Skip to main content

This is part of a series of conversations between authors to mark the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the most noteworthy books of the year.

Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by LeeAndra Cianci

In November, the inaugural Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize was awarded to Red River Métis novelist Katherena Vermette for The Strangers, the second novel by the Winnipeg author. The $60,000 prize was renamed in honour of Writers’ Trust co-founders Margaret Atwood and her partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019. The week after the winner was announced, we brought Atwood and Vermette together for a conversation over Zoom.

Marsha Lederman: The two of you now have an indelible connection, with Katherena winning the inaugural Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Margaret, what was that like for you to watch?

Margaret Atwood: I think Graeme would have been very pleased. It was he who started the Writers’ Trust in a kind of ass-backwards way. He had gotten into a fracas at the Writers’ Union, because they were doing this program for high schools, of books by Canadian authors. High-school teachers said they didn’t know anything about them – except for Stephen Leacock – but they would like to teach them. So the union had plunged in with this program. Then there was a to-do because it was a union, so you couldn’t represent some people in these programs and not others. So I said then I’ll form a different organization. So we started the Writers’ Trust. It did have some rocky early days. The early fundraisers always lost money. But it’s now on fine footing. So he would be very pleased to see that this thing that started way back in the seventies has gathered so much steam. And he would be very pleased, Katherena, that you have won the first one. You can just imagine him sort of beaming down – or maybe beaming up, we don’t know – and raising a glass of scotch to you.

ML: Katherena, what was that just like for you to hear?

Katherena Vermette: I was absolutely floored. And I love hearing those early stories of the Writers’ Trust. Because to me, it looks like such a fancy-schmancy organization with fancy-schmancy funders and writers at these fancy restaurants or galas. So I love that it was just a bunch of people trying to piss other people off.

MA: We were trying to help them. But you know, that often pisses people off. The English high-school curriculum was basically English, with a few Americans thrown in once in a while. And I think we got an E.J. Pratt poem about a ship sinking. You didn’t know that there was Canadian literature. And the Canadian literature, if any, in bookstores, was back in Canadiana, along with the cookbooks and the beautiful fall foliage calendars. We actually wanted ours to be with the real novels. So that’s partly what the union was about. And it was also about the fact that there were some bestselling Canadian authors, such as Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat, but their books were being overprinted. Overruns were happening in the States, their books were coming across the border as remainders, being sold in this country, and the authors and the publishers were getting nothing. So believe it or not, we went to Ottawa, to the consumer and corporate affairs minister. And they said the following: Don’t you want the consumer to have cheap books? And then we actually did picket the government. We picketed various things in those days. And who knows when we might have to do it again, now that we seem to be into book-burning again. It’s always in the excuse of, you know, keeping children safe, but then they go after the books they actually just don’t like.

KV: Yeah, it’s really just keeping children in their version of safety.

MA: Have you ever been kicked out of a school library or a curriculum, Katherena?

KV: I haven’t heard of anything, but I’m sure I have. I actually was very reluctant to have my books in the school curriculum for that reason, because I don’t exactly pull punches when it comes to talking about the hard stuff.

MA: You do not.

KV: And I believe that you have to go there in order to tell the story accurately. To not do that doesn’t serve justice to the story, right? I’ve heard teachers not willing to teach stuff for various reasons. And for the most part I understand when it comes to trauma and hard things. I don’t want a teacher to teach my stuff or any anything around trauma and Indigenous issues without properly educating themselves.

ML: What is it like for you, Margaret, when you hear that The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, has been banned?

MA: That has happened so often. So it’s, you know, okay, more book sales. This is the book you’re not allowed to read. When you go back over time and figure out what has been banned and why, it’s always very interesting. I realize now that probably one of the reasons we got the 19th century English curriculum in high school was that there wasn’t any actual sex. It was sex offstage. Once you get into 20th century novels, those things are much more overt and probably people were not comfortable teaching them. That’s a theory of mine. I have no idea whether it’s real or not. But similarly, Katherena, history was extremely edited, the kind of history we got. So what we got in the fifties was this very boring book called Canada in the World Today, which had a plane on the front. And inside it was about wheat, it was about mining. But it didn’t have anything very interesting in it about people or what had really happened. And I thought okay, we’re boring; what can you do?

KV: Not so boring, but yeah, even coming up in the eighties and nineties, I still got a very sanitized version of history. We kind of had a bit of diversity, in quotation marks; we called it racial tolerance back in the day.

MA: And what sort of books were those?

KV: I’m thinking specifically of history and how the history of Indigenous people was told. As if Indigenous people were just kind of roaming around the Plains haplessly, and then colonization happened. In 1867, that’s when everything happened in this country and nothing happened before that. And I really remember feeling a loss of those knowledges, because I knew there was a different story. And I still feel like I’m uncovering that story as I look into history now.

ML: When I went to high school, there was zero Indigenous history taught. And in terms of fiction, it was a lot of books by men. Then one day I got assigned a book called The Edible Woman, which changed everything for me, because I saw a protagonist who reminded me of me. I wondered, Katherena, how much that plays into or informs what you are doing with your writing, thinking about young women, young Indigenous women picking up one of your books and seeing themselves in it. How important is that to you?

KV: Of course, it’s very important. When I think of my imagined audience, I do think of the young people primarily, because I do write a lot of young characters. But also Indigenous women like me, people that look like me, people that come from places like I come from. I really do think of those as my primary audience. I do think of speaking to them, and knowing that when I speak to them, I’m speaking truthfully. And they’ll call me on my bull if I get anything wrong, which is the added plus of having a community of readers who are like you. Also, my favourite books and the books I’ve learned the most from are the ones where you almost feel like you’re eavesdropping on somebody’s intimate conversation. Things are not explained to you. The other is not explained to you. The other is brought to the centre and centred. And any time I’m writing or reading someone who is different than me, that’s how I like to learn. I don’t need my hand held and I don’t want things explained to me.

MA: Writing truthfully, you can also get criticism for that. Because people can say, okay, this is true, but you shouldn’t be saying it.

KV: I’ve gotten that from people outside of the Indigenous community, as if I’m somehow airing dirty laundry by saying these things. I’ve never gotten that inside the Indigenous community. Because inside the Indigenous community, we understand that the violence that has been perpetrated on us and the violence that happens within communities is all a result of the same thing, which is colonization and various attempts at genocide. So surviving this and telling how survival happened is not airing dirty laundry; it’s airing truth. And I think we’re only beginning to tell the truth, and I think that we really learned that this year in the finding of the multiple mass graves at residential “schools.” And I say “schools” in quotation marks because they were not schools. But we’re finding that out.

ML: Katherena, I’m wondering if these horrific discoveries have or will inform what you do next, what you are doing now as a writer.

KV: Yes and no. I mean, I think everything that happens informs where we go next. The discoveries that are happening now are not a shock to many of us. And they, I don’t think, should be a shock to anyone. I do think there’s so many things that are happening right now; I’m thinking of the opioid crisis and the child welfare crisis and the child justice crisis that is happening in Indigenous communities, particularly here in the Prairies. I really think that that’s what we’re going to be talking about in the next 10 years: the devastation that has happened to Indigenous families right now. Also Indigenous treatment in health care. Those are the bad things, and I never want to just talk about bad things because there’s so much joy and strength. As much as we’re carrying forward these intergenerational traumas, we’re also carrying forward these intergenerational strengths.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe