An interview with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, an Anishinaabe writer and the founder and owner of Kegedonce Press

By Katia Grubisic

You’re at the helm of Kegedonce, which has been publishing indigenous writers since 1993. By its mandate to publish First Nations writers—one of only a handful of First Nations-specific publishers in Canada—is Kegedonce intrinsically political?

Our choices are mainly informed by the quality of the writing. We also very much consider genre, and have a keen interest in pushing against the expectations readers may have with regards to Indigenous literature, so we encourage and support work that challenges those perceptions and knocks at the boundaries. Marketability is an issue, of course, but we look at it in terms of what the author can bring—if they have an audience and are out there doing readings and selling their work. In other words, if they are active partners in marketing and selling their work, then we will invest in them even if they are writing poetry or other writing that supposedly doesn’t sell.

In looking at gender, CWILA has kept coming up against other diversities, including those that hinge on self-identification. As an editor and as a publisher, other than the ethnocultural concern that underpins your selections, what informs your choices—regional representation, genres, different First Nations cultures, marketability…? In your curatorial decisions, are there cases in which the activist speaks more strongly than the reader?

We try to be mindful of other factors like gender balance and regional representation, but we wouldn’t choose a book for that reason if we had another one that was, in our opinion, better written. We really do try to work with writers who are committed to their careers and willing to work with us in a respectful and enthusiastic way as partners with a common goal. A gorgeously written book by a writer who won’t work hard or who is difficult and demanding would be better placed elsewhere.

Kegedonce’s new 2013 titles, as well as its backlist, include considerably more male authors. In my own work as an editor and in literary presentation, I have found that fifty-fifty isn’t always possible, nor artistically desirable; keeping an equilibrium in mind, however, does seem to help things even out over time. To what extent do you take into account gender balance?

It’s not a huge consideration. I wouldn’t publish a book simply because it was by a woman because I think that does a disservice ultimately. The quality has to be there. I’m confident that there are enough women writers who are writing at a high level to fulfil our needs at Kegedonce Press, so I don’t sweat it too much. What has been a bigger concern to me in this area is that there are not enough emerging writers who seem to think in terms of long-term writing careers. What I’ve seen happening is that our women writers tend to write one or two books then disappear. I think that often they get caught up in the day-to-day world: they have children, build other careers—often as single moms and with many other issues to deal with—and they just can’t balance it all. So the writing gets sidelined. That’s not something that Kegedonce Press can really address. I’ve flagged it many times to funders and others but it requires training and mentoring for young/emerging Indigenous women writers.

In terms of our titles, I’m not sure I’d agree with the term “considerably more male authors.” I think that if you look at our author list there are a few men who probably shouldn’t be listed there; for example, Adrian is not an author, he’s an illustrator. We should probably have a different list for those who assist us in producing our books—the illustrators, photographers, designers, etc. Our designer is a woman, Tania Willard, but not visible on our website, so we should probably be more conscious of that. In actuality, we’ve published 12 male authors (including Warren, who edited a book for us) and eight women (including Josie, who co-edited a book for us).

A concern I do have is in terms of Inuit writing. I’d really like to see more writing by Inuit writers and am very willing to help with this. We had hoped to publish a poetry book by the late and great Alootook Ipellie, but he passed on before he completed it. We’ve also talked with others who were working on projects and tried to lend support and have been willing to review manuscripts for our publishing list, but so far nothing has come to fruition. It is an area where we’d be happy to see more submissions and would take a serious interest. The quality of the writing would have to be there but we’d be keen to publish an Inuk writer.

Where do you see the most promising literary criticism of indigenous writing happening in Canada? 

I’d have to say it is coming primarily from Indigenous scholars like Daniel Heath Justice at UBC, Niigaawewidam Sinclair at the University of Manitoba, Neal McLeod at Trent, Warren Cariou (also at the U of M)—all of whom are wonderful and making major contributions to the study of Indigenous literature. There are also a few non-Native scholars doing great work, including Sam McKegney (Queen’s University), whose work as a non-Indigenous literary scholar and critic is particularly thoughtful and insightful.

Which venues are publishing the best book reviews of books by indigenous authors? 

I’m not sure I could point to any particular journals or magazines that are consistently publishing reviews that are well informed and thought provoking. I’d have to talk to a few people like Daniel and Niigaan about this because, as publishers, we’re constantly simply looking to get our books reviewed and hoping reviews get published—that’s a job in itself. As for the quality of those reviews, it seems to vary a lot. I think the real problem is that there simply aren’t enough books by Indigenous authors being reviewed.

As an editor, publisher and writer, do you have concrete suggestions for books editors, whether at major papers and smaller journals?

Definitely: publish more reviews by Indigenous reviewers, of books by Indigenous authors and ensure that the reviewers are knowledgeable about Indigenous literature in a real way. Simply being Indigenous and a writer or in the arts is probably not enough. The reviewers don’t necessarily need to be Indigenous if they are knowledgeable about Indigenous lit. If you can’t find reviewers, contact someone like Daniel or Niigaan or Warren or Sam or me to ask for suggestions. I think that before we can put Indigenous lit criticism and reviews in the mix with everything else, first we have to spend some time getting it right. We’ve moved past having ill-informed people doing superficial reviews and criticism of Indigenous literature, especially criticism that randomly applies Western theories and concepts, to degrade our literature and literary history. Aim for quality, so that a high standard is set. We don’t all need to agree on the content, but we do need to feel that reviews come from an educated, informed, thoughtful, insightful perspective, and from someone who is aware of what’s happening in the field.

There is strong female leadership in various spheres of First Nations culture and politics, particularly, it seems, at the grassroots level. Is there a cultural predilection for feminism?

Feminism is a loaded word. I’m not sure if you’d like me to get into that discussion. Instead, I’d rather say that I believe that, because many Indigenous cultures are matriarchal and matrilineal, and even those that aren’t have cultural values that recognize and respect and affirm women’s roles, women do assume certain types of leadership very easily. The influence of colonialism certainly is important—it has meant that men in our communities have been given certain privileges that women haven’t, so my personal belief is that in a system that is patriarchal and patrilineal as well as colonial and systemically racist or biased against Indigenous peoples, there is very limited authority and power that our men can assume and even less for women, so our women haven’t tended to buy into the system—it’s not in our interest to do so. Which is why I believe there are so many male Band Council Chiefs—it’s an imposed form of leadership by the colonial government. Instead, women tend to get on with taking care of business in the community and in ways that protect our families, communities and cultures. Not that men don’t do that, but some may be busy or distracted with other things and working within a system that really doesn’t value them but that does seem to give them power over women and children in the communities. It’s a more complex situation than my answer encompasses, but I hope I’m making my point without unfairly putting down our men.

Are there writers, editors or publishers who’ve shaped you professionally? What are some of the challenges you hadn’t anticipated when you started out—as a writer, a publisher, a poet, a woman, a First Nations person?

Absolutely! My grandmother Irene Akiwenzie was a tremendous influence on me. She was a writer and voracious reader. I’ve also been influenced by the writers and editors who have mentored and encouraged me. Jeannette Armstrong really helped me to think of myself as a writer and to be confident in myself and my work. Patricia Grace has been a huge influence—I’ve spoken to her many times about writing and being a writer and I’ve had the privilege to hear her do readings and spend time with her visiting and just hanging out. Haunani-Kay Trask has also been a wonderful friend and ally who has helped to shape me as a writer, a poet and as an Indigenous person. I’ve learned so much from her—she’s so strong and fierce, so articulate and informed, and yet so kind and generous, so supportive and affectionate. She taught me that Indigenous women can be justifiably angry and can use that passion to do great work for our people because the anger arises out of huge love for our people. There have been many others—Basil Johnston, Jack Forbes, Howard Adams, John Trudell—who have been influences and mentors.

Skins, the international aboriginal anthology you co-edited, included American Indian, Inuit, First Nations, Maori writers… An anthologist’s task is perhaps more fraught than that of an editor—every inclusion can be, in some critic’s eyes, also an exclusion. How did the questions of representation you came across in that project differ from country to country? The book was published over a decade ago now. What’s changed since? What would a similar collection look like today? What should it look like in 20, 30 years? 

Well, first of all, we didn’t let those considerations overwhelm us—which is important. Rather, we concentrated on putting together an anthology of fiction that would be a useful primer for those who don’t know much about Indigenous lit or who are not widely read in this area. We tried to select some of the highest profile and most celebrated writers from each area, who would be nationally and, in most cases, internationally known, and we purposely included writers who were very accomplished but at earlier stages in their careers—in part, to give some idea of what was up-and-coming and also to boost the profile of those writers. What we hoped was that university profs would find it a useful collection for introducing Indigenous lit to their students so that our writers would be taught more frequently. It was strategic in many ways.

I suppose part of what has changed is that there are a lot more courses in Indigenous lit and a lot more that include Indigenous writers. I would like to think that there’s a greater awareness of Indigenous lit from other areas but I’m not sure that’s the case? But I hope so. I hope more people here know Patricia Grace’s name, for example. There are more published writers than there were but I’m not sure we’ve got more writers who are recognized at a national and/or international level or who are winning awards and accolades—which I would have hoped would be the case by now.  

Akiwenzie-Damm photo

Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator. Her collection of poems, What if red ran out, won the Gerald Lampert award for best first book.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is an Anishinaabe writer of mixed ancestry from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation. Her writing has been published in various anthologies, journals, and magazines in Canada, the US, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia and Germany, and in her collection my heart is a stray bullet (1993/2003). Akiwenzie-Damm has also edited two anthologies: skins: Contemporary indigenous writing (2000, with Josie Douglas), and Without Reservation: Indigenous Erotica (2003). She is the founder and managing editor of Kegedonce Press.

Published April 17, 2013

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