Permission to Tell the Story

josephboydenThe other night my heart twisted as I listened to an interview with Joseph Boyden about the most recent attack on his authenticity. He’s had his feet held to the fire over his heritage being suspect, a sticky situation about the suspension of a colleague, and now this current accusation of plagiarism.

He’s a teller of stories with a fine brave heart. He has no need of stealing words – he does a brilliant job on his own of illuminating, revealing, and contributing to the complex and tangled historical and contemporary issues of the First Nations people of this land.

However, I do understand, to the degree that a member of the privileged white world is able, the underpinnings of outrage and hurt indigenous people can feel when it appears that once again their voices and culture have been appropriated. It’s such a sticky place – the one in which one wants to shine a light; help, if you will, in any way possible, those we feel have been trampled, unheard, disregarded and so on. Joseph Boyden has done it with his particular skill – writing – having listened carefully, asked permission, and proceeded with respect. So my chest cramps as I listen to him have to explain and defend his work and his intentions.

Personally, these issues go deep. Since 1993, when I met my second husband, a full-blood Ojibwe from Rama First Nations, I’ve been deeply touched by the Anishinaabe culture, its traditions, its losses and suffered damages. In recent times, the intensified revelations concerning abuse, abduction, deception, and murder have re-opened wounds and raised awareness that for many of us in the settler or ‘over culture,’ as Clarissa Pinkola-Estes calls it or the “visitors from across the ocean” as Edna Manitowabi refers to us, have been a call to action like never before.

But we need to tread carefully.

On Facebook recently, author Michael Redhill posed the question: “What is the best and most practical way for non-Indigenous people to support Indigenous peoples? Through donations? By patronizing Indigenous businesses? Participating in or witnessing Indigenous culture? Books?”

Many answers were offered, including a cultural competency training offered through the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, from visiting remote reserves to donating to various native organizations, to supporting indigenous authors, to… wait for it…writing about the issues.

Which is what I’ve been doing. In a small way in my novel “What the Living Do,” where one pivotal but not main character is First Nations. For him I drew heavily on direct contact and shared stories about my ex-husband’s family. Everyone who reads the novel loves the character, Mel. I received assistance from the King family of Rama First Nations with the creation of this character’s spirit name and his prayers for the roadkill they bury. So far, no one has been offended or insulted by the inclusion of this character and his stories.

But now I’m writing a novel in which a main character is First Nations, and although it isn’t told from her point of view, she is in most scenes and has a very strong voice. The odd thing is, I didn’t conceive the story with her in it.

Some authors state that one doesn’t look for stories, because stories find you. This one most certainly did.

During her teenage years, a friend of mine revived her mother three times, finally finding her too late to revive. On his thirteenth birthday, a cousin of my son’s friend found his father hanging in the garage. A teenage girl in my town found a note on her mother’s bedroom door that said, “Don’t come in. Call 911,” because she had closed herself in the closet and slit her own throat. A client with two grown children and five grandchildren woke up one morning and sat on the edge of her bed to place seventy-two sleeping pills in her mouth. Another client was on a flight to celebrate her graduation success when her mother was on her own flight from an eighteenth story window.

The story set out to be about the fallout for the children of parents who die by suicide. How do they cope, heal, or even continue under that permanent shadow? But after following Carrie, the protagonist, around as she deals with everyday situations, showing her tics and longings and grief, it became clear that she needed to take action.

Last year, during a break in poet, Ellen Bass’s workshop, I encountered a young First Nations woman with an empty cup on Queen’s Quay. Ellen Bass has a way of inspiring participants to gratefully remove their skin, so when I saw that young person, instead of just throwing money, I squatted down and asked if she was hungry. She was. While we waited for her sandwich to be made, I learned some of her story – enough to make me, after she left, have a little breakdown over the sandwich I didn’t want and couldn’t eat.

My character, Carrie, passes a girl very much like the one I met on Queens’ Quay. Carrie is only 15, but after meeting the girl a couple of times, she decides she will save her (as she wasn’t able to save her mother) by stealing her father’s credit card and returning the girl to her remote home reserve.

As these two girls travel north on an Ontario Northland bus, their stories become clearer, and my trepidation swells. The more the character, Meadow, speaks, the more anxious I get. Although friends and colleagues remind me that one must write ‘fearward’ (Barbara Turner- Vesselago), that one must not flinch (Robert Wiersma), and that as the soulful Christine Kelly once advised in an Amherst Writers’ and Artists workshop, “Write what presses on your heart,” I was afraid, I was flinching, but this story was and is most assuredly pressing on my heart.

I have been in conversation with a couple of women who grew up on a reserve on which I am basing my fictional reserve, a couple of hours from Timmins. They have been most gracious and informative. Also, one friend who taught school in Kashechewan and is writing a memoir based on her experiences there has also brought to light real and urgent issues the residents on such reserves face.

The point is, I want to be respectful AND I want to tell the truth. I want to write the story I know in my heart; the story and its indelible marks which I’ve brushed up against.

One friend remarked that if my story began a dialogue, opened more channels of communication, even if they appear to be negative, the process will offer potential for some light to shine where there was none before.

So, I am sorry Joseph Boyden is in such hot water, but perhaps this situation has brought about a greater emphasis on the importance of transparency, honesty, and acknowledgement of our stories’ origins.

3 Responses to Permission to Tell the Story

  • Well said, Deepam. You have an entre into the First Nations culture beyond what many of us have. I think about it, but don’t know what to do about it. I recently wrote an essay with a simple statement. “The First Nations culture in Canada needs more consideration.” Such a simple (and lame) understatement. Nor do I wish to put my oar in deep waters of misunderstandings. I believe it is correct thinking for you to write your story as you imagine it, knowing that stories are universal. And if you open a conversation, you’ve achieved a goal. I know you are a sensitive person (or you wouldn’t have blogged this post). Do it for all o us.

  • Brian DeVoot says:

    Thank you for shining a light on our cultural shame. Stories often so unbelievable, we need to hear more of and repeatedly so we may fully appreciate what has passed and how we may learn to be in a fuller aspect of compassionate community.

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