“[Sherman] Alexie and I had a bet about which one of us could put the other into their book first,” Mr. King says. “He won the bet. Here,” he says, passing Mr. Alexie’s book Indian Killer to Mr. Taylor. “Read from this paragraph on.”
Mr. King left the reservation in 1980 to attend university and become a teacher, it says. He made it through one semester before he ran out of money. Too ashamed to return to the reservation, he worked on a fishing boat for a few years, then was struck by a hit-and-run driver while on shore leave. Too injured to work, and without access to disability or worker’s compensation, he was homeless for most of the past 10 years.
“Hmm,” Mr. King smiles at the memory. “That’s actually almost accurate. Except I wasn’t really homeless. I just didn’t stay in any one place for very long.”
The official version has Mr. King working in a bank, then signing on to the crew of a fishing boat before heading off to New Zealand and Australia. He returned to the United States and enrolled at the University of Utah where he graduated with a PhD in English literature. After that, he moved to the University of Minnesota and became the chair of American Indian studies. Somewhere in all of that, he was also an activist and a journalist.
Somehow, this brought Mr. King to the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, where he taught Native Studies for about 15 years. This was where his writing really began to take shape.
“I felt at home – really at home – perhaps for the first time in my life,” Mr. King says of his time in Alberta. He became a Canadian citizen. He finagled Helen Hoy into his life. He began to work with writers such as Tomson Highway and Richard Wagamese. He developed a distinctive and critical voice that often took his adopted and former countries to task for their native policies.
It wasn’t long before he hammered out his first novel, Medicine River, to much critical acclaim. Then one after the other came a children’s book, A Coyote Columbus Story, nominated for a Governor-General’s Award, followed by the novel that really made a splash in Canadian literature – Green Grass, Running Water. This book earned him his second Governor-General’s Award nomination.
Two other titles come out that same year: One Good Story, That One and Borders, as well as another novel, Truth and Bright Water. By then, Mr. King was also doing a weekly comedy show for CBC Radio called The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour.
Dead Dog Café takes two characters from Green Grass, Running Water and plunks them down with the author, Thomas King, who plays the cultural third wheel and confused butt for most of the humour. The show turned Indian stereotypes inside out and upside down. It put a big red clown’s nose on the cigar store Indian. The show also made Thomas King a household name on both sides of the international border.
In 2003, Mr. King – the first indigenous person to do so – delivered that year’s Massey Lectures, five lectures on one topic to different audiences across Canada. Then, the perception is, Tom King dropped out of sight for the next nine years.
Not so, he replies. “You produce what you can produce while you produce it. Between 2003 and now, I ran for federal office for the NDP. I built this house. I was the contractor on this house. And we raised my grandson.”
He was also awarded the Order of Canada in 2004, the same year former Winnipeg Mayor Glenn Murray took Green Grass, Running Water to the Canada Reads series. In 2005, Mr. King published a collection of short stories called A Short History of Indians in Canada. It won a McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Then he wrote and directed a short film about Indian stereotypes called I’m Not the Indian You Had In Mind.