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(Norman Wong)
(Norman Wong)

Joseph Boyden tackles native torture, colonial amnesia and ongoing racism Add to ...

I knew right away that it would be too easy to paint the Jesuit, Christophe, as the bad guy. I really wanted to make sure that my characters felt real and complex. One of the biggest things I had to deal with was the ritual torture that the Huron and Iroquois practised on one another, to try to come to terms with that and figure that out. And then I realized, as I was writing, that the Spanish Inquisition was in full tilt at the time, so this is not just some kind of heathen sauvage thing. The two societies treated torture in absolutely different ways, though. The Christians in Europe tortured to belittle and to demean and to punish. The Huron and the Iroquois tortured each other to honour and possess the power of the enemy. Two very different world views emerged.

People have remarked that this is the perfect book to follow the Idle No More movement. And sure, in a sense – this is a novel about First Nations. But beyond that connection, is The Orenda especially resonant in this moment?

I’m happy that people have made that connection. Idle No More didn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of people who’ve been truly disenfranchised in their own homes. Any good historical novel is going to feel contemporary, thematically. You look at this novel, and think about immigration, who you allow in, who you don’t. The Huron allow in the ones who ultimately end up destroying them, because the Huron aren’t perfect either: They needed the trade, and how much greed was involved in that? Look environmentally – you wipe out all the furs and your economy is gone. It’s like the oil sands.

I understand the Idle No More connection is one you’re happy to see made, but it still feels a bit hazy.

I would never try to make that connection. I could, if I had the time and the energy, trace the route between where my novel ends and Idle No More begins – because it’s not over, it’s just quiet right now. First Nations youth are the fastest-growing population in our country, and they’re not going anywhere. If I could make one reader look at a contemporary First Nations person a little bit differently, that would thrill me. Once a reader said she gave her dad a copy of one of my books, and he was kind of a racist dude toward native people. And after he read that book, he was much less so – he began to see them as three-dimensional.

There’s a point in the book where the sort of omniscient narrator, who introduces the novels’s sections, asks how one keeps going when one has lost everything. Then that narrator says, “Or perhaps the question is this: What role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” That felt almost like a moral imperative: You now must examine what role you played. Is that a central concern for you?

I carefully put that there, because I don’t want to present First Nations as always being victimized. No one’s purely the victim. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. My wife was purely a victim when she was horribly raped and left for dead. But when it comes to big cultural movements, the Huron played a role in their demise, and they know that. The English and the French and Dutch all did, too. Just the acceptance of responsibility is really important. Certainly we got the short end of the stick. Disease, for instance: There were 30,000 Huron when the Jesuits arrived; within 10 years, there were 10,000. There is that, which is just brutal and unfair. But this idea of accepting responsibility for something not going the way it should have is something I think everyone should do.

The book is a kind of democratization of trauma and loss, a long sequence of trading things back and forth – you do this to me and my family, so I’ll do this to you and yours. Can a story like this, told this way, spread that sense of sadness, of loss, further, so that readers can share that pain, too?

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