Lee Maracle is a Vancouver-born poet, educator author, activist and knowledge keeper from the Stö:lo Nation. Her writing is woven into the fabric of CanLit, being one of the first Indigenous writers to be published in the 1970’s onward. It is impossible to think of CanLit without also thinking of Lee Maracle. Her works of fiction include Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, Ravensong, Daughters Are Forever and Celia’s Song. Maracle’s non-fiction works include, I Am A Woman, Memory Serves and her recent release, My Conversations With Canadians. We spoke with Lee about publishing, oral storytelling, Indigenous activism and the future of CanLit.
What would you say to an Indigenous youth looking to locate themselves in a writing and publishing industry that seems unprepared or unwilling to publish their work?
That’s a real difficulty. What they would need to do is connect with an already published author and connect as a group. They’d have to form a group, first and connect with a published author to have a day long workshop with them. There are many that do this kind of work- Eden Robinson, Cherie Dimaline, Leanne Simpson, Richard Van Camp, I do. Lots of us do this work. Have us come and see how they can get published without losing what it is they’re afraid to lose. It’s not that you can’t get published. You just have to find the publishers willing to take a gamble on you and that’s not easy.
You also have to perfect whatever it is you’re doing. Writers can say, this is really good but it’s not standard or up to industry standards. Here’s how you can get it up to industry standards. It’s one of my particular strengths is helping young writers get up to industry standard. Especially the ones who have won prizes. I’m still trying to figure out why I haven’t won any but I guess that means I’m a pretty good teacher! I’m still getting published so there is that.
Whatever someone is working on doesn’t have to be like the industry, but it does have to be industry standard. It doesn’t have to be like white people’s writing. Memory Serves is a really good example of this. It’s a non-fiction book and it’s very poetic all the way through with plenty of stories. I Am Woman is another example. This isn’t industry familiar. They had to name it creative non-fiction after more of my work was published. They started calling in creative non-fiction in ‘88, so they’d have a place for it. Now other people can do that.
It’s genre expanding, like the way your book Daughters Are Forever takes on the voice of the wind and embodies nature.
Exactly. It’s not like other writers, but it still got published.
What are your thoughts on the need for a specific way to nurture and grow Indigenous styles of writing related especially to oral tradition?
We need it so that this doesn’t seem abnormal. Our writing and fantasy exists right now. I’m sitting here in an office and Raven could be doing something. I can also hear the wind out there screaming between buildings. I don’t think it likes the building next door, but those are just my thoughts! I think things are so many things happening right now so when I write a story the wind is a character in that story, as are the moon and sun, water and the light. It’s all Beings with character.
For example, they found the part of the body that communicates without language- it’s an organ. We all know it’s there. Indigenous people knew it was there and we knew we could do that. We could see jellyfish do that without a single brain in their body but they will organize themselves lyrically to take down a squid. I love that about jellyfish!
If someone wanted to do this kind of work they could connect with writers leading these programs. I do it. I know Cherie and Leanne do it and I believe Eden does it as well. It allows writers to elevate the writing without losing the nature of it and the storytelling style. Working with other authors who have already done it show them how and can also recommend them to publishers they know will take a chance on their work.
In your book Conversations with Canadians, you said that to be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial. I felt that was such a powerful truth. Can you speak to that a little more because racism used to hide and only now seems rampant when really, it’s been there all along. Has this denial changed its effect, since you wrote the book?
I don’t think it’s changed but people are talking about it more which is what the purpose of the book is- to get people to talk about what they don’t want to talk about. It’s like I took off the Emperor’s Clothes. Drop the bullshit for just a second and look at each other as we really are and not worry about the truth. It’s just there. Canada has been absolutely cruel to its Indigenous people and it believes it’s been really nice. They think we’re the parasite which is the total opposite. The book is me saying, “Get with the program and get your head out of your ass and take a real look around.” Don’t look as if you’ve done something terrible though.
Can you tell me more?
It’s like the elephant’s in the room and it’s been there all along but white people are saying, “No it’s not an elephant, it’s a puppy.” We have to get it out of the room and deal with truth but it’s not about blaming anyone. The tone in the book is like that but really all people have to do is stop denying that it’s the elephant in the room and we can fix. The idea that we can make this right is what I want to get across more than pointing fingers at anyone. I still have to say what’s there though- white people denying that there’s any racism. Any person of colour in this country is saying, ‘Are you nuts?” to that denial. It’s opening up to what’s really happening in this country and looking at what we need to do to remedy it. First we have to face it. We have a ceremony called “face yourself”. Canada as a country has to face itself and that’s what the book is trying to generate a conversation around.
People confuse having a conversation and being open to hearing with taking personal responsibility. They get very defensive about that and I don’t understand it because it’s just hearing a side of the story you’re not seeing.
If they take personal responsibility then it becomes a non-issue because it’s a national problem. If I take personal responsibility for Canada’s involvement in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, then nothing can get fixed, because it’s not true. I didn’t do it. If we take national responsibility for it then we can have a nation object to our presence in those places. That’s the difference.
When you take personal responsibility and get defensive, then obviously you don’t want to do anything about it and that’s the denial. It’s a weird form of denial because it’s not you, it’s the nation.
In light of the judicial system’s failure regarding Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie, I wonder if the Canadian government knows what it means, when it talks about reconciliation because of how blatant systemic anti-Indigenous racism, is.
I think I said it in my book, Colonization Road– If you stand on my foot and apologize, I’ll forgive you if you get off my foot. The first thing is stop killing us, and that happens on many levels. It happens with the Tina Fontaines but it’s happening to Tadoule Lake who were promised a reserve 70 years ago and still haven’t got it. Everytime the caribou get close of the people of Tadoule Lake in Manitoba (that’s pretty much all they like to eat), they move them. It’s enforced by policy, legislated starvation for those people and they have consistent pneumonia and tuberculosis and they’re dying at tremendous rate. That kind of murder is still going on.
They’re also still removing children from their families and more children are in care now, than ever were in residential schools. They’re still fracturing nations, one from another, the families from one another and we participate in this now by telling one another that we’re not really Indians. We’re being imploded from within and attacked from without and nobody’s stopping that, so reconciliation can’t happen.
Do you think the way Canada has made people qualify being Indigenous turns the community against itself, instead of making the real issue about why First Nations aren’t able to declare their own citizenship process?
It’s about nationhood and citizenship and it doesn’t matter what race you appear as. The only other person and group of people that made bloodlines about nationhood were Nazis. What are we doing to ourselves? I’m not in favor of that. I think it’s about territories, nation and law. If our laws governed the country then it would be fine and we would be fine in the end. Our laws are take only what you need and leave the Earth the way you found it, don’t destroy things, include all of humanity; These are our laws and we’re not following them. If we aren’t able to follow them, who would want to obey them? The laws of Canada are destroying our communities and everyone. We need to be able to follow our laws so that other people would want to do the same.
I also think that there’s a lot of hurt in our communities and that we need to heal that hurt so that we aren’t fracturing our own communities and buying into the idea of who can and cannot be Indian. That hurt means people need DNA tests and then that’s not good enough, or sometimes you’ll need to be raised on a reserve to qualify it but whatever it is, it prevents nationhood from being born.
How could someone who is totally new to decolonization and Indigenous issues, amplify voices and help create change without asking an unhelpful, “How can I help?”
Asking how to help, isn’t helpful and I’ll tell you why. It’s because I have no idea what your skill set is and I have no idea what you’re interested in and I have no idea how much volunteer time you have. Figure out what your skill sets are which is different from a resume. What do you want to do with them? What are your interests? If water is your interest, get ahold of people doing water work and put your skill sets to that. If all you have is a week, that’s all you have. If every Canadian though put in an hour a week, that’s millions and millions of hours.
Your skill set may only be hammering but someone, somewhere is building something. If you’re not interested in it, you’re not going to have fun. If you don’t have fun, even with this, you’ll just start fighting people in the organization, because that’s what happens. The adrenals get going and you’ll look for reasons to pick fights. Look for work that will be fun for you without needing the appreciation of the group.
It’s wonderful to do the work. I’ve been doing water work for over 20 years and now they listen to me- they gave me the Order of Canada so I’m climbing up the ladder of do-gooder. It’s wonderful to walk with the people of Grassy Narrows and go to their events without being paid for it.
It’s part of my life’s work and I get to know people. I’m not fast friends with everyone I’ve gotten to know, because we’re not there to be friends with one another but we enjoy doing the work together. Many people doing this work are looking for friends- don’t do that! We have to have the attitude in this work that we’re free beings and we don’t all have to be friends.
What does being part of the FOLD mean for you?
Literary festivals are just good for writers because they encourage people to buy their books and talk about the book, spreading the word about it. One person shows up and they have ten friends so for every one person that shows up, you have a potential to sell ten books. The idea of diversity comes from the notion though, that we begin with white people and we pepper it with color and that makes it diverse.
The foundation is still whiteness though, so it’s important for people of color to go to these festivals, have a look around and see how the diversity doesn’t necessarily include them, then see that it does. We have to be there to examine these things and then talk about it. Hopefully that improves with time. If everything was diverse then it wouldn’t be called diversity. It would just be everyday. Because the foundation is whiteness and maleness, diversity is important to have. We are just now including writers with disabilities in the notion of diversity. I don’t know why they weren’t included before. The same thing goes for Transgender and LGBTQ+ people that are outside the norm of white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied. Diversity essentially means anything not white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied, so I look forward to the day when that isn’t the norm. They shouldn’t be the norm because they’re nowhere near the majority in this country.
We also purchase their books more than any other group of people. They win more awards. I don’t think some award winning authors are any better than Dionne Brand or Eden Robinson, Leanne Simpson, myself or Robert Hill. However, they keep winning all the awards and a lot of the time we’re on the juries and we don’t fight hard enough.
I’ve left juries before because I said that if someone was shortlisted, I would be leaving. The content of one book about hula hoops unrelated to Hawaiian people was asking me to erase an entire people’s culture and I’m related to them. I refuse to turn these situations into a game with plastic hula hoops for white people. I told them I would just leave at which point they stopped me and said, Let’s have a conversation about this. I said no we can’t, got up, walked out. The officer on the jury came after me saying that we couldn’t hold back a decision and I said, “That’s not true, I don’t have to come back. I don’t have to do anything.”
I feel like many white Canadian authors need to take a similar stance. I think about Alicia Elliot, who wrote an article about how CanLit was a dumpster fire and wasn’t even invited to the white panel about her piece.
That’s exactly it. She’s another young fighter that is going to do wonders for CanLit.