B.C. authors Darrel McLeod and Terese Mailhot, who last year released critically acclaimed, award-winning memoirs centred in Indigenous experience, talk about how success has changed their lives.
After emerging in 2018 with bestselling, critically acclaimed memoirs, Darrel McLeod and Terese Mailhot reflect on the limitations of being labelled part of a new “native American literary renaissance.” Although their books are rooted in personal experience, their storytelling transcends the particular to express the experience of loss and trauma with artistic integrity and profound universality.
• • •
Nehiyaw: Darrel McLeod on being proud
When Darrel McLeod set out for Yekooche, an isolated community 75 kilometres north of Fort St. James, to interview for a job, he was also on a quest to find himself. It was 1989.
McLeod, raised in Smith, Alta., in a large Cree family, was teaching French immersion in an affluent Vancouver neighbourhood.
But the loss of his sister Debbie to suicide and the death of his mother, Bertha, had changed everything.
“I was desperate. My mother was my connection to my culture. I was losing my culture.”
McLeod sent resumes “to every Indian reservation I could.”
He landed the job in Yekooche where, during an orientation meeting led by the school superintendent, he met Dakelh elder Catherine Bird.
“Catherine turned to me and said, ‘So, you’re Cree. You’re our traditional enemy. You Cree men used to steal our horses and our women. For centuries. You’re our enemy. I don’t know what you’re doing here.’ ”
The school superintendent froze. “She turned white, trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.”
Suddenly, said McLeod, Bird slapped her knee and burst into laughter.
McLeod and Bird became fast friends, and shared many stories: McLeod’s childhood growing up “nehiyaw,” or Cree, in the Lesser Slave Lake area of Alberta, and Bird’s reflections on raising 11 children on her own, hunting, trapping and later working to preserve traditional languages.
It was Bird who told McLeod to preserve his own stories by writing them down. “They will help people,” she said.
McLeod says, “I knew it wasn’t just Catherine talking. It was the universe. It was direction, through this elder.”
McLeod, who lives in Sooke on southwestern Vancouver Island, became a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations, before he began to write seriously.
Six years ago, in his first writing class with mentor Betsy Warland, he wrote about how his mother and sister Debbie had secreted him in a basket to hide him from social services authorities. Over the next year, 26 short stories poured out.
His memoir, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, (Douglas & McIntyre) tells of growing up in a fierce, loving family touched by violence, cultural displacement, sexual abuse, religious indoctrination, inter-generational trauma, queer and trans realities.
McLeod has been “deeply humbled” by its reception: Mamaskatch won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 2018 and is a finalist for the upcoming $30,000 RBC Taylor Prize. He just landed a U.S. publishing deal.
Mamaskatch has also placed McLeod among what some literary critics call a new “native renaissance.”
For McLeod, now working on a novel, it would be more accurate to see this moment more as “an upsurge, or a burgeoning” of “new and renewed voices,” rather than a renaissance, which implies something has disappeared or declined before a rebirth. “We’ve always been here.”
Among authors he admires who happen to be Indigenous, McLeod cites Eden Robinson, Joshua Whitehead, Billy Rae Belcourt, Cherie Demaline, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Katherena Vermette and Terese Mailhot.
McLeod says he was influenced by traditional storytelling, although his family didn’t call it that.
“My great grandfather’s trapping cabin was a place with no electricity, no running water, so we’d all sit around and the adults would tell stories about things that had happened to them, historical things, new things. It was quite an art to be a storyteller.”
McLeod says the storytelling was “bicultural.” His uncles would hook up an old wooden radio to the car battery and the whole family would listen, mesmerized by “Story Hour” on mainstream radio.
He credits his mentors Warland, Shaena Lambert and Douglas Glover, who published McLeod’s first story in his journal Numero Cinq, as well as the ancestors he connects to through ceremony. “Since I published this book, ceremony has become even more important because I feel a responsibility to support the people who are reading my book while they are reading it, to ask that my ancestors be vigilant and to look out for them, too.”
McLeod says one of the most powerful outcomes of sharing his story has been renewed relationships with his family and other survivors of trauma.
“My mother always lectured us to remember who we were. You’re nehiyaw. Be proud. Never let anyone else feel that they are more than you or that they are better than you. I was always crystal clear about where I was from and who I was, in my mind and heart and I never felt the desire or need to be anything else.”
• • •
Transcending labels: Terese Mailhot’s storytelling
When author Roxane Gay announced the syllabus for her upcoming Yale University writing class, Heart Berries, by B.C.-raised Terese Mailhot was on the list.
In an email to Postmedia, Gay said, “I chose to teach Heart Berries, because it is a gorgeously written memoir that demonstrates exceptional complexity and craft. I am teaching a class on writing trauma and there is so much my students will learn from this book about how to effectively and ethically write about trauma.”
Mailhot’s spare, poetic memoir of breakdown and, ultimately, breakthrough, was a New York Times bestseller and has garnered international acclaim. In interviews that took place in Vermont and by phone, Mailhot reflected on the changes success has brought, and her complicated feelings about her work being labelled as part of a new “native American literary renaissance.”
“The terminology of the native literary renaissance services those who need it. It’s difficult to talk about without being somewhat resentful. I don’t use that term unless I’m talking to someone outside the culture,” said Mailhot, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University. “There were periods of time in which native people were always seen in the light of something stagnant and old.”
(The term “native American renaissance” was coined by American academic Kenneth Lincoln in response to a wave of important native American authors in the 1960s.)
Mailhot, 35, said she “perpetuated” the term occasionally when Heart Berries first came out because it made the book marketable, and in some ways was both “true and false.”
“I knew it would be marketable and would appeal to people who were interested in native literature as an artifact.”
There was truth to it, too: When she and Cheyenne/Arapaho author Tommy Orange (There, There) were students at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico writing their breakout books, Mailhot said, “We knew we were doing something new. We really were a renaissance, there really was discovery and pulling away from old ideas on native literature and the tropes within it.”
But she sees the term as weighted with “inherent racism.”
“If I were a white guy, having a cool new book would be enough,” said Mailhot, who is now working on a novel.
Although Mailhot prefers to be seen as a “single self,” it doesn’t mean she is pulling away from her culture: “How I quantify success is through what I’ve been able to do for others, helping other native writers is really important to me. It’s the one good thing I can do within the community as a literary citizen.”
It’s important to Mailhot that her work is not read “as artifact” or through a socio-cultural or anthropological lens. “You can look at a text and see it in historical context, but you should not look at that text as representative of that culture. I don’t want my book taught as a book about First Nations experience.”
Mailhot says her experience growing up “weird and bookish and bullied” on the Seabird Island reservation near Chilliwack doesn’t necessarily reflect the experience of others in her community. Pregnant at 19, she married in her band office, and lost custody of her son soon afterward when the marriage ended. Heart Berries details the unsparing agony of that loss, her subsequent breakdown and her reclamation of self as a writer.
“In order to break through as an artist, first I had to deal with my life,” said Mailhot. Part of that process was the memoir.
Mailhot said she has long been fascinated with the “Lifetime Movie, SVU, Oprah” formula of women who triumph over trauma. “I wanted to subvert that and let people know that it’s OK not to be OK at the end of the story, that you still could be transcendent, and from an artistic standpoint I wanted a book that didn’t give the reader everything they wanted.”
“I wanted to ascend to something transcendent,” said Mailhot. “I debated every word.”
She didn’t want to explain her culture in the book — or have it “colonized as insight.”
“I didn’t want to look at being native. I wanted to look through being native. I wanted to make it art.”
Her success has allowed the mother of three to strengthen the relationship with her eldest son, who still lives with his father, but her outspokenness made it difficult to live in her own community.
“I’m doing a better service as an advocate for people I love there by not being there. In order to be critical and compassionate, I can’t be close. It’s sad, but a lot of people understand that sometimes you have to leave home in order to make something better.”
350 W. Georgia St.
Readers include: Jo Billows, Carol Rose Daniels, Brandi Bird, Lindsay Nixon, Samantha Nock, Eden Robinson, Valeen Jules, Katherena Vermette, Arielle Twist, Jules Koostachin, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Joanne Arnott, Jónína Kirton, Denali YoungWolfe, Emily Riddle.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email email@example.com.