LivingArts: Seeing Ourselves

“We are in a blessed moment of history,” said Joseph Boyden last month while hosting Celebrating Canada’s Indigenous Writers at the Toronto Reference Library. “Our royalty is still with us,” he said, motioning toward the other two writers on the stage — Thomas King and Lee Maracle. King and Maracle were the guests of honour at this evening of celebration which was part of the 7th annual Indigenous Writers Gathering.

Boyden, King, and Maracle shared many anecdotes about their experiences as writers, especially as Indigenous writers, but there’s one anecdote that stands out to me above the others. Thomas King, who told the crowd of 500 that he tends to be a “painfully private person,” was often quiet, shifting the focus to the other writers in the room; however, when he spoke, he spoke with great power.

King told the audience about House Made of Dawn, a 1968 novel by Native American author N. Scott Momaday, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. King spoke not of the book’s content, but of the impact of seeing an Indigenous writer receive international acclaim. King spoke of the “little wee bookshelf” he filled with writing by other Indigenous authors to support their work.

“I had to build a bigger bookcase [as most Indigenous authors published books],” he said. “Then I had a room.” Eventually, he couldn’t keep up. King is encouraged by today’s climate, and he’s excited about the voices to come. “Get ready,” he said. “I won’t be around to see it, but I can imagine it in my head.”

As a child, I took seeing myself reflected in the books I read for granted. I still do, but I’m far more conscious of it when I choose books to read.

The book I’m reading now — Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding — is for young adults, and, as Spalding shares in her author’s note, was written from a desire to write a book that reflects experiences not often seen in children’s books.

“… It was strange to realize — as I became a more mature reader — that there were very few books that looked or felt like my world,” Spalding writes. “They all seemed to take place in cities or suburbs and to involve families much more traditional than my own."

I recently interviewed Jael Richardson, author of the new picture book The Stone Thrower, for an upcoming issue of Hamilton Magazine, and she spoke to the importance of diverse picture books. Richardson recently launched the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD), which has a mission of creating a vibrant community of readers and writers by celebrating diverse authors and literature. (The inaugural festival took place in Brampton’s downtown core in May).

I won’t spoil my Hamilton Magazine piece, but I’ll leave you with a quote from Richardson that didn’t make the cut: “It means so much for a kid to see an author from their community, writing about how much they like themselves and how proud they are of their heritage. It’s a small way to counter all the negative things a kid will hear about themselves growing up if they don’t fit into the very narrow boxes that are used to define them when they are far too young to take that on.”