Today we're pleased to share this interview with Darrel J. McLeod, who won this year’s Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction for his memoir Masmaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre).
The peer assessment committee says "Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age dares to immerse readers in provocative contemporary issues including gender fluidity, familial violence, and transcultural hybridity. A fast-moving, intimate memoir of dreams and nightmares—lyrical and gritty, raw and vulnerable, told without pity, but with phoenix-like strength.”
Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before pursuing a writing career, he was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French literature and Education from the University of British Columbia. Darrel has written a sequel to Mamaskatch, which has the working title Peyakow, and is currently writing his first novel. Darrel lives, writes, sings, and plays jazz guitar in Sooke B.C. He is fluent in French and Spanish.
THE CHAT WITH DARREL J. MCLEOD
Trevor Corkum: Congrats on your Governor General’s Award, Darrel. Your memoir explores your family history and shared family wounds. Why was it important to you tell this story?
Darrel J. McLeod: I knew that I was the only one who could tell it—and it’s an important and unique story. I felt a burden of responsibility because my mother told me stories about her life and about our family, over and over—likely in the hope, albeit an unconscious hope, that I in turn tell her stories and mine, not only to our family, but to the world. And it’s clearly time that we, as Indigenous people, tell our own stories with an authentic Indigenous voice.
TC: What was the most difficult challenge as you wrote?
DJM: The biggest challenge was not letting myself get discouraged by the magnitude of the project—first of all writing a solid and convincing book, then doing meaningful edits and then continuing to believe in myself after being rejected by seven out of eight agents. Once I had a publisher—the process, as I went through it, was daunting and lengthy, even though my publisher was great to work with every step of the way.
TC: Before you began your writing career, you were a land claims negotiator. Can you talk about the career transition?
DJM: I always knew I would move onto another career after I left full-time work with the federal government, but I expected to consult in the area of treaties and land claims, social programs and policy, working for First Nations and urban aboriginal groups and that I would ramp up my hobby of playing and singing jazz. But, I took a wonderful course called Memoir of Inquiry with Betsy Warland at SFU, and writing gradually took over my life. Luckily from my career I had the determination and work ethic to see a piece through to completion while undergoing numerous edits, changes and revisions. Some of the larger agreements I worked on (the translation of the Nisga’a Treaty into French, The Nuu-chah-nulth Agreement-in-principle, and the Deline Final Agreement) were up to 500 pages and up to 10 years in the making.