Wakefield Writers Festival: The many sides of Darrel McLeod

Darrel J. McLeod. Photo: Ilja Herb

When it’s time to write, author Darrel McLeod often begins with a sage-and-sweetgrass ceremony. Then, he turns on the “modernized” opera music of France’s Emma Shapplin. And the words start to flow.

For part of the year, the author of the Governor General Award-winning Mamaskatch, a searing memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional, backwoods family, does his writing in a small, wooden house in the forest, near the ocean, about 45 minutes from Victoria. For the other half of the year, McLeod can be found in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico where, when he is not writing, he sings with a Mexican band.

At age 60, this emerging author, former teacher and land claims negotiator for the federal government has solidly embraced the writing life, at least when he is not singing.

“If I don’t write or play music for a day or two, I feel like I’m not accomplishing what I should accomplish and I get miserable,” he said in a recent interview.

And while he still clings to some of his Cree traditions from northern Alberta – just get him talking about family picnics of moose meat and bannock — this man with a degree in French literature and a love of jazz also embraces aspects of the Eurocentric culture of mainstream Canada.

Expect to see all sides of McLeod when he lands at the annual Wakefield Writers Festival May 23-26. He won’t just be discussing his remarkable book Mamaskatch or his two other books in the works. Plans are for him to join a pickup band, at Wakefield’s closing ceremony and sing a few jazz standards. McLeod is as compelled to sing as he is to write. If you want McLeod, the author, you also get McLeod, the singer.

McLeod’s mother Bertha also loved to sing and had a fine alto voice. She also loved to drink and party. Once, while naked, she rode a bicycle through town loudly proclaiming herself Lady Godiva. Imagine the taunts from Darrel’s classmates at school the next day.

Sometimes Bertha was violent and would throw beer bottles even at her children. Darrel and an ever increasing number of younger siblings were often left to fend for themselves in the Slave Lake area of northern Alberta.

At one point, young Darrel left home to live with an older sister. There, he was sexually abused by his brother-in-law. What were his options? Continue to be sexually abused or return to his alcoholic mother? The choice was not pretty.

As a young man, he moved to Calgary to attend university. That did not bring peace. A younger sister, broke and pregnant, moved in with him. Their mother was living on the streets of Edmonton, constantly needing help. A brother was having a sex change. Meanwhile, Darrel had his own crises, including acceptance of his homosexuality.

Somehow, McLeod survived. He had a long career as a teacher and school principal. He negotiated land claims agreements and for three years lived in Ottawa working as education director for the Assembly of First Nations. And then he embraced the writing life after contemplating such action for decades.

McLeod says he was first hit by the writing bug in second-year university when he picked up Margaret Laurence’s novel, The Diviners, and read the first line: “The river flows both ways.” It’s a line about wind seemingly pushing a river in its opposite direction. It’s a line ripe with metaphors. It’s the kind of line McLeod was determined to write some day.

But that day was far off. McLeod needed more prompting to start writing. Still at university, a French professor told him his stories were too important not to tell. Years later, an Indigenous elder, Catherine Bird, in northern B.C. delivered the same message.

Finally, while in his 50s, McLeod started writing Mamaskatch. The memoir picked up a GG last year and continues to sell. A sequel is in the works, to be published in the fall of 2020. And there is a novel coming as well. That is about an Indigenous man, James, teaching school in an affluent area of Vancouver. Then James’s mother dies and he feels disconnected from his culture, language and community. So, James heads to northern B.C. to reconnect with Indigenous life.

The story is a fictionalized version of McLeod’s own life. But the story is taking some unexpected turns.

“It’s so much fun to write fiction.”

Writing memoirs about his dark past was not really fun. It, however, was “healing.”

The elder, Catherine Bird, had told McLeod he had to write his stories because “they’ll help people some day.”

Well, the writing certainly helped McLeod, But he says his writing is intended to help other people see that there is a way to emerge from dark places.

“I thought it was important to write about those dark places because right now, as we speak, there are people in equally dark places or even darker places, and they need a ray of light, a beacon shined in to give them light to see their way out of the dark.”

In town: Darrel McLeod participates in two events at the Wakefield Writers Festival. He joins an authors’ brunch May 25 and will appear with other Indigenous authors May 26, to be followed by a singing performance at the closing ceremony.

The festival runs from May 23 to 26 and includes a bevy of authors including David Chariandy, Esi Edugyan, Linda Spalding and Sally Armstrong. For tickets and information of who is coming and when: writersfete.com.

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