Crow Girl: Indigiqueer’s graphic novel focuses on ‘shimmering moments of joy and hope’

Longtime friends Jaye Simpson and Valen Onstine are embarking on a new artistic experience together. Photo by Amei-lee Laboucan

When they were growing up, artists Jaye Simpson and Valen Onstine craved more and more stories about indigenous queer and trans joy.

That’s why, as adults, they began working together on a coming-of-age graphic novel that aims to affirm the experiences of children from similar paths to their own.

The writer and illustrator was recently awarded $96,300 by the Canada Council of the Arts to complete his book crow girl, which follows the story of a trans and indigenous protagonist growing up in East “Vancouver”.

In turn, working on the project with Indigenous youth in mind validated them both in ways they didn’t expect.

“I often wish I was allowed to be the queer child that I was, I wish I was allowed to be the native child that I was. So, this is me wishing that on someone else,” says Simpson, whose name is intentionally stylized in lowercase.

“Also, reaffirming some reassurance that Queer Native youth should be able to be Queer Native youth because they are children.”

‘I feel like I’m succeeding’

author simpson is an Oji-Cree Saulteaux trans creative writer and a Sapotaweyak Cree Nation drag artist, and Onstine, the lead illustrator for Raven girl, is a trans Cree and Deneza visual artist of Horse Lake First Nation. Both grew up far from their home communities.

For Onstine, obtaining the scholarship for Raven girl it means that he will finally be able to move into comfortable lodgings where he can concentrate on developing the novel’s mostly black-and-white illustrations.

“I have a bed that I miss for the first time in my life. I was able to do things that are markers that you made, like get decorative pillows,” says Onstine.

“I’m excited. Terrified. I feel like I’m learning all over again. But as things get closer to reality, I get more excitement. I get more joy. I feel like I’m succeeding. ‘impostor.

As for the Simpsons, it’s encouraging to hear that the Canada Council of the Arts — a Crown corporation whose grants are highly sought after by artists of all disciplines — believes that Indigenous trans and queer history is worth funding.

“After years and years of being enlightened and told, ‘Are indigenous queer stories worth telling?’ – they are,” simpson says. “And so it’s very affirmative what the Canada Council of the Arts believes [Crow Girl] be exceptionally good and something worth exploring.”

Image reference, illustrated by Valen Onstine, for the main character, Quill, by Raven girl. Raven girl is a name Quill is teased with by her high school bully due to her more-than-human relationship with crows. Image submitted by simpson and Onstine

Raven girl will tell the joyful story of Quill Jones, a trans girl, and her motley crew of Indigiqueer friends who live and go to school in East “Vancouver” – but all is not as it seems.

“There’s magical realism, there’s witches, there’s crushes and high school plays and discos and they’re just trying to deal with growing up,” Simpson says.

“The dynamics of being young, native, trans, what they want to do with their lives but also realizing that they’re only 16, so they don’t have to decide.”

In the story, “Crow Girl” is a name Quill is teased with by her high school bully due to her more-than-human relationship with crows. Quill’s relationship with crows is influenced by the Simpsons’ real-life relationship with playful crows in their east “Vancouver” neighborhood.

“Every time I go and sit on my patio, all six show up,” says Simpson.

“I only talk to them and they croak at me. I’m pretty sure they understand what I’m saying. They are very playful… I really liked that human-animal relationship and how real they are and how they remember faces”.

Counter harmful stereotypes

It was imperative for both Simpson and Onstine to share the story of a diverse group of trans and queer Indigenous youth that will counter overwhelming negative representations and stereotypes of queer and trans Indigenous youth.

Often media representations of Indigenous queer youth are people who are dying, have died, or live a life marked only by unspeakable trauma, but as Onstine and Simpson point out, Indigenous lives are much more than oppression under the rule of colonialism.

Indigiqueer stories of joy, fun, and happy teenage experiences are vital.

“We want to show the parts of the search for identity, community, and the parts of life that make you feel like life is worth living and brings joy,” says Onstine.

That sentiment is echoed by Simpson, who says there’s an art to speaking about challenges in a way that keeps the beauty and hope intact.

“My experiences have been filled with strange trauma, yes, but they have also been filled with strange native joy. So why not populate that story and focus on those moments and focus on these very beautiful things? asked Simpson. “Why not weave a story in which there is a lot of beauty? There will be conflict, 100%, but there will be so many glittering moments of joy and hope.”

Valen Onstine and Jaye Simpson work on the development of the coming-of-age graphic novel Raven girl. Photo by Amei-lee Laboucan

Embrace a joyful path

Onstine is a self-taught visual artist who has been practicing art since he was a child. Onstine’s initial preference for art is comics, but he did not initially pursue comic art styles because it seemed far-fetched and unrealistic.

“The question of whether I wanted to illustrate a comic because it was a deep desire that I just repressed,” says Onstine.

“I’m doing a lot of research and reading comics and watching other people making comics and learning about their thought process, their decisions, and how they choose to convey a specific emotion or connection. There’s a lot of deep visual language that comes with creating comics, which I’m excited to really digest and pick up on.”

Onstine and Simpson met at Thompson Rivers University in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) in an LGBTQ+ student club where they were the only indigenous people. When The Simpsons set out to write a graphic novel, they knew Onstine was the person they wanted to go on this journey with.

“His style is so beautiful and so emotional and so lively. I just think it would be a beautiful match.

Valen Onstine works on the illustrations for Raven girl. Photo by Amei-lee Laboucan

Simpson and Onstine were awarded the short-term project grant Making, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. The grant they have applied for is specifically geared towards supporting Indigenous storytelling by Indigenous people. Since the grant requested by Simpson and Onstine is short-term flow, the project is to be completed in one year.

Simpson and Onstine applied for the grant with an itemized budget that included fair pay for themselves and community engagement, including ceremony, protocol, and community consultations. Onstine and Simpson say they want to be able to fairly compensate people they consult with for appropriately representing cultures and experiences that are not their own, in order to prevent harm from appropriation or misrepresentation.

Raven girl is currently well underway with the storyboard for the first chapter almost complete. They expect to launch the first iteration online and in print in the summer of 2023.


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