Remembering Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese at launch of posthumous book

Acclaimed Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese died at the age of 61 last year at his home in Kamloops, B.C., leaving his book Starlight unfinished. Now, that book is available.

'He opened doors for all of us who are Indigenous storytellers and writers,' says author Monique Gray Smith

Richard Wagamese died in March 2017 at the age of 61. Starlight is his final novel. (McClelland & Stewart, Jane Dixon)

Acclaimed Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese died at the age of 61 last year at his home in Kamloops, B.C., leaving his book Starlight unfinished. 

Starlight was finally released in August 2018, and a special book launch was held in Victoria on Dec. 4 at the University of Victoria to honour Wagamese. 

One of the attendees, Monique Gray Smith — author of Speaking Our Truth, A Journey of Reconciliation — says Wagamese's writing set the tone for people to talk about reconciliation.

"He opened doors for not just myself, but for all of us who are Indigenous storytellers and writers by increasing the awareness of publishers around the excellence in our writing … and really forging a path forward," Smith told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

Smith says she recognizes Wagamese's influence in her own work.

"There were teachings embedded, but also stories, and humour and incredible wisdom," says Smith.

"The novel was unfinished, but we do know what Richard's intent was. It was to end in an act of redemption," says Shelagh Rogers of Wagamese's last book, Starlight. Wagamese (left) and Rogers (right) were friends. (Shelagh Rogers/Twitter)

Remembering Wagamese

Wagamese was Ojibwe, from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario. He lived in B.C. for many years. 

Since his first novel, Keeper'n Me, in 1994, Wagamese wrote moving, informative and often funny stories that explored the Indigenous experience in Canada. He particularly focused on the impact of the residential school system.

Smith says she believes writing and literature can help with reconciliation in Canada, whether the process is private, or public like Wagamese's.

"I think that writing helps people to read, experience and journey on different lived experiences within this country that we call Canada."

While Starlight was never completed, it includes notes from the author that described what he had planned for the ending, as well as a scene he worked on for the book's finale.

Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC's The Next Chapter, was a friend of Wagamese's. She says Starlight picks up where Wagamese's 2014 book Medicine Walk left off.

Starlight is about an Indigenous man named Frank Starlight who inherited a farm from the white man who raised him. Frank becomes very connected to the land. During this time, a woman and her daughter, who are fleeing an abusive man, come into his life.

"[Frank] takes them in and he gives them silence and stillness and family," Rogers told Craigie. "The novel was unfinished, but we do know what Richard's intent was. It was to end in an act of redemption.

The writing is just translucent and spectacular," ​Rogers told Craigie. 

Listen to the full story here:

Canada lost one its great writers last year, when Richard Wagamese died at the age of 61. Wagamese's friend Shelagh Rogers and writer Monique Gray Smith, the author of Speaking Our Truth, A Journey of Reconciliation, speak about Wagamese' new book Starlight. 7:59

With files from On the Island.