Joseph Boyden: writers must be 'careful' on 'somebody else's turf'

Acclaimed novelist Joseph Boyden, who has been dogged by controversy in recent months, says writers must be careful when "you're going onto somebody else's turf."

Novelist discusses challenges of writing historical fiction amid controversy over his ancestry

Canadian author Joseph Boyden is shown on Sept. 24, 2010. Boyden warns writers to be 'very careful' when 'you're going onto somebody else's turf.' (Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)

Acclaimed novelist Joseph Boyden, who has been dogged by controversy in recent months over his heritage and allegations that one of his short stories has similarities to an Ojibway storyteller's work, says you need to be "very careful" when "you're going onto somebody else's turf."

A winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Boyden was participating in a panel discussion Saturday about the challenges of writing Canadian history.

Boyden has come under fire recently after the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network questioned claims of Indigenous ancestry he has made throughout his life.

Joseph Boyden holds the prestigious Giller Prize after winning it in 2008 for his second novel, Through Black Spruce. (Canadian Press)

The network also published a report highlighting similarities between Boyden's 2001 short story Bearwalker and a 1989 work by Ojibway storyteller Ron Geyshick.

In a statement last month responding to the APTN report, Boyden said the section in question was inspired by oral histories he had heard during his travels.

In January, Boyden issued a statement about the questions surrounding his heritage, saying "a small part of me is Indigenous, but it's a big part of who I am."

He went on to say that he'd "made mistakes" and that while his intentions were good, he recognized that he'd been "too vocal on many Indigenous issues in this country."

"I have always been interested in and inspired by oral stories, and I often use elements from ones like this in my own fiction as a way of connecting the character and the reader to a place in history," he said.

The moderator of Saturday's discussion posed a question about the responsibility authors have when telling old stories that belong to a lot of people.

"This week, Joseph, there have been suggestions that you didn't credit someone properly, or perhaps you didn't respect an old story enough. Are we responsible to our audience, and how do we live up to those responsibilities?" said moderator Denise Balkissoon.

"When you're going onto somebody else's turf, you are very careful," said Boyden."But you also have to explore. We're explorers, in a way, as historical novelists.

"Imagine how fiction would grind to a halt if we weren't allowed to be those explorers. Sometimes you get beat up for being that explorer — or you get heralded."

Boyden's fellow panelists were poet and novelist Lee Maracle, historian Charlotte Gray, and writer Cecil Foster.