Indigenous literature in North America is incredibly diverse and exciting category, so putting together a collection of essays that seeks to comprehensively address the rich themes, identities, mythology, and political dialogues contained therein is an ambitious task. Ambitious tasks, however, happen to be second nature to Deanna Reder and Linda Morra, the editors of Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).
Their collection brings together classic and never before seen essays about Indigenous literatures across the continent, and features some of North America's most respected scholars in the area, including Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe), Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan), and Craig Womack (Creek), amongst many others.
We're speaking to Deanna and Linda today to ask them about the formidable task of examining such a multi-faced area of literature. They tell us about the question that unites the essays, how two editors with very different sleeping patterns were able to work together, and a book that changed the way they think about the world.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Deanna Reder and Linda Morra:
Complaining really has its advantages: Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures was born of a conversation between the two co-editors, who were commiserating about the problems with the available methodological and theoretical texts for approaching Indigenous literary works. European models of reading and methodologies just don't serve the purpose, as many Indigenous scholars, including Deanna, have observed. Linda had been developing and teaching an upper-year seminar course at Bishop's University that called upon a select few of the resources that are now featured in Learn, Teach, Challenge, but was venting to Deanna about the lack of an appropriate anthology; and so, in that initial conversation, Deanna proposed co-editing a volume that had even greater reach and applicability for just that purpose.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
DR & LM:
How do we approach and read Indigenous literatures? It was the question that drove the project from the start.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
DR & LM:
In some ways, the book is precisely what we envisioned from the start: an anthology that could be used in various classroom settings for the study of Indigenous literatures. In other ways, however, it has changed substantially. Linda and Deanna test-drove the volume with colleagues assembled as part of a SSHRC funded Connections workshop in 2014 and then again in 2015 with students at Bishop’s and SFU respectively. This feedback was invaluable.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
DR & LM:
A lot of coffee and Friday morning conversations that allowed for our different sleeping — and writing — patterns undergirded this book's production. Deanna is up very early, at 6 am; Linda is not to be disturbed before 9 am. Happily, we live across the country and the time change has always worked in our favour. By the time Linda was yawning and making coffee in Montreal, Deanna was already alert and ready-to-go in Vancouver. We would then work collaboratively over the telephone, by which means we would chat and write simultaneously. We would then send texts back-and-forth to each other, until the book reached the place with which we were both satisfied.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
DR & LM:
Did we already say something about complaining being productive? It's great to have a co-editor who has the same work ethic and similar perspective, because it makes it easier to cope with difficult moments in a project. Usually, if one of us became discouraged, the other would become encouraging. We took turns at being supportive and working through the more challenging aspects of the project. We're told that a punching bag strategically placed above a computer screen is not such a bad idea. We have also already mentioned the importance of coffee.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
DR & LM:
A book that changes the way we think about the world is great. Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing (2009) by Metis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew. What makes this book so powerful is Episkenew’s insistence that Indigenous literature is powerful medicine that they can heal the hurts inflicted on all of us by racist Canadian policy.
What are you working on now?
DR & LM:
Should we be working on anything else now? Isn't Learn, Teach, Challenge the most definitive anthology written, such that there is no need for us to do another book, ever again? More seriously: Deanna is working on a sister volume with Vancouver based colleagues on an anthology of Indigenous short stories designed to be taught to the first year undergraduate classroom. Linda is about to become the Craig Dobbin Chair in Canadian Studies in Dublin and is assembling a series of public lectures that will feature Canadian literature as a way to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday.
Linda Morra is a full professor in the English Department at Bishop’s University and the forthcoming Craig Dobbin Chair of Canadian Studies at UCD (2016-2017). She and Deanna Reder co-edited Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations (WLU Press, 2010). Her most recent book, Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Women’s Authorship (2014), was a finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Award.
Deanna Reder (Cree-Métis) is an associate professor in the Departments of First Nations Studies and English at Simon Fraser University. She serves as editor for the Indigenous Studies series at WLU Press and was one of the founding members of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association. She teaches and publishes on Indigenous theory, life writing, pop fiction, and gender and sexuality.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.