Books·How I Wrote It

How Drew Hayden Taylor married Indigenous stories with sci-fi, and found a perfect match

The author explains how his collection of stories, Take Us to Your Chief, may be the start of a whole new genre.
Drew Hayden Taylor is a renowned playwright, author and journalist. (Douglas & McIntyre)

Where's all the Indigenous sci-fi, anyway? As a fan of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Drew Hayden Taylor has been asking himself this question for a long time. And finally, he decided to answer it himself. Taylor's latest collection, Take Us to Your Chief, is a mini-galaxy of nine sci-fi stories. In his own words, Taylor talks about how it all come together. 

Busting genres

"As I got older and became a writer, I noticed that Native writers seemed to be preoccupied by a narrow path of literature in terms of how they expressed themselves, the stories they preferred to deal with. Most Indigenous writing deals with historical pieces, victim narratives or what I refer to as 'post-contact stress disorder.' Sad, bleak, depressing, dark. 

"I wanted to expand the boundaries of the possibilities of Native stories. I've always been fascinated by sci-fi, and I have always been a fan of jumping or breaking or blending genres. My very first novel was about Native vampires. I was once asked to adapt and Indigenize a Brecht/Weill communist musical, which I did. So I love playing with genres. And this seems to be the time to explore that. I have many Native author friends who are doing things like Indigenous erotica, fantasy — even my friend Thomas King, whose hobby is murder mysteries."

Self-starter

"My first inclination was to put together an anthology of Native sci-fi. I had contacted several Native writers I knew to see if they might be interested in contributing a short story, and almost universally I got approval — people like Richard Van Camp, Lee Maracle, Joseph Boyden — they all thought it was a fabulous idea. But I had difficulty selling it to publishers. See, these writers actually expected to get paid, and nobody really know if Native sci-fi would sell, so putting a book together that would go into print already $5,000 or so in the hole wasn't really attractive to publishers. 
And then one night, I got an epiphany. I just said to myself, Oh screw it, I'll do it myself. And that's where it came from. Over a two-month period, I wrote six of the short stories in the collection, and the other three soon after." 

Story first, sci-fi second

"The interesting thing about sci-fi is that it's often not regarded as 'literature.' Science fiction has the same DNA as all other forms of literature: it explores the human or social experience, just using a different set of tools. When I started writing the stories in this collection, I wanted to make sure I was telling a really interesting tale. To me, the story was very, very important, and the sci-fi elements were there to enhance the story, rather than the other way around. Historically, most sci-fi has been written to explore different aspects of society in a metaphorical way. But if you couch it in really great story and characters, more people will be willing to read the book and to take in the allegory that was actually being explored in the piece."

Perfect match

"I found that the Native themes and the sci-fi themes were so easily interwoven. The stories were incredibly easy and fun to do. They poured out of me. It seemed to be all there waiting for me. When you look at the exploration of petroglyphs, for example, by the earliest Aboriginal people — a lot of them look like space people, they have that exotic quality. My only concern now is that, if and when Aboriginal sci-fi catches on, the dominant metaphor that's greatly explored will be the notion of contact. It's the most obvious metaphor for the Aboriginal experience, and I just hope other Native writers don't get preoccupied with this very obvious storyline, because that'll get old really quick."

Drew Hayden Taylor's comments have been edited and condensed.

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