Cherie Dimaline, an award-winning writer and editor from Ontario’s Georgian Bay Métis community, has seen great success with her latest book, The Marrow Thieves. The book won the 2017 Governor General’s Award and the prestigious Kirkus Prize for Young Readers – in addition to being a finalist for the White Pine Award and a selection for CBC’s 2018 Canada Reads. She has been touring Canada and travelling abroad, most recently to Peru to attend the Hay Festival – one of the most anticipated annual literary events in the world.
The 2018-19 Western Writer-In-Residence recently spoke to Western News reporter Adela Talbot about her new role and offers her insights.
* * *
When I was younger, we didn’t have access to authors. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know anyone who does that – it’s what people in New York do, it’s not for me.They’re writers, and they throw things out of hotel windows when they are drunk; that’s what TV taught me. It wasn’t until I went to local literary events that I realized it’s an industry and community and it’s for anyone.
I grew up with story. I’m from a Métis community; we were moved a few times. We were Red River Métis, then Drummond Island, which was given to the U.S. They put our community (they called us the Chippewa Half-Breeds) on a boat and moved us to another part of the Georgian Bay. We ended up forming a settlement near Penetanguishene. We were not treaty people; we didn’t have a formal settlement so we were moved, again, because that land became really valuable. It’s 90 minutes from Toronto – an Indigenous word for ‘land of the rolling white sands.’ Now, it’s cottage country. We were priced out and pushed off the land. Our community is now in a small French-Canadian town called Lafontaine.
I think this is why story was so important to us. Because through all those relocations, we had to keep our language, our traditions, our understanding of home and place. When you don’t have a physical home, or when it’s precarious, you have to find something to carry your culture.
My earliest memories are of being with my grandmother and her sisters; they would tell me stories, I would have to tell them stories back. When I was about five, I realized a book was just like a jail for a story – the pages, you can capture the story, and keep it there and read it whenever you want. You don’t have to wait for someone to tell it to you. I was fascinated.
Before I could physically, truly, write, I wanted to be a writer.I just didn’t think it was a career option, so I did everything else. Museum curator. Governance consulting with Chief and Council for First Nations. I developed a funding program with the provincial government for Indigenous communities. My first job was a magician’s assistant.
I did everything but write. Part of it was I knew it was so important to me. I really didn’t want to fail, so I thought not trying was a better way to handle it.
And then, in 2007, my grandmother was dying. She was in her 90s and had moved to Newfoundland with my parents. She and I, we had shared a room when she lived with us – my whole life. I would work at night (I still do) and it drove her crazy. She would say, ‘Please, turn off the light,’ and I was like ‘No, another five minutes. Don’t worry; one day, this is all going to come to something.’ When I found out she was passing, I promised it to her. I sat down and wrote the first book in a week; I didn’t know how much time we had. I sent it off to Theytus Books and they got back to me right away. I had my mom go and tell her in the middle of the night. The next day, my grandmother passed.
I have a full-time office for writing, but when I’m really writing, I go to my bedroom and lie on the bed. Some writers are very organized. Not me. The Marrow Thieves was written in a flurry of six weeks, then re-written 11 times.
First it was a short story, but I was specifically asked for speculative fiction. I didn’t know what to do; I had just written adult stuff. I looked at speculative and it’s either utopian or dystopian; I’m Indigenous, so I’m a pessimist, so we’re going to go dystopian. The majority of stories I was looking at were about surviving an apocalypse. That became so simple to me because everything we write is post-apocalyptic.
We have survived our apocalypse. I thought of the worst thing I could write about and it was stuff that had already happened.
The residential schools were not long ago. And then the story just came from this young boy.
The first residency I did was at First Nations House at the University of Toronto. The majority of students I saw were Indigenous and that was about supporting community voice. Then, I was in residence at the Toronto Public Library and they said I was the ‘first writer in residence of Aboriginal literatures.’ I asked, was I the first to specialize in it or the first Indigenous writer? I was the first Indigenous writer. There are 70,000 Indigenous people in Toronto. A huge arts community. How could I possibly be the first? There’s something systemically wrong that you waited until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do this. What is my role here?
We are on the land of the people of story. The conceit it would take to think there’s only one kind of literature and only one kind of excellence is astounding.
I’m always of two minds. I’m happy to be here as an Indigenous person, but I also kind of just want to be in places as a writer. There’s no clear answer to, ‘Are you a writer or an Indigenous writer?’ When there’s a lack, you feel like you need to fill the space and bring Indigeneity and represent. But then, sometimes, you just want to be a writer.
I was on two panels in the past year and a half where I was asked about writing. The rest of it was about how I felt about pipelines, the Indian Act, residential schools – everything except writing.
What is Indigenous literature? Does it have Indigenous characters or topics? Anything I write, I write from my worldview, so even if I write something “mainstream,” it’s through my understanding. I am very privileged because I was raised with my community, in my community, with our stories and with Indigenous knowledge as central. Everything I write is Indigenous literature because I cannot be separated from that.
At the same time, I’m a professional. I’ve committed to this craft – it’s my life. I understand literature. I’m a bibliophile. I read voraciously. There’s the craft end of it. I hate being asked about Indigenous politics, which happens a lot in public forums. I would love the opportunity to decide when I’m going to talk about Indigeneity.
I would love to be recognized as a writer of Indigenous stories. I’m not a Canadian writer. This is what is now known as Canada; it means something different to and for me.
I’m not a Canadian writer, so in that respect, I am an Indigenous writer – but I would like to be able to decide when that becomes part of the conversation.
I know that’s difficult and people are well-meaning, but it’s a lot of, ‘You need an Indigenous person and here’s one of three people you can call and talk about this Indigenous issue.’ I’ve been asked, ‘Will you sit on a panel about missing and murdered Indigenous women?’ No. Not because I don’t understand what that means for our community, but because it’s not my story. I won’t be the Indian on every issue. It’s hard to manage. Just listen. You’re telling your story and people don’t listen; they just want to hear the soundbite and they want you to represent everyone.
* * *
THE MARROW THIEVES: In a future world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous population – and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow – and dreams – means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a 15-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones, and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing ‘factories.’
The Marrow Thieves is available at The Book Store at Western.
As part of Western’s Indigenous Awareness Week, Cherie Dimaline will be doing a reading, followed by discussion, in the D.B. Weldon Library atrium Monday, Nov. 26 from 1-2 p.m.