Can Idle No More help heal and unify by having even the “mutts” wonder: Wow, maybe this kind of trauma doesn’t really go away. Maybe this trauma on such a mass scale does resonate through generations?
An interesting article about a new book in this morning’s Globe and Mail, Joseph Boyden tackles native torture, colonial amnesia and ongoing racism:
History class has rarely been so fun. But rarely has the teacher been anyone like Joseph Boyden, the Ontario-born, Jesuit-educated, New Orleans-based self-described “mutt” of Scottish, Irish and Anishinaabek heritage whose new novel, The Orenda, is destined to be one of the biggest books of the season. A brilliant and bloody dissection of Canada’s early days, it follows on the heels of two other acclaimed historical novels by the author: His first book, Three Day Road, set just after the First World War, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; his second, Through Black Spruce, nabbed the Giller.
People have remarked that this is the perfect book to follow the Idle No More movement. And sure, in a sense – this is a novel about First Nations. But beyond that connection, is The Orenda especially resonant in this moment?
I’m happy that people have made that connection. Idle No More didn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of people who’ve been truly disenfranchised in their own homes. Any good historical novel is going to feel contemporary, thematically. You look at this novel, and think about immigration, who you allow in, who you don’t. The Huron allow in the ones who ultimately end up destroying them, because the Huron aren’t perfect either: They needed the trade, and how much greed was involved in that? Look environmentally – you wipe out all the furs and your economy is gone. It’s like the oil sands.
I understand the Idle No More connection is one you’re happy to see made, but it still feels a bit hazy.
I would never try to make that connection. I could, if I had the time and the energy, trace the route between where my novel ends and Idle No More begins – because it’s not over, it’s just quiet right now. First Nations youth are the fastest-growing population in our country, and they’re not going anywhere. If I could make one reader look at a contemporary First Nations person a little bit differently, that would thrill me. Once a reader said she gave her dad a copy of one of my books, and he was kind of a racist dude toward native people. And after he read that book, he was much less so – he began to see them as three-dimensional.
There’s a point in the book where the sort of omniscient narrator, who introduces the novels’s sections, asks how one keeps going when one has lost everything. Then that narrator says, “Or perhaps the question is this: What role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” That felt almost like a moral imperative: You now must examine what role you played. Is that a central concern for you?
I carefully put that there, because I don’t want to present First Nations as always being victimized. No one’s purely the victim. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. My wife was purely a victim when she was horribly raped and left for dead. But when it comes to big cultural movements, the Huron played a role in their demise, and they know that. The English and the French and Dutch all did, too. Just the acceptance of responsibility is really important. Certainly we got the short end of the stick. Disease, for instance: There were 30,000 Huron when the Jesuits arrived; within 10 years, there were 10,000. There is that, which is just brutal and unfair. But this idea of accepting responsibility for something not going the way it should have is something I think everyone should do.
The book is a kind of democratization of trauma and loss, a long sequence of trading things back and forth – you do this to me and my family, so I’ll do this to you and yours. Can a story like this, told this way, spread that sense of sadness, of loss, further, so that readers can share that pain, too?
Well, maybe not share it, but understand it a little bit better. How do you go on when you’ve lost everything? If we as contemporary readers look back and say, “We really screwed some of these people, didn’t we, when we first arrived?” That’s a lesson I didn’t want to bang people over the head with, but I want the reader to be able to empathize with the characters.
Can that also become a moment of optimism for us as a broader society now? If we look at what we’ve lost, through our own fault, can we find a way to move on from that?
That would be amazing. But when I read the newspaper comments sections online, I realize that the racism is far heavier in Canada than I ever wanted to imagine. I think the average thinking, caring, emotive person can learn a bit of a lesson from reliving our history even if it is in fiction, which can sometimes have a greater truth. Maybe somebody will read this and say, “Wow, maybe this kind of trauma doesn’t really go away. Maybe this trauma on such a mass scale does resonate through generations.”
Do you think that a movement like Idle No More, despite all its successes, can actually propagate more racism?
I don’t think people are made racist because of a political movement. I think people are forced to examine their beliefs and their motivations. Like my friend DJ NDN from A Tribe Called Red, he is fighting a good fight in Ottawa to get a football team called the Nepean Redskins to change their name because he is an Anishinabe man and he finds it horribly racist. You should see the racists that crawl out of the woodwork. These people are coming out just to scream at him. I think Idle No More forces us to examine our motivations, our belief systems, our systems of commentary. I don’t think it’s going to make racists – but it will draw them out. And maybe it’s time to draw out that kind of poison, so we can excise it.
You’ve talked much about how your First Nations heritage is but one part of who you are.
I’m a mutt and very proud of it. I’m proud to have Irish blood and Ojibwa blood and Scottish blood.
Christophe is the first Western character in a novel of mine who’s been a protagonist. I think that they’re coming. I think there will be some really good mutt characters in the next novel. I hope and think I’m continuing to grow as a writer. I’ve got room to grow still, and lots of stories.
…when I read the newspaper comments sections online, I realize that the racism is far heavier in Canada than I ever wanted to imagine.
Joseph Boyden will be at The Avening Hall near Creemore this Monday pm.