Lee Maracle & others head to Kingston Writers’ Festival

Previewing the festival with noted Indigenous author

Credit: 
Supplied by Kingston WritersFest; Photo by Columpa Bobb

This fall, Lee Maracle will be taking her latest book, My Conversations with Canadians, to the Kingston WritersFest, which runs from September 27 to October 1. 

There, she’ll be appearing alongside authors from around the world, including Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and celebrated Canadian authors such as Elan Mastai and Kathleen Winter. 

For Maracle, it’s another step in a journey that began roughly four decades ago.

In the 1970s, a group of Indigenous youth sat in Lee Maracle’s house and pledged to do something with their lives. They wanted to move forward and revitalize their nation, to break out of the cycle of poverty and suicide that plagued their families and peers. Maracle was 22 at the time and pledged to become a writer for a similar reason. 

“We didn’t want to lose our cultural selves in the process, but we needed to go forward because the poverty was unbearable in our communities,” she explained. “So that’s where it all started.” 

Now 67 years old, Maracle is one of the most respected authors in Canada. She’s taught in universities across the country and in the United States and is currently teaching at the University of Toronto. Her first novel, Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel, was published in 1975 and since then, her over 30 published works have become some of the best-known Indigenous literature in Canada. 

Maracle’s success today would’ve been unimaginable in Canada in the 1950s and 60s when she was growing up. “In school, there was only one Indigenous author I knew about. And I was the second one,” she said. 

“In those days”, she said, it was as if “no one believed that Indigenous people could even read.” 

She credits earlier Indigenous authors, such as Maria Campbell, whose classic memoir Half-Breed was released just two years before her own debut, for creating a wave of acceptance and opportunity which bolstered her confidence as she entered the literary world. 

She describes that experience as happening still among Indigenous youth today. 

“I have had people tell me that we as writers have changed things for young Native people. There is more opportunity now, upward mobility that didn’t exist when I was young.” 

Arguably, Maracle’s participation in the literary community and attendance at events like WritersFest has contributed to this new ground. 

At Maracle’s first writer’s festival, she was awestruck simply by the amount of books that were piled in one spot. “There’s something magical about it,” she described, “it’s wonderful.” 

Several hundred festivals later, that magic hasn’t died. Now, the most important part for her is getting the chance to meet other writers. 

We teach each other,” she said. As an author, “nobody expects to go past their next book, so they’re always trying to get better. I’m very grateful to those who think my books are worthy of their attention.”

For Maracle, a book can be life-changing. She explained that her favourites are the ones where “I have to read every line, because if I skip a line, I’ll miss something.”

“Life is like that,” she said. “Lives appear simple only in retrospect. They’re complicated in the moment. There’s nothing easy about living. When you write about it, you create a heroism of an ordinary sort.” 

“Books teach children that they can do stuff, and not in that bossy way that a lot of adults have [when they say that] you can do anything you want, but through the characters’ intelligence, drive and spirit, that gets inside you and opens you up to your own possibilities,” she said. 

She hopes that her novels, and those of other authors, will continue to motivate Indigenous youth. 

“When you’re reading at 16 and you’re thinking about what to do you with the rest of your life,” she said, “they tell you: don’t waste it. You can do great things.” 

Kingston WritersFest presents an opportunity for authors to connect and inspire their greater community. It allows for the exhibition of important perspectives in a climate that is often pessimistic about the value of an education in the arts. It’s also a chance for students to understand and remember the impact of the written word. 

 

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