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opinion

Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.

Occasionally words and items from the dominant culture find their way into the First Nations universe and are heartily embraced. The first one that comes to mind is a Gaelic word, probably introduced by the Scots. It’s something called bannock. It’s a ubiquitous form of bread prized and beloved by Indigenous people all across the continent. Occasionally it will be called frybread or saucegun or another variation, but as a whole, Turtle Island enthusiasts love their bannock, which, for the uninformed, started its existence as an unleavened oat-based flatbread. In the past several hundred years, it has been Indigenized. The First Nations people of Canada have that and the plaid designs on lumberjackets to thank the Scots for.

More recently, the German word – or, more accurately, the sense of – “schadenfreude” seems to have grown in Indigenous intellectual popularity. It’s a word meaning “a pleasure derived from somebody else’s misfortune.” Those Germans really know how to cut a phrase.

The source of this interest … the publication of Amanda Boyden’s new book, I Got The Dog. The text consists of a series of interconnected autobiographical essays and blurbs that randomly plonk the reader down in different and brief sections of her life. This includes her 20-odd years of marriage to the once literary icon Joseph Boyden. The title is, no doubt, a reference to the divorce.

This is where the schadenfreude fancy dances its way into the picture. Mr. Boyden is a man who, in the early part of this century, was the face and identity of Indigenous literature. Winner of many awards and accolades, he rubbed buckskin covered elbows with the likes of Gord Downie, Justin Trudeau and just about anybody who read a book and said they supported Indigenous issues and literature.

Then the downfall came, quick and painful. A career that was spectacular, suddenly wasn’t. An investigative journalist revealed that he had been writing identity cheques his ancestry couldn’t cash. It was like he had a dollar coin but kept telling people it was worth $100. More than that, what really pissed a lot of Indigenous people off was how he had been taking up so much space and hogging the light on the Indigenous platform. He was bogarting Canadian interest in our stories. The man even wrote a ballet.

Thus, there was great anticipation around Ms. Boyden’s new book. Short of politicians, white supremacists or residential school deniers, few people had elicited such a sense of outrage from the Indigenous population as Joseph Boyden did. So when word came out that Amanda Boyden was publishing a book about their lives together … and then apart … ears perked up. In both settler and Indigenous cultures, a woman scorned is always to be feared.

But surprisingly, Amanda Boyden only allows Joseph cursory visits into her literary meanderings. As with most autobiographies, she focuses generally on her childhood and family – her sister’s a pretty good psychic; her adventures and misadventures – she’s gone parachuting twice and both times the main and backup chutes failed to open properly; and only occasionally gives the reader tentative glimpses into her marriage. There is a definite sense of distance.

Amanda writes about how Joseph spent a lot of his time on the road, travelling, signing things, doing residences, and evidently seeking solace and inspiration with other women, while – as my people call it – “playing hide the pickerel.”

Particularly juicy is when, while doing dishes at their home in New Orleans, he confesses he has fathered a child with another woman, and rather enthusiastically tries to convince his wife they should raise the child together. I’m not sure about settler culture but that kind of thing does not go over well in the Indigenous community. But that could be just us.

The death knell of the marriage came when, on their way to the marriage of Joseph’s nephew in Mexico, Amanda has a seizure in some Midwestern American airport. As she’s recovering in the hospital, Joseph persuades her that since they already have the plane tickets, a booked hotel room and relatives that are expecting them, he should make the pilgrimage to the wedding. Alone, it seemed.

And that’s about as critical as it gets. I’ve heard worse things said about the man in powwow parking lots.

Amanda Boyden seems to have moved on quite well since the divorce. And the vitriol and anger seem to have healed for the most part. There is little schadenfreude in the book. While that will be disappointing to some readers, I find it actually quite commendable.

Joseph’s last book was Wenjack, published in 2016, and he lives near Georgian Bay with his new wife and two children. Currently he offers one-on-one mentorships, creative writing workshops and hosts retreats.

And meanwhile, all across Indian country, the world continues to revolve, graves are found, languages are being lost and bannock is still consumed in vast quantities.