An Interview with Lee Maracle

By Brecken Hancock

BH: In an interview with Kit Dobson and Smaro Kamboureli, in Producing Canadian Literature: Authors Speak on the Literary Marketplace, you discuss critical approaches to your work: “I take on hard subjects, you know, and I’m accused of twanging Canadian guilt…. One of the people who reviewed Ravensong said I took on too much. And someone else who gave a good review of Daughters [are Forever] still said I twanged Canadian guilt. And when I re-read the reviews, I realized that there weren’t a lot of things said about the writing…. It’s all about what I write about as opposed to the writing itself.” Elsewhere, particularly in the “Preface to the New Edition” of Sojourners and Sundogs, you voice “much amusement” at literary critics who examine your work from a “patriarchal position”—for instance, defining Raven for you, imposing a definition of “trickster” as exclusively male. It seems as though the literary establishment has largely tried to neutralize your political challenge to colonial culture and has often refrained from engaging with your contributions as a writer. Are there venues or particular critics that have offered productive and nuanced readings of your work?

LM: I have to say that some of the reviews of Celia’s Song actually took on the writing. I was moved by the insight of some of the reviewers, some of them showed an amazing understanding of the book and what I was trying to achieve. The review in the Vancouver Sun particularly moved me. It is so good to know that Vancouverites are beginning to really understand us. I believe that some Canadian reviewers are beginning to see beyond the simplicity of trickster stories and are beginning to grasp each book, each author in their individuality and in their connection to their specific nations.

BH: You’ve just come out with Celia’s Song, your fifth novel and eleventh single-authored full-length book, and your work has been widely honoured and recognized—for instance your recent Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (Ontario, September 2014). Throughout your prolific career, have you noticed a change in the way critics read you? If so, do any of those changes echo changes in the political climate more broadly?

LM: I think to some extent I have been privileged to have been written about quite a lot and not so much critiqued, but rather, many literary essays have been written discussing some aspect of my work or other in an in depth way. I have also read a number of Master’s theses and PhD dissertations in which Ravensong and others of my works have been the subject of study and discourse. That being said, the critics often are incorrect, that is they did not do a very careful read of the work. Let me first say that I respect critics and reviewers. I think to do a review or a criticism in the time allotted you have to be some kind of genius. The person is perusing a couple hundred pages, and reducing it all to a page and a half of commentary. Likewise critics don’t often get a great deal of time to study a work. I think what has changed is the understanding of Indigenous people generally; the critics and reviewers are more enlightened about who they are writing about. There are still those who give a cursory read and make their comments, but in general the understanding of Indigenous people is deeper, so the people writing about my work tend to begin on some sort of ladder of understanding if you will. The most common question I received after writing Bobbi Lee, for instance, was “Are you going to drive us all into the sea?” No one asks that anymore.

BH: How do you judge the success of a piece of finished work? Are positive reviews and book sales indicative of popular engagement with your texts? Where do you wish to be read the most? Or, what reader are you writing for? 

LM: I don’t judge the success of a piece of finished work from outside standards. I know that sounds a little egotistical, but I am acutely aware of the racism and sexism in this country and it shows up in what sort of books people purchase and who wins awards. Marilyn Dumont said it best: “If you are an Aboriginal woman who wants to be a writer, you are going to have a hard time.” This is still true. The majority of book buyers are women and the majority of books sold are by men. And of course white men do best. Canadians are much more curious about us than when I first began, but they are far more inclined to read male Aboriginal writers, so it would be unfair to “judge” the success of a piece of finished work by the sales, the awards, or the reviews. I am a long way from popular engagement. I have had to thrive on the comments by readers who tell me they believe me to be the best novelist in the country to keep my spirits up, but I still don’t judge the success of my work on such comments. What really does affect me is when people are able to use my work to engage in some sort of socially oriented work of their own. That is, they are engaging the texts in a much richer way than just judging the quality of the writing. When the story begins to come alive in their life, then I am exalted. I think I am writing for the reader who says, “Ok, I can do something about this” and engages the story in the way I describe in the foregoing sentences. I am writing for our ancestors who were not entitled to write and I am writing for our future grandchildren who will need to know their origins. I am also recognized by my nation as a pre-eminent “indigenous scholar,” which is how I view success, from within my nation.

BH: You often cite Maria Campbell as a ground-breaking artist and her book Half-Breed (1973) as a breakthrough text for Aboriginal writers. Your autobiographical Bobbi Lee came out two years later and was also among the first contemporary texts to be published in Canada dealing with colonial racism and the implications of cultural genocide for Aboriginal people. In an interview with Francine Cunningham, you talk about the impediments to getting published: “It was difficult to get published in those days because a lot of our folks didn’t read and big publishers didn’t actually want to take a chance on us until after Maria Campbell published Half-Breed.” Thinking about your perseverance in the face of these struggles, I started wondering about your mentors and your early days as a writer—what kept you going? You mentioned to Margery Fee and Sneja Gunew that you “had the most amazing teachers.” Were these teachers also writers? What makes a good teacher?

LM: No, not many were writers, actually I cannot think of one of them that was a writer. By “amazing” I mean they grew past their own initial belief that we were an inferior race and began to help me become a writer. Some of my teachers were orators, not writers. None of those people necessarily “kept me going.” I was raised by a mother who said “Never take no for an answer, unless you have come to the conclusion that you are asking for more than you deserve.” Of course she had a wide framed picture of what we deserved. I am kind of like George Elliott Clarke, I want an end to white supremacy and won’t stop calling for it until it ends. What keeps me going is that I want to write, it isn’t any different for me in that sense than it is for Margaret Atwood. Getting published is different, getting purchased by Canadians is different too for me, but it doesn’t change what keeps me going. The next story, the next book keeps me going. I am already thinking of the next book.

BH: Since you first published Bobbi Lee almost 40 years ago, you’ve been a working writer at the same time as you’ve been an activist, a teacher, a public speaker, a public intellectual, and a mentor. We are often taught to think of these endeavours as separate from one another, as stand-alone categories of labour. What do you consider the role of “writer” to be?

LM: To write. Anything more is gravy. Two of my favourite poets are authors and teachers (Dionne Brand and Marilyn Dumont), I don’t believe they as writers should feel obligated to teach. It should be just another one of our loves, I love to teach. My activism has to do with my conscience; I cannot let certain things slide without doing something. My public speaking is part of an art form that is cultural. We are speakers. We are public intellectuals and we are activistsit is who we are. It is who I am, but I do not look upon any of those things as the obligations of writers. Many writers in Canada have to do more than write just to survive. Unless you are published internationally, you need to earn extra money to stay afloat. Sometimes I am an actor, on stage, in a movie.

BH: In an interview with Chelsea Novak for CWILA last year, Bronwyn Drainie speculates that women are doing a disproportionate amount of service labour, such as writing reviews. “Everyone wants women to be represented,” says Drainie, and because women are “still in the minority in virtually every field,” “more and more gets loaded on their shoulders than on the shoulders of all the men.” Over the course of your career, some of the work you’ve done has been paid—for instance, your teaching positions at universities, your writer-in-residencies, and your current position as Traditional Teacher in Residence at the University of Toronto’s First Nations House. However, much of your work has been unpaid and you reveal to Dobson and Kamboureli, “I don’t make enough money from art to stay alive. A great many artists are in this circumstance.” Demands for service labour often compete with our ability to make a living as writers. I want to acknowledge that, even in speaking with me, you’re lending your unpaid time to educating others, to disseminating your experience and knowledge, while I am conducting this interview unpaid in order to contribute to my field. What advice do you have for those living on the social and economic margins to find balance in the face of competing artistic, personal, and political demands?

LM: I can see myself doing this interview for free, because I will gain from it. Those who like the thinking will buy a book or borrow one from the library, but I don’t think anyone should interview someone else, get it published and not get paid. We need to stop giving away the farm. It is quite possibly why I don’t do interviews. Someone told me that there are 600,000 artists in Canada living below the poverty line. I am not sure where they got this statistic, but if it is even remotely true it is scandalous. I rarely do anything for nothing. I just sort of think that no one would come over to my house and offer to mow my lawn for nothing, why would they expect me to write for nothing.

BH: You have often said that you prefer writing fiction and poetry to non-fiction. Yet, you continue to produce and publish essays and you are a dynamic and important political speaker. Of course, your essays and nonfiction contain story and poetry, so readers and listeners always find the heart of your passion even in your sociological and political writing. What brings you back again and again to non-fiction?

LM: I think sometimes I realize I do have something to say about a subject that is on other people’s minds, and then I return to it. It is still writing, but the demands on you are greater. It is often explaining things that are difficult to explain, easier to show, Maybe it is my “tarantula in a jar” (Ibsen referred to poetry as his tarantula in a jar, as soon as it starts to die, he has to feed it…).

BH: Doing the research for this interview, I’ve found your voice and your politics to be simultaneously hopeful and grave. Discussing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the program Context, you are frank about the inadequacy of the government’s approach to healing the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools, particularly the government’s failure to take any public and official responsibility by shielding the perpetrators of abuse and violence from having to testify. “All is not well,” you tell the hosts. On the other hand, in your novels, characters often find reasons to be hopeful, or at least to strive for “the upside that keeps us moving in the direction of the good life,” as Will puts it in Will’s Garden. This doubleness strikes me as markedly sane and rational—things are simultaneously dire and hopeful. How does this balance function for you politically and in your writing?

LM: We are mask dancers. On the one hand, the reality is dire, on the other, reality is always false, it is a mask covering what is coming up underneath. What is new and being born is what is hopeful. There is for me, only the upside that keeps us moving in the direction of the good life, at the same time, this requires that we shovel the bullsh_t out the door and clean house on a daily basis. You cannot live the good life if you are up to your neck in bullsh_t.

BH: CWILA has just released its third Count, quantifying the gender gap in Canadian review culture. In her introduction to this year’s numbers, CWILA chair Erin Wunker writes, “The Count may never adequately represent the diversity of genders, languages, and racial identities that make up this country’s literary culture. What it can do is get us talking and thinking about who is speaking and why.” There has been discussion about what it would mean to count and quantify the numbers along racial lines. This discussion was inspired by Roxane Gay’s “Race/Ethnicity Breakdown of Books Reviewed by the New York Times, 2011,” published in The Rumpus, where she found that almost 90% of books reviewed were written by white writers. Laura Moss, speaking at CWILA’s Panel Discussion on the “Challenge of Counting for Race,” held earlier this year, worries that “categorizing/counting people according to race would negate multiple identities and complex histories.” Do you think a count along racial lines could be productive in generating further conversation about equity in Canadian critical culture? Or are the problems inherent in such a methodology, given the historical implications of such categories, too steep to overcome?

LM: It is a simple way to point this out, but I think people know that those of colour and Indigenous people get left out on all sorts of levels. We need to continuously point it out. Shani Mootoo at the Writing Thru Race conference 20th anniversary pointed out that our first “viable works” are constantly studied, but everything that comes later gets ignored. I find that this is true for me as well. Ravensong continues to be studied 22 years after its publication, but the novels in between are ignored, except by Indigenous teachers. While I appreciate the sales, I have to say, what is it that makes white intellectuals narrow our writing to a singular early work? I don’t think it is up to me to try and figure out for white folks why they cannot seem to accept and value our work. The awards still largely go to white writers or “acceptable” writers of colour.

BH: There is a longstanding tradition in white feminist organizing to combat the dangers of racism by highlighting non-white “exceptions”—examples of non-white success in fields dominated by white supremacy. And, within this tradition, tokenism becomes a dangerous pitfall—and, along with tokenism, asking women to speak on behalf of their nation or nations, educating organizations of primarily white women on diversity and inclusivity. To focus on the positive, have any examples stood out to you as moments when white supremacy has been successfully disrupted in the Canadian literary establishment? What anti-colonial strategies, campaigns, conferences, or pieces of work have you found most productive or inspiring?

LM: Again there is that business of judging success. Three books come to mind which challenge white supremacy in the literary field, one is I Am Woman, second is Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian and the other is Dionne Brand’s No Language Is Neutral. The latter two unlocked a sense of logic that is consistently anti-colonial, and anti-white supremacy. Highlighting an exception just makes the reality harder to move and in that way highlighting the token, keeps the status quo in place. A token entrenches white supremacy, it does not alter it.

BH: I want to end with something that lingered with me from your recent keynote speech at the Intercultural Dialogue Institute’s Women’s Day Luncheon 2014 in Toronto: “The distinction between colour and not-so-colourful should not exist…. And the distinction between men and women should not exist. And it’s going to take us insisting that we promote the reading of women’s books and to get there and encouraging women to write beyond where we are.” Do you see promising interventions to promote women’s books and encourage women to write?

LM: I am the promising intervention that I see. I continuously point out that the book buyers are female, the booksellers are male, and we ought to be more balanced about our purchases. I haven’t seen anyone else do this.

Lee MaracleMs. Maracle is the author of a number of critically acclaimed literary works including: Sojourner’s and Sundogs [collected work of novel and short stories], Polestar/Raincoast, Ravensong [novel], Bobbi Lee [autobiographical novel], Daughters Are Forever [novel], Will’s Garden [young adult novel], Bent Box [poetry], I Am Woman [creative non-fiction], and is the co-editor of a number of anthologies including the award winning publication, My Home As I Remember [anthology], Natural Heritage books. She is also co-editor and contributor of Telling It: Women and Language across Culture [conference proceedings]. Ms. Maracle is published in anthologies and scholarly journals worldwide. Ms. Maracle was born in North Vancouver and is a member of the Sto: Loh nation. The mother of four and grandmother of seven, Maracle is currently an instructor at the University of Toronto. She is also the Traditional Teacher for First Nation’s House and instructor with the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and the S.A.G.E. [Support for Aboriginal Graduate Education] as well as the Banff Centre for the Arts writing instructor. In 2009, Maracle received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Thomas University. Maracle recently received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work promoting writing among Aboriginal Youth. Maracle has served as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and the University of Western Washington. Celia’s song [novel]. Work in progress Memory Serves and other Words [creative non-fiction]. Just received the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Brecken Hancock is an outgoing Interviews Editor for CWILA. Her poetry, essays, interviews, and reviews have been published in Best American Experimental Writing, Papirmass, Lemon HoundThe Globe & MailHazlitt, and Open Book Toronto. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom (Coach House, 2014), was named by The Globe & Mail’s Jared Bland as a debut of the year and appeared on a number of year-end best-book lists, including the National Post, All Lit Up, and BookThug’s Best Reads. She lives in Ottawa.

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