Tomson Highway's memoir, Permanent Astonishment, is written as 'a symphony to life'

The celebrated Cree pianist and playwright chronicles the early years of his life in the nomadic Highway family of northern Manitoba in his memoir.

Permanent Astonishment won the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Tomson Highway is a Cree playwright and author. (Sean Howard)

When Tomson Highway says he was born in a snowbank, he means it literally. He arrived in December 1951, ahead of schedule, forcing his parents to stop their dogsled, pitch a tent in a snowbank in northern Manitoba and send their 12-year-old daughter out to fetch a midwife in the night.

Canadians know Highway as a world-renowned composer, pianist, playwright and author of the novel Kiss of the Fur QueenHe chronicles the first 15 years of his life in the memoir Permanent Astonishment

Highway was the 11th of 12 children to come out of the remarkable marriage of Joe and Balazee Highway. Joe was a world champion dogsled racer and a celebrated caribou hunter. The Highway family were nomads, traversing Canada's great northern landscape by dogsled and living off the land.

Highway is fluent in multiple languages, but his mother tongue is Cree. He describes it as "a laughing language" capable of providing the "most pleasurable sensations." Highway started learning English and piano at a residential school, which he attended for nine years before deciding to enrol in high school in Winnipeg.

Permanent Astonishment won the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $60,000 prize recognizes the best nonfiction in Canada.

Highway spoke to CBC Books about sharing these memories in his memoir, Permanent Astonishment.

    This book ends around the time you turn 15. Are more memoirs coming?

    I'm doing five of them. I decided to write my own biography because of Tab Hunter, of all people, who inspired me. Tab Hunter was a 1950s movie star. He was the Brad Pitt of this day in Hollywood. He said, "I decided to write my biography because I wanted you guys to hear it from the horse's mouth as opposed to the horse's ass." I thought, "Yes, he's got that right." Because whoever writes my biography will inevitably get all kinds of wrong information. They won't be precise. You won't know the experience. So I decided to write it myself.

    And I needed to. I needed to assess my life. It's a good way to assess your life. I think everybody has a story that's worth writing, you know? Who knows what will become of it. It could be a fluke. My first success was a fluke. 

    You don't sit down to write a hit; that's the last thing on your mind. You do it just to clean up your mind.

    You don't sit down to write a masterpiece. You don't sit down to write a hit; that's the last thing on your mind. You do it just to clean up your mind. It's like housekeeping for your soul or your spirit. You clean out the cobwebs and the dust and ... take your life into stock. Then if you're lucky, and also you have a very good education, it'll get you somewhere eventually with a tremendous amount of patience. And so I decided to write this book because of that.

    The moment that launched me on the project was I have extraordinary parents. I come from the kind of marriage that they can only dream of in Hollywood. They will never make enough money in Hollywood to afford the kind of marriage that I come from. So that's a stroke of luck number one. They are both gone now. They would have both been over 100 years old, but they were the loveliest couple imaginable. They were kind. They were funny. They loved to laugh. They were hardworking and they were also physically beautiful. I wanted to write to thank them for the life that they gave us, which is an extraordinary life, right from the moment of birth up in northern Manitoba, near Nunavut. 

    How did it feel to assess your life? 

    It felt very good. I realized that the central lesson that my parents taught me was to laugh. I grew up in a laughing household. I grew up in a laughing marriage and I grew up in a laughing language. The Cree language is the funniest language on the face of the Earth. The way the syllables work, the way they bounce out, they're just funny. Every time you start speaking Cree, you start laughing automatically, and every time you switch back to English or French, you stop laughing automatically. Really, it's like that.

    Cree is a joyful language and that's why I laugh all the time.

    English is an intellectual language and it's brilliant and I love it. I speak French too. I haven't spoken English in a long time. My partner of 36 years is Franco Ontarian from Sudbury, Ont., but we live here in Quebec. We lived in France for many, many years. French and the Latin languages, because I speak Italian as well, are emotional languages. They come from the emotions.

    Cree comes the third part of the body, which is the funniest, most ridiculous looking part, most pleasurable. [Cree is] capable of giving the human body the most pleasurable sensations on the face of the earth. I'm writing about that right now. People have to understand that Cree is a joyful language and that's why I laugh all the time. I've come to believe after all this research that I've done all these years about mythology, that the reason God put me on the planet is to laugh. I'm here to laugh, and that's all there is to it. 

    Your dad also taught you about the importance of a well-timed nap. 

    Yes, absolutely. Well, that adventure that he had as a young man when he was crossing the lake on his dogsled and he was hit by a blizzard [and took a nap], that's a true story. He's told that story several times, and I think about that story regularly. I find it very inspirational. I've learned how to do that, relax in the face of panic and you'll find your way. That's the best way to weather any storm. Just lie down and have a beautiful nap. Don't freak out. If you're freaking out, you're not helping the situation. You're just worsening it. 

    We know you from plays and from your novel and from your music. What was it like to take on nonfiction? 

    Well, I like writing. I like the act of writing very, very much. Writing is like putting a Rubik's Cube together. It's like doing beadwork. You put words together and it's a pleasurable sensation to organize words, to create sentences and to create a rhythm with sentences. I have a very, very strong background in music and I'm a pianist. I've always thought of language as music making. Language is a musical instrument, so I conceived of a novel or a play as a symphony or a Sonata or a string quartet.

    I wrote this book as a symphony. It's a symphony to life.

    The reason why my writing stands out, they tell me, is because first of all it's influenced by the Cree language, which is a very rhythmic and funny language. The second thing is, my writing is conceived of musically — musical structure, breathing, phrasing, counterpoint, harmony, form, all those things. I wrote this book as a symphony. It's a symphony to life. If you read it carefully, it's very musical. It's all conceived of musically. 

    Do you use music to transport you back to those times and places? 

    I have two pianos in the house, one here in my office downstairs, and one in the living room. People ask me frequently, "What music do you work best to?" It's because artists, a lot of the time, use music to push them along. 

    In spite of the fact that I make so much noise as a pianist, my favourite music is silence. I work best in complete silence. I live in a space that is completely silent, and I live in a neighborhood that is so quiet, it's like nobody lives out there. We live in a retirement community, so it's full of elderly people and they have quiet lifestyles. 

    My favourite music is silence.

    I love silence and that's what inspires me. I listen to the silence of the North, which is in my heart and there's nothing quite as astonishing, breathtaking as the silence of the North. You can't imagine unless you're there to hear the wind, the rain, the water lapping up on the shore, those natural sounds. So in a sense, silence doesn't really exist. But it's always there and I thrive on it.

    How do you go back and access those memories? They're very vivid in the book, the way you've written them.

    I have a very good memory. I'm a trained musician, a classically trained pianist.

    Classical musicians are taught to memorize reams of music and very complex music in some cases. If you've ever seen a score by Rachmaninoff — thousands of notes. Complicated music to memorize, and you have to memorize it for your concerts. My memory work was put to an early test when I was young. As a result, I've built my muscles of memory if you want to call it that. So I have an excellent memory.

    The first draft was 800 pages and then I whittled it down over the course of five drafts and it eventually became 300. My editor helped me take it down to 300. She thought it shouldn't be much longer than that because after a while, people get tired of laughing. Know your limit. It's like drinking, you know. Know your limits, otherwise you'll damage yourself.

    I've had this extraordinary life. I have very vivid memories of those extraordinary adventures that I would never forget.

    The other reason I wrote the book is that the average Canadian does not know that this kind of lifestyle existed here in Canada up to recently, that people were born in snowbanks, were born in the snow regularly, born in tents pitched in snowbanks and sometimes in lean-tos right next to campfires. There was nothing unusual in that, being born in a snowbank back in those days, 1950s and 1940s and before. We're active people, OK? We live in the snow. As a result, I've had this extraordinary life. I have very vivid memories of those extraordinary adventures that I would never forget. 

    There's a scene in a canoe where we were crossing the lake at night paddling and all of a sudden I see above me, 2 trillion stars lighting up the sky. I will never forget that moment. I cherish it in my heart. I still remember it.

    One thing that remains, as you mentioned, is the love of your parents and their amazing marriage.

    My stroke of luck number one was to have the kind of parents that I had. My stroke of luck number two was the level of education that I have, which is extraordinary. I went to a religious school run by nuns and priests. I went to a Jesuit school. They're known for their level of teaching. The teachers there have PhDs in English literature and psychology. The standards are very high and the discipline is rigid, it's almost militaristic. My father taught me how to work very hard. I loved learning. A lot of people hate going to school. I was the opposite.

    The problem with our lifestyle is that we're nomads, we're intrinsically nomadic hunters and fishermen and trappers. We wander. We never lived in one spot. During the nine months of my mother's pregnancy with me, I'm sure we lived in about nine different places. We were always out on the road with our dogs, traveling by dogsled back in those days, which is the most miraculous way to travel through that snow, across thousands of lakes. It's extraordinary, beautiful. That was my stroke of luck number two, growing up in the territory. I grew up in paradise. Third of all, the level of school I went to was very high. I was there for nine years, until the age 15, when I graduated from that school, I'm told I had one of the highest averages in Manitoba, that's how hard I worked.

    My father had given his life to us.

    My father had given his life to us. There are 12 of us. I'm the 11th of 12 children. It wasn't easy supporting a family of 12 kids in that manner. But he did it. We owed him so much. He never went to school. He had grade zero and he regretted not having an education. He wanted me to try and get the education that he never got. I went to school. I wasn't forced to go to school. He put me on that bush plane and it was not traumatic for me at all. I love flying. I bush planes and flying, period. 

    Something inside me clicked that said, "Dad, you never even got a chance to go to school and you want me to go to school. So I go to school for you. I go and get the education that you never got." I was 16 years old and that's exactly what I did. I went out there and basically took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and learned and achieved an extraordinary education, which is international level now. I had a privileged life beyond comparison. That's where that education got me. My stroke of luck number three was education.

    My stroke of luck number four is my friends. I'm surrounded by people whom I absolutely adore, including my partner and our grandchildren. We have been blessed by a beautiful, beautiful life.

    Then stroke of luck number five was my health. I was born in a snowbank where a lot of kids died. The infant mortality rate was very high. The funeral procession used to pass by our house on reserve and I remember those little coffins going by regularly. Up until the 1960s that kept happening. In the 1960s, the government put into place a program to help deal with high mortality rates. Pregnant women were flown by bush plane to The Pas, this small town of 5,000 people in central Manitoba. They were flown to a hospice where they waited out their term and gave birth in the hospital. My nephews and nieces, born after 1960, were all born in hospitals. 

    What's the hardest part of being an artist? 

    I haven't been an artist all of my life. I quit music when I was 23 years old. I felt guilty that I had a good education, and yet I wasn't doing anything for my people. I felt that responsibility. I felt I had to work in the community, so I did that. I was a Native social worker for seven years. It was very, very difficult. But that was the most difficult part of my life, a school of hard knocks. I was knocked about like you wouldn't believe. Politics are dreadful and I'm not a politician. It was a very rough ride.

    When I turned 30, I started actually writing for a reason. My younger brother Rene was a modern dancer. He started to experiment with choreography. He danced with the Toronto Dance Theatre at the end of his life. He died at 35 of AIDS in 1990.

    The first thing a choreographer needs is the music. Rene knew that I had the chops. I never studied composition per se, but I do all the disciplines related to composition, that is harmony, counterpoint, form, history, orchestration. I had the chops to write a symphony, if you asked me to. I wouldn't do it for the world because it's way too much work and who would play it? Anyway, he asked me to write a piece of music and lo and behold I did. I never wanted to be a composer. I decided to do it for him because I loved him so much and knew he couldn't afford to pay a composer. I put this piece together for him and it's played to this day. This is wonderful music that I wrote 40 years ago. That became the debut of my artistic career, so I was 30.

    The hardest part of it was also the most fun part of it. Because when you write a play or write a book, the first one, unless you're very lucky, chances are that you would have to produce it yourself. Nobody will want to produce it. No theatre will want to produce, no publishing house would want to publish it. So you know what you do? You don't give up. You take a wonderful nap. You pay for it and you pay through the nose for those things and you pay the actors out of your pocket. You're forever running to a green machine to make you pay. You rent the theatre, you rent the lights, you pay for the publicity, you create the posters. The first three or four years of my life as a writer, it was trial by fire. It was very, very difficult. I became very, very poor. I was broke. I spent lots and lots of money on stuff. Then one magical night, I was 36, the sky burst open and I had my first hit, The Rez Sisters.

    All the love you put into the material comes back, and it comes back in waves.

    It's karmic. It all comes back. All the love you put into the material comes back, and it comes back in waves. I'm now the recipient of this magnificent career. Several careers, actually. That was the hardest part of it, the poverty. But at the same time, when I think back to those years of poverty, extreme poverty, I have never been happier in my life. It's a moment of great passion, of great excitement and discovery and risk. It was a rollercoaster ride and it was an experience. I'd never been happier. I'd never been so excited about my life. I'd never been so passionate. My entire life was motivated by ideas. And I wanted to put them on paper and tell stories. 

    Tomson Highway's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

    Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

    A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

    Sign up now