Word on the Street literary fest puts spotlight on Indigenous writers

TORONTO — Indigenous poet and author Lee Maracle has a message for the broader writing community: “Move over and give us space at the table.”

Maracle will be among a slate of Indigenous writers hammering home that message this weekend at Word on the Street, Toronto’s annual literary celebration.

This year’s festival includes its first-ever Indigenous Voices stage, where new and established writers will lead a full day of talks on various topics, including traditional narratives and reclaiming culture. Maracle says she hopes renewed debate over cultural appropriation will bring fresh opportunities.

The acclaimed writer from Vancouver, a member of the Sto:Lo nation, says it would help if non-Indigenous writers focused on writing their own stories.

“If you’re writing our stories, what are we going to write? That’s so ridiculous,” says Maracle, whose novels include “Ravensong,” “Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel,” and “Sundogs.”

“There are so many interesting stories Canadians aren’t writing — the stories of the colonial relations and the non-colonial relations between Indigenous people and white people in the beginning. Those stories aren’t being written. Instead, people are trying to write historic stories about us and they don’t know anything about us. So then they start coming in to our area of knowledge, and we have to fight for space.

“Just because there’s freedom of expression doesn’t mean you should take up somebody else’s chair at the table.”

Maracle says she began this battle 25 years ago at an international feminist book fair. She hopes continued debate, no matter how contentious, will lead to change.

Emerging writer Cherie Dimaline believes things did shift significantly when a recent controversy emerged earlier this year, sparked by comments from the editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine who suggested he didn’t believe in cultural appropriation.

The controversial position ignited debate in headlines and on social media, and finally shed light on an issue that has frustrated Indigenous peoples for decades, says Dimaline.

“When the appropriation debate came out it was almost kind of a relief to us, because we’d been gaslighted over it for so long,” says the Toronto-based Metis author, set to participate in a chat about Indigenous writers who tackle science fiction, including Drew Hayden Taylor and Nathan Adler.

“We always talked about it — we talked about how there are certain stories that are only told in certain company at certain times, (that) there’s an importance to control our narrative. (But) it had never gone past there…. It was kind of a relief because then the conversation became out in the open and we could respond to it.”

Word on the Street takes place Sunday. Participants include David Suzuki, Emma Donoghue, Anne Michaels and Ron Sexsmith.

Several other events on the Indigenous Voices stage will focus on kids books by various Indigenous authors, including Roselynn Akulukjuk, Joanne Robertson, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster and Jay Odjick.

Webster, who grew up in Baker Lake, Nunavut, says she was inspired to write “Akilak’s Adventure” for her own kids.

“I have two daughters and when they were young we would read books and tell stories at bedtime and I noticed that there wasn’t much Inuit content,” says Webster.

“I wanted to teach them about my culture so I thought, ‘I’ll try and write story,’ a children’s story, for them.”

Roberston, who lives in Goulais River north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., focused her book, “The Water Walker” on her friend, Ojibwe grandmother Josephine Mandamin. In 2003, Mandamin embarked on what would be a series of marathon walks around each of the Great Lakes to raise awareness of water protection.

Robertson helped organize part of the journey and was able to draw on voluminous notes, emails and social media posts to flesh out her sparse text and colourful illustrations. What results is more than just a children’s book: “I’m looking at it as water work,” she says.

“I feel responsible to remember the stories,” says Robertson.

“I remember some grandmothers from Churchill called me and said, ‘We want our grandchildren to know what we did for the water.’ I’m still carrying that with me, that I have a responsibility to have their names written somewhere.”

The 67-year-old Maracle is buoyed by the growing number of Indigenous voices that are beginning to make inroads in various genres.

“There were 10 writers when I was publishing and now there’s thousands. So yeah, there’s been a major revolution,” she says.

But Maracle is still waiting for a breakthrough in reaching mainstream audiences.

“I don’t think Canadians are as interested in our work as they ought to be, though. I don’t think they read in any balanced way about us,” she says.

“But we read about ourselves and we now have a middle class that can afford to purchase books, which we didn’t have when I was young.”

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