Waubgeshig Rice is the author of Midnight Sweatlodge (Theytus Books), winner of the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award for Multicultural Fiction Adult. Midnight Sweatlodge is Waub's debut book, a collection of short fiction that explores the unique challenges faced by young Aboriginal people in contemporary Canada. Waub's Lit Wish List is Eight Books that Embody Indigenous Culture. But, first, let's talk to him about Midnight Sweatlodge.
Julie Wilson: What function—functions—do these stories play in your life? I'm thinking in part about something I read on your Facebook page. You say, "[Brothers in Arms] really catalyzed my desire to explore the written word as a viable option for storytelling and for maintaining our culture and some of the stories I heard as a kid."
Waubgeshig Rice: I guess first and foremost I was hoping to satisfy a somewhat selfish impulse, to see if I had it in me to capture some of the unique things happening around me as a youth growing up in an Anishinaabe community. I wrote the first versions of the stories in Midnight Sweatlodge when I was a teen at home in Wasauksing, Ontario. Writing was an important creative outlet. I hoped to one day publish the stories, but it wasn't a huge priority.
Then, in my mid-20s, after I had been working as a journalist for a few years, I started to consider putting the stories into a cohesive collection. At that point, the impulse was to share the stories with First Nations youth across North America in order to bond over shared experiences. Although I wrote about a specific group of people in an Anishinaabe community on the Great Lakes, I wanted to convey that some of the themes— identity crisis, isolation, substance abuse, depression, and cultural reclamation—were universal in communities across the continent. So, the final motivation to seek publication became about exposing other Canadians to the First Nations experience in this country.
JW: What place do you hope reading might hold for First Nations youth?
WR: Reading can be a place for First Nations youth to learn about their counterparts in other communities/provinces/regions and feel better about their place in this world.
Prior to colonization and the introduction of the written word, First Nations youth traditionally heard stories and learned about culture in circles around elders and established storytellers. They looked up as they listened and absorbed important lessons and timeless stories. But they were eventually shamed out of this practice as the ruling order tried to erase indigenous identity, and that's when their focus turned their eyes downward to the written word. This was how subsequent generations learned about stories, but as the ones that followed them began to reclaim culture, they utilized words in books to share their experiences on a larger scale. In that sense, a kid in a community in B.C. can read a book like Midnight Sweatlodge and learn about experiences people in my community had. Through reading, there are greater opportunities for learning and sharing like never before.
JW: The promotions for Midnight Sweatlodge have now far exceeded your initial expectations. Tell us a bit about what it's meant to travel and present these stories.
WR: When Theytus originally offered to publish Midnight Sweatlodge, I thought I would have a book launch in Ottawa and maybe another reading in Toronto. I hoped that word would spread and young people across the country would have the opportunity to read and share the stories. However, thanks in large part to social media, I was invited to do readings at schools and festivals across the country, from B.C. to Alberta to Manitoba to Quebec. It's been a hugely rewarding and humbling experience. Having young people approach me at these events and tell me they enjoyed my book has been mind-blowing and very special. They were the reason I wanted to get the stories out there, so to say it's been rewarding is an understatement.
JW: When you're reading to audiences, how do these stories function differently from the page to the stage? I'm thinking about the evolution from storytelling to written word, now to a presentation in which the audience looks up at you again.
WR: This is a really good question, because it goes back to the discussion about the oral and written narratives and their roles in preserving First Nations culture. When I write, I try to keep the spoken word in mind, because that was so crucial in keeping First Nations cultures alive, especially in the face of colonialism. So to me, it seems mostly seamless to bring them to the stage. However, it does require a bit of acting when I'm reciting dialogue, and I don't necessarily think that's my forte. My day job's influence as a broadcast journalist is felt. I'm reminded to speak clearly, loudly, and to enunciate. I believe stories are for all of us to share, no matter how we do it, but I try to make the transition from the spoken word to the written word and back again as smooth as possible.
Waubgeshig Rice's Lit Wish List: Eight Books that Embody Indigenous Culture
Green Grass Running Water
This is the quintessential contemporary novel about First Nations life in Canada. It thoroughly examines the unique questions and struggles faced by Indigenous people across the country. It’s hilarious, cerebral, and above all, heartwarming. King’s classic is required reading for all Canadians.
Knopf Canada, 2001
There’s a special relationship between this country’s Indigenous people, their culture, and the land. It transcends nations, which is why an Anishinaabe like me can relate to this modern Haisla tale. The young protagonist turns to the old ways and her traditional territory to come to terms with tragedy.
Three Day Road
Penguin Canada, 2006
Everyone knows this is a tour de force in the canon of contemporary Canadian literature, and I love the context and depth of research that went into this story. But what I love more is that a First World War hero from my home community of Wasauksing—Francis Pegahmagabow—inspired some of the book’s major elements.
In Search of April Raintree
Beatrice Culleton Mosionier
Portage and Main Press, 25th anniversary edition, 2008 (originally published 1999)
One of Canada’s greatest shames is the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. It’s touched so many communities in many ways. The “scoop” was one of those methods—adopting kids out to non-Aboriginal homes. This heartbreaking book about two young girls from Manitoba is compelling and insightful.
The Lesser Blessed
Richard Van Camp
D&M Publishers, 1996
Life as a teenage boy can be confusing and rough. It can be even wilder if you’re a First Nations youth in a small community. This book speaks to the teen rez version of me like no other. It’s funny, harsh, tragic, captivating, and enlightening.
One Native Life
D&M Publishers, 2009
Stories are the backbone of Indigenous culture in Canada and Richard Wagamese is a master of telling them. In this collection, he documents his life journey and monumental career. His words and lessons are immeasurable to all aspiring storytellers.
Press Gang Publishers (1993)
Modern Indigenous life is often seen as a complicated paradox of “walking in two worlds,” moving forward in Canadian society while keeping ties to traditions. That dichotomy was historically imposed on some communities when towns settled next to them. This story embodies that struggle perfectly, and is similar to my own community’s experience.
Brothers in Arms
Pemmican Pubns, 1989
I first read this collection when I was 16-years-old and living on the rez. It opened my eyes to the world of Indigenous literature and inspired me to write about my own experiences. More than a decade later, Wheeler edited my first collection of stories, Midnight Sweatlodge. Full circle, indeed!
Waubgeshig Rice is a broadcast journalist and author. He grew up in Wasauksing, an Anishinaabe community on the shores of Georgian Bay. As a child, traditional Anishinaabe storytelling enthralled him, and he began writing stories as a creative outlet and to pass the time on the rez.
At 17-years-old, he spent a year in Germany on student exchange where he got his first taste of journalism. In 2002, he graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Journalism. Since then, his articles, essays and columns have been published in national newspapers and magazines.
As a broadcast journalist, he has filed reports from across Canada, produced current affairs radio shows, and hosted and produced television features and documentaries for CBC. Midnight Sweatlodge is his debut collection of fiction, and was published in 2011 by Theytus Books.
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