Ottawa Writers Fest: Karen McBride finds the magic in her reality

Karen McBride. Photo: Sam Park Photography

Karen McBride is just enjoying the ride.

The young writer is on her first book tour with her first novel Crow Winter. She’s been to places such as Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Kingston and Toronto and on Oct.29 she’ll be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on a panel with Cherie Dimaline.

It’s heady stuff.

“It’s going really well but it’s all a really big learning process. I’m surviving so that’s a win.

“I find (her new status) shows the most when I am on panels with writers who are really seasoned and know how to offer amazing answers and I’m nervous and saying I wrote a book.”

And such a book. Crow Winter is a novel about a young woman named Hazel Ellis who is grieving the loss of her father and who has returned to the Rez to reconnect with her family and her community. In the midst of all of that, it turns out that a somewhat predatory developer wants to take over a quarry on land that her family had. Into the the mix comes an old crow who is the embodiment of the trickster Nanabush. He just wants to help it turns out.

McBride is Algonquin Anishinaabe from the Timiskaming First Nation in northwestern Quebec near the Ontario border. She has a bachelor of arts in music and English, and a bachelor of education from uOttawa and a Master’s in creative writing from the University of Toronto.

Karen has worked as an elementary school teacher in the same school that she attended on her First Nation.

“That was pretty surreal at times. Especially when I’d walk into the staff room and wonder if I was I allowed there. But it was nice to be back home and to have that comfortable place in the community and to know people.”

But the work didn’t click with her.

“I realized teaching wasn’t really for me. You want teachers to love their job and I wasn’t there. It wasn’t fair to the kids. You risk doing serious harm and I didn’t want to be that person.”

So she took a year off and went to U of T to explore her own passion for writing. In that process she was paired with the writer Susan Swan, who encouraged her and her novel which was actually her Master’s thesis. She wrote it in 2017 and 2018. Swan introduced McBride to an agent and the agent connected her to her publisher HarperCollins under the imprint Harper Avenue. It was all a bit meteoric.

The novel is set on a reserve called Spirit Bear Point First Nation,nthat operates much as the Timiskaming First Nation does.

“Life on reserve today is similar to when I was a kid. There are differences now especially because of technology. All the kids are inside rather than outside. When I was a kid I walked to and from school every day and I played in the bush until too late. I would only come home when I heard my mom shouting it was time to eat.

“In the novel, I really wanted to showcase that life on The Rez is not as intensely horrible as the media likes to make it out to be.

“I wanted to showcase the similarities between our small town, that happens to be a reserve, and any other small town across the country but specifically northern Ontario (and Quebec).”

There can be expectations of Indigenous creators, expectations that frustrate McBride.

“One of the most frustrating things about being an Indigenous artist or creator is that the wider world seems to want a trauma story. I think we deserve to be moving in a different direction. We need to tell stories that have this truth. We need to tell an uplifting kind of truth, one that is positive.

“There is trauma. We live with it every day. We see it every single day. It is important now that Indigenous people can read our stories and be proud of them and be excited and say ‘Wow that’s me and I’m a hero’.

The stories of Indigenpus people are more layered and complex that the stereotypes, she said.

In a way this is where Nanabush comes in.

Growing up on reserve and going to school where she was taught by quite a few Indigenous teachers, McBride was introduced to Indigenous stories and legends.

“It was normal. That’s just how we go. We live with the Seven Grandfathers. That’s normal.”

At the same time, she said, it can be difficult to find a connection to those stories outside the family or the community.

“Because of where we are geographically (in Eastern Canada), we did experience colonization pretty seriously.

“We have a few knowledge keepers (not enough) who are around to tell us the stories. With my community in particular we are starting to get on our feet now. Language program at school so kids are starting in kindergarten learning as much of the language as they can.”

She said she had the foundational knowledge of the stories of her people “but then I went little further. I took the broad mix and tweaked that and made a story that could be told in my part of Indian country.”

That’s another interesting aspect of her perspective on things.

There is what mcBride calls a pan-Indigenous culture or powwow culture that she believes doesn’t acknowledge local identities.

“Pan-Indigeneity can become a sort of self-colonization,” she says, “and it can be frustrating.”

As an example of that she points to head-dresses of the kind worn by Indigenous peoples in the west.

“We are an Eastern Woodland people. The people, where I am from, would have lived in the bush. You can’t go running through the forest wearing a war bonnet. You are going to get caught on some branches and fall on your butt. It’s going to be bad. It makes no sense for us to be wearing those, as beautiful as they are.

“As important as it is to learn dances and connect with that tradition, we have to always ask how we make Indigenous culture more our own and reclaim our identity within this whole pan-Indigenous world we are being presented in.”

One way to do that is by writing novels such as Crow Winter.

“This is the first thing I have ever published. Writing has always been a passion,” she said. But she started in an unusual way.

“I started writing Harry Potter fan fiction. I was 11 and so was Harry. So I sent letters off and nothing ever came back. I was very disappointed and I still am,” she said with a laugh. “But I realized that I could create my own little world and go to magic school on paper.

“In a way that fan fiction became my first mentorship, where I learned about voice and character.”

The idea for Crow Winter started in 2013 when her father passed away.

“I had all these feelings of grief and sadness and I was doubting myself. I didn’t know what to do with them.”

She said she found a passage in a book that dealt with grief. It prompted her to think she could pass along that knowledge.

“Then I started looking more closing at the idea of someone dealing with the loss of a father.

I knew I wanted to root my story in my culture. I wanted to give us a story that we can read and say hey that is my story.”

So she created a protagonist, Hazel, and had Nanabush stick his beak in.

“He sort of just showed up. Crow Winter was a cool title I got that from my mom.”

A crow winter is a phenomenon that happens on her First Nation when it snows too early. It usually signals a hard winter.

She did talk to elders about using nanabush in her contemporary story and they were all for it.

“They were just really excited. They wanted to see it out there. Tricksters are very famous across many cultures — we all have our own — and these are the kinds of figures that want their stories told. They want to be out there.”

McBride got to work taking stories from her cultural archive and giving them new life.

“These are living, breathing, legends. They were always told and changed and I think having them written down in this way is just continuing that process.”

Of course, there is a reality too in Crow Winter involving a land claim and exploted property. That’s another thing McBride knows about.

The land claim process is glacial, nasty and all divide and conquer.

“A few summers back I worked with the Algonquin Nation Secretariat which is our land claims office in my area. My sister Allison works for them as a researcher and claims writer.

“I did a lot of what Hazel does in her journey. She has to read these letters and sort documents. I have been in the field and done the ground work. For me it was so important to represent land claims as messy and strange as the process is when something as simple as a change in directions in a letter can affect a whole community.”

As with most fiction, there is a lot of McBride in Hazel.

“With something as personal as grief and the loss of a father that has to be. As someone who has experienced it, you know if it is insincere. It was important to give my true thoughts on those things.

“It is also a story about a girl and about magic. That is kind of me.”

Seeing her books in stores and at writers festivals, she is grappling with the reality of it all.

“It freaks me out if I think about it too much. This is something that I wrote and I can walk into any book store and see it. That’s been really amazing and terrifying at the same time.”

She does has strong support network. Her mom is over the moon, for example.

McBride, when the interview happened, was back in Ottawa where two of her sisters live. She considers the city a second home.

“My family has been coming from reserve to Ottawa as long as I can remember.”

In town: Karen McBride will be on an Ottawa Writers Festival panel with Cherie Dimaline on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. For 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.