Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Sleeping Giant Awakens - M. D. Meyer

I was recently at a conference in Brandon, Manitoba which featured dialogue and readings by twenty-four prominent Aboriginal authors from across Canada. Joseph Boyden, winner of a Giller (and many other awards!) was there. Renowned author, Basil Johnston honored us with a literary reading. Michael Kusugak, author of the children’s book, A Promise is a Promise spoke of how his books were based on stories his grandmother told him while their family was wintering on the ice flows in Hudson’s Bay. Many (young) people will remember reading in high school the book, In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier. Beatrice was one of the many authors who shared their writing journey with the audience gathered at the 2nd bi-annual Ogamas Aboriginal Literary Festival.

When I was a young kid in school (many moons ago!), there was no Aboriginal literature available at all. The Native kids that I knew were well-known for their beautiful artwork but were always poor in English and writing skills. No surprise, really, since English was a second language to them. In those years, I suppose what was assumed by most was that the Aboriginal people had no great stories to tell and no great story-tellers to tell them. How far from the truth that was!

Now, finally, the sleeping giant has awoken. The pioneers of Canadian Aboriginal literature, Basil Johnston (Ojibway Heritage, 1976), Beatrice Mosionier (April Raintree, 1983) and Emma LaRocque (Defeathering the Indian, 1975) faced and overcame many challenges. Today, they are joined by a wealth of writers including humourist, Drew Hayden Taylor; journalist, Colleen Simard; poet, Marilyn Dumont; and young adult author, Jennifer Storm. No longer limited to legends and “protest literature,” Aboriginal writings are winning major literary awards for their excellence in such varied fields as critical text, gothic novels, humour and children’s literature (to name but a few).

And there are many more authors to follow. Here in Norway House, for example, I know that Aboriginal high school students are prepared for, and encouraged to pursue, a career as authors, journalists or playwrights. And I can personally attest to the fact that there are already some very good writers among them.

As Canadian Christian writers, we face some challenges – getting Canadian books into Christian bookstores, getting Christian books into mainstream bookstores and so on. We know and understand these challenges. Canadian Aboriginal writers face similar obstacles. Their books should not be relegated to “Aboriginal collections” in select University libraries. We should be seeing this incredible wealth of literature represented in all of our bookstores, libraries and schools. It is we ourselves who will be missing out if we do not open our eyes to this awakening giant. The Aboriginal writing community is growing and getting stronger every day (April Raintree annually sells over 6,000 copies worldwide). As Canadians and as Christian writers, editors, booksellers and book buyers, we need to get on board and support our fellow Canadian writers in the Aboriginal community. It is our responsibility and it is our privilege.

4 comments:

Peter Black said...

It must have been quite a conference, and no doubt, a wonderful experience, Dorene.
You've brought to us a writing world about which many of us, I'm sure, know very little.
Thank you.
Peter.

violet said...

Well said, Dorene!

My question - do books by Aboriginal authors get special treatment (good or bad)? Is there a perceived difference in them (the writing or the subject matter) that would set them apart from other books by Canadian writers? Do their books have a harder time doing well than books by any other Canadian writers in a market that is dominated by US publishers? I guess what I'm wondering is, is this an Aboriginal problem, or a Canadian problem?

Dorene Meyer said...

Hi Violet,
That's a bit of a loaded question. I think actually there is perhaps an added difficulty for some Aboriginal writings to get accepted even within the smaller Canadian market. Recently, I had a publisher turn down an excellent book (he agreed it was excellent) because it was written in the Cree language. Another manuscript was turned down because the story premise wouldn't be acceptable in the mainstream market. When I talked to the author, she said it was Native humour. I agreed with her. It was something that a lot of people in the Aboriginal community would think funny but perhaps most other Canadians would not understand.
I'm sure this is not a problem unique to the Aboriginal community. Certainly, regional differences exist in this huge country of ours. And there are other cultural groups in Canada that would perhaps also sometimes experience a lack of understanding and acceptance.
I guess the main thing is that we keep open minds and hearts - and be ready to read books that might be a bit outside of our usual range - a bit outside of our comfort zone.
Thanks for your comments, Violet!
Dorene

violet said...

Thanks Dorene! This is a new area for me - and interesting. About the Aboriginal humor book - wouldn't it be great if the book could be offered somehow - maybe POD - so that it was available to people who would appreciate it? As Nancy repeatedly reminds us - we need to find new publishing and distribution models in this 'brave new world.'

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