Six Indigenous writers to watch

We've asked established Canadian authors to tell us about one or two up-and-coming Indigenous writers they think have a bright future. Scroll down to see their picks, or click here to see a list of some of the chosen authors' works.

1. Tracey Lindberg recommends Billy Ray Belcourt and Naomi Sayers

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Left: Tracey Lindberg is a lawyer, professor and expert in Indigenous law. Her debut novel, Birdie, was a competitor on Canada Reads 2016. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC). Centre: Billy Ray Belcourt. Right: Naomi Sayers.

You may not of heard of him yet, but you will. Billy Ray Belcourt is going to change the world. He is compelling, intellectually profound and deliberate with his thoughts. He will create and reinvigorate new worlds in his writing and oratory. He is lyrical and his poetry is at once searing and gentle. Teaching and learning. He honours kohkoms and moshoms and maintains dignity, grace and care in a world which can marginalize, label and be harsh. Look for him, listen to him, recommend him, support him and love him. He deserves it all. Did I mention, he is also the first Rhodes Scholar(s) from an Indigenous Nation? 

Driftpile Cree Nation, Neheyiwak, all of our relations - look at the beautiful you made! 

You can find his smartkindhardtruths here

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Anishiinabe Kwe Naomi Sayers is smart, difficult and taking on the world, one mind at a time. Change-making is difficult. Naomi is the grandchild our ancestors built. She does hard things, observes the world, sees the change required and then builds it. Her writing is a gift, sometimes hard to open, but so important and loving. A law student by training and philosopher by truth, she identifies as a fierce Indigenous feminist. Her writing is impactful and truth-full. She requires that you bring it all to the table: brain, heart and conscience. 

Her work does the most rare thing: it requires you to change. You don't need to share her opinion, take on her viewpoint or politically ally with her (although you might). You do, however, need to check you assumptions, work and think harder, and consider understandings and beliefs perhaps not your own. In this regard, she is an essayist of the highest calibre, reminiscent of the great contemporary theorists who found their work had grit in magazines. Today's magazine, the blogosphere, is enriched by her pieces, thoughts and ideas. She is building a better world, one word at a time. You can find her blog, with links to some of her essays, here.


2. Richard Van Camp recommends Jessie MacKenzie

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Left: Richard Van Camp's debut novel, The Lesser Blessed, made waves on the Canadian literary scene when it was published 20 years ago. He has since authored another 19 books - his most recent is Night Moves. (photo credit: Mark Mushet). Right: Jessie MacKenzie.

An emerging writer that I'm completely in awe of is Denendeh's very own Jessie MacKenzie. Her mother is Dene/German and her father is Scottish/Lakota. Jessie wrote the most incredible short story, "Where They Belong," in Coming Home: Stories from the Northwest Territories. I think about this story all the time. It's like a knife stab through my ribs even just thinking about it years after. Jessie's story is about witnessing a family in Lutsel K'e in the Northwest Territories famed for their fishing abilities lose their sons to addictions on Yellowknife's Range Street. This story is the perfect galaxy of what should and could have been.

Jessie has shared some of her other writings with me because I nag her all the time, and I know she will help take the literature that's flourishing in the Northwest Territories right now to international heights. I am grateful to this short story because it perfectly captures the heartbreak we all feel when we lose the hope of a family, a community, a culture, a Nation. I'm grateful to Jessie for her fearlessness because she inspires me all the time to do my best and to share my truth.

Mahsi cho, Jesse. I admire how you see the world. Keep going. 


3. Louise Bernice Halfe recommends Zondra Roy

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Left: Louise Bernice Halfe, also known by her Cree name Sky Dancer, has served as the poet laureate of Saskatchewan. Her most recent collection is Burning in this Midnight Dream. Right: Zondra Roy (pricelys1.wix.com/zondraroy).

One person who is worth watching is Zondra (Zoey) Roy, who has a chapbook out called homecoming. She wrote on-the-spot a long poem for a poetry contest that I judged, and I was immensely impressed.

Zoey is an activist, a survivor and a fine up-and-coming writer. She was recently named the youth recipient at the Indspire Awards, which celebrate Indigenous achievement.


4. Daniel Heath Justice and Leanne Simpson recommend Gwen Benaway

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Left: Daniel Heath Justice is a professor of First Nations studies at the University of British Columbia and holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture (photo credit: V. Saran). Centre: Leanne Simpson is the author of Islands of Decolonial Love. She was selected by Thomas King as the inaugural winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award (photo credit: Nadya Kwandibens). Right: Gwen Benaway (photo credit: gilesbenaway.wordpress.com).

Leanne Simpson says: 

Gwen Benaway (Anishinaabe/Métis) poems read me, and I'm better for it. Her first book of poetry, the award-winning Ceremonies for the Dead, takes on themes of trauma and abuse with the force of the land, rather than from the place of victim. In her forthcoming collection, Passage, there is a new kind of fire in the pages - one that is fierce and warm, gentle and cutting, with echoes of the greatness of the lakes from which her voice calls these poetics. 

  • Gwen Benaway awarded honour of distinction at 2016 Danye Ogilvie Prize for LGBT emerging writers
  • Leanne Simpson and Thomas King in conversation with Shelagh Rogers
  • Leanne Simpson on the significance of storytelling

  • Daniel Heath Justice says:

    One of the most compelling emerging Indigenous writers is two-spirited, multi-national Anishinaabe/Métis poet Gwen Benaway, whose first book, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published under her previous name, Giles. I was fortunate to serve as a reader and advisor on the manuscript before it came out from Kegedonce Press, and it's a stunner: harrowing, eloquent, haunting and deeply moving. She takes up the nature of trauma, both personal and collective, and considers its multigenerational impacts without drifting into easy moralizing or trite sentiment. 

    Gwen's blog has recently chronicled her transition as a two-spirited transwoman, and the many facets of this journey will feature in her forthcoming book, Passages. Her work isn't comfortable reading for those who prefer a shallow sort of settler reconciliation project or the "can't-we-just-get-along" brand of political neoliberalism in vogue today, but those who want to grapple with the hard but meaningful truths of identity, history, love and longing will find much to savour in Gwen Benaway's poetry. She's one of the best new poets out there - definitely deserving of a deep and broad readership.


    5. Lee Maracle recommends Cherie Dimaline

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    Left: Lee Maracle's 1975 book, Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, was one of the first Aboriginal works of fiction to be published in Canada. She has since written award-winning and critically acclaimed books in almost every genre. Right: Cherie Dimaline (photo credit: Robin Sutherland).

    A Gentle Habit is Cherie Dimaline's new collection of short stories, published sometime after her award-winning debut collection, Red Rooms. Cherie is an exciting Métis writer who does what few other Indigenous writers do - she brings to life the Métis Community. She does so in a captivating and unique way. A Gentle Habit is stark at times, but always exciting. It deals with ordinary people and their extraordinary problems. Anyone who has endured the ordinary trials of life will identify with her half breed/Métis characters and their trials. Ms. Dimaline's work has an engaging rhythm and gritty, dogged approach to story reflective of many Métis people I have come across in my travels. No one comes away from a story fest like A Gentle Habit unmoved.

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