Armand Ruffo, Queen’s professor and author of Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird, is one of five Canadian writers nominated for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.
Norval Morrisseau is a biography of an eccentric and controversial Indigenous Canadian painter who began the Woodland art movement in the 1960s.
The movement, adopted by Native American artists in Canada, is known for its use of vivid colours, emphasis on transformation and animal imagery.
Morrisseau’s work has remained prominent in major Canadian art galleries, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, to this day.
An English Professor at Queen’s University, Ruffo has built a successful career in academics while simultaneously publishing books in various genres.
In a recent interview with The Journal, Ruffo discussed his road to success, his experience writing Norval Morrisseau and the role of Indigenous culture in Canada’s past and present.
How do you think that being in academics has influenced your writing career?
Ruffo: Well, in the most obvious way, it’s kind of prevented me from being as prolific as I would like to be.
It’s always a balancing act because the part of your brain that you need to write academic work and critical work and teach is very, very different from the part of your brain that is creative.
I mean Einstein said, and I love this quote, that ‘creativity is a residue of wasted time’. You need to be able to dream to write a story. And one of the difficulties of being in an institution is that you don’t have that time. So, most of my writing I do in the summer.
How do you feel about your nomination for the Governor General’s Award?
Ruffo: I’m very honored, to be frank with you. You know, the biggest challenge is getting people to read your book, to know about your book … so I hope that the nomination makes people aware of the book, and I think to some extent that’s happening. And I’m very honored to be in the company of such fine writers.
You hope that your work, when you do something like this, is pushing the envelope a little bit, and then to be recognized for it, to me, it’s a big thrill.
How would you like this biography to influence people’s perceptions of the Aboriginal community in Canada?
Ruffo: I mean, here’s a man [Morrisseau] that creates this amazing body of work and it really speaks to so
I think hopefully people will come away saying, ‘yeah, we’re not these isolated little entities, and we can do whatever we want, it has no effect on people, or the environment, or society, or whatever,’ because in [Morrisseau’s] paintings, everything is connected.
Birds will emerge out of heads and become a fish. So obviously there’s an environmental message there, but there’s also another message there that we are all related to everything, we are
bound in kinship.
And until we actually wake up and realize that, the future looks pretty dismal.
What first inspired you to start writing?
Ruffo: Well I was always writing a little bit, even in high school … but in 1989, I bundled up my writing, because like I said, I had always been writing, and sent it to the Banff Centre and I received a scholarship to the Banff Centre, to the Writing Program there … and then that was kind of a springboard because it was the first time that I was actually treated as a writer.
How did you come to the decision to write the biography of Norval Morrisseau?
Ruffo: As I said in the introduction to the Norval Morrisseau, I was not interested in reportage, you know, that kind of biography where you just track someone: they did this, they went here, they went there.
My process was really about storytelling, narrative and how to open up somebody’s life and make it interesting … and at the simplest level I like to write what I like to read. And I thought, ‘yeah, I would really like to read something like this, so I’ll write it’.
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