Voicing Aboriginal Stories: Novelist Joseph Boyden to Speak at Carleton

Novelist Joseph Boyden is this year's Munro Beattie Lecturer. (Norman Wong Photo)

Some of us are haunted by dreams at night. For Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, it’s his characters’ voices that keep him up, beckoning him to tell their stories.

As the guest speaker at Carleton’s Munro Beattie lecture on Oct. 21, Boyden—of Irish, Scottish and Ojibwe heritage—hopes to share his passion for writing not in his own voice, but in one that shines light on Aboriginal stories.

“First Nations have been horrendously treated by those in power for hundreds of years,” Boyden says. “If I have the chance… to speak out and have a stage for something that’s important and needs justice, it’d be a huge waste not to.”

The 48-year-old, originally from Toronto and now living in New Orleans, has penned three novels and a collection of short stories that explore Aboriginal experiences. Three Day Road, 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winner Through Black Spruce, The Orenda and Born with a Tooth range from tales of two First Nations snipers in the First World War to the story of the Huron and Iroquois during the French Jesuit mission.

It’s not how Boyden always planned to use his writing. Rather, it started as a release; writing lyrics and poems helped him cope with severe depression after attempting suicide at the age of 16.

When efforts to write his first novel went astray while completing his Masters of Fine Arts in his mid-20s, Boyden decided to explore his Ojibwe roots through a collection of short stories.

“I was really nervous, especially about how the First Nations community would accept me across Canada, because I’m of mixed blood,” Boyden says of publishing the collection. “But people really responded strongly right off the bat.”

“My nephew said: ‘You don’t have to worry about that…you’re a bridge between these two cultures.’”

Despite praise for his work and earning the Giller Prize in 2008, Boyden felt himself slipping back into what he calls the “darkness” of depression.

“My wife saw that I was bad off and she said: ‘You know, you’re a writer. Speak…Speak about the social issues that are making you so sad and depressed.’”

Boyden began writing for newspapers and magazines about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, environmental issues affecting Aboriginal people, and the treatment of missing and murdered Indigenous women. And what he discovered was that people were hungry for more.

“Sometimes they’re very tough stories,” Boyden says. “It’s not always a comfortable thing.”

“I’ve got a chance, a voice in Canada, and it would be a waste not to use it.”

It’s since been six or seven years since Boyden’s felt the darkness return. Writing, he says, still serves as his release, but he hopes it will also contribute to the growing dialogue of Aboriginal advocates in Canada.

“I think it’s (about) acting for others,” he says of his craft. “You have to be possessed by your art or it’s going to be very difficult to accomplish anything.”

“That’s what I’ve done and I’ve not looked back.”

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Kirsten Fenn

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