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September 18, 2018
The Word On The Street is coming up on September 23, with WOTS Plus+ the day before on September 22nd! We sat down with Daniel Heath Justice, author of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, who will be joining us at the festival this year!
WOTS: Your book is called Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. How did you come to this title? Who is this title speaking to, and what do you hope they take away from the book?
Daniel Heath Justice: The title actually came from a post a former student, Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, asked me to write for her blog almost a decade ago; she wanted me to discuss why people should read and engage with Indigenous writing, and it occurred to me at the time that, although I’d studied, taught, and written in the field for a long time at that point, I’d never actually answered that pretty basic question.
I wrote the blog, but the question remained, and eventually I realized that it was a good foundation for a book. My hope is that it speaks to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers, but particularly that Indigenous readers find it meaningful in affirming the significance, the diversity, the depth, and the power of our literary heritage.
WOTS: You use the plural form of literature in your title. Can you tell us a little bit about the plurality of Indigenous literatures?
DHJ: Literature in the singular presumes a kind of colonial universalism, the idea that only one kind of expression is recognizable as or worthy to be considered “literature.” When considering Indigenous expressive traditions, I think it’s both healthier and more accurate to think of our work as plural in form and purpose.
WOTS: You don’t just write nonfiction—you’re also a fiction author! Can you speak to what it’s like to wear nonfiction and fiction hats, and also those moments when they come together, like when you contributed to Apex Magazine’s Indigenous Issue?
DHJ: I’ve always found that my scholarly work informs and enriches my creative work, and vice versa—they both ask similar kinds of questions about belonging, kinship, history, heritage, and desire, but do so in very different ways. My creative work, both fiction and nonfiction, allows me to approach these concerns at a more intimate, reflective level, whereas my scholarship and research give me a broader perspective on the sometimes surprising connections between seemingly disparate contexts.
WOTS: Fiction and/or nonfiction, tell us a bit more about your process! How did you start writing? Do you have any favourite stories about when you were just starting out?
DHJ: I’ve always been a storyteller, and as soon as I could write I was creating storyworlds on paper. As a bookish child with few friends my age, stories were how I found my place and belonging, even if I didn’t really feel I had either one in my peer group. I actually still have my first book, which was a story about bald eagles written on stapled-together paper plates.
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out? What one thing do you think it’s crucial to know?
DHJ: Editing is your very best friend—for me, editing is about 90% of the real labour of writing.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to organizing a nonfiction book?
DHJ: My office desk is a slab of red-stained pine from Ontario, and it’s my go-to place to write, with my dogs snoozing at my feet and a cup of strong black tea beside my laptop.
WOTS: Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is highly recommended for educators and librarians, but how will the average reader find the book? Will we need a background in literature to understand it? Do you have any other recommendations for readers looking to read into the subject?
DHJ: I wanted this book to be of interest to a general readership as well as specialists in the literary studies, and I’ve been grateful to see that both audiences have embraced it. My main recommendation for people interested in Indigenous writing is to read more of it! There’s so much great work by Indigenous poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, etc., and the best way to read more is to seek it out! (I have a huge list of over 300 Indigenous writers as an appendix in the book, so that’s a good place to start!)
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