'A long learning process': Author reflects on controversy after writing a fictional Indigenous character
While writing her novel, In Case I Go, Angie Abdou knew she needed to consult with the Ktunaxa Nation about the book's characters and content.
Despite going through an extensive consultation process, Abdou found herself in the middle of a controversy after the book was published.
In Case I Go is the story of a young boy named Eli. He and his parents return to their small hometown where Eli befriends Mary, a Ktunaxa girl. Haunted by the mistakes of his ancestors, Eli tries to find a way to move forward.
One of the first people Abdou reached out to for feedback was her cousin, Cree novelist, Frank Busch. Initially, she had written Mary as a ghost. Busch said that needed to change.
"He said, 'She has to be grounded in this world, just as Eli, your young character. He's haunted by the past but he's also grounded in this world.' So that was one of the major rewrites I did, as a result of Indigenous consultation," Abdou said.
There were even more changes after Abdou met Natasha Burgoyne, the cultural liaison with the Ktunaxa Nation Council. Abdou wanted to be respectful in writing her book but admitted she felt some trepidation over the consultation process.
"I do not work well with others and I think I became a novelist because it is such solitary work," she said. "So, when I went and sat down with a cultural liaison the first time, I look across the table to a woman who is younger than me, a woman who hasn't written fiction before. And part of me was, 'Oh and she's gonna tell me how to do my novel,' like I had that kind of resistance at first," Abdou said.
But her perspective changed as her meetings with Burgoyne continued.
Abdou also met with Ktunaxa elders and recalled an experience with Alfred Joseph, a Ktunaxa Chief. Joseph told her about people in the community who have the ability of what he called "talking to the old people".
"Then he described a place that a woman he knew of used to go to talk to the old people. And the place he described was exactly like the place in my book and he hadn't read my book. So Natasha and I looked at each other and she said, 'Do you have goosebumps?' and I said "I have goosebumps'. And he said if that place is in your book, this book is a gift from our ancestors and you're supposed to write it and I don't know why. But you have my blessing," Abdou recalled.
But not everyone was happy with Abdou. She faced backlash online after the book's release.
"I think the controversy is not really about my book," Abdou said. "I wrote an article for the Quill & Quire, a two-page little essay, talking about my consultation process. I felt like I had a really great experience and I learned so many new things and I wanted to share them. So that was the good part of my motivation for that essay," she said.
Abdou admitted there were other motivations, like selling her book. She also wanted get ahead of the criticism, aware some people were going to be upset with her for including Ktunaxa characters in her novel. She said it was the two secondary motivations that may have clouded her good intentions. The non-Indigenous author was told she had no business writing a book with Ktunaxa characters and the Ktunaxa name.
"And that I shouldn't have written the essay about consultation without having consulted and just that I have no place in the conversation," Abdou said.
Abdou still reflects on the words Chief Joseph spoke to her, that there was a reason for her to write this novel but he wasn't sure why. Abdou is still trying to figure that out, too.
"I think I'm in a long learning process and I think it's part of the process Canada is going through. To be kind of shaken up and be knocked down and change the way we think and see things and find new ways of doing things. So it may be a long answer to that question. I think I'm at the very start of it."