The Chat with Governor General's Award Winner Darrel J. McLeod

DarrelMcleod

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.

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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.

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.

TC: What’s your own litmus test for exceptional nonfiction and memoir?

DJM: Words that fly off the page—effortless reading and a compelling voice that just draws you in.

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?  

DJM: Many. Honestly. Over the past couple of years, I’ve met so many phenomenal Canadian authors and I’ve been trying to read at least one book by each of them. So, I’m doing my own course in comparative Canadian literature, at times reading up to five books at once.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve met so many phenomenal Canadian authors and I’ve been trying to read at least one book by each of them.

Specifically, I’ve recently read or am reading work by Eden Robinson, Esi Eudgyan, Caroline Adderson, Joshua Whitehead, Kathy Page, Shyam Selvadurai, Richard Wagamese, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Lisa Moore, and David O’Meara.

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Excerpt from Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age

I know I could never share stories the magical way Mother does. The structure of our language, Cree, is hard-wired in her brain, and English is still a challenge for her. She sees the world differently from the way they teach us in school. Rocks are alive—she calls them our grandfathers. The markers for I and you are attached as extra syllables to the verb forms. The second-person pronoun is always more important, so it comes first, whether it’s the subject or the object. Unlike in English, I love you and you love me both start with the marker ki, for you. The third person is split into two parts; this distinguishes important characters in a conversation from secondary ones. The gendered pronouns he and she don’t exist in Cree. Mother has told me this more than once, laughing at herself for getting the two mixed up.

Is that why my older brother, Greg, and my uncle Danny could play at dressing up as girls so often without Mother getting upset? Is that why my uncles aren’t as hairy as the Métis or white guys around? What about me? Will I be a regular Cree guy, like most of my uncles, or more like Danny and Greg, who grew up mimicking Mother, my sister Debbie and our aunties? If I spoke Cree, would I see the world the way Mother does and have the answers to these questions?

Would I be less
afraid?

From the book Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, ©2018, by Darrel J. McLeod. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. For more information, visit www.douglas-mcintyre.com.

November 29, 2018
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