For all those out there who like a good story, this month is Book Awards Season. Last week the Scotiabank Giller Prize was dished out to Souvankham Thammavongsa for her highly successful book How To Pronounce Knife. And the tension builds as this week it’s the Writers’ Trust Awards.
This year’s shortlist includes Thomas King’s Indians On Vacation, and Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians. This lets us know two things – 1) "The term ‘Indians’ has been re-appropriated from a certain Cleveland sports empire but can only be used in the execution of an excellent novel. And 2) “Indians” make up 40 per cent of the shortlist, indicating that writing about Indigenous characters can be successful.
I’ve been to many of these award events, and every once in a while I see some fellow writers across the bar sending furtive glances, their eyes and souls burning deep with a question they are eager to ask but nervous to pose. Sometimes I am asked there; occasionally I am asked by e-mail. “I’m working on a novel/play/short story/screenplay/video-game narrative and I want to use one or possibly more Native characters in it. Will this be a problem?”
Writing is an odd profession. It involves much solitary time locked away, hovering over a keyboard, imagining people, places and things that, for the moment, only the writer can envision. While I cannot speak for all writers, I know that most of us want to get into the heads of our characters, travel their worlds, understand their missions. Writing is a journey of exploration for both the writer and the reader. As a rule, we do not normally like or honour “do not enter” signs. You’ll notice I said “normally.” Sometimes a book on physics should be written by somebody who understands physics.
In the past, there were those who were not afraid to go where perhaps they shouldn’t. On my reserve, there are signs posted saying, “You are entering an Indian Reserve. Trespassing is prohibited.” The same applies pretty much to some avenues of writing literature.
W.P. Kinsella made quite the name and reputation for himself some decades ago writing his Hobbema reserve stories. And he was well known for dismissing the need for authenticity in his writing, except of course for baseball. Grey Owl – real name Archibald Stansfeld Belaney – also made a career for himself writing from an Aboriginal perception, batting his blue eyes at the establishment. More recently, Joseph Boyden made headlines for taking up space on territory many in our community felt he was trespassing.
Those were different times. People smoked everywhere. A phone was for talking. Nobody knew what kale was.
That was then. This is now. The use of Indigenous characters and Indigenous environments by non-Native authors is now considered the equivalent of wearing white after Labour Day. It just isn’t done. It’s bad taste. But many, I believe, are taking that message a bit too far, and too literally. Some feel it just may not be worth the time, effort and worries of a potential backlash if they populate their creations with Indigenous characters. Fears of a “don’t steal our voice” backlash.
It’s times like this I put on my robe and begin spreading my Gospels of Native Literature. Here is the abridged version.
Thou shall not appropriate.
Thou shall not use the ubiquitous tepee to refer to all Indigenous housing, from the Arctic to the forests of Haida Gwaii.
Thou SHALL include Native people in settler stories without fear of penalty. If you see us walking down the street/playing pool/hang gliding, you can use us.
There are more but you get the point. Admittedly I am speaking broadly here, but we – more than a million people of Aboriginal ancestry in this country alone – walk in and out of your lives just as you walk in and out of ours. King’s Indians On Vacation takes place in Prague, with lots of Czechs and people of other European descent. Writing should reflect life. But here’s the crux: He does not write from their perspective. These characters are necessary to the story, but not the main character. They are being viewed through Indigenous eyes.
In my own writing, I have included people of Jewish, Chinese, European and Black backgrounds, as well as vampires and aliens. To the best of my knowledge I cannot claim a similar ancestry. They are all just interesting visitors travelling through the universe I am creating. It’s the same principle for white writers. I think it would be a travesty if Native characters were completely wiped out of non-Native Canadian literature. We’re far too interesting a people and have contributed way too much to this contemporary society. I tell creators to remember: You’re not telling our narrative; those Indigenous characters prancing through those pages should be there to help tell your story.
Just do your research. I am not necessarily talking about what linguistic group your Indigenous characters may come from, whether they are patrilineal or matrilineal, or point with both lips or just their bottom one? If your character is going to be Native, make him Native for a reason and support it. I do the same for my non-Native characters. Talk to people in our community. Take an elder out for tea. Go to a First Nation to ask a question and buy a T-shirt. We want to be in your books.
Once that question of permission is asked, other writers who disagree with the discussion begin to deconstruct the answer. And the related questions begin to multiply. Is it political correctness gone wild? At what point should men stop writing about women? Carnivores exploring a vegan lifestyle? Right-handed people living vicariously through left-handed people?
So many questions.
It gets complicated and the Gospels of Native Literature are very much a work in progress. But perhaps one of the most important of the seven Grandfather teachings, by which much of my Anishinawbe culture and many others rely upon, says it all: Respect. If you’re putting one of us in your book to make money, just keep moving. If you’re putting one of us in your book as a sign of respect, pull up a chair.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.