Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Richard Wagamese on why Canada needs more Indigenous writers

The author of Embers answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Richard Wagamese is the author of Embers, a curated selection of everyday reflections. (Milkweed Editions)

Richard Wagamese earned his place in the Canadian canon with fiction like Indian Horse and Medicine Walk. His new book, Embers, is a nonfiction collection of insights and lessons curated from the author's personal mission to become, in his words, "a spiritual bad-ass."

Below, Richard Wagamese answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Pasha Malla asks, "Please quote one egregiously stupid criticism — either specific or general — of your writing, and address, refute or mock it."

I was once told that my writing wasn't Native enough. The person who offered this critique was First Nations and I was floored by it. She went on to say that because I was taken away from my people and grew up in a largely non-Native context that I couldn't write about the experience of being Native because I didn't grow up in it. Well, the fact is that I did. I'm a survivor of the Sixties Scoop where thousands of Aboriginal children in Canada were removed from their homes and communities without permission and adopted into non-Native homes. I have been homeless, incarcerated, on welfare, alcoholic, drug addicted, culturally displaced, reviled for the color of my skin, hated for being who I am and labeled without consideration. I have also been an intergenerational survivor of the residential school system. All of which sounds pretty Native to me. I have also reclaimed every cultural and traditional thing that was taken from me. I have reclaimed my language. I have reclaimed ceremony and ritual — all of which sounds pretty Native to me. Strangely enough, everything that I write is about those things — the journey to being one Native person in Canada. If writing those kinds of stories isn't Native enough, I don't know what is.

2. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you could come back as a musician, what area of music would you choose, and are you secretly a song writer, and if so, what is your song about?"

If I was able to come back as a musician I would come back as a street busker with a guitar because I could play and sing anything that moved my soul and spirit. I'd sing sea shanties and lullabyes. I'd sing jazz ballads and old blues tunes. I'd sing heart rending country tunes and Irish drinking songs. I'd hammer out power chords and do rock songs. And when the evening sun was setting low, I'd sing gospel, maybe some field and working songs or a cowboy song from the old west. I'd come back as a musician who knew no boundaries, wanted no fame or anything beyond the transcendent joy of song and lyric. When my cup was full, I'd wander home and take a hand drum from the wall and sing an honor song to a Creator who blessed all of us with the glory of music.

3. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Do you ever imagine yourself one day writing a book that will make it unnecessary — or impossible — to write another? Is this thought hopeful or fearful?"

I imagine one day writing a book that has absolutely no social, intellectual or artistic merit whatsoever but will sell millions of copies. It would be a book that seethed with drama, tragedy, pathos and virtually dripped with sex and had nothing redeeming to say. This book would enthrall all who read it, be made into a movie that filled theaters and became the pop culture hit of the day. I would make the rounds of all the talk shows. Then, I would retire happily to my home in the mountains and live off the royalties forever and write the books that I really want to write. This thought isn't hopeful nor is it fearful. It's just fantasy because I would not write a book like that — there's too many valuable stories begging for their chance at air.

4. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "What is the hardest thing about being a writer?"

The hardest thing about being a writer is dealing with sidetracks. You're asked to do readings, to give talks, to visit schools, to sit on juries, to be the subject of interviews and to answer questions like these. They sidetrack you. They derail you. To paraphrase Hemingway, every hour you spend away from your desk is an hour of productive, creative time best spent on doing what Creator intended for you to do. Sure, I love being able to meet people and talk about my work, my writing life and my process but at the same time I crave the splendid isolation of creativity and can't wait to escape and get back to the magic world framed by the edges of my desk. The hardest thing about being a writer then, is being called away from that magic world in order to inhabit the real one.

5. William Deverell asks, "How much faith do you put in best-seller lists?"

I do not put any faith in best seller lists. My acronym for faith is Find Another Indian To Hassle. I don't read best seller lists because I don't write FOR them. Faith implies a reliance, a trust, a belief and I have none of those when it comes to determining popular fiction. I write because my soul calls me to. I write for the sake of the story that is channeled through me. I write because I know that it is what I am intended to do and because I no longer have any choice but to write. Best seller lists are the furthest thing from my mind.

6. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you want to change anything with your writing? Or do you simply want to entertain and stimulate as many people as possible?"

I am constantly changing my writing. I am always challenging myself, to be better, to be different, to find a new and evocative voice with which to tell my story, to grow more fluid, to ask deeper and more resonant questions. As long as I do this, I will always be able to stimulate and entertain rather than languishing in artistic sameness. I believe that if you are not in the constant process of reinvention you risk becoming dull, vapid and ultimately unreadable by virtue of artistic lethargy. I want the next book to always be a step beyond the last one. It's what I owe my readers.

7. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Name three Canadian writers you believe should be more widely read than they are. Why?"

I believe Metis, First Nations or Inuit writers should be more widely read because the stories they tell are fundamental motifs of Canada. Collectively, as time passes, they are building a literature of their people — founding peoples of Canada — and these stories need to be read and absorbed into the national consciousness because the story of Canada itself is the story of her relationship with Native people. Without those voices the national story remains incomplete. Without those voices the notion of history remains blue-eyed and flawed. Having said all that it is incumbent on Native writers to challenge themselves to clear the literary bar set by the magnificent non-Native writers of our Canadian canon. To do less is to sell short the idea of a literature of the people. To be read widely a writer needs to read widely themselves and strive to be as good as the great writers they absorb.

8. Pasha Malla asks, "Flannery O'Connor said, 'All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.' Where do your 'reaches of reality' extend to?"

I don't believe this quote. As a writer I have no idea of what is real until it's on the page. Real is culled from the rich, fertile ground of the imagination, framed by the concrete nature of language and rendered as real by craft and skill. What is described as real is only ever an imagined real and what gives this created world resonance and believability, is the very real emotional, spiritual and imagined content of the work. In that sense, my 'reaches of reality' extend to the very length and breadth and scope of my imagination. When I seek to suspend the disbelief of the reader, I am seeking that vastness; to live there, to breathe that rarified air and to create as Creator does, with purpose and love. Real is constantly being discovered. Change is the first law of the universe. I seek to change myself and level of imagination and craft to meet that.