The Chat with Richard Van Camp

Richard Van Camp by William Au Photography

Author Richard Van Camp is a celebrated and beloved storyteller who has worked across many genres. His latest offering, Gather: On the Joy of Storytelling (University of Regina Press), shares what he knows about the power of storytelling—and offers some of his own favourite stories from Elders, friends, and family.

Richard Van Camp is a proud Tlicho Dene from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories and is the author of over twenty books, including the Eisner-nominated graphic novel, A Blanket of Butterflies. His bestselling novel The Lesser Blessed has been made into a movie that has also received critical acclaim. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta. You can visit Richard on Facebook, Twitter and at www.richardvancamp.com.

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Trevor Corkum: Gather explores the power of storytelling and in particular, the power and gifts of storytellers in creating and maintaining community. Why was this book important to write?

Richard Van Camp: It has been one of the sweetest joys throughout my life to record, transcribe, upload and share stories from my Elders and Knowledge Keepers with their permission for readers and listeners to enjoy. Gather is my opportunity to share this joy and share a few insights into the craft of storytelling because it is an art that benefits everyone. As well, I share so many of the stories that have helped guide my life as a Tlicho Dene and as a father and as a son and husband and friend and author. You get to read—word for word—from the actual storytellers that I believe in and the stories they share will knock your socks off.

TC: Gather includes stories from Elders whose wisdom has had a big impact on your own life. What’s your earliest memory of storytelling in your own life—either as a listener or a teller?

RVC: The great Chipewyan Bush Cook David King once told me that a bear always knows what you’re thinking. He shared that with me when I was around seven in Fort Smith, NWT. That was the moment. That was the moment I felt the blood rush of a great story holding me. I also realized then in that moment, under his spell and the wisdom in that statement, that the medicine I needed in my life would not be written in any book: the medicine I needed and wanted in my life was with the Elders, the Knowledge Keepers, the storytellers.  

TC: Was there a particular moment in your own life when you knew you wanted to be (or already were) a professional storyteller?

RVC: When I was touring The Lesser Blessed in 1996, I realized that I could do a literary reading and affect the audience over and over and that was great the first few times, but what I quickly realized was if I started sharing why I wrote the book and the stories that I heard growing up—it became more of a great visit than a literary event and readers were enjoying the storytelling just as much as listening to me read.

Equally important, I was engaged as a presenter. I couldn’t wait to share excerpts from my novel, but I also couldn’t wait to share great stories from Fort Smith, NWT: my heartland. Canadians and Northerners love to visit. When I started touring internationally, it was the same feeling of visiting and promoting my work and the North and Canada, too.

TC: In one very practical section of the book, you give us a cheat sheet ("Uncle Richard Van Camp’s Storytelling Tips.") One bit of advice involves finding a mentor, and another finding an apprentice. In your experience, what most holds folks back from stepping into the power and privilege of storytelling, either as storyteller or audience?

RVC: I was so lucky to volunteer as the Handi Bus driver in my community of Fort Smith, NWT. That was when I was welcomed into the homes of our matriarchs like Irene Sanderson, Maria Brown, Emelia Gratrix, Seraphine Evans, and Rosa Mercredi. I feel they could tell I was searching for what it meant to be a Fort Smither, a Northerner, Tlicho Dene and they started sharing their stories with me, and I started recording them with permission. So I was welcomed in a good way into the stories, teachings, lessons and memories of these great leaders. I think there are so many listeners out there just waiting to be welcomed into story by those who know. My advice is start volunteering. There are so many Elders out there waiting to share their stories.

TC: Finally, why is the community or communal aspect of storytelling so crucial?

RVC: When I upload a video of a Love Song Competition (check out my YouTube channel), when I digitize photos from various archives or portraits I’ve taken 20 years ago, or when I convert an audio interview I did back in 1992 for my SoundCloud account, what I’m contributing to is the pride and dignity of a storyteller’s legacy. I’m helping to bring a smile and even more pride to their families, their descendants, their community, their Nations, and we are building bridges to a greater understanding of what the beliefs and traditions and culture is of that storyteller.

I’m helping to bring a smile and even more pride to their families, their descendants, their community, their Nations, and we are building bridges to a greater understanding of what the beliefs and traditions and culture is of that storyteller.

It’s a great way to be remembered: as someone who dedicated his life to recording and honouring the stories of others.

We are all so lonely for visiting. That’s where the storytellers come in. They remind everyone that all storms pass and we are here to work together and help one another. Storytellers bring light and hope and renew faith and remind listeners that there is a greater plan at play. We are all children in the great mystery of life.

Mahsi cho. Thank you very much.

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Excerpt from Gather

Here’s a game for you to help you get talking as you start to gather with people—even if it must be virtually! They are prompts to get an evening of storytelling going with your family, or a morning gathering with your classroom, or an intimate setting of friends. These are great for all ages, including kids.

  1. My favourite memory of myself is the time ___.
  2. My favourite memory of you is ___.
  3. The medicine power I’ve inherited from our family is ____, and I can prove it with this story: ____.
  4. The medicine power I’ve inherited from my friends is ____, and here’s a story of how this came to be ____.
  5. My biggest wish for my family is that we ____, and here’s why: ____.
  6. My biggest wish for your family is _____.
  7. The funniest thing that happened to me this year is the time _____.
  8. What I remember most from Dad or Mom or Aunty or Uncle is _____, and here’s why: _____.
  9. One of the biggest gifts you’ve brought to my life is _____, and here’s why: _____.
  10. My first memory of you is  ______.
  11. I can prove that the world is magic with this story: _____.
  12. I was given my name because ______.
  13. I adore you because ______.
  14. I want to be remembered for _____.
  15. The time I laughed so hard I cried was when _____.

    
Excerpt of Gather Copyright © 2021 Richard Van Camp, excerpted with permission of University of Regina Press.

May 13, 2021
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