The Next Chapter·Q&A

Cody Caetano's memoir explores a tangled family history

Of Anishinaabe and Portuguese descent, the Toronto-based writer delved deep into his unique upbringing for his first book. Half-Bads in White Regalia is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist.

Half-Bads in White Regalia is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist

Cody Caetano is a Toronto-based writer of Anishinaabe and Portuguese descent and an off-reserve member of Pinaymootang First Nation. (Kris Caetano)

Cody Caetano is a Toronto-based writer of Anishinaabe and Portuguese descent and an off-reserve member of Pinaymootang First Nation.

His debut memoir, Half-Bads in White Regalia, was written as part of his Masters in creative writing at the University of Toronto, under the mentorship of the acclaimed late Indigenous writer and academic Lee Maracle.

Half-Bads in White Regalia traces Caetano's unique upbringing living in a rural house with his siblings after his parents split up and left them behind — his mother trying to discover her Anishinaabe roots after finding out her Sixties Scoop origin story and his Portuguese immigrant father drifting aimlessly.

Half-Bads in White Regalia  is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist. The final five books and the panellists who chose them will be revealed on Jan. 25, 2023.

He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Half-Bads in White Regalia.

A book cover featuring a young boy in a field with a primary color geometric overlay.

The idea of writing a memoir came to you when you were 16. What inspired you?

Cody Caetano: I had read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls when I was 16. As soon as I read it, I had that chill where something exciting feels so emboldening. I thought, "Well, maybe I could do that too." I think I've always wanted to write the story — it's the way that I came to writing. This story helps me orient myself in the world.

You begin your story in a house in Happyland — which is a real place. Where is Happyland?

Cody Caetano: Happyland is on the lake, west of Lake Couchiching. It's a little highway town in Severn, Ont., which is a connection of highway towns or villages. My parents decided to move there because of its proximity to the casino, which is where they got jobs in the late '90s. I've never lived in a house like that and I don't think I ever will. It was really big, and the layout was just so particular and it felt really special.

What would you like readers to know about your parents, Mindimooye and O Touro?

My parents are people who keep me grounded. I have such fondness even just thinking about them. My mom is an artist — she's a writer and painter. She's incredibly witty and playful and she's very wise. Ever since I was little, she's always called me an old soul. In many ways, I see her as an old soul and I've come to understand her as one. I call her a few times a week and we talk and laugh and tell stories for an hour each time. I always walk away feeling quite secure.

My father is hilarious. He's a person of community. He's incredibly adept as a speaker and a communicator and bargainer. And the ferocity of that orality in the book in part comes from him and the strength that he brings to his storytelling.

My parents are people who keep me grounded. I have such a fondness even just thinking about them. Both of them are fantastic storytellers.

Both of them are fantastic storytellers. I would say that they are different in a way than as depicted in this story. And that is a central thesis of the book — the capacity for change and transformation.

You clearly love your family and through the whole book, you don't judge anyone for anything that happens. Why was it important for you to tell your story in this way?

Cody Caetano: I learned that when I had just turned 20 and moved to Guelph. I was meditating on how to think about this book, because it was like a yarn ball and I had to figure out how to orient myself around it.

I was looking up interviews with writers and found one with Jeannette Walls where she said it was important for her not to cast judgment on anyone — that wasn't her responsibility as a storyteller. I'm in agreement with her too in that I don't see it as my job to be that arbitrator.

There are some darker moments in the story and you write about them with candour. What was it like to live in that decrepit house with no parents there?

Cody Caetano: It's so interesting to think about that now and to see a bigger picture of that time and to have a greater sense of the context for why that happened. The historical, generational context for why that went down. But at the time it was beguiling and heavy. But it was also a wondrous time.

It allowed me to relish in my imagination. I had such incredible humans with me the whole time who were able to keep me buoyed and unafraid.

Even though what was happening was very unique to my family and I would reflect on the times that felt severe, I was able to see and understand them from a child's perspective and to hold that perspective with care.

You have Anishinaabe heritage on your mother's side and Portuguese heritage on your father's. How important has it been for you to learn more about their background on both sides?

Cody Caetano: It is an ongoing, lifelong thing. It's a commitment that you can't lose sight of. A part of me feels how important it is to know who my family is, as someone who's both Azorean and Anishinaabe. It keeps me in check.

But it's important to maintain spiritual concatenation, which is an idea Lee [Maracle] taught me. It's a connectedness to the future and the past because the state of capitalism and individualism straitjackets us into intentionally wanting to forget who we are. It wants us to just focus on the immediate —the immediate family unit, the immediate house that we occupy and the job we have, which doesn't feel sustainable.

I think it's important to learn about my family and where we come from, because it allows me to be a human being in a good way.

I think it's important to learn about my family and where we come from, because it allows me to be a human being in a good way. It allows me to have a sense of belonging.

When my mom, after all those years of not knowing who she was, finally did, she was so thrilled. She felt so lucky and grateful, because so many adoptees — especially those who got adopted out as a group of kids in the 1960s — never got the chance to meet their families and know where they came from.

In the middle of the book, there's a two-page interlude that reads almost like poetry, titled White Regalia. What's behind that particular section?

Cody Caetano: "White regalia" originally referred to this pair of pants that I ended up cutting from the manuscript — this white pair of pants I used to wear out clubbing — I just felt good in those pants. But with time, I thought to make the phrase open-ended with at least three possible meanings.

It's possible to see "white regalia" as a reference to the transformation experienced by the narrator's family after they move into this house in Happyland, particularly for the narrator's mother. It also refers to the various swag in the book — the white tux, the bootleg high school uniform, graduation outfits, stuff like that. But also I think it's possible to see "white regalia" as a wink to the story's orality, particularly how the story and the narrator use diction, voice, texture and cadence to outfit the story, and that the narrator is donning his best armour before venturing forward into the literal and imaginative sights of these memories.

I started to write a book that could be for someone who's really reflecting on their life and where they've come from.

At the same time — and I think this is my favourite way to look at it — it's also a calling card. A reader may come to this book with the understanding of the regalia in the title to mean the kind associated with tradition. And their knowledge and memories of those traditions might either be more malnourished or be better fed than mine.

But I also know that there's another reader who might not know their traditions, or who has intergenerational rifts from their family and community. I wanted to make them a celebratory story all their own — kind of like the perfect fit for any reader who might not see themselves in a story yet. And I started to write a book that could be for a reader in Grade 12 or someone who's going through those changes and has been reflecting on their life and where they've come from.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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