'Kinship is one of the most important things': Lisa Bird-Wilson's Probably Ruby is about the power of heritage
Probably Ruby is a finalist for the 2022 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction
This interview originally aired on Oct. 30, 2021.
Lisa Bird-Wilson is a Saskatchewan Métis and nêhiyaw writer. Her short story collection Just Pretending won four Saskatchewan Book Awards. She is also the author of the poetry collection The Red Files.
When she was just an infant, Bird-Wilson was taken from her Indigenous parents and adopted into a white family, a biographical detail she shares with Ruby, the protagonist of her debut novel Probably Ruby.
In Probably Ruby, Ruby, has little knowledge of her Indigenous heritage. Her parents' separation sparks a chain reaction of events — and her life is beset by alcohol, drugs and bad relationships. Left with no support network, Ruby searches for her unknown roots in the most destructive of places.
Probably Ruby is a finalist for the 2022 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 16, 2022.
Bird-Wilson spoke with Shelagh Rogers about drawing on her own background to write Probably Ruby.
"I had finished my poetry book in 2016, and I wanted to get back to writing fiction. I had a bit of a block and I was saying, 'I don't know if I can write fiction again. I don't know if I have it in me. Do I have any more fiction?'
"I started writing using that clichéd advice about 'write what you know.' So I started writing about being Indigenous and being adopted. I'm always curious about other people's experiences, and their interpretation of those experiences. I was always trying to see it from different angles.
I'm always curious about other people's experiences, and their interpretation of those experiences.
"I realized that I was writing about one character and then I realized, 'OK, this character is Ruby.' But when I got Ruby's laugh, Ruby clicked for me. She became real at that point. Her laugh allowed me to propel her character along."
LISTEN | Lisa Bird-Wilson discusses Probably Ruby:
Thinking about kinship
"Kinship is one of the most important things. For Ruby, this is her driving motivation. Dana, the bad boyfriend that keeps showing up in her life, knows this — he knows how to manipulate her with that idea of family or that little crumb of, 'I think I know your relatives.'
It's thrilling for her to think about that kinship, that connection.
"It's like a drug to her. It's intoxicating. It's thrilling for her to think about that kinship, that connection. That's really important."
A personal path
"It's a convoluted path, but there are similarities between Ruby's path and my path to find my birth family. My birth father died at a young age. So I've spent time and I've written about imagining what life was like for him as an Indigenous man in the 1970s. Even though I've had connections to my family for decades, I still learn new things every day.
Even though I've had connections to my family for decades, I still learn new things every day.
"There is a part in the book where someone tells Ruby a detail about her father and she laughs because she didn't know what else to do.
"She thinks she's got a story and then something else gets thrown in there. She laughs, because what else do you do when your story just gets built in such a haphazard, random way?
"It's like a Jenga tower — it's all over the place."
Lisa Bird-Wilson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.