What's their story?
On the couch with literary couple Joseph and Amanda Boyden
Amanda Boyden remembers the first time she set eyes on the man who would become her husband. It was at the University of New Orleans in 1992, on the first day of classes in the master of fine arts program.
"I had just moved in with my boyfriend," she recalls. "But we weren’t getting along. And I thought, there better not be a man at this school I find attractive. Especially if he’s studying writing — that’d be a double whammy. I walked into the classroom, took one look at Joseph and thought, ‘Oh damn! I’m in trouble.’"
In addition to wedding bands and a home, novelists Joseph and Amanda Boyden share a preoccupation with issues of race.
"It was love at first sight for me," Joseph Boyden says in his easygoing way. "I pursued Amanda for a year."
As she explains, "I didn’t want to have anything to do with the guy. I didn’t think he was serious about writing."
In hindsight, it’s a pretty funny comment. Joseph Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road (2005), won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, marking him as one of the country’s most gifted – and, yes, serious – writers. Inspired by the life of a legendary Ojibwa soldier, Three Day Road tells the story of Xavier and Elijah, two young aboriginal Canadians who sign up to fight in the First World War. Joseph’s recently released second novel, Through Black Spruce, is a sequel of sorts. Set near Moosonee, Ont., and in the cosmopolitan urban south, Through Black Spruce is an urgent, contemporary tale that explores the disappearance of a native woman and how the blight of drugs and gangs infects life on reserves.
Amanda and Joseph Boyden were in Toronto recently to talk about their latest books. I met up with them at the offices of Amanda's publisher, Random House. Amanda Boyden’s debut was Pretty Little Dirty (2006); her latest is called Babylon Rolling and is set in New Orleans. Over the course of a year that begins with the close call of Hurricane Ivan and ends days before the onslaught of Katrina, Babylon Rolling traces the lives of five diverse neighbours on Orchid Street. Through this chorus of multicultural voices, Amanda Boyden celebrates the intoxicating atmosphere of a complicated stew of people. At the same time, she examines whether it is possible for the city’s diverse races to truly co-exist.
In addition to wedding bands and a home, the Boydens share a preoccupation with issues of race. Both of their new novels update an antiquated conversation about segregation and overt oppression to probe the consequences of long-term poverty, limited education and systemic discrimination. Neither shies away from imagining — or inhabiting — the Other.
In Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden flips between the alternating perspectives of two aboriginals: Will Bird, a bush pilot, left comatose by a vicious assault; and his niece Annie, who has returned to the bush after months in the city searching for her missing sister. Will carries on conversations with Annie in his imagination, while Annie sits by his hospital bed recounting the past year of her life, hoping that the sound of her voice will waken him from his coma.
Boyden’s Irish Catholic heritage contains traces of Métis and Mi’kmaq. "Most of the time, I feel more Indian than white," he says. For more than a decade, he has immersed himself in aboriginal culture, expanding on the values he learned teaching native students at Northern College in Moosonee in the mid ’90s — values he has passed on to Jacob, his 18-year-old son from a previous relationship.
The assortment of bold, first-person narratives in Amanda Boyden’s Babylon Rolling includes a gritty, vernacular stream-of-consciousness belonging to a black drug dealer named Fearius. Boyden was drawn to this violent character partly because she herself was once the victim of a brutal crime: One night, while living in Milwaukee in her early 30s, she was raped, strangled and left for dead. She understands that her desire to depict Fearius’s perspective might be met with skepticism. On questions of the propriety of appropriating another’s voice, however, she remains adamant.
"I think there can be universality in terms of emotion, and if you pay attention to that and you treat your characters with respect, I think it’s OK to be able to write from another vantage point.
"Besides," she adds, "if I’m able to change one single, middle-aged white woman’s reaction to a real-life equivalent of Fearius on the street of New Orleans — if just one of those people looks at young African Americans with one tiny drop of respect—"
"Or understanding," her husband interjects, shaking his head. "I was shocked by the amount of racism I found in New Orleans. The way white people view black people, especially the young black male in the city, is always eye-opening. It’s like: danger! danger!" he says, putting out his hands.
Joseph Boyden is then reminded of an incident that occurred in Northern Ontario not so long ago. "I brought a bunch of my college-age students — Cree students — down from Moosonee to Timmins. And one night we went out to a club. When we were leaving, it was like all the rednecks suddenly came out of the woodwork. They were shouting at us and wanting to fight us, and for the first time in my life, I was actually seeing what people went through because of their [skin] colour. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God! Is this actually what goes on?’ "
Apart from a two-year stint in Toronto (1996-98), the Boydens have lived in New Orleans since 1993. Amanda Boyden grew up in Evanston, Ill. in the culturally diverse student housing section of Northwestern University, where her father was working on his PhD and teaching poetry and Shakespearean literature. As a youngster, she wrote stories about masked bandits and robberies gone awry. She decided to head to Louisiana because it was one of the few states she had never visited, and because she had seen a pamphlet that read, "New Orleans: Could you imagine a better place to write?"
Joseph Boyden was hardly a newcomer to the South: He had been travelling to the Carolinas with his mother since he was eight or nine years old. "I was fascinated by the Civil War," he says. "I was fascinated by the South. I’d go to Myrtle Beach and Charleston. The Atlantic was always calling me.
"But the first time I went to New Orleans — there was just something special about the place. It’s like a living, breathing history," he says, "so layered in its past as well as its present. You can’t get rid of the past in New Orleans."
When Hurricane Katrina hit, the Boydens fled the city, but the home they were renting remained remarkably intact. It sat on a strip of land — a little island, really — that soon became known as "the sliver by the river." Since then, they have bolstered their commitment to the city by purchasing a house, even as many people have opted to leave. The building, nearly a century old, was once a corner grocer’s. Its small garden is landscaped with crape myrtle and palms, and charming herringbone brick — very New Orleans — wraps around their corner lot. Inside the front door is a loft-style library with bookshelves stretching 12 feet high.
The Boydens wrote their latest novels sitting across from one another at the dining room table. "Amanda is very frank with me," Joseph Boyden says. "I gave her the first 100 pages of [Through Black Spruce] before it was in its current state, and she put it down and said it’s not working. She was very direct. So we’re brutally honest. We have to be."
The couple both teach creative writing at the University of New Orleans, where they are writers in residence. Besides their own novels, they have collaborated on a screen version of Three Day Road and are working together on a screenplay about art collector Max Stern.
"We are in this really creative period in our lives," Joseph Boyden says. "But it’s not like we’re together every day. Soon I’ll be off to James Bay and Amanda will go out on book tour. So we do have our little breaks, and it makes us want to write and get back home again."
Donna Bailey Nurse is a writer based in Toronto.