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What is Indigenous Literature?

June 13, 2015 | Cherie Dimaline | Comments (0)

What is Indigenous literature?

Joseph Boyden

Joanne Arnott

Eden Robinson

Lee Maracle

Maria Campbell

Richard Wagamese

Daniel Justice

Richard Van Camp

Gregory Scofield

Giles Benaway

Thomas King

Darrell Dennis

Frank Busch

Aaron Paquette

Basil Johnston

This is Indigenous literature.

But beyond the heritage of these amazing authors - and there are many more that could be added to this short list - what binds their work to the heading? Some are poets and others are short story writers. A few are novelists and some are traditional storytellers. Some are non-fiction writers and a couple write science fiction. What is the common bond that makes it all Indigenous literature beyond blood?

I have been to academic gatherings, sat in classrooms, and argued on radio shows about this very topic. And the opinions are as varied as the writers and their works. It gets tricky because some of the rules don’t seem to apply. For example, Indigenous literature as we know it, is not written in Indigenous languages, it’s mainly published in English. And because our languages, cultures and teachings are diverse and unique amongst our larger Aboriginal identity, there is a lack of commonality in many aspects of life, language, stories and understandings. Just to confuse the topic more, some of these authors have books where not one Aboriginal character makes an appearance.

One school of thought says that race is enough to classify and file the work under ‘Indigenous Literature’. That the source of the work (i.e. the author, poet, storyteller) is the key nominating factor to which shelf it ends up on. And this makes sense except, what if the writer is also French? What if they are writing about Germans in World War 2? What if the book is penned in Japanese about Japan from their home on the Japanese coast where they moved to after the rez? What then?

Another school of thought states that it’s about the culture, and not so much about the race. That if the stories or poems or novels are reflective of culture, then it is literature of that culture.

Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth. I am not actually an Aboriginal writer. I am a Georgian Bay Métis writer. I do not write Indigenous literature. I write literature that is reflective of my Georgian Bay Métis culture. There is no such thing, I think, as Indigenous culture or Indigenous literature, because we are as diverse and unique from each other as bordering countries. There could be, instead Cree literature, Anishnaabe literature, Haudenosaunee literature, etc.

But maybe I’m just adding another school to the already crowded Thought Street. Maybe it’s just this: “Dynamic literature that captures the unique voice of Indigenous peoples; curated ideas framed by an Indigenous worldview.”

Maybe we don’t need to debate it after all. Maybe we just need to read.

7 QUICK TIPS to Consider Before You Start the Long Haul

June 2, 2015 | Cherie Dimaline | Comments (0)

7 QUICK TIPS to Consider Before You Start the Long Haul

Or Warnings Before You Write Your Novel



  1. If you’re going on a long journey, you’ll need a map. It doesn’t need to have every pit stop, detour, road name and address on it, but it does need to have a beginning, a route and an ending you think you’d like to see. Of course, the best road trips involve highway diners, casinos in the desert, and selfies in front of giant chairs and plastic lumberjacks statues, but eventually you need to get back out on the road.

  2. Know your characters. Write back-stories for them that don’t necessarily need to make it into the text. What do they like, dislike, do when they’re alone? If you need to spend a long time with someone you need to try to figure out their motives. That’s not to say they won’t change- the best characters do, just know them when you first set off together.

  3. Keep everything! When you cut a piece out of the text, put it in a separate folder on your desktop. (I completed a book of short stories out of one of these ‘cut folders’.)

  4. Get the f#%& off Facebook. And Twitter, and Instagram and stay off the gossip sites. The Internet- while sometimes a useful research tool- is a major time-suck for anyone who spends their days at the computer. You know what’s a good research tool besides the tempting internet? The library. Get here.

  5. Be brave. Forget that someone might read this at the end and that that someone may or may not be your mother Write it all out, get it all down, and then edit the goofy sex scenes and too-gory tangents out later. (Or leave them in and tell your mother your friend wrote those pieces…)

  6. Read. Read. Read. Read diverse, read up, read down, read new, read weird, read foreign, read domestic, read newspapers (unless they’re online- too easy to click to check on your profile). Just read. Writing a novel is a long trip and you’re going to need a lot of fuel to get where you need to go, my friend.

  7. Prepare to be underwhelmed at times. Some days are fire-from-your-fingertips, magic-in-the-sky, possessed-by-Hemingway fantastic! Other days are 11 cups of coffee, two lines, one name change and pages of doodled comics with stickmen jumping off bridges. And that’s okay. It happens to the best of us, champ. Watch some TV, read some Lydia Davis and get to bed early. Because you damn well will be back at it bright and early tomorrow. Someone’s gotta catch the fire in their fingertips, might as well be you.


The Pull: Why do we write anyway?

May 16, 2015 | Cherie Dimaline | Comments (0)

The Pull

Why do we write anyway?


I wrote this in my personal blog last year:


It’s like this; there are times when the day splits along a seam and you fall into a place time doesn't know exists. It’s the opposite of anxiety; a freedom boxed in by the term 'happiness' where something animal emerges, the kind of animal that appreciates chai lattes with espresso shots and the Marigny bars of New Orleans. There's no telling when it'll come, and no way to make it last. Just walk. And take in the click and crack of each rib's stretch to allow the possibility of seam-slipping afternoons.”


Then I re-read it yesterday; truth be told, I was on my blog trying to pilfer content for this one. And then something happened. I felt the exact same way I felt when I wrote it. I could feel my feet up on the butcher-block desk, breathing in the bits of fresh air blowing in the old window in that dark office above an abandoned café. And I felt the seams start to split. And I realized, that contrary to my philosophical musings, you can tell when the feeling happens, you can in fact, make it happen.


Of course, the original feeling must come from somewhere, some place dark and mystical and maybe even mundane. Then you take that original sentiment and wrap it up in a bit of art- capture it in the colours of a painting, cage it in the melody of a beautiful song, or write it out onto the bars of a page. And then it’s yours forever. This is what true art is, no matter what the medium. Being an artist being zookeeper to beautiful and ferocious creatures you’ve hunted. Sometimes something gets published, or hung in a gallery or sung on a stage and then you are allowing others to see your menagerie, to experience the terrifying thrill of sharp teeth and boney wings so close to your own soft skin.


And then this must be the pull. Because this is not Paris of 1925 or even 1952, and there is not much glory left in the publicly funded arts world. But somehow we keep hunting and collecting and scrounging up the food to keep the creatures at bay. And once in a while, we are graced with a shifting, curious crowd at the gates, holding their tickets and waiting for the magic to begin.

The Best Writing Class in the World!

May 7, 2015 | Cherie Dimaline | Comments (0)

Reading Like a Writer


The Best Writing Class in the World!


I am aware that there are many worthy writing classes out there, not the least of which are the MFA programs at esteemed universities around the globe. I can think of several programs in Canada that are outstanding right here in Canada, like the Banff Centre for the Arts (Writing in the mountains? Yes, please.) And yes, structured classes and deadlined work definitely have merit. But there is a school of writing I’ve stumbled upon that is self-paced, rigorous, comprehensive and- with a library card (shameless plug) absolutely free.


Of course, I am talking about reading. But, to be clear, you’re not going to get off easy. This isn’t casual, bystander kind of reading, or reading for entertainment, or reading to fall asleep or even to pass time in a line. This is active, engaged reading. This is reading like a writer.


The great Francine Prose, in a book with the revealing name “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them,” lays out the basics. By all means, READ THIS BOOK! It would be the best thing you could do to prepare for a self-directed reading course. Think of it as the manifesto, the mandate, and the mission statement for the course.  


From the first chapter:


“Like most- maybe all- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Jackson.”


Not that you have to stick to those examples. I would instead suggest Walt Whitman for meter, plot construction with Margaret Atwood, comedy with David Sedaris and prose through Lydia Davis. But, it’s all relative.


The point here is to study the works and words that sing to you. Or as Prose says:


 “I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting a comma back in.”



Turns out, you don’t need to wait for Stanford. All you need the will, a careful eye and a library card. Class is in session.

Getting published to get published?

May 1, 2015 | Cherie Dimaline | Comments (0)

Prairie Fire   CNQ  Brick

Getting published to get published?


You remember that horrible thing that happened when you started looking for a job? When your potential employer asked you “what kind of experience do you have?” Because, you know, you need the experience of the job in order to get the job? Well, I’m here to tell you that, unfortunately, the same thing happens when it comes to publishing.  (And I say publishing specifically because writing and publishing are not the same thing and do not always go together. Writing does not have the same stipulations. You can write all you want; every day, all day, if you are so inclined. But now, if you want to publish that writing, that’s where this experience thing comes into play.)


Quite simply, you need to have publishing credits in order to be published. You need to be low risk in order for people to take a chance on you or to even have your writing taken seriously. It’s the same in the journalism world as it is in the literary world. Sadly, both are at the same place in time- maybe the journalism world has a leg up here, but its not much of one- where there is no room for chance and barely room for cutting edge.  With the state of the industry, what they need are sales, and for that to happen, they need tried and tested, marketable work.


So what does this mean for the writers, particularly the ones whose work does not involve teenage vampires or billionaire sado -masochists? It means your work- whatever it may be- needs to be the best. You need to draft and re-draft, get readers to critique it, and then draft again. Make sure your beginning hooks the reader. Make sure there is a satisfying character to love/hate. And, please, make sure you do a spell check.


And then when you’ve gotten your work to the best place you can take it, what then? You still need publishing credits. This is where all those amazing literary periodicals come into play. Thankfully, we have a diverse group of scrappy, bare-bones, in the trenches literary worker bees who crank out arts-funded periodicals on a regular(ish) basis. These publications are not easy to get into; again, they are looking are looking for the best of the best and they also need sales. But they are more willing to take a chance and more drawn to the cutting-edge and gutsy work that publishers may be skeptical about. (And for the love of god, when you do submit, be sure to follow the submission guidelines to the letter.)


My publishing credentials started with a community newsletter, as did many of the people I worked with in the editorial room at Chatelaine magazine, some half a million years ago. From newsletters and online content, to journalism and then back to the literary world through periodicals, by the time my first manuscript was drafted and re-drafted to the best place I could take it, I was able to send it in with a list of credits and references that told the Managing Editor I was worth the risk, that I could sell books and that someone out there might actually read them.


For a great list of Canadian literary magazines, including links for websites and submission guidelines, check out the blog for the National Magazine Awards Foundation:


Arc Poetry Magazine         Prism

Buck Up and Edit!

April 1, 2015 | Cherie Dimaline | Comments (1)

Writer in Residence Cherie Dimaline       Red Rooms       The Artful Edit

 Buck Up and Edit!


The first time I was seriously edited was after I’d written the manuscript that would become my first published book. So, it’s safe to say that I had no idea what I was in for. I envisioned Fitzgerald-era parties being thrown in my honour and weekends in Paris being feted by the intellectual coterie of my Beat-infused imagination, all while men in overalls and newsboy caps slaved away on printing presses to produce the bestseller I had just penned.


Instead, what I got was five months of once-a-week visits to a cramped office on the University of Toronto campus to meet with legendary writer Lee Maracle, only to have my precious manuscript torn apart and pieced back together, sometimes one word at a time. All this to turn my carefully wrought prose into something remotely worth publishing.


How could this be? I mean, the publisher had accepted my manuscript already, hadn’t they? Were they aware of the slow-motion torture I was being subjected to each and every Friday having to face the formidable Maracle while she told me to stop blathering on and on about everything except the point and to just spit it out! This was not what I’d signed on for, not what I’d gotten my huge advance for. (Sarcasm is hard to express sometimes with just italics, so let me just clarify that this ‘huge’ advance is a joke. I could have bought a bus ticket to Montreal with that sum; a one-way ticket, at that.)


One Friday, it must have been about 2 weeks into the torture, I decided, to hell with it! There’s no way I could keep doing this. But, Lee was an intimidating presence, so instead of calling in or facing her, I just decided to not show up. Well, of course, she called me.


Lee: “Where are you? Its 1:30. We have an appointment.”


Me: (feeling brave and terrified at the same time) “I’m not coming.”


Lee: “Are you sick?”


Me: (all at once with no spaces between my words in case they got hitched up in my throat) “I would rather stab myself in the eye with a pen than meet with you ever again!”


-… a moment of silence in which I feel my bowels knot themselves into tight bows ...-


Lee: (amazingly, laughing) “Well that’s good. Now that we got that out of the way, I’ll see you next Friday at 1.”




Evidently, she smelled the newness around my writing chops, which I imagine are located somewhere near the temples, and anticipated this kind of meltdown. I slunk to her office the following week and every week thereafter until the publisher read our final draft- because truly, it had become ‘our draft’ by then- and gave us the final thumbs-up.


The finished product still had the spirit, intent and voice of the original version, but it was a louder voice, a brighter spirit and a clearer intent. Editing had magnified what needed to be heard and buried the ‘plumbing and wiring’ of the story that should be felt but remain unseen.


Editing your writing is a painful, sometimes heart-breaking experience, but one that you are thankful for at the end. One of the greatest gifts of this editing process is to avoid the dreaded and deadly ‘constant edit’; the editing that shouldn’t happen as you write your initial draft.


Susan Bell explains it best in ‘The Artful Edit’ (W.W. Norton and Company, 2007):

“To constantly print out, reread, and perfect your prose is usually a trap: after a month of writing, you often have perfectly laid out phrases that say very little, because you paid attention to their sound far more than their purpose.”


Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t read through your work to ensure consistency. It’s been said that Hemingway would start each writing day by rereading everything he had written thus far before starting a new section, to ensure the continuity of story and voice. Just be sure to give yourself the freedom to really write, to create, to breathe into the work before you start cutting, pruning and killing off. When you’re done that first draft, then it’s time for the second draft. My novel went through 11 full drafts before it was published; 9 of which were done before it ever left my home, bound for the sharp and competitive desks of the publishing houses. Knowing that there was always the opportunity to edit after each draft kept me innovative throughout the writing process. Knowing that at the end there would be a secondary edit by a fresh set of eyes made me fearless with my voice. And we all deserve to be fearless.


Let’s face it, editing involves critiquing and criticizing, and molding your baby into a better version of itself through boot-camp style exercises can be a hard thing to participate in. But even though your writing can and mostly likely is the most private and precious thing you produce, you owe it the story and the characters to be as clear, loud and bright as possible. Lee explained it this way, “Your writing is basically the purge of the images and words that you pull out of the tornado of story we live in. But re-writing and editing? That’s the actual craft of the thing.”

If you approach the sometimes painful edit reminding yourself that it benefits the story, then it becomes more of an uplifting hike than a downtrodden slog. After all, it’s not even really about us as writers anymore, we are simply here to serve the story. And every story deserves a good edit.

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