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RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award Leanne Simpson on the significance of storytelling

Leanne Simpson is an author, scholar, storyteller and First Nations activist. She is also the inaugural winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award. The $10,000 prize seeks to promote emerging Canadian talent in non-fiction and offers the opportunity to be mentored by the RBC Taylor Prize winner. 

Leanne Simpson was selected to receive the award by 2014 RBC Taylor Prize-winner Thomas King. We asked Leanne to share with us what this accolade means to her.

What does it mean for you to have Thomas King name you as an emerging writer to watch? 
Thomas King phoned me, on the landline. Which I last answered in 1989, so he had to leave a message. In my extensive research for returning a call FROM THOMAS KING, I googled him. I quickly noticed that he won the RBC Taylor Prize and that he had to pick an emerging writing. So I wrote down a list of my favourite emerging Indigenous writers, in case he asked me. I don’t remember very much of the phone call. I was recovering from wrist surgery for a snowboarding mistake and to be honest I was very high on painkillers. I hope I wasn’t embarrassing. Probably I was. Good thing he is gracious.

In all seriousness though, for me, Thomas King reading any of my work is the real prize. His writing has challenged, inspired and cultivated both a fierceness and a love in me and for that, I am forever grateful. His satire is a gift. To be recognized by someone from within my community for something that I really love to do is a feeling I will always carry with me. I am very grateful.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think I fell in love with creating during the process of writing Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back.  I got so consumed by the Nishnaabeg ideas, stories and concepts in that book and with my discussions with Elders Doug Williams and Edna Manitowabi that I did not want the writing process to come to an end and at some point I completely forgot that anyone would read it. That book helped me to really fall in love with being Mississauga Nishnaabeg. Then that love deepened in the process of creating the short stories and songs for Islands of Decolonial Love. I fell into those stories and the lives of those characters in sort of an overwhelming way and it was a little bit hard to come back out and live in the real world. 

How does your activism intersect with your writing?
The base of both my writing and my activism and really everything I do is a fugitive desire to be Nishnaabekwe in every way I can. I want to connect with every piece of our land. I want to know how my ancestors thought. I want to know our language and our ceremonies. I want to know all of our place names and stories. I want to sing every song and dance every dance. I want to be part of a community that creates the next moments in the most beautiful of ways. And I need my homeland to do that.

How important is storytelling to you? What is its power?
Storytelling is like air. It’s that important—especially as a tool of decolonization and transformation. Stories have spirit and power and come to us as small gifts of wisdom, but they only have power if the ones that hear those stories, embody them and act. Stories are about responsibility and action in Indigenous cultures. They have kept us alive, grounded and inspired. They carry the resistance and the strength of our ancestors. They hold our truths. And when we tell them on our own terms to an engaged audience, they carry a tremendous responsibility to transform. I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren about the time we all united, held the wall and stopped a pipeline from being built.

What are you currently working on?
I have been busy promoting The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movements as part of the Kino-nda-niimi editorial collective. This book is a collection of writings and art that came out of the Idle No More movement. I have also been doing promotion for my first book of short stories, Islands of Decolonial Love, teaching at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Denedeh and mentoring a very talented young writer Hawa Yusuf in the Diaspora Dialogues Mentoring Program.

I am about to start work on a new album of storytelling and music as a follow up to the album that accompanied Islands of Decolonial Love (which you can download or stream for free from here), I'm continuing to write short stories, non-fiction and academic work, and I’ll wait and see where those stories decide to take me.

Who are some other emerging writers we should know about?
Well first of all there are some extremely talented Indigenous writers and artists that are very well established in Indigenous communities but that haven’t received the attention they deserve from the mainstream—I’m thinking of the work of Lee Maracle and performance artist Rebecca Belmore, Richard Van Camp and Paul Seeseequasis. 

I am continually blown away by this next generation of emerging storytellers in all forms, not just literature—the likes of playwrights Waawaate Fobister, Cliff Cardinal and Reneltta Arluk, the visual art of Erin Marie Konsmo, Nadya Kwandibens and the ceremony of Walking With Our Sisters. There are young Indigenous women that are fantastic film makers—Ariel Smith, Lisa Jackson, Amanda Strong and Maija Tallfeathers. I love the work of poets Giles Benaway, Vera Wabgijig, and Katherena Vermette. Lesley Belleau and Cherie Dimaline are great novelists and Waubgeshig Rice has his first novel Legacy coming out very shortly. Tanya Tagak, Kinnie Star and Cris Derksen are breaking some huge boundaries as musicians and as storytellers. Kimiwan ‘zine, RPM.FM and Muskrat Magazine are continually publishing excellent emerging Indigenous writers and visual arts. Indigenous radio programs and podcasts like Ryan McMahon’s Red Man Laughing, Indigenous Waves, Urban Native Girl and Acimowin are also shining a light on Indigenous emerging writers and artists and are consistently producing excellent content.

Chelsea Vowel is writing some incredible timely and cutting social commentary on her blog âpihtawikosisân—every Canadian should be reading her, and every Canadian should see Jeff Barnaby’s film Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair and Neal McLeod are both doing amazing work as both as writers and editors. Hayden King’s political commentary in the mainstream media are important interventions in Canadian politics. Singer songwriter Tara Williamson is currently writing her first musical with mentoring from Thomson Highway. Wanda Nanibush is curating some incredible visual and performance art shows in Toronto and I am also really excited about new work from Indigenous feminist intelligentsia Sarah Hunt, Audra Simpson and Dory Nason. 

If you ever get a chance to hear Jessica Danforth from Native Youth Sexual Health Network speak, please do, because she is a gifted Haudenosaunee orator and storyteller. And I love Dene scholar Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks, coming out later this summer—it is a challenging and ground-breaking revolutionary text that will have a tremendous impact on Indigenous politics and our relationship with Canada. I am forever excited to be a part of this creative wave of Indigeniety. We are living in a time of a tremendous cultural, political and artistic resurgence and we all stand to benefit.

Photo credit: Nadya Kwandibens

Watch Thomas King and Leanne Simpson speak as part of Aboriginal Day at Harbourfront


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