Aboriginal writers in Canada have seen waves of success before, but some industry members believe the current wave could make a bigger impact on Canadian readers and literature than any in the past.
More than 100,000 copies of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America have been shipped by Random House of Canada since it was published in late 2012. Sales, brisk right after publication, were bolstered when it won both the RCB Taylor Prize and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction in 2014. Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, about the clash among the Huron, Iroquois, and French in the 17th century, was overlooked for major literary prizes—but it did win the 2013 CBC Radio Canada Reads competition as a book to “change our nation” and the Canadian Booksellers Association’s Libris Award for Fiction, and now it has more than 200,000 copies in print.
King and Boyden are stars, but there are many more authors and books that have made this an important moment in First Nations literature. Katherena Vermette won the 2013 Governor General’s Award for poetry for her collection North End Love Songs. Talonbooks publisher Kevin Williams said a big reason their sales were up 33% in 2013 (compared to 2012) is the success of Chief Bev Sellar’s memoir, They Called Me Number One, about surviving one of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential Schools, which many generations of native children were forced to attend.
This fall, a number of First Nations stories figure prominently in Canadian lists. The Back of the Turtle, Thomas King’s new novel, won the Governor General’s Award for fiction this November. Cormorant Books has a new novel, Celia’s Song, from Lee Maracle, who blazed a trail for new generations of aboriginal writers. Knopf Canada has Up Ghost River, by Chief Edmund Metatawabin, and Nimbus Publishing is releasing Chris Benjamin’s Indian School Road. One of Annick Press’s fall titles is Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, which director Rick Wilks said aims to “change the conversation” by offering a snapshot of the daily life of aboriginal, First Nations, and Inuit people. It includes contributions from musicians, writers, comedians, and visual artists. Inhabit Media, the only Inuit-owned publisher in the Arctic, has been making inroads into the rest of the Canadian and U.S. markets. One book the publisher expects to have especially broad appeal is Sweetest Kulu, a picture book by Inuit throat singer Celina Kalluk that describes the gifts the Arctic animals give to a newborn baby.
This fall also includes a couple of related books from prominent non-native writers. In The Comeback, John Ralston Saul argues that aboriginal peoples are rising “from a terrifyingly low point of population, of legal respect, of civilizational stability” to a position of power, influence, and creativity. And the University of Regina Press, with its particular focus on aboriginal literature, is publishing Ken Coates’s #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada, which argues that 2012’s Idle No More protest movement was the most profound declaration of indigenous identity and confidence in Canadian history.
Though there have been other periods when books by aboriginal authors were popular, Boyden thinks “the sheer numbers” of First Nations writers with new books makes this wave stand out. “Publishing is a tough, tough business to be in, but the aboriginal writers in our country are really showing up in a way that is extraordinary,” he said. There is an “A-list crowd” of writers, including King, Richard Wagamese, and Drew Hayden Taylor, but also many emerging writers, such as Richard Van Camp, Waubgeshig Rice, and Frank Busch. Boyden credited independent First Nations presses with laying the groundwork for all the current success. Anishinaabe writer Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, who founded Kegedonce Press in 1993, “has been bringing young voices to the page for years now,” Boyden noted.
“The whole field of indigenous literature is burgeoning at the moment,” Akiwenzie-Damm agreed. “I think we’re at the start of another wave of success, which I think could really be the broadest and have the most impact. In the past, there have been only a few writers at a time who gained those larger audiences and the bigger publishing deals and the public attention, but I think now there’s a possibility for that to really broaden out and be a lot more inclusive.”
The current wave of aboriginal publishing has succeeded without the funding from the Canadian government that most other Canadian publishers benefit from. Akiwenzie-Damm and publishers from three other established aboriginal presses—Pemmican, Theytus Books, and the Gabriel Dumont Institute—collectively lobbied the federal government more than 10 years ago to create alternate criteria for the Canada Book Fund, so that small aboriginal presses could have access to the important funding. “For indigenous publishing, there are certain challenges in attaining the levels of sales and [required number of] books produced per year,” she explained. “But we just could not get that message through to them.”
Now would be an opportune time for a change, Akiwenzie-Damm said. “People are really pushing at the expected boundaries of indigenous literature.” Kegedonce just put out a call for submissions for a horror anthology, and Theytus Books is doing a science fiction anthology. Indigenous literature is also becoming the subject of more university studies and literary criticism, she said. “It would be a great time to support the successes that we have achieved, help us overcome some of the obstacles we’ve been facing, and expand the readership,” she says. “It’s world-class literature, but it’s very difficult to reach an audience when you don’t have that [support].”