CBC Literary Prizes

'The book is about truth in reconciliation:' Joseph Kakwinokanasum on his novel My Indian Summer

The member of James Smith Cree Nation shares in his own words how he wrote his debut novel My Indian Summer.
My Indian Summer is a book by Joseph Kakwinokanasum. (Tidewater, Tracy Hetherington)

Joseph Kakwinokanasum is a member of James Smith Cree Nation. His debut novel, My Indian Summer was published in 2022. Kakwinokanasum was shortlisted for the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for his story Ray Says.

(Tidewater Press)

The 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize is currently accepting submissions. The winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books. They will also attend a writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, a cultural hub on Toronto Island. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books

You can submit memoir, biography, humour writing, essay, personal essay travel writing and feature articles up to 2,000 words. The deadline to submit is Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

My Indian Summer is a novel about survival, reconciliation and identity set during the summer of 1979. For Hunter Frank, the summer begins with his mother returning home only to collect the last two months' welfare cheques, leaving her three mixed-race children to fend for themselves. The siblings get involved in an adventure involving a trio of elders and the stash of cash in the purple Crown Royal bag hidden in his mattress.

Kakwinokanasum spoke to CBC Books about how he wrote My Indian Summer.

A difficult story to tell

"The book is about truth in reconciliation: The Indian Act and the damage it did. Though when I wrote the story, I didn't want to focus on that. I wanted people to think about it, for it to be in the background like a subtle character or a taste of something that you can't quite put your finger on. The story itself, I just wanted to have fun with it. Because originally the story started out as a biography.

I've always believed that there's a lot of truth in fiction.- Joseph Kakwinokanasum

"I've always believed that there's a lot of truth in fiction. What I write, how I write what I write, is always informed by my experience with it. It's coming from a perspective of a self-identifying Indigenous man who's lived with that stigma his entire life. But the big picture of the story is the effects of colonialism." 

Turning nonfiction into fiction 

"This book started out as a nonfiction memoir called Woodland Creatures. I rewrote it probably three or four different times before my mentor, JJ Lee, put it on the desk of my publisher. Then they read it and liked it, but wanted to turn it into fiction. And I said okay. 

I came to the conclusion that writing it from a fiction perspective and having some fun with it would also give me distance from the stress and the pain of writing a memoir.- Joseph Kakwinokanasum

"I came to the conclusion that writing it from a fiction perspective and having some fun with it would also give me distance from the stress and the pain of writing a memoir. 

"When I was writing it, I was feeding off of a lot of my own emotional traumas. I was using a lot of my own memories of how things felt. I have no regrets about writing it as a fiction because I did have a lot of fun with the characters. I got to sort of just draw on all my uncles and my aunties and bring them back to life, give them purpose. Give them that space and honour their spirit." 

LISTEN | Joseph Kakwinokanasum discusses his debut novel My Indian Summer:
Sooke-based Indigenous author Joseph Kakwinokanasum talks about his debut novel which tackles intergenerational trauma through a coming-of-age story.

Using all of the tools

"I wrote this book pretty much in a closet! You could fit a small desk at the end of it, it had a light and a power outlet and it had a vent on the door. I painted it all up, I put in new floors, I warmed it up and put a space heater in there, a couple of lamps and my pinboards where I put up all of my cue cards to write the story. 

A desk with a writing journal, blue pens, a typewriter, a laptop, a bowl of salad and a cup of chai tea with a corner lamp.
Kakwinokanasum wrote his book in a storage closet using all the tools at his disposal. (Submitted by Joseph Kakwinokanasum)

"I would say 90 per cent of the story was written in that closet over eight or nine months. The amount of seclusion and alone time that I needed for it was tremendous. More than two-thirds of my day, I would spend alone because I'd just be in that office writing away and using every tool I possibly could. If the laptop didn't feel right, I would switch to a typewriter. If the typewriter wasn't it, if my fingers were clumsy and slipping through the little spaces between the keys, I would dictate notes into my phone."

Respecting the editing process

"I'm not an editor. For me, the whole editing process is really painful. One thing that I did do when I was editing the project is every time my editor sent me the changes that she wanted me to make, I wrote them down on a piece of paper and checked them off as I went, making sure that I got every one of those edits dealt with.

"I hate the editing process, it's painful for me, but I understand how important it is. It is the one part of the job that I do cringe a little bit at depending on what I'm writing. If it's poetry, then forget about it. I don't want to talk about it. But if it's my usual memoir or fantasy horror stuff, then it is difficult for me to go back to it.

I think that the reason why the book turned out the way it did is because it had 25 years to manifest.- Joseph Kakwinokanasum

"I give it a lot of time. I think that the reason why the book turned out the way it did is because it had 25 years to manifest. It started out as nonfiction 25 years ago when I was fiddling around with it in a journal. And that's kind of how it all started, a journal." 

Putting yourself out there

"It's producing art, right? This is the joy of that though, and the fear of putting it out there. I think once we take that little step and we say I'm just going to do it: throw that Hail Mary and go for it.

"Because if I hadn't done that I never would have gotten that Canada Council grant. I never would have been shortlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize. I never would have been published. All of these little things that I did because I got nothing to lose. You never know what you have, right? Also not giving up on it. If you have something really good, maybe you just need a bit of tweaking and maybe don't give up on it. You just never know. Throw it out there."

Joseph Kakwinokanasum's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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