Interview by Rachel Jansen
Joseph Boyden is a Canadian novelist whose books on First Nations people have been internationally acclaimed. His first novel, Three Day Road, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award. Through Black Spruce, published in 2008, received the ScotiaBank Giller Prize. Most recently, Boyden published The Orenda; a thrilling epic that weaves together the lives of a Jesuit missionary, a captured Iroquois girl, and her captor, a great Huron Chief, in an unforgettable story of our past. On March 4th, The Orenda was announced the winner of CBC’s 2014 Canada Reads competition.
Boyden was born in Willowdale, Ontario. He completed his BFA in creative writing at York University, and then went on to earn his masters at the University of New Orleans. He currently splits his time between Louisiana and Northern Ontario, and teaches in the Optional Residency Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of British Columbia.
With his long list of credentials, and my deep admiration of his work, my hand shook as I dialed his number to conduct our interview over the phone. I soon found my anxiety dissipating; Boyden is humble, soft-spoken and quick-to-laugh.
What was your first publication?
I published a collection of poems in my undergrad. At the time there was something called Proem and they took a liking to a lot of the poetry that I was writing, the first time I tried to send out my work.
Was there ever a point in your career where you thought: Well that’s it, I won’t make it as a writer?
Oh yeah, writing my first novel there were many dark moments where I thought: “This is too hard, I’m not going to be able to do it. If I do this then I won’t do it as a writer.” There were those dark days, for sure.
How did you overcome that?
The story kept calling me back. And I realized I was really unhappy not creating. Even the worst moments of creating, where things weren’t going well and I thought, this is impossible, were better than not creating anything at all.
Why of all professions be a writer? What do you think writing adds to the world that other professions don’t?
Books (laughs). That was a joke (I laugh). A chance to, in terms of fiction, look at the world, and tell certain truths about the world. Truths that even non-fiction can’t capture. I think that the simplest books are for sheer enjoyment and entertainment. The deeper books are for trying to change the world.
The act of writing fiction and the act of reading fiction is so different from all the other arts. You have to engage. When you watch TV you just sit and absorb. But when you read a book you enter into that world and you interact with that world in a way that you can’t, even in video games, or anything else. I think it adds a number of different levels of interaction that the other arts don’t.
It sounds as though you were raised in a fairly Scottish-Irish traditional upbringing. When did you start identifying with your native heritage?
I think when I was old enough to become to a bit rebellious. When I was fourteen, fifteen on, I was like, “Why do we never talk about this part of us?” I was able to explore and look into things and find out different things about my family. And it was really fascinating to me.
People often debate about appropriation of voice, especially voices of those in marginalized cultures, such as aboriginals, and whether it can be done. How would you comment on this?
The argument about appropriation ended years ago, decades ago. I think that [the argument against] appropriation of voice was as simple as: I write female characters but I’m not a female so I should not be allowed. I was raised a Catholic, I can’t write about a Jew. I’m white and I have many African-American friends but I can’t write about their experience. The whole thing with appropriation of voice is that it’s here and an artist, a writer, should be allowed to write whatever he/she feels a desire or a pull to. In fiction. And it is fiction. We have to keep that in mind. I’m not writing a non-fiction book about the African-American experience in New Orleans because I didn’t grow up that way. But certainly I can write a novel about that.
The most important thing with appropriation of voice is this: if I’m going to go into another culture, if I’m going to write about another sex, if I’m going to write about another religion, I have to, as deeply as I can possibly can, understand and appreciate and respect it. I’m going to understand what I’m writing about very deeply and I have to respect it very deeply. When I write a female character, the first thing I ever do is let my wife, Amanda, read it and see if there’s anything wrong. So you have to do it properly. And you have to understand that the culture is going to be very different from you. There will be similarities, but the differences you have to understand and know.
You can’t let this idea of “you’re not allowed to write this” get to you. A writer of fiction can write whatever he/she desires. That’s the beauty of our art that we’ve chosen.
Your latest novel, The Orenda, is brilliant. I found it interesting that it is set in the 1600’s, earlier than any of your other books. What made you want to draw so far back into the past?
I wanted to go right to the root, the source, of first contact and explore what happened then in order to look at where we are now. And I was amazed by how we’re similar a place we’re in, in a lot of ways. I went to [St. Jean de] Brebeuf High School. Brebeuf was a Jesuit who was captured and tortured by the Iroquois and lived among the Huron for many years. So I grew up with all of this history already in my head and I thought, what a fascinating time period that very few people write about. There was a book by Brian Moore, wonderful writer, a good novel [but] not so much in terms of its representation of the native experience. I think he sadly was off in his view of a number of things and I wanted to correct that in my own way as well.
That leads into my next question: In the epilogue of The Orenda, you state, “the past and future are present.” This certainly leaves a haunting message for the readers who can clearly see that, though the methods are different, the racism and intolerance from the past exist now in the present. What, in writing this novel, do you hope to see for the future of native people?
I think to be fairly understood, to be represented properly. And to be given treaties. The most important thing to a First Nations person is your word, and the treaties are the government’s word. The treaties must be respected; just because they were signed 150 years ago doesn’t make them obsolete. The constitution of the United States was signed 250 years ago but that doesn’t make it obsolete now. I want fair respect and I want First Nations to stand up for their rights. But also, to recognize their own faults as well. I never have tried to say that any culture is perfect by any means, and to recognize your own faults can only make you stronger.
I also saw that you signed a petition for Idle No More: “A peaceful revolution to honour indigenous people and to protect the land and water.” Do you view all writing as political?
No, not necessarily. I’ve certainly entered into very fraught territory, very mine-laden territory in terms of what I write about. I used to live and teach up there [in Moosonee, Northern Ontario] and I know the people and I saw the misrepresentation in the media. And that’s when I realized “This is bullshit. This is not fair. This is the big guy picking on the little guy” and I can’t stand that. I’m from a large family and our father and mother always raised us to “always stand up for the weak” in very good Catholic tradition and in good Jesuit tradition these days, believe it or not. The first thing I try to do, no matter what I write, is tell a good story. That’s first and foremost. And everything else will fall into place, if I do my job.
What advice, as a successful writer and creative writing professor, would you give emerging writers?
Give up now. Don’t do it. If you’re the type of writer who’s not going to make it anyways, it’s just going to be frustrating. And if you’re a really good writer, you’re going to be competition for me (laughs). I’m teasing. No, to write means to dedicate in a real way. To sit down every day, even if it’s for an hour, a half hour, and create. To sit down in that space and make that space sacred to you. That hour or two hours or three hours everyday needs to be your sacred time. Even if it’s only one sentence you create, it doesn’t matter, that hour should be dedicated. And also everything that you write is not going to be gold. It’s not going to be perfect. In fact, every time I sit down and start something, even though I’m a decent way through my career, I’m starting new again. So don’t be afraid of that, of starting new. Know your voice and know your material.
Rachel Jansen is completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. She is originally from Mississauga, Ontario.