The Next Chapter

Why Harold R. Johnson wrote a mash-up of memoir and genre to honour his late brother Clifford

The author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about memoir Clifford.
Harold R. Johnson is the author of Clifford. (House of Anansi)

Harold R. Johnson is a former lawyer and writer. His previous book, Firewaterexplored alcoholism in Indigenous communities and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. 

His latest, Cliffordis equal parts memoir, science fiction and fantasy about the life and death of his older brother.

Two childhoods

"I had two childhoods. My first childhood was when my father was alive. That was beautiful. We were wealthy. We had food. We had a home. My dad was a trapper and a commercial fisherman. I can remember pelts hanging in the house. It was a peaceful place.

"Then my father died. My mother took over trapping and fishing and she was so good at it that she embarrassed the men. So much so that they wanted to take her trapline away from her, and they conspired to do that. We went from, what I thought of in my childhood of as extreme wealth, and we moved on welfare. It was then that I understood what poverty meant. I also discovered racism; all of a sudden I was a 'dirty Indian.'"

Question reality

"Clifford was here when I got here on this planet. He was six years older than me and so I experienced him looking up. He went to school before I did. He'd come back with all of the things that they taught him and he'd teach it to me. He wanted me to think critically, to challenge everything and not to believe everything I was told. He'd challenge me on my own prejudices.

"We went out for lunch one day and met an Aboriginal woman who was asking for money. During that lunch, he proved to me how my own experience with racism impacted me and informed the falsehood that I told myself about 'lazy dirty drunken Indians'. He explained how that even impacted my own perceptions. In my eye, I believed saw a dirty drunk where there wasn't one. I dismissed her when I should have been paying closer attention and treated her like a human being with more respect."

For honour

"Clifford was a guy who read science fiction. He loved fantasy and he always had his nose in a book. So to write this book as pure nonfiction wasn't going to work. He was bigger than that. He was bigger than real life. To honour him, I wrote this book as science fiction, metaphysics and fantasy."

Harold R. Johnson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.