THE PERSONAL IS PROVINCIAL: JENNIFER THRONHILL VERMA

In mid-November of last year—the pre-pandemic era, what feels like lifetimes ago—accomplished author and artist JENNIFER THORNHILL VERMA and her mother, Pauline Thornhill, joined me at my apartment in Petty Harbour for lunch. Verma’s first book, Cod Collapse, had launched the day before, and I wanted to talk to her about that and her work in general. I prepared a simple meal—local potatoes and beets, LOCAL-ISH LAMB, simply seasoned and roasted—and we spoke for several hours, about Verma’s life and work, mainly, as well as issues like food security and healthcare in the province.

COD COLLAPSE, a book I highly recommend, is available in Canada, USA, UK and other countries at all major booksellers—like Verma, I suggest ordering it through your local bookseller (although the pandemic may have complicated that option, of course). – JRS

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The first seven years of her life Verma spent in Summerside, a small town about twenty minutes from Corner Brook, the province’s third-largest city. In Cod Collapse, she remembers fondly those years in the “glorious hillside home overlooking the forest and the sea.” Her family then relocated to the city, an upgrade in terms of amenities and access, but the move marked a tumultuous time for young Verma: the loss of her childhood home and, most significantly, the death of her paternal grandfather, Reginald Thornhill. Visits to her grandfather’s hometown of Little Bay East on the Burin Peninsula punctuated Verma’s childhood, and kept her connected to her family’s outport fishing roots. She writes, “It was a lot for a seven year old.”

As time passed in Corner Brook, Verma adapted to urban life, making new friends, visiting a new school, and so on. Later, like many, she left for university and chose to study journalism and biology at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The former subject, Verma tells me, made her a more proficient and effective writer; the latter—an atypical combination for journalism students at the time—served her well in the writing of the book, as she had to, in her words, “make sense of the science.” Verma admits that she has always enjoyed studying the sciences, just as she has always done something artistic; art and science, to her mind, are complementary. “It’s just another way of transferring information,” she adds.

After what she describes as a “short-lived career in journalism,” Verma went back to school, earning a Master of Science in Medicine from Memorial University. She and her partner then left Newfoundland and Labrador for Ottawa, and Verma began a career in healthcare. Verma has worked in that field for a decade, currently with the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement. Verma loves her job, and describes her colleagues as “bright, educated, talented people” who “want to make healthcare better for Canadians.”

A RETURN TO WRITING

Verma eventually felt compelled to return to writing: “I wanted to write stories that reflected a reality I wasn’t seeing in the news or long-form journalism,” she tells me. She decided to re-enroll at the University of King’s College and complete a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. The program proved pivotal to the writing of Cod Collapse—“That’s how I wrote the book,” the writer says. Even with a background in journalism, the project made for a daunting task. “The writing alone isn’t enough,” Verma says, “you need to market and brand the book. You need to think about how you are going to be an authoritative source on this topic.”

The Masters made for a great investment in all these respects. Verma learned about the publishing industry—in fact, it was through the MFA that she met her publisher, Nimbus. The degree also enabled her to work with two mentors, Ken McGoogan and David Hayes; having every chapter reviewed by either of these experienced writers, Verma tells me, might have been the most valuable part of the program.

Verma acquired the book deal for Cod Collapse in May of 2018. In the original negotiations with Nimbus, the publisher proposed releasing the book in the spring of 2020, but the writer was determined to publish in the fall, before Christmas. This made sense, she tells me, for financial reasons (“That’s the biggest book-buying season of the year”) and for the structure of book itself—the author takes pride in the fact that the prologue starts on January 30, 2019, the year of publication, which lends it a contemporary feel. (Given the state of the world in the spring of 2020, Verma’s decision appears not only wise, but fortunate.)

I was curious about Verma’s routine and work habits, given both how busy she was (her full-time job, becoming a parent for the first time) and her intended publication schedule. The work requires time, Verma tells me—time to get into the actual project, once you begin (“It’s hard to do something in one hour. I need a couple hours”), time to take care of the logistics (e.g. transcribing, organizing), and time to edit. The structure of the Masters program, with its monthly deadlines, offered a helpful regimen. In terms of process, Verma would overwrite, penning ten- to fifteen-thousand words per chapter and then paring them down. Cod Collapse ended up being around eighty-five to ninety-thousand words, about average for a work of nonfiction.

I asked the writer whether or not she used a quota—a certain amount of words per day, for example. She responded that she did not. Instead, Verma set aside blocks of time to sit down and do the work: “as long as I give myself the dedicated time to really dig into something, I can write.” She did make use of an outline—a requirement of the program—that served as a roadmap from which the writer would depart wherever the story required it. Verma would then go back and rework the outline to reflect the latest draft. These updated outlines served as important tools for communicating with her mentors in the program.

Verma delivered the final manuscript in early 2019 and Cod Collapse came out in November. “That was lightning speed,” Verma tells me, adding that her editor and publisher were also “on the ball,” and without them the timeline would have been impossible.

“Fogo Island”, Jennifer Thornhill Verma, 2020.

A JENN OF ALL TRADES

I pivot the conversation towards visual art. As noted, Verma is also a painter, and by no means a hobbyist: In the fall of last year, she launched her first solo show at the Santini Gallery in Ottawa; her second, “For the Love of SEAnery,” opened at the Hintonburg Public House (also in Ottawa) in early March. Her work has been featured on the cover of Atlantic Books Today (the issue won gold for Best Magazine Cover at the Atlantic Journalism Awards for 2019), and in Newfoundland Quarterly and [EDIT] magazine. The painting that covers Cod Collapse is hers; the book also contains a detail of another, a scene from Little Bay East. Verma’s artwork, like her writing, is devoted mainly to her home, comprising expressionistic land- and seascapes from Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I’ve always done something creative,” Verma tells me, adding that she “dabbled” with paint here and there, but never in a substantial manner. She started to take visual art more seriously about the same time that she did long-form writing and making notes for Cod Collapse. Verma began an apprenticeship with Gordon Harrison, a Canadian landscape painter based in Ottawa. At the time, she tells me, painting functioned as an outlet, important to her mental health as a form of meditation and mindfulness: “Once I get the canvas primed and have mixed my palette of oil paints, then it’s just me, my brushes and the canvas. It becomes a fluid process that feels peaceful.” When Verma began writing Cod Collapse in earnest, visual art also became a complementary practice to writing, “affording [her] a language to talk about the colours and the landscapes themselves.” What she could not put into words, she painted.

Having multiple talents or creative pursuits can seem commonplace in Newfoundland and Labrador; I put this to Verma and she agrees. “In Ottawa it’s interesting that I have multiple careers, maybe, but in this province, everybody has multiple careers. Everyone has these hidden, creative talents. This is a land of storytellers. A land of creatives.”

We discuss how being adept in several areas came out of necessity in outport communities; things that now rank as hobbies for many—gardening, foraging, preserving, knitting—functioned as means of survival in isolated, outport settings. In the prologue to Cod Collapse, Verma writes the following of Little Bay East: “Life seemed simpler there—yet not necessarily easier. Like, if something broke, you didn’t do what the city folks did and call in a repairman. You fixed it yourself.”

Arts and culture in remote communities were likewise do-it-yourself, serving the purposes of entertainment and storytelling. From Verma’s book: “Fishers, I know, would often take their instruments to sea, their music providing relief from the manual labour. They played in their communities and homes, too—stages, sheds, wharves, and kitchens often doubling as mini-concert halls for family and friends when the occasion called for it, and even when it didn’t. It’s just what people did and, sometimes, still do.”

Cod Collapse devotes a chapter to one example of this outport polymathy in its profile of Eugene “Gene” Maloney, eighty-six year old retired fisher and boatbuilder. In the summer, he operates marine excursions for tourists, photographers and scientists; in the off-season, Maloney takes on artistic projects, mainly painting. “This is island life, man, you’ve got to do it all,” Verma quotes him as saying.

In her own way, Verma—writer, painter, non-profit healthcare worker—carries on that multidisciplinary, DIY tradition. She does so not out of a need to survive, given that she has a full-time income as a working professional. And yet, her writing and artwork are about survival, an effort to keep alive her identity as a Newfoundlander and Labradorian, the stories of her family and others, and the culture and history of her home province. That, essentially, is what Cod Collapse is about—in it, Verma writes: “I built this book to find out where I came from and to learn what I can do to help preserve its places and people—even if, sometimes, that means preserving their memories.”

In her articles about the fishery, Verma’s varied interest and experience in the arts and sciences serves her well, enabling her to present complex information in a clear, comprehensible manner. Take her recent work in The Independent, for example, which plays a vital role in filling the gaps in news coverage of fisheries-related events like the salmon die-off on the south coast or the fish harvester protest in early May. (Clearly, I’ll add, Verma’s career as a journalist lives on.)

COD COLLAPSE: MEMOIR AND MEMORIAL

Early in her book, Verma writes the following, referring to homemade quilts stitched by an aunt: “What stories the quilts might tell if you traced each square, each triangle of once-rejected fabric, back to its original source.” To my mind, the line serves as an apt metaphor for Cod Collapse as a project—Verma traces squares past and present, adding here and there patches of science and analysis, to pull together a blended portrait of the settler culture of this province pre- and post-moratorium. The thread that binds these stories: the writer’s family, a personal history that spans several generations.

Indeed, family provided the spur to start the project: Verma describes how several events amplified the “sense of distance” she felt between her life in mainland Canada and the traditions of her upbringing, namely the death a paternal uncle, and, a year later, learning that she was pregnant with her first child. In Cod Collapse, she writes: “That’s when I realized it was time to finally attend to what I’d been ignoring for more than a decade: I needed to go home. That’s where the answers to who I am and where I’m from could be found.”

An additional discovery added increased urgency to her work—Verma learned that her father had palliative cancer. The diagnosis was brutal news, she tells me, because her father had survived prostate cancer and lived cancer-free for ten years. “We thought he was out of the woods, scot-free, but it came back and was in his bones.” The best estimate from the doctors: two to five years. In the prologue to the book, Verma puts her feelings this way: “Time feels precious and precarious. I feel the weight of brand new life and imminent death, frightened equally by both.”

Her father’s cancer changed the course of the project, as Verma decided to make him a larger focus than originally intended. She was hesitant to do so, feeling that, if the book was about fishing, then it should be about fishing—Don Thornhill did not work in the fishery—but accepted that the work was actually about more than that. Verma tells me, “it’s also about identity and understanding who I am—in a place and time when I feel like there is a risk of losing those things that make me who I am.” Of course, she admits, this made writing the book a much more emotional endeavour. When the writer came back to Newfoundland to do research, she returned to Little Bay East with her ailing father and daughter, then seven months old. Verma tells me, “It weighed heavily on me that, even though it was the first time I was showing things to Navya, it was the last time I would do this with Dad. It was tough.”

The decision to broaden the focus of Cod Collapse, in my estimation, expanded the book’s reach, making the story more relatable, as well as its depth: the scenes involving the writer’s father make for some of the book’s most memorable moments, as Verma’s writing veers into poignant, even poetic, prose. The book’s conclusion, for example, describes the family leaving Little Bay East by car, with the writer at the wheel: “Everyone was exhausted, so the car filled with quiet even before they slept, forcing me to be alone with my thoughts and the sinking feeling rushing over me. I drove through the feeling, around and over the road repairs covering other repairs that needed more repairs still. I tried to avoid the deep grooves, potholes, […] I was aware of waking the family and causing Dad more pain. I bit back tears passing roadside crosses, which came to have new meaning. The souls of my family members are here, too.”

Don Thornhill passed away just as Verma began the editing process for the book. Although he never had the chance to read Cod Collapse, she was able to show it to him, she says: “I would have loved for Dad to have held the book, see the book, but I was able to show it to him. He was in the hospital when we got the book cover. And he definitely registered that this is the cover; on a later date, when his brother Reg came to visit from Ontario, Dad teared up telling him about the book. He was really proud of it.”

“IT WASN’T AN ACT OF GOD”

Our discussion shifts from family to the fishery, in general, and what Verma calls “one of the greatest collective traumas in the history of our province.” The story of what happened to the northern cod—the “collapse”—is a familiar, even tired one: there existed a natural resource, so abundant as to seem endless, and that resource was exploited to maximize profit until, for all intents and purposes, it ran out. “It was the greatest numerical reduction of a species in Canadian history,” Verma says, a sobering statement.

The author admits her apprehensions about the future of fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador: “I worry it is possible that, in my lifetime or my daughter’s lifetime, we won’t have an inshore fishery.” The reason for her concern, she says, is that the conditions that caused the collapse still exist today (“We know what happened. It wasn’t an act of God”). In addition, these issues are now exacerbated by an aging fishing population and the effects of climate breakdown. “Perversely,” Verma informs me, “climate change potentially helped cod to thrive due to the warmer ocean temperatures, at least temporarily.” However, she adds, as the ocean continues to warm, it will not be good for the fishery. “From what I’ve read, the Northwest Atlantic is going to be among the hardest hit.”

In Cod Collapse and in conversation, Verma repeats the point, often with exasperation, that there remains no recovery plan for the northern cod in place, a quarter century after the moratorium—which, she reminds me, was expected to last only two years. Without a plan, there can be no progress, she points out. To quote the book: “Operating a fishery—if even a limited stewardship fishery—without a recovery plan is like being in survival mode, rowing blind in a dense fog.”

Verma sees a plan not only as a necessity, but an obligation: “I just think that, for a species we fished to extinction, we owe it to ourselves and certainly to the fish and the fishers, because at the end of the day, no one has been held to account—except for the cod and the fishers who lost their careers, and those of us who lost a way of life.” According to fisheries scientists like Jeffrey Hutchings and Sherrylynn Rowe, Verma tells me, there is a lot of will to create a recovery plan in the industry, but the public is another matter. “What’s perhaps more surprising to me than having no cod management plan after everything cod and its fishery has endured is why the public doesn’t seem to care,” she notes in Cod Collapse.

We discuss alternatives to the status-quo, including Iceland, which has become a world leader in cod. “Just to give you an idea,” Verma says, “Iceland has one of the most profitable fishing industries in the world, and has about 10 times the cod landings compared to us, with 18.5 times the earnings for its catch.” It is not just about quantity, however, but rather the focus on quality and on making the most of the cod. “Fillets over fish sticks, value over volume,” Verma says. She refers to another program in Denmark, where citizens pay a very small fee to participate in the food fishery. Verma likes the idea, because beyond having and implementing a plan, there is a need for a funding base: “I think that some of those reserves can come from having a modest fee for the food fishery.” We talk about the home-grown potential of organizations like Fishing for Success in Petty Harbour, run by Kimberly Orren and Leo Hearn. To Verma, they represent a “prime example” of what could take place on a larger scale in this province. “How amazing would it be to support an internship or something where you have young people go out and learn to fish with entities like Fishing for Success?” Alternative options exist—all we need, she states, is the political will and some creativity. (Her earlier words come to mind: “This is a land of creatives.”)

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador also “need some gumption,” the writer tells me, as regaining control of the fishery and benefitting from our proximity to the resource would require rewriting the Fisheries Act, re-examining the Atlantic Accord, and re-opening the Terms of Union with Canada. No small feats, certainly, but Verma wants people to consider what is at stake: “This is not just about an industry. This is about a culture, a way of life.” And while tourists have become the “new cod,” she adds, referring to the province’s boom in tourism, they come for that culture and way of life. Verma wonders if we can have one without the other.

Complex situations preclude simple solutions, and Verma doesn’t have any easy answers. Indeed, she closes Cod Collapse not with quick fixes, but questions—about the aging fishing population, the preservation of our heritage structures, the appreciation and sustainable exploitation of our resources, the artistic documentation and interpretation of our culture. To the writer, these questions represent a place to start.

Despite her concerns, Verma is not without hope for the future, if careful. “I still hang on to hope that a recovery is possible,” she tells me. Cod Collapse opens and closes with a newspaper headline from January 30, 2019: “Cod Recovery Still Far Off: DFO”. Verma sees a “touch of hope” in the phrase, writing: “A full recovery has not and may not happen, but it could” [emphasis hers]. In conversation, she notes how people are much more food conscious nowadays, and want to know where their food comes from and that it was handled properly, with care and attention to the environment. Combine that with a growing climate movement and an increasing appetite for broader, systemic change, and there is potential to do better. What happens, she tells me, is up to us.

DOES HOPE STILL SPRING?

After lunch, I take Verma to the hilltop that separates Petty Harbour from Maddox Cove to get some pictures. It’s a beautiful late afternoon, the sun hovering over the hills opposite, the light a golden yellow. I get a few photographs of the author and we stand for a moment, admiring what surrounds us—the blue expanse of sea and sky, the rolling hills brown and amber—before returning to the car and back to my apartment. Verma and her mother leave for St. John’s; the next morning they’ll fly to the west coast of the island to launch Cod Collapse in Corner Brook.

I clear away the table and boil the kettle, step outside on the deck with a cup of tea. By now the sun has dropped behind the hills; before long, darkness will blend out the view, leaving only the lights of Petty Harbour and their reflection in the water. The conversation with Verma runs through my mind, particularly the part about hope; I admire the writer’s positivity in that regard—perhaps as it’s a feeling I find harder to share.

The months that follow our meeting do not help in that regard, bringing the spectacle of wildfires in Australia and, here at home, a record snowstorm that incapacitates the city of St. John’s for ten days. On top of that, in January the Department of Fisheries and Oceans reports that cod stocks in area 3Ps off southern Newfoundland are in a “critical zone,” with fewer fish than ever recorded. I contact Verma and again press the issue—does she still feel hopeful, despite the recent climate-related events, despite the latest science on cod stocks? Her response, I feel, merits quoting in full and serves as a fitting conclusion here:

I remain hopeful. Despite our attempts to fish this species to the brink and while no marine species is anywhere near its historical levels of abundance, I’m awestruck at what northern cod is capable of from a rebound perspective. I’m convinced, though, that the struggles have become greater now to recover this and other species. We can no longer ignore the climate crisis and warming ocean. We can no longer overfish. We need to protect marine habitats, which means questioning the role and interplay of oil and gas development in the same geography as prime fishing grounds. And we need sustainable practices more than ever—to learn from rather than do away with inshore fishers who rely on hook and line rather than gillnet. And for all that to happen, we need policy and lawmakers to make bold decisions to protect and encourage the fisheries vs focus so squarely on what can be monetized from our oceans.