Ottawa International Writers Festival: The story goes on for Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline will be at the Writers Festival this October with her latest novel.

Of all the great things that have happened to Cherie Dimaline since her book The Marrow Thieves was published, the night at Rideau Hall when she accepted the Governor General’s Award for Young Adult fiction stands out.

Not for the award, although that was pretty sweet, it was for something else.

“When I was told I won, I said to (Rideau Hall) that I wanted my acceptance speech said in Anishinaabe.”

This took some negotiation because it had never been done, but eventually it was agreed. Then Dimaline had to bring in a speaker because she doesn’t know the language. Luckily she had a friend and they had a deal.

“A good friend of mine named Susan Blight, we had made promises to each other. I had said ‘I’m going to keep writing these stories. They are absolutely the stories from my community. I am not going change them and I am not going to do this pan-Indigenous thing’.

“She said her family had gone through residential school. She said ‘I refuse to die without my language’. We made a pact, I would do the stories and she would learn the language.”

Five years ago, Dimaline upped the ante: “I said to her that ‘if I ever win something, you have to come do my acceptance speech in your language so you better learn it. She said OK.”

Blight was the first person Dimaline called when she won.

“I wrote the speech and she delivered it without translation, which was the point because we wanted to honour the people” on whose land her family had lived, near Penetanguishene, Ontario.

Then the kicker: At end of the speech, Dimaline thanked her grandmother Edna Dusome.

“I wanted her name to be said out loud in Rideau Hall, this woman who wasn’t allowed to go into town because she was a half-breed from across the bay who had a really hard life because of racism. She kept her culture for me and she gave it to me. It is my favourite moment from all this craziness.”

All that from the publication of a book of dark speculative fiction in which Indigenous people are hunted and harvested for their bone marrow because it carries the key to recovering the ability to dream. The Marrow Thieves won a GG in 2017, and since then Dimaline has been riding a whirlwind of success.

“It has been a complete and utter shock, but it has been very welcome.”

The book deals with a difficult subject, but Young Adult fiction has been doing that for some time. Still this is the first work in that genre that Dimaline has tried her hand at.

“A few years ago I was asked to contribute a short story to a collection of speculative and science fiction. So it began life as a story for that anthology.”  But the story seemed to have potential for more.

She talked to her publisher and out of that came the decision to target a younger audience.

“It was always in a youthful voice, (so) I decided I wanted this book to land with young people because I thought that was where it would have the most impact.”

When she works Dimaline is generally “just writing, I am not thinking about anything. I’m not even thinking about an audience. The only difference this time is that, because there were a lot of sensitive issues for my community, for the Indigenous community, I was thinking, ‘What will I give Indigenous youth?’

“I want them to see themselves in the picture. I want them to see themselves with strength. I want them to see language as vital. So I did keep that in mind.”

The book is being used by schools, much to Dimaline’s surprise.

“I was in one class in Sudbury and they were using the book to talk about literature and indigenous issues and also geography and science and I was like ‘What?'”

She was initially nervous about these school visits, but “they have been fantastic which really surprised me. I was thinking ‘Oh God, they are going to be bored’, but they have been some of the most meaningful and engaged conversations and readings I have had.

“These kids are blowing me away. They are honestly giving me hope. They ask questions like: ‘How do I become a better ally without taking up Indigenous space? How do we make sure the truth part of truth and reconciliation isn’t forgotten. These are 14 and 15 year old kids and they totally get it.”

Dimaline is Metis. She can trace her family back to the Red River settlement, through to Penetanguishene where they eventually settled in a small community on the land of the Beausoleil First nation.

The stories of her family and her community are very sacred to her, having been passed down by people such as her grandmother Edna.

“I recognize that I come from a place of privilege because I come from this community. We were sort of isolated. It’s sad in a way that we were isolated by the racism of the area but actually, that kept our community together.”

Her grandmother lived with Dimaline’s family.

“I guess they say we were taking care of her, but really she was taking care of us. I grew up with her. We shared a room and I would travel with her. We lived all over Canada, but, no matter what, every year she would go back to the community for two or three months and I would go with her.

“I got to be around her and hear her stories. She stayed with her sister so I would be with these older ladies. As a kid I wanted to be playing with cousins but in fact they were telling me all the stories and giving me the understanding of the community and culture.”

No surprise then to hear that Edna Dusome is in all Dimaline’s books in one form or another.

Much has changed in the community on Georgian Bay. Many old homes have been sold and turned into large summer homes.

But the stories live on. And Dimaline returns frequently.

“It is amazing to have place like that to go to. Coming from there, as hard as things were in terms of poverty, racism and all that stuff, I always felt like I had something so special in this place and with those people and this language and the stories. Even in tough times in my own life, I have always thought it was a place I can go to.”

Her children are also part of this on-going story.

“I have three children, the oldest is 25. He grew up with my grandmother so he has that understanding of place. My 18 year old daughter is more involved in the community. She is a jingle dress dancer and a traditional dancer. The youngest is 11 and she has shown the most interest in the actual stories. We are preserving them and making sure they are handed down in a good way.”

Dimaline is constantly asked if she will write a sequel to The Marrow Thieves. Maybe, she says.

“Usually when I am done writing something I’m done. but this I still think about. There is also so much interest. One Grade 8 girl said to me what happens if the dream is a nightmare. I need to think about that idea. The tiny genius …”

She has also been approached about a film or TV version.

If it goes forward with that there are two things she is adamant about.

“One, it is an Indigenous story. These kids are Indigenous and it comes from their world view. Second that the main love story is between these two men. That’s important. We lose a lot of two-spirited people in the Indigenous community. There is a real need for them to see themselves.”

She says she has realized that “being a writer is actually my job.  … I am at the beginning of a journey; it’s a bit scary but I’m very excited.”

In Town: Cherie Dimaline is appearing on a panel with Omar El Akkad and Timothy Taylor called Imagining Truths on Friday at 8:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.