Books·In Conversation

'I can create the future I want to see': Why Canada Reads-longlisted author Waub Rice loves the writing life

The Anishinaabe writer spoke with CBC Books about storytelling and the impact his Canada Reads-longlisted novel Moon of the Crusted Snow has had on his career. The final five books and the panellists who chose them will be revealed on Jan. 25, 2023.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist

A man stands looking at the camera with a backdrop of orange-coloured trees.
Waubgeshig Rice is developing a sequel to his 2018 book, Moon of the Crusted Snow. (Submitted by Waubgeshig Rice)

Waubgeshig Rice is an Anishinaabe author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. He is the author of the short story collection Midnight Sweatlodge and the novel Legacy. He is also a broadcaster and past host of CBC Radio's Up North.

Rice's 2018 novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist. The final five books and the panellists who chose them will be revealed on Jan. 25, 2023.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is a dystopian drama involving a protagonist named Evan Whitesky and a northern Anishinaabe community facing dwindling resources and rising panic after their electrical power grid shuts down during a cold winter. While the community tries to maintain order, forces from outside and within threaten to destroy the reserve.

The book has an upcoming sequel, Moon of the Turning Leaves, slated for a fall 2023 release.

Rice spoke with CBC Books about the lasting impact of Moon of the Crusted Snow and life after broadcasting as a full-time writer. 

A book cover featuring a field of snow, with an abandoned truck stuck in a snow drift.

Congrats on being on the Canada Reads longlist for Moon of the Crusted Snow? How does it feel?

I am humble and also very privileged to be in this position. As a writer, the most I could ask for is just for anyone to read what I've written. To have this book stay somewhat relevant after four-and-a-half years is a huge bonus for me. I couldn't have anticipated how much of an audience this would have reached when I was first dreaming it up.

For it to be on the Canada Reads longlist is a fitting part of the story as I bring its sequel into the world. It's really special. It means a lot to me.

Let me take a quick step back. When did writing and the desire to be a storyteller start for you?

I was very fortunate to grow up in my father's home community of Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay near Parry Sound, Ont. As a little kid in the 1980s, our community was making a serious effort to reconnect with Anishinaabe culture and revive it — after the ongoing harmful waves of colonialism and all the repressive measures of the Canadian government, and so on. There were some dark times and there was a lot of tragedy and trauma in our community. 

As a little kid in the 1980s, our community was making a serious effort to reconnect with Anishinaabe culture and revive it... I had a front row seat to this renaissance of sorts.

But by the time the '80s rolled around, a lot of people wanted to reverse that cycle that was imposed upon them. They wanted to find ways to heal. A big part of that was turning back to the culture, bringing specific cultural elements back into the community that were either forbidden or shamed out of people in our community.

A big part of that was storytelling. I had a front row seat to this renaissance of sorts and spent a lot of time with elders, with family members who told a lot of stories, whether they were creation stories or Trickster stories. I came to know how crucial that was for the survival of our identity as Anishinaabe. At a pretty young age, I held on to that importance and I knew it was crucial for me to try to remember as much of that as possible.

Going to school on the rez, was like any other school: we read books, we had creative writing assignments and so on.  But in high school in the 1990s… the provincial curriculum didn't reflect any Indigenous authors whatsoever. I just assumed that it wasn't a place for us or our stories or our experiences.

Fortunately, I had an aunt who was one of my first teachers at the school on the reserve. She knew that I was keen on English class and that I liked reading novels and I liked creative writing. She exposed me to the Indigenous authors of the time, who were already doing revolutionary things, like Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, Louise Erdrich and so on. That's when it solidified for me that I wanted to become a writer. It changed my life. It opened my eyes to an entirely different form of creative expression that was rooted in culture and identity. And for once, I was proud to see what was reflected back to me on the page. 

The late Lee Maracle with author Waubgeshig Rice, who mentored him as a younger writer. Rice would later tweet: 'Today there is a wave of revolutionary Indigenous literature because of the splash Lee Maracle created decades ago.' (Waubgeshig Rice/Twitter)

I'm sure people still miss you as a broadcaster and hearing you on CBC Radio. How difficult was it to leave journalism behind to be a full-time writer?

It was definitely a difficult decision and it involved a lot of planning. I'd sort of always thought that I'd eventually leave CBC — just because there are other things I wanted to try out, especially after I had some publishing experience. I thought one day it would be cool to try this full time if I have the opportunity. It wasn't a spontaneous decision at all. It was something that was always sort of brewing in the back of my mind.

Then when Moon of the Crusted Snow got some significant attention, I started getting a lot of questions about writing a sequel to it. That's when the wheels started turning a little more. Initially, I wasn't planning on writing a sequel. I just thought that was the end of the story. I was satisfied with how it was resolved. 

But that's when things started accelerating to draw me away from my full-time journalism career in broadcasting at CBC. What I love about fiction, as someone who's coming from journalism, is that there is so much more room to contextualize things and to humanize the reality of a community like a First Nation. 

LISTEN | Waubgeshig Rice on the importance of oral storytelling:

Former CBC journalist Waubgeshig Rice has left journalism behind to focus full-time on writing fiction. He's an award-winning author, best known for his 2018 national bestseller "Moon of the Crusted Snow." Waub is Anishnaabe from the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario. He made the long trip to Quebec City to take part in the 11th edition of le Salon du Livre des Premières Nations.

Why do you think Moon of the Crusted Snow has resonated so much with readers?

When it initially came out, there was a good initial response and it got some good reviews. I was able to travel across the country with it and sold quite a few copies right away. I think people just enjoyed a thrilling story. This was pre-pandemic, of course.

I think they liked my take on what a so-called post apocalyptic story can look like from an Indigenous perspective. That's not an original concept at all. I wanted to create something as authentically Anishinaabe as possible, informed pretty much entirely by my upbringing in my home community of Wasauksing. The feedback that I value the most is from other Indigenous people, wherever they're from, who see familiarity in the book, even if it's a different culture, different Nation, different geography. That's what I tried hard to capture.

Even though the community and the story is set in far Northern Ontario and where I'm from — it is not remote by any stretch of the imagination.

This is a story that comes from the heart. It comes from the storytelling spirit that I was raised with. 

Even though the community and the story is set in far Northern Ontario and where I'm from — it is not remote by any stretch of the imagination. The social dynamics, the interpersonal relationships and the individual characteristics of the people are all based on what I know as someone who grew up in a community. 

Then a pandemic in real-life hit.

That changed the lens for sure. For a strange reason, a lot of people in those first few months of the pandemic were drawn to post-apocalyptic literature and the book went back on the bestseller list.

I didn't expect it all. It was strange at first, but of course I was very grateful that people turned to a book like mine and others, maybe to seek comfort or maybe to seek resolution during other confusing and mysterious times in our global history. It pushed the book back into the spotlight and accelerated the interest in the sequel.

Four people sit with string instruments in their hands and a fifth person is sitting, wearing a grey hoodie.
Author Waubgeshig Rice, right, practices with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra String Quartet ahead of a performance, reading passages from his book Moon of the Crusted Snow, to music. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The novel now has a musical connection as well.

Yes, the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra String Quartet reached out to me earlier in the pandemic. They wanted to do something like a reading presentation with music. It was a collaboration that we kicked around for a little while. It started as a loose idea and didn't really end up at anything definitive because pandemic dragged on and it ended up quashing the idea altogether at that point. 

Then thankfully the Sudbury Symphony revived the idea to play [Russian composer] Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 3 while I did readings from Moon of the Crusted Snow in between the movements.

When I heard the piece, the entire thing, it sounded perfect. It was almost an ideal soundtrack to the story, even though, like when I was writing it, I wasn't thinking about classical music at all. I have very limited exposure to classical music. 

I did these readings in between the movements and it seemed to line up nicely and getting to the overall mood of you know a crisis, a struggle, some despair and then a resolution at the end with the more tense parts of Moon of the Crusted Snow.  The feedback was really good.

LISTEN | Waubgeshig Rice on Up North:

What can we expect with the sequel?

Basically, it takes place 10 years after the end of Moon of the Crusted Snow. Evan has found himself and his family in a new place. They recognize that they've been there for too long and the natural resources around them are starting to deplete. 

In that 10-year gap, there have been some failed explorations outside of the community to see what happened or to connect with other communities. They've been sheltered and traumatized, not just by the events of the first book, but by their history as displaced and oppressed Indigenous people.

So they decide that they want to go South to see what has happened, if in fact the world has ended, but also to reconnect with their original homelands on the Great Lakes. They then encounter some wild and wacky things on their trip down to the big water.

What is the power of storytelling in your eyes?

When you're an Indigenous storyteller or artist, you come to creativity with a lot of baggage in many ways — with the history of what's happened to your people and with your own personal history of trying to survive in what's usually a hostile world for a lot of Indigenous people.

But with speculative fiction, I can do whatever I want: I can create the future that I want to see, and of course I want that to be hopeful.

I'll talk specifically about fiction: Colonialism has stolen the future of Indigenous people and destroyed their past while violently oppressing them throughout the present. It takes a strong and difficult response to that present depression to find ways to restore the past and create a hopeful future. 

But with speculative fiction, I can do whatever I want. I can create the future that I want to see, and I want that to be hopeful. Stories like Moon of the Crusted Snow and Moon of the Turning Leaves feature obviously massive upheaval, violent events and terrible outcomes. But the hope is through all of that, it's a reset and there's an opportunity for renewal on the other side. People have said that they're apprehensive to read the first book or they may be apprehensive to read the second one. I totally understand, because there's a lot of scary stuff that happens in both. But I'll say if they want to check it out and if they want to stick it through, there's glimpses of hope throughout the stories. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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