Ottawa Writers Festival: Into the uncanny valley with Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice

The spark for Waubgeshig Rice’s novel Moon of the Crusted Snow ignited in 2003 during a massive power outage that darkened Ontario and parts of the other U.S.

“I was living in Toronto at the time, but on that day I was back on the reserve visiting family. All the power went out and we didn’t really know what was happening.”

It was a disorienting experience but Rice said that, being in his home community, “I felt it was the best place to be. I was there with my brothers and we knew what we had to do to get along.

“The next day the lights came back on but the incident stuck with me. I have always believed that if it happened again the first place I was going to was the reserve. That is where the knowledge (of how to live off the land) is there for the most part.”

Rice is Anishinaabe from the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario.

“I grew up in my community and I learned how to do a lot of things on the land. I moved to the city 20 years ago but I still go back regularly to my community and I have a place there.

“By and large today I am an urban Indigenous person who has moved away from a lot of that traditional knowledge.”

Rice is probably better known as a CBC journalist who did a stint in Ottawa and now works in Sudbury where he hosts his own show called Up North.

But he is a writer and storyteller too and Moon of the Crusted Snow is his most recent book and it is a fast-paced gripping piece of speculative fiction.

It is set in a near future when something happens that disrupts the power supply to a First Nation. The residents first wonder if the power will be restored but as the days drag on they lose track of time and the outside world … until strangers start coming seeking shelter. Then they realize something serious has happened.

That’s when knowledge of living on the land is the difference between life and death.

For Rice the book is covering many different ideas.

“In some ways this story is an allegory for first contact, or for colonialism, when this land was settled by Europeans and the contact that they had with indigenous nations here.

“It’s also supposed to be a call to arms about the importance of getting back to the land and reconnecting with our natural surroundings. And how key they are to survival.

“It’s also a reminder to me personally.”

In some ways the book recalls The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, who sets her book in a post-apocalyptic future world in which Indigenous youth are basically hunted for their DNA.

Rice knows Dimaline.

“We were both in Banff three years ago at the Indigenous writers program. We were  just chatting and we discovered we were both working on these post-apocalypse stories.”

For Rice, setting the book in the future allowed a lot of freedom to develop the story. He could take liberties with timelines. And he could introduce the Wendigo in the person of a murderous white man named Scott who snowmobiles into the First Nation and proceeds to corrupt the community.

In Indigenous culture, the Wendigo is an evil spirit that arrives in a time of famine.

The book is an homage to some of the stories Rice heard growing up.

“Wendigo stories were told back in the day to deter people from cannibalizing each other. If you did that you would become a monster. You would lose your soul.”

The book is inspired by these stories.

“I never explicitly say that this is a Wendigo story. It is inspired by them. Throughout my writing career I have tried to walk as respectfully as I could within and without my background in terms of the stories and the ceremonies that are involved with it.

“What I never want to do is write explicitly about a ceremony and its background and the stories behind them and why we have them today.

“There are complex origin stories for some of these ceremonies. Those are things I will never write about because I believe they should experienced and told face to face.”

These are the kinds of stories that were under attack in residential schools. Rice said that it is important to realize just how fragile these stories and the cultures that nurtured them became as result of colonialism.

Rice says he had always wanted to write creatively. It was something that he did before embarking on journalism.

“I wrote as a teen to have a creative outlet. I never imagined I would get to be published.”

Rice is part of a generation of young talented Indigenous writers, like Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson. But he says he stands on the shoulders of people such as Lee Maracle, Richard Wagamese, Marilyn Dumont and Thomas King all of whom have worked hard to ensure Indigenous peoples were represented in mainstream literature.

“The generation I’m a part of, we are fortunate that the path is clearer for us. We are able to explore more genres of literature.

“I think we will get to a point where we won’t have to contextualize that awareness. It will be there and we will have Indigenous characters leading the way in all kinds of stories.

“These are valid experiences and people can really learn a lot from what Indigenous authors and storytellers are putting into books.”

Rice grew up in the 1980s when his First Nation was reconnecting with their culture.

“These were the things that had been taken away and had been beaten out of them. The stories compelled me the most. We would take time at school to sit with an elder and hear origin stories or trickster stories. That made me proud to be Anishnaabe.”

This novel is not a hagiography of reserve life, however.

“It doesn’t do justice to everybody’s experience if you just paint it as rosy and healed. It will never be totally be healed until language is revitalized and there is no shame connected to the culture.

“It is an on-going process overcoming the impact of some these brutal measures and each community is handling them differently. It is a spectrum of healing. The community in the story has been displaced from its original homeland and then the children were taken away and then alcohol was introduced and this was all in span of a couple of generations.

“It’s important to portray that. Otherwise we get to this myth that reconciliation has happened and everything is good now. It’s not.”

Reconciliation, Rice said, isn’t about going to a powwow or reading a book, it’s about building a relationship and understanding how to work together to make it better.

Moon of the Crusted Snow (ECW Press)
Waubgeshig Rice
In town: The author will be at the Ottawa international Writers Festival on Oct. 28 on a panel with Eden Robinson. For 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.