The Chat with 2017 Governor General's Award winner Cherie Dimaline

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Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winner for Young People’s Literature. We’re in conversation with Cherie today on The Chat as part of our special #GGBooks Awards coverage.

From the jury: "The Marrow Thieves is speculative fiction with a chilling immediacy. Its unflinching narrative resonates in our disturbing times. Cherie Dimaline’s exceptional writing and authentic characters pull you into a story that lingers and unsettles."

Cherie Dimaline is a Metis author and editor whose award-winning fiction has been anthologized internationally. Her first book, Red Rooms, was published in 2007 and her novel The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy was released in 2013. In 2014, she was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and became the first Aboriginal Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library. Her book A Gentle Habit was published in August 2016.

After you read about The Marrow Thieves, check out our other Chats with all the 2017 Governor General's Literature Award winners!

TheChat-GGs-2017

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Trevor Corkum: How was The Marrow Thieves born?

Cherie Dimaline: I was asked a few years ago to contribute a story to the Indigenous science fiction and speculative writing anthology ‘mitewacimowina’ Theytus was publishing. I thought about what I wanted to talk about in terms of future narratives through an Indigenous lens and quickly realized that there was so much in the past and present still left to get through. Coupled with the fact that any future I could imagine would be massively impacted by climate change and the rising water levels that could carve off the edges of the continents causing a new migration inward onto “open lands,” it wasn’t difficult to postulate the implications for Indigenous communities.

Putting our current struggles into a future context also allows us all, particularly young people, to hold discussions and make decisions about how we want to behave and live together based on a troubled and very revealing history together.

TC: The Marrow Thieves is a dystopian tale about a young Indigenous teenager named Frenchie on the run from sinister government recruiters. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of climate change and our mistreatment of the Earth, among other things. Why was it important for you to tell this story?

CD: The best part about this book is that, being in the future, I could and do talk about anything and everything: refuting the Bering Strait theory, global warming, residential schools and the danger of shallow reconciliation efforts, commodification of culture ... It's crucial at this time that we accept that the Western way of thinking about our world is a broken theory, that Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is vital to any forward movement.

It's crucial at this time that we accept that the Western way of thinking about our world is a broken theory, that Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is vital to any forward movement.

TC: What’s your litmus test for great storytelling?

CD: When I’m writing, if I MUST write at all costs (on the bottoms of my shoes, on the backs of receipts, skipping meals) then I know I have something. When I’m reading/hearing story, it's when I become less and less aware of my own physicality and start stitching myself into the narrative (what would I do? I feel so terrible/happy for them) that I know it’s great.

TC: In addition to the Governor General’s Award, the book was also just awarded the prestigious Kirkus Prize. What does this recognition mean at this stage of your career?

CD: I have three other books (Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, A Gentle Habit) that flew under the radar for years and I got used to working in a kind of isolation. This kind of recognition is not only overwhelming in terms of opening up career prospects, it has been astoundingly effective in giving me bigger stages where I can talk about Indigenous stories, creative writing, current issues and the great need the world has for Indigenous youth.

This kind of recognition is not only overwhelming in terms of opening up career prospects, it has been astoundingly effective in giving me bigger stages where I can talk about Indigenous stories, creative writing, current issues and the great need the world has for Indigenous youth.

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?

Eden Robinson, Joshua Whitehead, Billy Ray Belcourt, Katherena Vermette, Lee Maracle, Maria Campbell, Louise Halfe, and the amazing authors I was shortlisted alongside for the Governor General’s, such incredible talent!

**

Excerpt from The Marrow Thieves

FRENCHIE’S COMING-TO STORY

Mitch was smiling so big his back teeth shone in the soft light of the solar-powered lamp we’d scavenged from someone’s shed. “Check it out.” He held a bag of Doritos between us — a big bag, too.

“Holy, Mitch! Where’d you get that?” I touched the air-pressurized bag to confirm it was real. My dirty fingers skittered across the shiny surface like skates. It was real. My mouth filled with spit, and a rotten hole in one of my molars yelled its displeasure.

“In the last house back there, hidden on top of the cupboard like Ma used to do when she didn’t want us getting into stuff.”

Mom had only been gone a few months, so talking about her still stung. My brother popped the bag to cover our hurt. And like cheese-scented fireworks, that loud release of air and processed dust cheered us up.

We were in a tree house somewhere on the outer rim of a small city that had long been closed down like a forgotten convenience store. We were a few hours out from Southern Metropolitan City, which used to be Toronto back when there were still so many cities they each had a unique name instead of a direction. West City, Northeast Metropolis, Southern Township …

It was a great tree house; some lucky kid must have had a contractor for a father. It was easily two storeys up from the unmown lawn and had a gabled roof with real shingles. We’d been there for three days now, skipping school, hiding out. Before he’d left with the Council and we never saw him again, Dad had taught us that the best way to hide is to keep moving, but this spring had been damp; it had rained off and on for over a week, and we couldn’t resist the dry comfort of the one-room tree house with built-in benches. Besides, we reasoned, it was up high like a sniper hole so we could see if anyone was coming for us.

It probably started with that first pop of air against metallic plastic, no louder than a champagne cork. I imagined the school truancy officers — Recruiters, we called them — coming for us, noses to the wind, sunglasses reflecting the row of houses behind which we were nestled in our wooden dream home. And sure enough, by the time we’d crunched through the first sweet, salty handfuls, they were rounding the house into the backyard.

“Shit.”

“What?”

Mitch put the bag down and turned to the window cut into the north wall.

“Francis, you’re going to have to listen to me really carefully.”

“What?” I knew it was bad. He never called me Francis, no one but Mom ever did, and then only when I was in trouble. I’d been Frenchie since I could remember.

“Listen, now.” He turned away from the window to lock eyes with me. “You are going to climb out the back window and onto the roof, as low down as you can get.”

“But, Mitch! I can’t climb out a window.”

“Yes, yes you can, and you will. You’re the best damn climber there is. Then when you’re on the roof, you’re going to grab the pine tree behind us and climb up into it. Stay as close to the trunk as you can. You have to shimmy into the back part, where the shadows are thickest.”

“You go first.”

“Too late, buddy; they know someone is up here, just not how many someones.”

I felt my throat tighten to a pinhole. This is how voices are squeezed to hysterical screeching.

“Mitch, no!”

He turned again, eyes burning with purpose, bordering on anger. “Now. Move it, Francis!”

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, “Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!”

Fear launched me into the pine. The hairy knots on the sticky trunk scraped my thighs, sweat and skin holding me there. The needles poked into my arms and shoved into my armpits, making me tear up. I pulled my sweaty body towards the other side of the pine, scrapes popping up red and puffy on my thighs and torso. All the while the whistles, two now, blew into the yard.

“Come get me, morons!”

I saw both of the Recruiters now: high-waisted navy shorts, gym socks with red stripes pulled up to their knees above low, mesh-sided sneakers, the kind that make you look fast and professional. Their polo shirts were partially covered with zip-front windbreakers one shade lighter than their shorts. The logo on the left side was unreadable from this distance, but I knew what it said: “Government of Canada: Department of Oneirology.” Around their necks, on white cords, hung those silver whistles.

Mitch was carrying on like a madman in the tree house. Yelling while they dragged him down the ladder and onto the grass. I heard a bone snap like a young branch. He yelled when they each grabbed an arm and began pulling. He yelled around the house, into the front yard, and into the van, covering all sounds of a small escape in the trees.

Then the door slid shut.

And an engine clicked on and whirred to life.

And I was alone.

**

This excerpt is taken from the novel, The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline and published by DCB/Cormorant Books, Toronto. Copyright © 2017 Cherie Dimaline. Used with the permission of the publisher.

November 27, 2017
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