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September 14, 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 Toronto Book Award nominee Lee Maracle, author of My Conversations With Canadians, who will be joining us at the festival this year!
WOTS: My Conversations With Canadians deals in conversations you’ve had and questions you’ve been asked—sometimes over and over again—while on tour as a writer and storyteller. What drove you, at this time, to write these stories down and share them?
Lee Maracle: I was sitting in a restaurant with Jay Millar and it popped into my head just after he asked me what I was working on. I was not working on it. I just said it was something I always wanted to do and I thought since I had been thinking about it for decades, it would not be that difficult to do. Jay took notes. That is good, I thought, I often forget what I said in these of freethinking. However, in fact I did not forget. The questions I wanted to answer came at me full force after that and I made notes on them. I also had a student volunteering for me. She wrote notes for me about what I wanted to tackle. In some sense, Jay sparked the title. I wanted to call it Conversations with Canadians which is what everyone who talks to me about it calls it, but we changed it to My conversations.
WOTS: You are a storyteller and poet as well as a novelist. How does your experience with performance change and/or enrich your style as a writer? Does it?
LM: I am sorry, I don’t think about things like so I really don’t have an answer. I kind of think that is a question some young person could answer by studying the work. But it escapes me.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to sitting down and building out a story?
LM: I wrote My Conversations on a plane with a keyboard (wireless) and my IPHONE. People thought I was some crazy lady banging on a keyboard (the phone was in the jacket of the seat ahead of me, invisible to others), but I showed them the phone and the text and they thought it was amazing. I had to do that because there was no other time for me to write it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it shows that any venue is a good one.
WOTS: 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?
LM: I go to the computer and open it to a blank page and whatever comes out, that is where I begin. I have not always worked any more on my starts than that, but when I hit something worthy of telling someone else, I work on that piece. Sometimes it is a short story, sometimes a poem, sometimes a memory, sometimes a talk, sometimes a novel, but sometimes it is just junk.
WOTS: You talk in your book about what it was like for you to break into the Canadian publishing industry—especially in the 80s, when it was you and Maria Campbell on the scene. What was that like, and how do you think things have changed today? What’s stayed the same?
LM: That was the 70’s. Not the 80’s. Tom King broke into publishing in the 80’s and Maria and I preceded him a decade. I was an odd duck. Many people thought Lee was a man and were surprised I was a woman. The questions were mostly political, that has not changed much, and occasionally I am asked about writing.
I think the general sentiment is that I don’t know much about writing, but once people get to know me, they realize the depth and breadth of my knowledge. I really had to learn a lot, to be able to write as a Sto:lo and not just mimic or parrot, Euro writing styles. I read, “No language is neutral“ often to understand how difficult it is to write without imprisoning my voice. I love that poem and am so grateful that Dion Brand wrote it. I also read Marilyn Dumont, A Really good Brown Girl, to remind myself that I belong here, my memory on this continent is 15 thousand years old.
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out today? What’s do you think it’s crucial to know?
LM: I just told a young Indigenous writer, discipline your orality and think before you do and think before you talk. Also, finish every sentence you start. We are not short of story, we are storytellers, but we do not often discipline our orality, which is our gift. For other writers, care about words, they are sacred, they have power. Do not write about us, get inside some character and get the character to tell you their story.
WOTS: Knowing how hard you worked to establish yourself as a Stö:lo writer, what do you think about how the CanLit has changed?
LM: I worked at being a Sto:lo writer, that is one thing. I had to go back through our stories, see how they were structured, identify how we judge a good story, one that will be remember, see how we express ourselves and then transmogrify that into writing. There is no place or person who teaches that anywhere in the world. This is the crime of residential school. Most of my elder teachers were passed on, so it was very difficult to dredge around in my child memory and apply my adult analytical mind to the work.
I had to work to get Canada to accept my writing as Sto:lo writing, that is quite another thing. My writing not always accepted by critics, I was criticized for taking on too much, or it was not considered Indigenous enough. Whichever way I did it, not good enough was the initial response. The people who read my work either loved it or hated it. My own people loved my Work.
I also had to work to get Canada to accept me as a woman writer. Indigenous women are still murdered more than anyone else is and contrary to popular believe mainly outsiders kill them. “Nits breed lice” is a saying about us. Further, in Canada generally, men’s books outsell women’s books by lots despite the fact that women are the main buyers.
Patriarchy is so healthy in Canada. Men have received much of the attention and the awards in this country, I was at a reading and a man (white man) who received an award for his first book read from it and on the two pages he read from, I caught 6 clichés. Now I was told “no clichés” in writing is good. Beginning with white men and trickling down to Indigenous men, with Indigenous women being last has always been the way it goes. One of the most sold books by an Indigenous writer has been April Raintree, but she (the author) does not get much attention. She should have won an award, but she did not. We have to fight for it, just like we had to fight for the Inquiry into why we are killed so much.
WOTS: My Conversations With Canadians has been described by readers as hard to read emotionally, because of the gravity of the issues presented. What do you think of that response? Can you speak to the necessity of hard-to-read stories in our current literary canon, fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise?
LM: I cannot help laughing; I apologize, for taking the book so lightly. It does not reach the emotional depth of Celia’s Song by a long shot, or Raven Song, I think I am Woman is much more emotional, but that is I. We are not afraid of our emotions. I am a Sto:lo, crying comes easy and laughter is boisterous. We love everything about being alive. In the last few years I have buried 7 nephews, grievous is my life, but also joyous. I express my emotions and do not apologize for that. I guess the emotionality makes it hard to read because there is a deep resistance to knowing how it is to be us in this country.
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