An Interview with Cherie Dimaline, Writer in Residence, First Nations House (University of Toronto), and Managing Editor, Muskrat Magazine

By Sadiqa de Meijer

CWILA was founded in response to several writers noticing and documenting the disparity between the number of poetry books written by women in Canada and the percentage of reviews of devoted to them. Let’s start with your thoughts on those numbers.

This is honestly the first time I’ve looked at these numbers. I can say, first of all, that I am not surprised. I think with poetry, in particular, there is this clichéd idea that ‘flowery writing’ is standard to women and so it’s the male poets who will cut through and make it sizzle. I think because people overlook the stark, bone-snapping grit and truth that can populate women’s work, they assume we’re just expounding on love and flowers and lean towards the men’s work for the controversy and sharpness. And we all know that’s total bullshit.

I also think the literary world is still an old boys’ game in a lot of ways where change is as welcome as an Apocalypse. I just read a piece Adam Mansbach wrote for Salon, talking about the dated and largely unsuccessful idea of the Book Tour that the industry is too habitual to retire. I totally agree.

Do you write reviews yourself? Whether yes or no, what is the reason?

I’ve written reviews whenever I’ve had the opportunity. In fact, we are starting with book reviews in the next issue of Muskrat Magazine. I think it’s important to give space and credit to the works that are finding their way. Because it is becoming more and
more difficult to produce and share works of real merit, opening the floor for discussion and lighting the stage for promotion is the least we can do as fellow writers and editors.

As an editor at First Nations House Magazine and Muskrat, do you publish reviews? If so, how do you decide which books to include?

At FNH and Muskrat we are for, by, and about the Indigenous population. We rely a lot on word of mouth, to be honest. It’s a small literary world and an even smaller Indigenous world within that, so we find ourselves hearing about new projects through community networks. Fortunately, we have several great Aboriginal publishing houses (Theytus Books and Kegedonce) that make sure we get review copies and access to excerpts, writers, and readings. In terms of gender division, we are always cognizant that being representative of all areas of our community is a main responsibility. On top of that, we are connoisseurs of excellence, and Indigenous women are phenomenal storytellers, so it’s really a win-win situation!

Thus far, CWILA has focused on identifying and fixing a gender gap in literary reviews, but of course gender is only one of a range of factors that may push writers (and people) into the margins. In the U.S., Roxane Gay found that in 2011 nearly 90% of the books reviewed in The New York Times were written by white writers. Your own work as writer, editor, and writer in residence is grounded in Indigenous cultures. I’d really like to hear your perspective on what makes for a just and inclusive literary field. Does representation in mainstream media matter? What’s going well and what’s wrong?

Because I am Métis, I am always shelved as an Indigenous Canadian writer first and foremost—by publishers, publicists, media, stores, etc. It’s a very colonial way to classify writers—according to race—and it makes for divided readership and academic study. Without inclusivity in mainstream media, particularly in reviews, you end up with a very skewed view of what Indigenous literature is. I often run into non-Native people who read my work and comment on how ‘non-Native’ it is or how surprised they were by the language, urban settings, and modernity. I suppose, when you have such a poorly informed and under-resourced Canadian education system as far as Indigenous cultures and history goes, you breed readers who are confused when Native writers don’t write about reserves, wolves, and shamans.

This is why mainstream representation is necessary; it’s the writers and artists who are bringing about change, with a particular emphasis on cultural preservation and education. Without reaching out to mainstream readers, you get that fantastic but already well-informed Indigenous readership and lose the opportunity to share and grow with the rest of Canada.

We do need our own outlets and media; it is essential that we tell our own stories in our own voices and through our worldview, but you still hope that the stories go beyond the confines of culture to a national and international audience. What a dramatic failure—to have a Canada where Indigenous stories are not recognized as distinct and essential to our identity as a nation.

I want to acknowledge what you said in another interview: “I honestly can’t believe that there are not more Aboriginal writers, which I think speaks to the lack of artistic supports and validation rather than inclination and inspiration,”—indicating that the problem of representation doesn’t start at the book-review stage. It’s a concern that you address directly through your work as Writer in Residence at FNH. Do you have any further comments based on that experience?

In the Aboriginal community, there are an abundance of storytellers; it’s one of elements we understand to be essential to living a good life as well as one of the areas in which we are gifted. With all of these incredible stories and storytellers, I think one of the only explanations I can see for not having a large and diverse Indigenous writing community within the larger Canadian literary community is the lack of bridges for us to get there. By that I mean, in my own experience, I was encouraged to tell the stories, craft the stories, and preserve the stories, but there were not too many ways in which I could actually reach across to the publishing industry. We all know the difficulties in getting publishing contracts, particularly with the nervous nature of publishing houses in this economic climate, but compound that with the general ‘understanding’ that Indigenous literature is a ‘niche market,’ which boils down to a smaller audience with not a lot of opportunity for economic return, and you end up with a fairly narrow opening to try to sprint through.

As the Writer in Residence at First Nations House at U of T, I work with emerging and established writers to try to find ways to find those paths and make a run for it. And like being a Native student or a Native employee, half of the work is educating people about yourself and your nation(s). One student remarked that being Aboriginal in a classroom is like being a part-time race relations worker because you are constantly called on to teach—unpaid, of course. With literature, you have to not only produce excellent work, but also try to get across that—No, we don’t have to be talking about historical Indians for Canadians to ‘get it’ and, yes, Indigenous-produced literature can be mainstream, even the stories that may be ‘difficult’ or *gasp* modern and/or urban. This is why we work hard to produce publications and work that can exhibit our own excellence as well as trying to play on a larger field.

Are there any recent books that have been neglected in mainstream reviews that you’d like to recommend to readers and/or potential reviewers?

Gregory Scofield’s Louis: The Heretic Poems (Nightwood Editions/The Gabriel Dumont Institute) is a dynamic, fresh and beautifully intricate work that has whispered its way onto the scene. We should be screaming its arrival.

What are your thoughts on CWILA’s Critic-in-Residence initiative?

I love the idea of having a Critic-in-Residence. I think, with the death of the book sections in papers and with publications scaling back, it is vital to have positions that can address reviews in a specific and focused way. We deserve that commitment.

Sadiqa’s de Meijer’s poetry, short stories and personal essays have appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, as well as in the Best of Canadian Poetry in English series and the anthology Villanelles.

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis author living in Toronto with her husband and their three children. Her first award-winning book, Red Rooms, was published in 2007. She is currently the Writer in Residence for First Nations House at the University of Toronto and is the Editor-in-Chief of both FNH and Muskrat magazines. Her stories have been widely anthologized, and her first novel, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, will be released by Theytus Books in May 2013.

Published February 7, 2013

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