Tales for Late Night Bonfires may have originated in my mind’s petri dish, but the soup from which it spawned consists of a cornucopia of carefully and randomly selected re/sources. I’ve always sucked at taking notes—rather than decide what parts are necessary, I tend to try transcribing the whole talk/lecture/conversation, and miss most of it—and my memory has always been, at best, sketchy.
So how events, moments, words, and stories worked their way into that inspirational/inspired soup is a small miracle. And for that, I am eternally grateful. So the books I hang onto, refer to, and reread live on my bookshelf. Let me present you a few of my most recent, and all-time, Canadian favourites.
Harold R. Johnson’s posthumously released The Power of Story: On Truth, the Trickster, and New Fictions for a New Era stands beside Thomas King’s 2003 The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, and I’ve chosen it for this list because Johnson turns King’s metaphorical, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” into something concrete, as we sip tea around his fire on his ancestral land. Johnson makes it concrete by telling us his story, and explaining how, as he changed it, so changed his life’s path. As I said, concrete. Concrete and personal. The Power of Story is also the only book in this list that gathers all y’all around the fire to hear it.
George Bowering’s Caprice, the second in his BC History trilogy rocked my world early on. From the back-cover blurb: “Funny and sexy, this rollicking story demonstrates George Bowering’s flair for tall tales, bringing Canada’s Old West to vivid life.” Who knew history could be fun? I failed History 11 twice because my teacher, Mr. Harker, only knew to drone names and dates—YAWN! Anyway, the novel’s hero, redheaded Caprice, a “bullgirl,” out to avenge her brother’s murder, sets the tone for where my writing might one day grow. Hmm, until this moment I’d attributed Patrick DeWitt and Gil Adamson as the main inspirations for my next project. They are, but Caprice is the progenitor, as is Bowering’s BC. Also, Caprice is an early cowboy/bullgirl heroine, lead character in a Western story, somewhat reminiscent of Jane Fonda’s portrayal of Cat Ballou. And the women in Tales tend to be strong, independent nłeʔkepmx women—but that’s not outstanding, that’s normal.
Michael Ondaatje remains one of my earliest and most significant influences. The closest my earliest works got to praise was the consensus that some of my writing (I can’t say I had stories or poems, but they were close) reminded classmates of Ondaatje’s work. I thought, Michael who? And then I read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-handed Poems and Coming Through Slaughter: O, that Michael Ondaatje! His way of handling violence and strange characters, such as EJ Bellocq, a true historical figure thrilled me in ways both latently-familiar and novel. I wanted to elevate the seaminess and violence of my work to that of Ondaatje’s beautifully poetic. I think I naturally preferred the skewed way of seeing my world, as suggested by Billy the Kid’s subtitle, Left Handed Poems. Not strange or weird for the sake of being strange or weird.
I won’t be offended if you call me a Thomas King fanboy. The guy can write. I fell in love with "The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour," a fifteen minute weekly series that ran on the CBC from 1997–2000, and 2006. And later, I learned that King who wrote and co-starred in the series, also wrote fiction. Not just fiction, but some of the most mind-bending stuff I’d ever read. So the story that helped change my life—in a good way—"A Short History of Indians in Canada” smacked me in the heart and rocked my world. But that proverbial light of inspiration took slow hold, and didn’t even manifest till almost twenty years after reading the book A Short History of Indians in Canada. Through King’s academic writing, I learned about Harry Robinson, who lived about eight miles from my Kelowna home. And I didn’t know about him when he’d lived.
Nsyilx storyteller Harry Robinson wanted to save his people’s stories (and some of our nłeʔkepmx stories as well) from extinction. So, with the help of Emeritus Associate Professor Wendy Wickwire, who recorded over one hundred of Robinson’s stories, we have three collections, including Write It on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller. Each story, laid on the page like a poem, matches the sound of Robinson’s voice. The rhythms of the storyteller’s voice live here. And his stories demand to be read aloud. And when they’re read aloud, that’s when they come to life. I suppose Wickwire could have chosen to represent the stories in standard prose sentences and paragraphs. Aloud, they would read the same. If you don’t believe me, try it!
Anakana Schofield’s Bina features a feisty old lady called, surprise, Bina. As with each of the other writers in this list, Schofield’s prose lindy-hops on the page. Bina’s characters and language quirk, and in places, such as the tagline for a paragraph consisting of the one-word sentence “no” repeated thirty-two times: “This is what no 32 times looks like” reminds me of one of my all-time favourite American writers, Tom Robbins. I appreciate stories populated by weird and quirky characters. I appreciate prose as carefully crafted as the best poems. I appreciate writers whose love of the language shows, but who are also having “fun”—whatever the hell that means—without pedantic or elitist leanings.
Now my paternal grandmother Margaret left St George’s Residential School, at Lytton, as a full-fledged white woman. Her mother, Mary, married a sémeʔ called Axel Northen, who adopted my grandmother when she was about sixteen. He is her dad. She never spoke of her bio dad, and rarely spoke of my great-grandmother. Axel was her family. And later, my grandfather’s—another sémeʔ—became hers. She refused to talk about her family, and said she was white. But one day, she said to me that I had an Uncle Dale George, who worked at the same place as me. Who? How? Ask your father. Now, that guy has nothing of value to say, ever. So I didn’t waste the breath asking him. But I did ask Lee Maracle, whose Grandfather is Chief Dan George. They’s cousins, Maracle and my uncle.
Okay, this is a looooooooooooooong way of saying, in full disclosure, Lee Maracle and I are related. She’s here because Talking to the Diaspora has earned its spot. I love Maracle’s tone, and biting humour, as in my favourite poem from the collection, “Language.” This is the way the old ladies, including my grandmother spoke. Reading Lee Maracle takes me back home, to the kitchen table, with tea, cribbage, and good stories.
Curious, uncanny tales blending Indigenous oral storytelling and meticulous style, from an electric voice in Canadian fiction
These are stories that are a little bit larger than life, or maybe they really happened. Tales that could be told 'round the campfire, each one-upping the next. Tales about a car that drives herself, ever loyal to her owner. Tales about an impossible moose hunt. Tales about the Real Santa(TM) mashed up with the book of Genesis, alongside SPAM stew and bedroom sets from IKEA.
G.A. Grisenthwaite's writing is electric and inimitable, blending meticulous literary style with oral storytelling and coming away with a voice that is entirely his own. Tales for Late Night Bonfires is truly one of a kind, and not to be missed.
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