Books

Maria Campbell, author of the classic memoir Halfbreed, writing two books that celebrate Cree storytelling

The books will feature illustrations by artist Christi Belcourt. They are scheduled to be published in 2022.
Métis author and playwright Maria Campbell is the author of the classic memoir Halfbreed. (Sheena Goodyear/CBC )

Celebrated Métis elder, author, playwright, broadcaster and filmmaker Maria Campbell is writing two new English-language books that collect Cree stories from the oral tradition.

The presently untitled books will feature illustrations by Métis artist Christi Belcourt and will be published by McClelland & Stewart. Both books will also be available as audiobooks. 

One volume will consist of a collection of very short family stories that were told while people were working. 

The second will be a boxed set of long family stories that were originally told outdoors at night around a campfire. 

They are tentatively scheduled for a 2022 release date.

Campbell is the author of the classic 1973 memoir Halfbreed, an account of one Indigenous woman's encounters with racism, poverty, oppression and tragedy. 

She was named to the Order of Canada for her contributions to national literature in 2008.

In an interview with CBC Books, Campbell said the upcoming books are "little stories embedded with family stories" that highlight traditional Cree storytelling that would have been orally told over the decades.

"These are teaching stories, to make sure that you know what to do if an emergency happens when you're out berry picking or doing or you're out in a thunderstorm," said Campbell.

"It's kind of like, if I tell you a little story about what to do in the berry patch with a bear, then there's a story about a bear and then there's a story that's another story. "

Respected Metis elder Maria Campbell on the important role books and storytelling played in her life. 7:14

Campbell has been working on collecting, translating and retelling these Indigenous stories for years — and, as a grandmother and great-grandmother, now is the time to write them down in English, she added.

"Most of them, I knew by heart. I still repeat them. Everybody in our family and our community still tell those same stories, " Campbell said.

"I've been working on them for many years because most of them are translated and they're not my stories. These are stories that different people have told at different times over the years since my childhood. So I've been translating [and re-translating] them probably for about 45 years," Campbell said.

It was also important that the upcoming books be also available in an audiobook format, said Campbell.

"I'm doing audio tapes with these stories because that's the closest way that I can try to get the same experience that I had as an child in hearing these stories."

Halfbreed was revised and republished in 2019 with a new introduction and afterword and two missing pages from the original text.

The present-day cohort of Indigenous authors — including Cherie Dimaline, Joshua Whitehead, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Jesse Thistle — hold Campbell in high regard for her groundbreaking 1973 memoir which is seen as a foundational work of Indigenous literature in Canada. 

Nearly five decades after Maria Campbell first published her seminal memoir Halfbreed, she says feels like it's finally finished. 27:32

"I find the new writers really exciting. When I first started to write, there were very few books I could find. It wasn't that there were no Indigenous writers, it's just that we didn't hear about them and they were not available to us," said Campbell.

"Being able to read all the new writing over the years has been not just inspiring, but those young writers teach me a lot. They are writing in English and they have such a command of the language."​​​​​​

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