National Aboriginal Day 2014

Today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. I hope that my readers will take a moment or two to think about the many contributions the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples have made to Canadian culture.

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Van Camp, who is an amazing storyteller as well as a kind and generous man. I hope you’ll check out some of his work.

(This interview originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Prairie books NOW)

Storytelling From Lullabies to Zombies

“We’re encouraged to tell stories every day.” Richard Van Camp says of his Dogrib Dene heritage. “Storytelling is part of our medicine power, it’s part of our spirituality.”

Raised in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories by taxidermists and medicine people, he also credits his love of stories to growing up in a time before television “when families still visited families”. At the age of nineteen, Van Camp realized that no one was telling his story, nor was he reading it. The ghost stories and love stories of Fort Smith and “how we can two-step to anything under the Northern Lights” were not represented in Stephen King, Judy Blume or comic books.

This was something Van Camp sought to rectify, thinking it is crucial for indigenous people to see themselves in the literature they read and the stories they tell to their children. Now he tells stories for all ages. There is something magical in his work for everyone, from innocent newborn to jaded adult.

Little You, the author’s latest book for babies, was birthed in a lucky moment. He was attending a Pearl Jam concert when singer Eddie Vedder stopped the show, asking the audience to sing for his daughter’s birthday. “The file is still on my phone,” Van Camp says, “I was half way through Happy Birthday and it came in a flash and I wrote it out on my phone.” What came from that lucky moment is a heartfelt lullaby illustrated by Julie Flett which captures innocence with “dignified elegance.”

In contrast, Van Camp’s collection Godless but Loyal to Heaven is full of stories where myth, fantasy, and the harsh realities of Canada’s north intersect.

The book opens with zombie story “On the Wings of This Prayer”, set in the not-so-distant future where the “shark throats” have overrun humanity. Van Camp credits an elder’s tale of a wheetago buried in the oil sands, as its inspiration.

“The Fleshing”, another wheetago tale, though one set in our time, follows. “We’re all inhabited by the wheetago,” Van Camp says of why zombie tales are so prevalent. He also feels we see zombies in suffering and in the never ending hunger that comes with addiction. “If you’ve ever spoken to a loved one on crystal meth or crack cocaine, that’s not them anymore. That’s just a body moaning across the table from you.”

Beyond the supernatural, Van Camp also offers a subtle human horror.

We’ve all gone to that party,” he says of the sleepover in “Children of the Sundance” “where somebody says ‘let’s play a new game.’ In “Feeding the Fire”, Van Camp cautions care with one’s intentions and the danger of giving a wish to somebody that can do something about it.

“The wish for revenge is a bullet you can’t take back.”

Godless but Loyal to Heaven is not filled entirely with darkness, there are equal parts hope and love and aspiration for better times—especially in the title story, the longest in the collection.

“I want to be remembered as somebody who wrote literature that was hopeful. I think life is about second chances.”

Richard Van Camp

 

Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Canada. He is a graduate of the En’owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing BFA Program, and the Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.

He is an internationally renowned storyteller and best-selling author. His novel, The Lesser Blessed, is now a movie with First Generation Films and premiered in September of 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival. He is the author of three collections of short stories, Angel Wing Splash Pattern, The Moon of Letting Go and Godless but Loyal to Heaven, as well as two children’s books with Cree artist, George Littlechild: A Man Called Raven and What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?

His first baby book, Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns, was the official selection of the Books for BC Babies program and was given to every newborn baby in British Columbia in 2008. Richard followed this up with another board book: Nighty-Night: A Bedtime Song for Babies. His third book for babies, Little You, is now out with Orca Book Publishers. The amazing Julie Flett is the artist. Little You is published in Bush Cree, Dene and South Slavey, courtesy of the South Slave Divisional Board of Education.

All of Richard Van Camp’s children’s books are available in Braille for free, anywhere in the world, courtesy of the Provincial Resource Centre for the Visually Impaired (PRCVI)and Accessible Resource Centre-British Columbia (ARC-BC).

Richard’s first comic book on deterring youth away from gangs, Path of the Warrior, is published with Cree artist, Steve Sanderson, through the Healthy Aboriginal Network. His second comic book on sexual health is Kiss Me Deadly, with Haida artist Chris Auchter is now out and can be read in its entirety at www.thehealthyaboriginal.net.

Richard wrote for CBC’s North of 60 television show for two months under their Writer Internship Program and was a script and cultural consultant with them for four seasons. He taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia, worked as a Creative Writing and Storytelling instructor with the Emily Carr Institute and was the Writer in Residence at the University of Alberta for 2011 and 2012 and at MacEwan University in 2013 and 2014.

Richard has three new books coming out: Three Feathers, a graphic novel on restorative justice with artist Krystal Mateus (Portage and Main); Whistle a mini-novel exploring mental health (out soon with Pearson  Canada) and his new short story collection, Night Moves, will be out with Enfield & Wizenty in the Fall of 2015.

 

National Aboriginal Day

Today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. I hope that my readers will take a moment or two to think about the many contributions Aboriginal people have made to Canadian culture. In 2009, I attended the Ogamas Brandon Aboriginal Literary Festival and was humbled by the talent and kindness of folks like Richard Van Camp and Niigaanwewidom James Sinclair.

Author Harold Johnson was the first person to comment on my website, and as such I thought it fitting that I post my interview with him today. I found Harold fascinating (and he was so prompt returning my interview questions–always a good way to impress a freelancer!). Since our interview, Harold’s novel The Cast Stone has also won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction.

Glass Houses (this interview originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Prairie Books NOW.)

Before Canada sets off to invade other countries, Harold Johnson wants Canadians to imagine what it would feel like to be invaded., and to take it a step further. “If we begin to imagine the invasion of Canada, we must begin by imagining who might invade us,” says the author of The Cast Stone.

Johnson does not believe such an assault would come from Afghanistan, Russia or China, but more likely from our greatest ally. Given the still persistent belief that the 9-11 terrorists entered the US via Canada, it is hard to argue with his assumption.

In his novel, the world’s longest undefended border no longer exists; a dirty bomb set off in San Francisco saw to that. Canada’s perceived weakness was used as the impetus for annexation by the United States. Enduring the oppression of Homeland Security in what is now known as the North Division of America, it would seem there is little for most Canadians to do but hope for things to become better.

“Hope shares characteristics with regret,” says Johnson, who feels that both are useless. Hope “is a thief of the moment. Instead of hoping for a better world,” he believes “we need merely to make this moment better, and the world will be better.”

Ben Robe, a retired Political Science professor living in his childhood home of Moccasin Lake Reserve, is Johnson’s instrument of this better moment. A seeker of peace and balance, Robe is the voice of reason in this novel of uprising and resistance. He urges friends and family away from violence and scare tactics, believing rightly: “An angry dog is never as dangerous as a dog that is afraid. Cornered animals fight the hardest.”

Johnson likens Canda’s annexation in his novel to the centuries of occupation faced by the Aboriginal Peoples. While Canadians fight for their sovereignty, Ben says with no malice:

“Waweyatsin, now you know what it feels like.”

Harold Johnson, like Ben, lives “off the grid and on the trapline.” He has been writing all of his life, whether by lamp light as a boy or currently in the log home he built with his wife. There his surroundings and “the spirit of this place and time” inform his writing.

“‘Dystopian’ is a word applied to The Cast Stone by the publisher,” the author admits, “but to write honestly about war required that people were hurt, tortured, killed and that mothers would cry and fathers would be angry.”

To Johnson, the book is about balance and the search for it. Despite writing a story that displays a terrifying escalation of today’s theatre of security, Johnson does not feel that security has trumped liberty.

“Liberty is truth and truth will always assert itself. We will only surrender our liberty to the point we agree to surrender it,” he says.

“Truth can be captured and hidden, but it always escapes, it leaks, then like the hole in the dike, it floods.”

Born and raised in Northern Saskatchewan, Harold Johnson has a Master of Law degree from Harvard University. He has served in the Canadian Navy, and worked in mining and logging. Johnson is the author of two novels, Billy Tinker and Back Track, both set in northern Saskatchewan against a background of traditional Cree mythology and both shortlisted for Saskatchewan Book Awards. His most recent publication Charlie Muskrat was been shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award.

Johnson practices law in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, and balances this with operating his family’s traditional trap line using a dog team.