As It Happens

Sto:lo author Lee Maracle reflects on her game-changing career in 2019 interview with Carol Off

Sto:lo writer, poet and scholar Lee Maracle was a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which bills itself as America's Nobel. She reflected on her game-changing career in this archival interview with Carol Off.

In 2019 the B.C. author was nominated for the prestigious $66K Neustadt Prize

Sto:lo poet, author and scholar Lee Maracle in the As It Happens studio. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

This interview was originally published on Sept. 2, 2019.
Lee Maracle died at age 71 early on Nov., 11, 2021 in Surrey, B.C.
The celebrated Order of Canada recipient, poet, author and teacher is remembered for writing and her fight for Indigenous rights.


It's a recognition that's a long time coming. 

Canadian author Lee Maracle has been nominated for the Neustadt International Prize. Dubbed the "American Nobel," the prestigious award is given every two years to a poet, novelist or playwright in recognition of their body of work.

The Sto:lo writer, poet and scholar from B.C. published her first book, Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel in 1975 and has been a prolific force in Indigenous literature ever since. Her latest poetry collection, Hope Matters, is a collaboration with her daughters, Columpa Bobb and Tania Carter. 

But it's an earlier novel that earned her the nod for the $50,000 US ($66,560 Cdn) Neustadt Prize. She was nominated by Métis novelist and prize juror Katherena Vermette, who highlighted the 2014 book Celia's Song in her selection.

Published by Cormorant Books, it's a novel that's been on plenty of best-of lists, but has never won Maracle any major award nominations — until now. 

"Canada has a difficult time with Indigenous women writers, generally," Maracle told As It Happens host Carol Off during an in-studio interview. "I'm not the only one that's gone unrecognized." 

She is one of nine finalists for the prize, alongside Vietnamese-American-Canadian poet Hoa Nguyen. 

A storyteller's story

Maracle has been publishing stories for more than four decades, but she's been telling them for much longer than that, beginning with a lie she told to her grandfather as a child. 

"I recall him staring at me, going through all these emotional shifts, then all of the sudden he laughs and says, 'That's a pretty good story. Now I'm going to tell you one and you tell it back different, but the same.'" 

Whole summers were spent that way, she said, playing the game of telling back stories "different, but the same," until storytelling became second nature to her. It was a skill her grandfather, Salish Chief Dan George, nurtured.

But she says it came with a warning, too. 

"Don't you ever lie to me again," Maracle remembers him saying. 

The 2014 novel Celia's Song was referenced in Maracle's Neustadt International Prize nomination. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Now a teacher at the University of Toronto's First Nations House, Maracle says so many of the stories she tells are derived from the ones she heard as a child. 

"I didn't go to residential school," she said. "I had the comfort and the boost of family." 

Family is at the centre of Maracle's novel Celia's Song. Its main character, Celia, first appeared in the writer's earlier novel, Ravensong, but disappeared quite quickly — something her creator says caused consternation among readers. 

"Quite a number of Indigenous people asked me why I disappeared [Celia] in the first novel," she said.

"And I said, 'Well, I wanted to create a strong character that was a child that disappeared so people knew how it felt for us to have our children disappear.'"

But her readers wouldn't let Celia go. 

"People kept telling me I should tell the story of Celia," she said. 

Maracle is known for her contagious laugh as well as her formidable body of work. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

That story is a harrowing one.

Before Celia's Song begins, its protagonist — now in her forties — has lost her only son to suicide. As the novel progresses, a five-year-old relative endures a brutal assault, and Celia and her family are left reeling in its aftermath.

And yet, the book is peppered with laugh-out-loud moments too. It's something Maracle says was deliberate. 

"I want to get through it. And get past it. And humour is like a push. When you want to sit down, humour stands you up and pushes you forward," she said.

"You need that motivating force, which is a little bit a push every now and then. And that's [the role] humour serves in all of our stories." 

Rocking the vote

Maracle laughs less when the conversation turns to politics. 

In 2015, she urged Indigenous people across Canada to vote, citing her horror over the then-Conservative federal government's handling of swine flu deaths on reserves under prime minister Stephen Harper. 

"There were these gals that started the 'Rock the Vote' movement because they wanted Harper out as well," she said. "It became a powerful movement via the internet because the death was too much." 

She said she's pleased Harper was defeated in that election, but added much work still needs to be done. Progress, she says, lies in financial equality and in the Truth and Reconciliation Report's 94 calls for action. 

"[The government] won't give us something permanent on which we can build," Maracle said. "That's a choice they're making. If they chose to say, 'We're going to hand the money over to you and you're going to build on it, or not,' that would be different.'" 

Asked what she wants from Canadians themselves, Maracle cited food historian Ian Mosby's work to expose state-sanctioned experimentation on Indigenous children who were deliberately starved by researchers assessing the effectiveness of vitamin supplements in the 1940s and '50s. 

"He decided to look at something," Maracle said.

More Canadians should follow Mosby's lead, Maracle said.

Celebrating an Indigenous renaissance — and not the 1st

Still, Maracle says she's optimistic. "Some people say groundlessly so," she said with a laugh. 

Part of her optimism stems from the work and art being created by Indigenous people themselves. It's the kind of "Indigenous renaissance" musician Jeremy Dutcher referred to when he won the 2018 Polaris Prize for his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa.

Maracle joins As It Happens host Carol Off in studio at CBC Radio. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC Radio )

Maracle is careful to point out that Indigenous people have been through more than one renaissance — first in the 1940s when they started demanding a fair price for the sale of their totem poles, and later in the 1960s when they began telling traditional stories again.

"That is the renaissance that started everything else that exists right now," she said.

Still, she said, this moment feels like a significant one to her. 

"I think the vice is off and we're showing what we were always capable of." 

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.