The Munro Beattie Lecture is a distinguished event at Carleton University, launched in 1985 to honour one of the founding members of the university’s English department. Taking place annually, the lecture celebrates literary studies in Canada and, over the years, has played host to a number of literary critics and creative writers discussing both general and academic issues. Arriving five minutes before the lecture is due to start was a risky move on my part. The theatre is completely packed with literature lovers waiting eagerly for Joseph Boyden to take to the stage.
Boyden’s appearance is met by raucous applause and loud cheers from the audience. If ever there was a rock star of Canadian literature, Boyden is it. Coincidentally, he tells the audience his childhood dream was to be a rock star. However, he explains, his singing voice is so bad that not even the punk rock bands would take him. Though his singing voice may not be up to scratch, he does boast some musical talent—Boyden divides his talk into three parts, each of which he introduces with a short musical performance on the harmonica or mouth harp.
Boyden begins by talking about his upbringing in North York, Ontario, and the path he took to becoming a writer. He speaks of his time at the University of New Orleans, when he first discovered not only his own voice but the voices of his characters. Boyden says that his characters come to him with stories to tell, stories demanding to be heard. As a writer, he knows he has created a good character when one surprises him. His characters like to rebel against him like children against a parent, choosing to take their own path and not the one he is trying to write for them. In particular, this applies to the character of Snow Falls from The Orenda, who Boyden never intended to include in the novel but whose strength of voice he could not deny and so had to make her part of his story.
Boyden is very enigmatic, a truly engaging public orator. He speaks comfortably and candidly, like he is chatting to a small intimate gathering of friends and not a lecture hall full of strangers. His open manner leads him to talk about his experience with mental illness. As a teenager he used to cut, this was his way of outwardly releasing some of the inner pain he felt, and at age 16 he tried to commit suicide. The chance to discuss this topic openly, as a way to relieve some of the stigma associated with mental illness, is very important to Boyden. He believes that we need to treat mental illness the way we would a physical illness —as a very real problem and not something to shy away from.
Interspersing his lecture with readings from his three books – Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and, most recently, The Orenda – Boyden comes across as a sincere and straightforward individual with a knack for storytelling. His open character, positive attitude, and outstanding literary talent prove that the standing ovation he received at the end of the evening was extremely well-deserved.