Waubgeshig Rice (Jessica Blaine Smith)
Waubgeshig Rice grew up in Wasauksing First Nation, near Parry Sound, Ontario. Waub has wanted to be a writer since he was 15 years old. While he's been making that dream come true, he has also honed a career as a journalist. You may remember Waub when he was working in the newsroom here at CBC.
Waub launches Midnight Sweatlodge this Wednesday at Aqua Books. And he took the time to answer a few questions for SCENE.
What is Midnight Sweatlodge about?
Midnight Sweatlodge is a collection of short stories about the unique and sometimes difficult experiences of Aboriginal youth. The stories highlight issues such as depression, suicide, substance abuse, identity, isolation, politics, and cultural reclamation.
I wrote these stories over various points in my life, and I wanted to tie them together by having the characters in each of the stories (or their friends/family members) share their experiences in a sweatlodge setting. It starts in the sweatlodge with an elder urging all the young people gathered there for healing to tell their stories.
What exactly is a sweatlodge?
A sweatlodge is a traditional healing ceremony shared by many First Nations cultures. People gather in what's usually a small domed structure made of saplings and covered with tarp or hide. The idea is to get you closer to Mother Earth, and many traditions say the lodge symbolizes the womb of the mother.
Rocks are heated in a fire outside the lodge for many hours, and they're brought in to heat up the lodge. Water is poured on the rocks to steam it up. There are different protocols for different ceremonies from different cultures, but I wrote about what I experienced in sweats growing up as an Anishinaabe in central Ontario. An elder will lead the ceremony. People sing and pray, and offer thanks. It's supposed to be a very therapeutic and wholesome experience.
Do you relate to any of the characters in your book?
I think I relate to most of the characters in the book. A few of their experiences were based on some of my own growing up. However, there are no direct parallels between the characters' accounts in the book and my own (except for one story, which I'll explain next).
Midnight Sweatlodge paints some pretty negative scenes, but my experience growing up wasn't like that at all. I was fortunate to be surrounded by a very loving, caring, and supportive family that really nurtured my creativity and allowed me to carve out this path.
That being said, I did see many struggles in my community. I wanted to convey why that negativity is there and what people could do to heal and move beyond it.
Can you tell SCENE if there was one story that you drew on personally to write a passage in Midnight Sweatlodge?
The first story "Dust" is based on something that happened in my community when I was a kid. There was a rally at a sandpit on my reserve because CN crews were there taking sand. I actually wrote an article about it for Spirit Magazine back in 2005, and that same piece showed up in Oka commemorative collection "This is an Honour Song".
It was a very powerful experience and I thought it would make a good short story. The version in Midnight Sweatlodge, however, is greatly fictionalized, especially towards the end.
What will non-Aboriginal readers get out of this story?
I hope non-Aboriginal readers will get a glimpse of what it's like to grow up on the reserve. There are many universal experiences young people share in First Nations right across Canada, but each one is indeed unique with its own challenges and benefits. Many of the elements in these stories are based on what I saw in my home community of Wasauksing, but I tried to make some of them a little more generic to appeal to other kids on other First Nations, as well as non-Aboriginal readers.
Do you prefer being a journalist more or a novelist?
Becoming a published novelist was my life's goal since I was about 15. But I realized early on that becoming a full-time author was pretty unrealistic, so I pursued other storytelling avenues and that's when I was led to journalism.
I've been a broadcast journalist for nine years now and I feel fortunate every day that I'm able to tell a story. They are two very different ways to write, but I try to draw parallels between the two and keep my skills sharp that way. Seeing a story go to air every day is very rewarding.
That being said, working for years on a book and being able to hold it in my hands is even huger. I won't say what I prefer, I'm just happy I've had these opportunities to meet so many people over the years and have so many others read, hear, and see my stories in different ways.