Sunday October 25, 2015

Joseph Boyden has embraced the voices in his head

Author Joseph Boyden addresses the recent controversy surrounding his Indigenous ancestral claims.

Author Joseph Boyden addresses the recent controversy surrounding his Indigenous ancestral claims. (Penguin)

Listen 12:19

Author Joseph Boyden says when it comes to storytelling, it's not so much about who you are as it is about the voices you hear telling the story. 

"They chose me. Writing chose me. These voices chose me."

Boyden is Scottish and Anishinabe on his mother's side. His father is Irish but also has Nipmuc heritage, a nation from the Massachusetts and Connecticut area of the U.S. 

"I was raised in a very traditional Irish Catholic, strict upbringing," he explains. "We didn't talk about [my mother's] side but we spent our summers up on reserves like Christian Island and Wausaksing."

Still, it wasn't until he was a teenager, when Boyden's seven older sisters passed on their family's rich history and culture to him, that his indigenous identity won him over.

Then, at 27, he discovered writing while studying for his masters in fine arts in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"I didn't think anyone would give a crap about Anishinabe heritage in northern Ontario and bingo and everything else," Boyden says.

"I started writing stories about this and [readers] loved them. I was like 'wow, well this is kind of interesting' and that's when I just kept pursuing it."

A voice with a story to tell

Boyden began to learn more about First Nations culture, travelling to different communities and teaching on the west coast of James Bay in Cree territory, a place he has come to love.

But that's not the only reason Boyden tells stories from an indigenous perspective — in historical based books like Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda — a novel that won Canada Reads last year.

It was while he was struggling to write his first book that he found himself in the dreaded dead-end of writer's block. 

"I remember very specifically… I was sitting in a coffee shop in New Orleans, writing my first novel Three Day Road, which took me almost five years to write," recalls Boyden.

"I'm writing this in God-forsaken, hot, mosquito-ridden New Orleans about these northern Oji-Cree people in James Bay and I'm stuck."

Then a voice interrupted the buzz of mosquitoes and the silence in Boyden's head — a voice not his own and one with a long story to tell.

"This old Anishinabe woman starts telling me a story about her family on the trapline one winter."

That voice, that old Anishinabe woman Boyden heard that day in New Orleans, became Niska, the aunt in Three Day Road who paddles her wounded and addicted nephew back home after fighting in the war. 

"That's when the whole novel blossomed open for me. It was not me trying to do something. It was someone coming to me and saving my ass," Boyden laughs.

'It was not me trying to do something. It was someone coming to me and saving my ass!'
- Joseph Boyden, Author

​Boyden says it is these voices that he listens to when sitting down to write.

"So this kind of identity comes through my characters and through the writing."

Identity and voice are important to Boyden, as an author and as a creative writing teacher, so is breaking boundaries.

"I tell my students, if you are going to handcuff yourself by saying 'I am not allowed to do this... I can only do what's comfortable for me,' you're not going to become a writer."

"But if we're going to push boundaries, if we're going to break boundaries, if we're going to break down what I see in Canada — beginning to break down in terms of indigenous story and indigenous storytelling, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable first."