Despite being one of Canada's best known and most prolific native writers, Drew Hayden Taylor became Random House of Canada's latest "New Face of Fiction" this season with the publication of his first novel for adults, Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, a winning comedy about the return of magic to a suburbanized Indian reserve in central Ontario.
How do you describe yourself, ethnically?
My standard line is that I'm half Ojibwa, half Caucasian. That makes me an occasion. A memorable occasion. A special occasion.
You've moved back to the Curve Lake Indian Reserve, near Peterborough. How's life there?
Luckily, nothing ever happens in Curve Lake. It's my island of sanity in an ocean of chaos. I do lecture circuits. I travel the world. I'm usually on the road a week to 10 days every month. I'm all over the place, spreading the gospel of native literature….
Most of the people in Curve Lake still see me as a 12-year-old snot-nosed kid running about. They don't see me as an internationally known author, playwright, humorist - all these different things.
What's the one thing your fans most want to know about you?
I've toured and lectured about 16 countries and one of the questions I always get asked wherever I am is, "Do you have an Indian name?" And it's gotten so annoying, 'cause an Indian name is a private thing you share with friends. It's a personal reflection of who you are, given to you by an elder. So now when somebody asks me, I say, "Yes, my Indian name is Spread Eagle."
What brought you to theatre?
I think one of the reasons I became involved in writing through film and television and theatre is [that]I come from an oral culture where everything is passed on through voice, through speaking and listening. From a cultural perspective, I know how to tell a story orally. I know how people speak. I know how to create individuality and characters through dialogue. No two characters sound alike or believe the same things. I think from my upbringing, I knew that, and I could reflect that in dialogue.
Why did it take you so long to write your first novel for adults?
I was afraid. I was never really confident in my prose. I started with short stories. I did one a year for 10 years, starting in 1990. I had to work up the nerve to tackle a novel because I just didn't think I could do it. I probably wouldn't have done The Night Wanderer [a novel for young readers] but Annick Press phoned me up and said, "Hey, do you want to do a novel for us?" But I did it, and it's been popular. Then I decided, Well, why don't I do an adult one? It came really easily and it was fun. I really enjoyed doing it.
Has the experience made you comfortable with prose?
Oh, yeah. I've got my next three novels in my mind, waiting to burst forth. I think I am ready.
The next one is going to be more serious, but there's still going to be a lot of humour in it, just because everyday native life consists of humour. It's my belief that it's our sense of humour that's allowed us to survive 500 years of colonization. I like to celebrate the native experience, not lament it.
Is there anything such thing as traditional native culture any more?
I am a product of the 20th century. I write for television, and there's nothing more structured, Western or contemporary than that. The best way I can describe it, you have tandoori chicken, you have Chicken McNuggets, you have chicken schnitzel. It's all chicken, but it's the spices you use to cook that chicken that give it its cultural uniqueness. When I write a native novel, the structure may be contemporary North American, but the essence of it is native.
Do you know how many communities I've been to where I've had moose lasagna? The germ is there.