Monday at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in the Hall Building on Concordia University campus, Joseph Boyden talked about his identity and origins–both as a writer and a man of mixed Irish-Ojibwe blood. He was accompanied by renowned conversationalist Kate Sterns and Globe and Mail book reviewer Jared Bland,
“Who are you?” opened Sterns, a direct question to start off the evening.
Boyden’s most recent novel, The Orenda, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition. It was up against such worthy contenders as Cockroach by Rawi Hage and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. His novel Through Black Spruce won the Giller Prize. The Orenda also made the longlists for the Giller and Governor General’s Literary Awards. In addition to this recognition, Boyden is an activist for indigenous rights, in recent times taking a particular focus on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
He wrote poetry before fiction. He confided to me that his unpublished poems were imagistic, reflecting the highly visual scenes that are so powerful in his novels. Much of his older poetry was also song lyrics. In fact, he used to tour with the punk rock band Bazooka Joe as a roadie, in rebellion against the social conformity of suburban Ontario.
“I didn’t want to be a writer,” said Boyden. “As a teen, I wanted to be a singer, but I was so bad even punk bands wouldn’t take me.”
Boyden began to write short stories and longer forms after entering an MFA program. He expressed having a certain anxiety leaving poetry behind. “I was scared of novels; I was scared of fiction,” he said.
One day, he hopped on a motorcycle on an epic road trip from Toronto down to the University of New Orleans, which a professor had told him had an excellent MFA program in Creative Writing. He would have gone to Concordia, he said, ” But my motorcycle didn’t have snow tires.”
He showed up to the program with what he thought would become the greatest novel since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, without having written any short fiction yet. He was in his mid-20s. His original title for this motorcycle road-trip novel was The Tree of the Lost. Then he came up with an even better title: Motorcycle Boy.
Sterns and Bland spent some time rubbing in the fact that this embarrassing first novel of Boyden’s was now public knowledge. There is something about young male writers, Sterns said, who want to write quest or adventure novels about the glory of there being nothing but the open road. I would personally have to agree.
My first unpublished novel, Battles of Rofp, also had a quest narrative and an embarrassing title (that no one could pronounce without curling their tongue and spitting into their upper lip). There is something quintessentially adolescent about such novels–about reading them and writing them. There is such glory and naivety about first novels, especially when a writer skips writing short fiction and goes right for the full-length epic. I smiled knowingly and nostalgically at Boyden’s honesty. Wow, if the author of Motorcycle Boy could come to win the Giller, maybe the author of Battles of Rofp can too, in time, I thought.
Boyden described how his novel was received by his workshop group in New Orleans. His peers sounded like they were politely tiptoeing around more brutal criticisms, as workshopers tend to do. “[They told me,] ‘You paragraph really well and I’m glad you used 12 point font,'” he said.
His harshest critic “in a Lutheran German kind of way” but also his most constructive one, was none other than his future wife, Amanda. “She clarified for me what it meant to be serious,” said Boyden. He cut his long hair, and she encouraged him to write short stories. One of his first successful ones required him to look back into his childhood in Geogrian Bay.
“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” came from this mining of life experience, a story about childhood and growing up on a reserve. Since he was passionate about his subject matter–even more passionate than he was about motorcycles–and because he knew all about it, his workshop responded with positive affirmations. “They loved it,” he said.
“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” was later published. In fact, it was the first story I ever read of Boyden’s, since it’s featured in Robert Lecker’s anthology Open Country, which I bought for a survey class on Canadian literature during my first semester at McGill.
Writing opened new paths for Boyden and his family and friends to recognize the legitimacy of their Ojibwe cultural heritage. “It was also so exciting because I was exploring something my friends didn’t talk about,” he said. “It was a part of me I thought others wouldn’t give a care about.”
A cultural rejuvenation swept over his family as a result of his short stories and novels. One of the most touching stories is that of his mother. “She did her first Pow-wow at the age of 80,” Boyden said.
Recently, Boyden edited a limited edition chapbook that is also available as an ebook–it is called Kwe, meaning ‘woman’ in Ojibwe. He was contacted for the job and had a week to solicit authors for unpublished material that pertained to the social problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women, (although the topic wasn’t mandatory). Boyden did not expect big things, but within a week he had received submissions from authors across Canada including the inestimable Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Proceeds from Kwe go to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters campaign.
When discussing The Orenda, Boyden wondered whether people would care about what happened in the mid 1600s, what with Samuel de Champlain’s settling of Quebec, the Jesuit martyrs, and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) wars. But, as it turns out, it was a period in Canada that is highly relevant to the political, social, and environmental issues of the twenty-first century. “This speaks to everything we’re going through right now, whether it’s war, whether it’s immigration,” he said. “I trust my gut when it tells me to go back to the 1600s.”
What’s next for Boyden? Out of all things, who could expect a ballet? That’s right. No; he does not have to dance. Or sing in that punk rock style of his. The production is being staged in relation to the other initiatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is trying to acquire documentation and testimonies of those who suffered in Residential Schools. Tina Keeper, a Cree activist, has asked him to write a story for the ballet.
It goes to show that Boyden’s philosophy is never to turn down an unfamiliar challenge. Advising any young writers in the audience, he said, “Figure out screenwriting, figure out playwrighting.” Writers who seek to earn a living are more and more turning towards other forms of storytelling, including television.
The biggest of Boyden’s challenges is also one of Canada’s biggest challenges: to change the way we think about and discuss First Nations issues in Canada. Even if The Orenda cannot change social problems directly, it can expose its audience to a healthier perspective on First Nations identity, instead of letting Canadians succumb to the poisonous us/them divisions that characterize the political rhetoric of the present government.
Joseph Boyden: Ojibwe activist, Canadian novelist and short story writer, ex-punk roadie, ballet writer. He has been many things and will be many more. Waiting in line to have my book signed, I hear him explain the eagle feather tattoos on his forearm to another fan. The feathers are cut at the nib to suggest a writer’s plume. On his right arm, there is a tattoo of a band that displays his Native heritage, on his left, a Celtic design of an animal that might have been dog, bear, or dragon. His Irish side.
I walk up and shake his hand.
* This blog was published before Boyden’s erroneous claims to be Mi’kmaq caused controversy. I have kept the blog as I wrote it but this article in MacLean’s captures Boyden’s response to the controversy around his Indigenous identity.