Last Tuesday, two powerful Indigenous writers took to the stage to discuss land, legend and spirit with host Shelagh Rogers. Rogers could barely contain her excitement at introducing Karen McBride, whose first novel Crow Winter tells the tale of protagonist Hazel Ellis and her relationship with Algonquin demigod Nanabush. Cherie Dimaline, whose latest book Empire of Wild is inspired by the Metis story of Rogarou, received an equally positive introduction.
Karen McBride’s journey towards writing Crow Winter began in January 2013, when she lost her father to lung disease. Turning to writing for solace and emotional release, McBride used the evolving manuscript as a path of escape into a fictional world. McBride’s began to conceive Empire of Wild while passing time on an airplane journey. Inspired to pick up a magazine by the “hot Jesus” gracing the front cover, Dimaline read an article about Christian missionaries who were bringing people off the land, away from their heritage and their stories. Her reaction to that piece spurred the creation of Empire of the Wild.
The theme of being tied to the land is important to both McBride and Dimaline in their work. Rogers asked each writer to define ‘home.’ Dimaline recalled her grandmother’s role as a story keeper, which brought with it the responsibility of defining the idea of home. The safest way to keep home, guarded against the ravages that “civilization” might wreak upon physical land, was to put it into a story. Stories can be important as a means of protection, she told the audience. Some stories are maps through time and geography. Others are teaching stories, which illustrate different kinds of dangers. Dimaline concluded: “home is something you pick up and run with.” McBride agreed that home is something you carry with you, wherever you are: “home is medicine. It can heal you, but it may not taste nice. It’s community. It’s political; reclamation of land. Stories are inside of you, and can’t be taken away.” The mythical figure Nanabush became a source of strength for her, and a sign that she was not alone. She would be reminded of him whenever she saw a crow… and of course, they are everywhere!
The idea of being seen in stories was also a point of contemplation during the conversation. Rogers asked both McBride and Dimaline whether they had seen themselves in books before beginning to write their own work. McBride says she grew up “living” in stories by writers like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, but only really found herself recently when she read Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Through her own work she hopes to make Indigenous readers see that “our own stories are just as cool, if not cooler” than many of the stories which are already in print. Dimaline confessed that whilst she was inspired by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman, she had really only seen herself in her grandmother Maria Campbell’s work Halfbreed.
Finally, Rogers posed a question from the American singer Tina Turner: “what’s love got to do with it?” Cherie Dimaline left us with a heart-warming notion: "The ancestors loved us. They held onto our language, our stories, our tricksters, so we could have them. They knew we would be here. They guarded things with their lives. Heroic, beautiful. Telling our stories increases our capacity for love."
What’s not to love about that?