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Suzanne Purkis

Interview with Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline

On Saturday, June 10, Métis writer and editor Cherie Dimaline will kick off the 2017 Editors Canada conference with a keynote address. Conference co-chair Suzanne Purkis interviewed Cherie about writing, editing and some of the challenges facing Indigenous writers in Canada.

1. Does your experience as an editor influence your approach to writing? If so, how?

Definitely. Editing has taught me to be clearer and more concise even in the first draft of a story, when I’m not really aware that I’m doing so. Developing an editorial eye has allowed me to manage the language and the tools of language in bringing a story to life.

2. Can you describe an early experience where you learned that language had power? Did that experience set you on the path to becoming a writer?

My grandmother and her sisters spoke Michif, the “youngest” recognized language in existence. Hearing words that had no direct translation, and then losing them when they passed away, made me appreciate — sadly, too late — the magic of their words. The images, actions and feelings their words cradled will never be gifted in the same way again and that is a tragedy. I learned very young that language and story are carriers of a much deeper reality, and that we have to fight for them the same way we fight to preserve culture and art.

3. The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy is a beautiful balance of pain, poignancy, humour and hope. What inspired you to tell Ruby Bloom’s story?

Like millions of others, I have lived with anxiety all my life. I remember having my first panic attack on the day of my First Communion (at first, I thought it was symptomatic of a God-aversion, but came to realize it was something even bigger). Ruby is my attempt to explain the reality of living with anxiety disorder and the myriad of other issues that grow in its wake. She lives isolated from life, but with such intensity that it hurts. It’s like wearing rubber gloves when you do the dishes; you are carrying out the actions with a small distance that keeps you separate, but you are still immersed in water. Secretly, Ruby is my favourite character (don’t tell the others).

4. You’ve published a couple of collections of short stories, and I’ve read that the short story is your favourite form. Why?

A short story is a challenge — and also where my Editor and Writer sides come together. I am challenged to write the most complete and emotive story I can within the confines of a defined space. It leaves so much room for the reader to come in and take an active role. A great collection of short stories is like walking through a brilliant exhibit. It changes you, but you have to be open to the change.

5. What are some of the challenges facing Indigenous writers in Canada?

Access to publishers, resources and wider audiences are definitely some of the biggest challenges for us. Our stories are unique, and some carry responsibilities beyond the standard that we must balance with creative freedom and personal viewpoints. It can also be difficult for Indigenous writers to be constantly explaining their community, history and oppression in a colonial state. I found the same thing when I was working at the University of Toronto as the writer in residence for First Nations House. Our students were constantly doing double-duty in class: learning and, at the same time, teaching when it came to Indigeneity and colonization. It’s exhausting — and it’s almost impossible to provide the kind of context and narrative audiences need and are, for the most part, genuine about seeking.

6. If you had one piece of advice for editors working with Indigenous writers, what would it be?

Learn as much as you can. We are writing in English with all its rules and connotations. We are publishing with mainstream houses and reaching out to Canadian institutions, schools and readers. We are constantly learning and evolving and adapting to give our stories the best chance at a full life. Non-Indigenous literary professionals should be doing some of the work to move towards us as well. Humber College has a great program this August called Editing Indigenous manuscripts that invites mainstream editors in to learn from Indigenous writers, editors and publishers. Sign up! Come to our events (like the Indigenous Writers’ Gathering held every year in Toronto). And read the narratives that are already out there.

7. What can non-Indigenous folks do to support Indigenous authors?

I would say the best way to support Indigenous writers is to buy the books and come to the readings. Our stories are beautiful and heartbreaking and hilarious and some are very, very old. Canada would be a much better place for all of us if Canadians read more Indigenous lit. People often ask how they can be good allies, how they can work with our communities, and often feel left outside of the circle. Welcoming you into our stories is the best way we have to welcome you in, and to ensure that when you get there, you have a better understanding of who we are and what your role can be.

8. Who is your favourite Indigenous author?

Ahh, there are so many! I’m going to cheat and give a short list: Lee Maracle, Maria Campbell, Marilyn Dumont, Katherena Vermette, Gregory Scofield and Eden Robinson. I am also very excited by the new writers coming up: Nathan Adler, Joshua Whitehead and Alicia Elliot are some great talents to watch out for.

9. Our conference theme is Guardians of the Lexicons. What role do you think editors should play in safeguarding language? How is that different from the writer’s role?

The best education I’ve ever gotten about writing has been through the editing process. To go back to an old metaphor, editors are the midwives that safely deliver the story, to make sure it arrives in the hands of readers as a living, sacred thing. It’s an incredibly tough job to encourage the writer to accept change, and it takes a lot of skill (editors would probably also make awesome negotiators). Editors are on the field, in the play and simultaneously setting the strategy. When I think back to some of my editing experiences as an author, it was like I arrived at my editor’s doorstep with a jigsaw puzzle still in the box. I’d laboured over each tiny piece, but it wasn’t until they helped me fit them together that the full picture arrived.

A writer creates, an editor crafts. And in the world of great literature, one cannot exist without the other.

Visit the conference website for more information, including a downloadable version of the schedule. Registration is open until Monday, May 29, at 11:59 p.m. PT.


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