Books·How I Wrote It

How writing about his difficult childhood helped Darrel J. McLeod heal — and help others in the process

His memoir Mamaskatch won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.
Darrel McLeod is the author of Mamaskatch. (Ilja Herb, Douglas & McIntyre)

With his powerful first book MamaskatchDarrel J. McLeod has won one of the country's oldest and most prestigious literary prizes. The Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction comes with a $25,000 purse and includes a backlist of winners like Mordecai Richler and Emily Carr.

Mamaskatch is a memoir of McLeod's chaotic upbringing with his mother Bertha, who survived the horrors of the residential school system. McLeod bares the raw pain of his childhood on the page, recounting what it means to be a receiver of intergenerational trauma, while also enduring racism and abuse from non-Indigenous people in Canada.

Mamaskatch is on the shortlist for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize.

 Below, McLeod shares the process of writing his book Mamaskatch

Inspired to write

"There were a few elements that set the idea up for me over the years. One was when I read Margaret Laurence's book The Diviners. The opening phrase captivated me and stuck with me all these years: The river flows both ways. She writes about her principal character sitting by the window, watching the river and writing. I thought it was so romantic and wanted to do that one day. I tucked it away in the back of my head and dreamed it might come true someday.

"Then, I was studying French at UBC and an older couple who were both professors took me under their wing. We'd sit around talking French at evenings at their house and I would tell them stories about my life. They'd say that they felt that my story was an intriguing piece of Canadian history that had to be told and it was a story only I could tell.

"The third thing that happened was I was working as a school principal in northern B.C. I used to sit around telling stories with the other teachers. One of the teachers was an elder, Catherine Bird, who is an amazing woman. After one night of storytelling, she turned to me and said, 'Darrel you have to write this story down. It will help somebody someday.' I knew it was one of those magical moments where it wasn't just Catherine Bird speaking. It was the universe. Then I actually did start writing really short stories, snippets of stories. A couple of years after I quit working full time, I decided to take a course in writing taught by Betsy Warland at Simon Fraser University. It was called memoir of inquiry. The way she went about it just captured my imagination and I started writing."

Power of music

"I listened to a lot of era music. I'd listen to music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and it would trigger memories. Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart and Mercedes Benz — my mom used to sing those songs. I remember I'd be up in bed and mom would be downstairs drinking. After midnight, these songs would come on and she'd call me downstairs and tell me her stories. Another one is the Johnny Cash song The Ballad of Ira Hayes. Mom used to love that song because it's about an Indian that served in the U.S. Army. She used to play it over and over again. That brought back memories of really tragic experiences that we had as kids, when mom was unfortunately on one of her drinking binges."

Cooperating with the spirits

"I've done a lot of work over the years with counselors, psychologists and spiritual work with spiritual people and learned to do kundalini yoga, which involves meditations and chants and breath work. I've also always relied on music to give me support and inspiration. I used all of those things to keep my spirits high and to keep me from falling into depression. When I was writing the most difficult things, I would have beautiful music on. There's an opera singer named Emma Shapplin who is a French soprano. If I knew was writing something difficult, I would put her music on before I started. It's really so touching music and very spiritual music that she sings.

"Also, I would do traditional ceremonies with sweetgrass and sage and call on my ancestors for help. I'd be praying to the very people I was writing about — the people who had passed to the spirit world. I was often praying to them for guidance and help and clarity. So that was very beautiful. The whole thing was very beautiful. It was like I was drawing closer to my family. We were kind of conspiring or cooperating to get these stories out, even though, if they were still alive, my mother in particular, it would have been very hurtful to work through that stuff. But it was like we were giving each other permission to go through all that stuff again and heal."

New confidence

"The overall result, with the book now published and out to the world, is that I feel like a different person. I walk taller and have more confidence and am generally happier. I was always happy, but I feel even happier and more complete somehow. I went through life, all those years, carrying the burden of grief and guilt, feeling at different points in my life that I'd been a bad person. I just put it all out there, bared my soul to the world and said, 'Here it is. Here I am. This is what I've been through. This is what I've done. This is what I've done.'"

Darrel J. McLeod's comments have been edited for length and clarity.