to catch ghosts in her long hair, how to bring them home, how to help them and then gently release them. Makes me wonder if that is how you’d let your community know you don’t believe in ghosts—by wearing your hair short.
What makes a ghost stick around? Why would a ghost need help realizing it’s time to move on? Does the person know they are dead? Do they know how to get wherever they are going? What happens when you don’t want the ghost to leave and go on their way? Those were the questions that roamed through my mind as I read this story. Some of them got answered, some not. Along the way, Shelly finds comfort in having normal conversations with ghosts—she treats them the same way she’d treat anyone she was just introduced to—with polite curiosity. Your average ghost is nothing to be afraid of, provided you know the best ways to interact with them. They are just like us, only lost, confused, and stuck in time. When Shelly starts seeking a particular ghost, she develops dangerous habits that are helpful to no one. She becomes lost and stuck in time, struggling to move on.
As you read this story, I want you to think about not only what can be gained by communication with ghosts, but what is gained through intergenerational communication. I keep mentioning Shelly and her grandma, I’ve spared not a word for Shelly’s mother, the woman who stands between these two ghost-whisperers. What does her mom think of what her mother and daughter are doing? Grandmother usually charges very little for her services, but rent and bills still need to be paid. Think about that too, while you are reading. There are a lot of hidden layers to this story, I hope you read between the lines and find them all.
Shortly after sending these interview questions off to the now dual-master degreed Allison Mills, I was involved in an e-mail exchange with a friend who said she missed her deceased grandmother. If my friend’s grandma’s ghost was still around, no one seemed aware of it. I told my friend she’d be able to ask her grandma all those questions one day, but she’d have to be very patient, because that day was probably 50 or more years from now. Shelly will be able to see her family eventually too, and ask all the questions she never asked them. And like my friend, she’ll just have to be patient.
Allison Mills lives and works on unceded Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish land in Vancouver, BC. A Cree and settler writer, archivist, and researcher, she has a thing for ghost stories. You can follow Allison on Twitter at @sometimesal. Allison was kind enough to chat with me about not only the inspirations for this story, but also the very important academic work she does regarding intellectual property in regards to sound recordings of Indigenous peoples, and how archival work is often assumed to be objective but is often quite subjectively personal (and sometimes emotionally messy). Her Dodds Award winning paper “Learning to Listen: Archival Sound Recordings and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property” mentioned in the interview was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Archivaria. This interview is nearly as layered as the story, so let’s get right to it!
APEX MAGAZINE: “If a Bird Can be a Ghost” is such a beautiful story. What Shelly’s grandmother does has a ritualistic feel to it, but when it comes down to it, she often ends up matter of factly and casually talking with the ghosts and helping them go on their way to wherever they are going. What inspired this story?
ALLISON MILLS: My inspiration came from stories I grew up with about my mom’s grandma, Louisa, and the weird relationship she had with the police in Chapleau, where my family is from. When people went missing, especially when they went missing in the lake or river, the police would ask her for help finding them. To them Louisa was probably this mystical Cree lady from literally the wrong side of the tracks—Chapleau was literally divided into upper and lower town by rail lines back then—but her dad made his living as a fur trader and trail guide. Louisa knew the area well. She knew where people who fell in the water were likely to come up. That was where I started from.
Besides the obvious ghost whisperer kind of connection there, I like that you’ve got this thing that seems completely fantastic, but is actually based on practical skills. I also wanted to tie in the idea that Shelly’s grandma is trying to pass her generational knowledge on to Shelly, since Shelly’s mom isn’t really interested. At the same time, I didn’t want to get bogged down in mysticism and stereotypes, and honestly, if I were a ghost I think I’d be way more likely to listen to someone who just wanted to have a chat with me than someone who came in waving their arms around and shouting for me to be gone. She’s just sitting them down for some old-fashioned conversation.
APEX MAGAZINE: My heart cried for Shelly when she couldn’t find her mother. The ghosts she speaks with have no idea where her mother might be, and also don’t seem to understand why finding her might be important for Shelly. Shelly only has experience with ghosts who need help moving on, she’s never talked with a ghost who had no problem moving on—she doesn’t know what would cause a ghost to stay or go. So I’ll ask you: Why didn’t Shelly’s mom stick around? I have some ideas about what the answer might entail, but I’d like to know your opinion.
ALLISON MILLS: Okay, first, I really like that you’re just asking for my opinion because for sure people can disagree with what I see as the reasons Shelly’s mom doesn’t stick around. I think when we read we always bring our own meaning to the source material and I know sometimes I like what I come up with better than whatever the author intended.
For me, Shelly’s mom not sticking around is her way of taking care of Shelly. Short term, Shelly would be happier if her mom was there, but long term she might be hurt by it. Shelly’s mom knows about ghosts and what their afterlives are like, and that’s not what she wants for herself or her family. When we see Shelly’s mom in the story, she’s trying to keep Shelly from focusing too much on ghosts, and I think coming back to haunt her daughter would be counter-intuitive to everything she wanted for her in life. Shelly’s mom loves her, so she doesn’t come back.
APEX MAGAZINE: Every culture has ghost stories, every culture has an oral tradition of how to handle ghosts, hauntings, and people who don’t realize they’ve died. Why do these traditions endure? What can ghost stories, and the act of telling ghost stories, tell us about our life and our current circumstances?
ALLISON MILLS: I’ve kind of got a ghost problem, in that I can’t stop writing about them, so this is something I’ve given a lot of thought. To me, ghost stories are about the things we can’t shake, what sticks in our guts and won’t let go, and about reckoning. Ghosts are seen as horrific because people are uncomfortable with death, scared and worried about what comes next, and because ghosts tend to have a good reason for their presence. Ghosts assert themselves. They’re gone, but not. They can be kind and caring, or they can be violent and bent on revenge, sometimes both in the same spirit. They’re more-than-human and maybe that’s why they’re frightening, because they’ve been through everything we, the living, are going through, and come out the other side.
I think the persistence of haunting and the way we think about ghosts tells us a lot about ourselves and what haunts us, especially at the society level. In North America, for example, we have a lot of ghost stories centered on buildings constructed on Indigenous or Native American burial grounds. There’s a surplus of stories about people who desecrate sacred sites and are haunted because of it, because they dredged up what is supposed to be gone. I’m definitely not the first person to say this. Eve Tuck and C. Ree talk about it in their essay, A Glossary of Haunting. These stories are a manifestation of collective anxiety over the settler-colonial violence underlying the founding of the United States and Canada. It’s a fear of revenge and maybe some guilt too.
And it’s not just what haunts us that tells us about ourselves either. It’s also how we deal with that haunting. In lots of North American ghost stories, everybody dies. In others, there’s only one person who’s innocent enough to survive the haunting, or who can pass the curse on to someone else. Ghosts are never something to be lived with. They have to be driven out, or they drive their victims out, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for the victims when we read about it. I find that interesting and actually quite sad. Which is maybe why I try to treat ghosts as more nuanced than a big bad there to exorcise.
APEX MAGAZINE: I can’t help myself, I’ve got to ask—What’s so important about that particular The Cure album, and why does Mom skip past the first track? At first she seems concerned about the kind of music Joseph gave Shelly to listen to, but then she warms up to it and teaches Shelly the words to the songs.
ALLISON MILLS: I just feel like that particular album is a good summary of Joseph as a being. He’s introducing himself to Shelly and to any reader who feels like listening to some late-eighties post-punk goth rock. Mom skips the first song because Plainsong probably is a bit much for a kid, but also because it’s got a two and a half minute intro and Pictures of You is way easier to sing along to. Something that she knows because at some point in her life she, like Joseph, was the kind of person intimately familiar with The Cure’s back catalog.
APEX MAGAZINE: Congratulations on recently receiving TWO masters degrees, one in Library and Information Studies and the other in Archival Studies. Can we now call you Master Master Mills? What got you interested in these fields of study?
ALLISON MILLS: Thank you! I wish we got special titles for master’s degrees. I’m not sure how I’d feel about people calling me master, but yes, please, someone get me something besides an awkward string of letters after my name.
I actually got interested in going to library school because my mom is an elementary school teacher-librarian. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher growing up, but I spent a lot of time in her library helping out and reading in the corner, so the librarian part sounded pretty good to me. My work has ended up being more academic than I would have predicted going in to grad school, but I really enjoy what I do.
APEX MAGAZINE: You recently published a paper called “Learning to Listen: Archival Sound Recordings and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property.” The abstract mentions that field recordings “can seem like straightforward cases for access,” yet the truth of the matter is quite the opposite. What led you to write this specific paper? What are best practices for linguists and ethnographers who are making recordings?
ALLISON MILLS: Oh god, that’s complicated. I mean, if you’re recording anyone, no matter what profession you’re in or what your background is, I think it’s very important to work in partnership with the person or people whose stories or songs you’re recording. Which doesn’t sound like a difficult task, but the history of research, especially research and Indigenous peoples, is a history of exploitation. It’s a history of outsiders coming to communities, doing their research, and then leaving and reaping any benefits from their research without thinking about the community they were working in, whether those benefits are professional accolades or monetary in nature. There’s a long history of misinformation being spread about non-western cultures that has to be reckoned with. For the most part, our communities don’t trust academics and researchers, and we’ve got a lot of really good reasons for that.
Depending on what a researcher records, there will be restriction on how the recording should be accessed and used. For example, a song or story might only be listened to at a certain time of year. A parallel non-Indigenous people might be familiar with is Christmas carols. There’s kind of a limited timeframe for when they’re culturally acceptable, right? That’s a pretty surface-level example, but it gets at the same idea. The way western copyright thinks about ownership and property often doesn’t line up with the way Indigenous nations view it. A common problem with recordings in archives, and why field recordings can seem like material archives should digitize and allow unrestricted access to, is that when a researcher records a traditional song, copyright of that recording belongs to the research, not the people singing it. Western law considers those songs public domain, and so the researcher, who owns the recording, could grant someone permission to take the recording, remix it, and release a single they make money off of without ever having to compensate or ask permission from the original performers. That happened with the 1992 house album Deep Forest.
As I say in my paper, intellectual property laws have been set up to favour the colonization of Indigenous knowledge and cultures. Archivists especially need to be aware of that because archives often hold ethnographic recordings that are technically public domain. Researchers and archivists alike need to develop more nuanced understandings of how settler-colonialism works in both the collection and dissemination of recordings of Indigenous music and stories—and knowledge more broadly. It’s a complex topic, and one that isn’t explored a lot in archival literature, although in the world of law there are brilliant Indigenous scholars who have been doing this work for years, like Terri Janke in Australia, and the World Intellectual Property Organization has a whole committee dedicated to Indigenous cultural and intellectual property. In Canada, where I’m writing from, archivists are starting to try to figure out how they can work with Indigenous nations and I wanted to build a sort of primer on Indigenous cultural and intellectual property that gets into its complexities.
APEX MAGAZINE: You’ll be a speaker at the upcoming Society of American Archivists annual meeting. What is your panel about, and what do you hope to get out of the event?
ALLISON MILLS: Our panel is talking about the role of the personal in archives—our relationship, as archivists, to records, and how researchers can still feel that records they didn’t create are very personally affecting. I’m talking about looking for my family’s history in residential school records. These records belong to the Canadian government, but they’re also some of the only records my family has of what happened to my grandfather’s siblings as children. It’s hard work, looking for traces of them in the records I have access to—by which I mean it is both literally difficult and emotionally hard.
Like a lot of social sciences, archival studies has a long history of insisting that it’s completely objective and that archivists are outside observers—that even though archivists are making decisions about what does and does not go into an archive, and working with material that could affect archivists in a personal way, they should be neutral at all times. That’s gotten a lot of pushback in the last fifteen or so years, but it’s still very present.
We’re really hoping the panel generates discussion about the way we talk about “personal” things in our profession and hopefully some acknowledgement that, you know, life is messy.
APEX MAGAZINE: What’s next for you? Do you have current or upcoming literary or scholarly projects you can tell us about?
ALLISON MILLS: I’ve got a bit of both in the works right now. In the world of scholarly projects, I’m preparing for the panel you mentioned and working on a paper with one of my fellow presenters about how the way we use records makes them personal to us, not just creating them ourselves. There’s a lot of theoretical unpacking to be done in that sentence, but trust me when I say some people don’t agree with us. I’m also working on writing a connected collection of ghost stories that is set in the same world as Grandma and Shelly. One of the nice things about being finished my degree programs is I finally have more time to work on the many things I want to write!