Healing through humour: Author Drew Hayden Taylor on why laughing matters

Author Drew Hayden Taylor was recently shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, for his play "Cottagers and Indians," a first for a play.
Drew Hayden Taylor holding his new book Chasing Painted Horses. His play Cottagers and Indians got him a nomination for the Stephen Leacock Award for humour. (CBC/Talonbooks)

For author Drew Hayden Taylor, humour is cultural. 

Taylor is Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario. The prolific writer was recently shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, for his play Cottagers and Indians, a first for a play.

Hayden said the nomination is an acknowledgement of the power of theatre, and a recognition of Indigenous humour.

"[It] shows that other people are appreciating our humour, not just Indigenous people."

Much of Hayden's work centres on humour. He has written everything from essays to plays, novels to documentaries. 

He said his work is a reflection and celebration of what he's experienced in the Indigenous community. Taylor said he has visited over 150 First Nation communities across North America and every community has one thing in common, laughter.

"Everywhere I've been, I've been greeted with a laugh and a joke."

Taylor said Indigenous humour is unique in that it has been filtered through 500 years of colonization. He's even coined a term for it: "Post Contact Stress Disorder". 

"That, sort of for me, defines our culture, who we are. We often use humour to deal with the problems of society."

He said while a lot of other First Nation writers are interested in the dysfunctional aspect of the Native community, the problems that have arisen from colonization, he is interested in the healing aspect of humour.

"You cannot be Indigenous without having a sense of humour," he said.

The power of imagination

Taylor's latest novel, Chasing Painted Horses, takes place on the fictional Otter Lake reserve. 

"It's about the power of art, it's about believing, it's about responsibility, it's wanting to do something but being told you can't do it," he said. 

"It's a story about this magical horse on a wall and the power it has over these kids. Then 30 years later, when one of them sees it again spray painted on a wall in downtown Toronto, and how it triggers that same sense of wonder."

Taylor said it was a story that "wouldn't leave him alone." He first wrote about the girl and her horse as a short story, and then a play, both entitled Girl Who Loved Her Horses. But 15 years later it still lingered. 

"I wrote it as a short story and it wanted to be more. So I wrote it as a play and it wanted to be more."

He said it took him that long to tell the whole story to himself before he finally wrote the novel.

"Now as a jaded old writer of 57-years-old ... I decided it was now the time to write it."