Indigenous writers have long been an important part of Canada's literary landscape, contributing unique and powerful storytelling through novels, short fiction, poems, and essays that have captured imaginations and opened minds for generations. With more Indigenous works than ever gaining higher visibility, conversations around their ever-increasing importance and value are taking place.
One person who has always been interested in the subject is Métis author and academic Aubrey Jean Hanson, whose new book Literatures, Communities, and Learning: Conversations with Indigenous Writers (WLU Press) collects nine interviews with prominent Indigenous creators to discuss the ongoing role of Indigenous literature not only in the healing and continued health of their own communities, but in the social, cultural, and political awareness of the rest of the country as well. Considering their own creative output within the contexts of colonization, identity, and reconciliation, each writer examines their work and it's legacy.
We're thrilled to have Aubrey at Open Book today, where she talks about the relationship between art and strong communities, her residency at the idyllic Banff Centre, and the coping strategies she's learned to combat burnout.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
Aubrey Jean Hanson:
Literatures, Communities, and Learning: Conversations with Indigenous Writers is just what it sounds like—a book of interviews with Indigenous writers talking about their writing and the importance of Indigenous literatures to our communities. These conversations feature authors that many readers will want to hear more from: Tenille Campbell, Warren Cariou, Marilyn Dumont, Daniel Justice, Lee Maracle, Sharron Proulx-Turner, David Robertson, Richard Van Camp, and Katherena Vermette. As a Métis scholar and as a teacher, having enjoyed these incredibly rich dialogues, I was inspired to share these perspectives from writers with a broader audience. I know that they will be important for scholars and teachers working with Indigenous literatures, but also for anyone who cares about great creative work, opportunities to learn through the arts, and the relationships and well-being of communities. These writers have a lot to say about why they write and about how literature is important in our lives.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
The central question of this book carried me during the project and guides my thinking throughout. The question I asked was this: Why do Indigenous literatures matter to the resurgence of healthy Indigenous communities? It was in part an educational question, thinking about the learning that readers do when they read Indigenous texts. I recognize that a reader can be anyone—a young Indigenous person forming their identity in relation to their community, a non-Indigenous teacher looking to learn more in order to educate others, or a member of the Canadian public trying to think through Truth and Reconciliation. One of my mentors has been Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice, the author of the 2018 book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, and his work has influenced my thinking in asking that central question.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
I went into this project knowing that Indigenous writers had a great deal of insight into their work and important reflections to offer on their lives and the complex contexts in which they write. It was deeply meaningful for me to hear their stories and perspectives, so that writing this book really reinforced that initial perception. Every writer I talked to had a great deal to say about the significance of Indigenous literatures, speaking on topics like the revitalization of Indigenous languages, mental health in communities, and the ways in which colonialism continues to influence Indigenous Peoples every day.
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What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
When I was an undergraduate student, it was zesty cheese Doritos and all-nighters that got my writing done. It turns out that doesn’t work for a book-length project. The two-week residency that I did at the Banff Centre was what got this book finished. There’s something purely magical about the mountains, the quiet, dedicated time, and being surrounded by other artists working, performing, talking, and sharing meals. It was a tremendous privilege to tuck away into one of the Leighton studios to finish this book, and I am grateful for their commitment to Indigenous arts.
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?
I think this is one of my biggest challenges as a writer: trying to make progress when I am not in a good place mentally or emotionally, or when I have a lot of other responsibilities on my plate. Right now, in this time of isolation, I definitely notice how hard it is to muster the energy to do any writing. Two main strategies help me. One: I commit to writing first thing in the day, even if only for a half hour, so that writing is a habit and the work steadily gets done. Two: I don’t push too hard if it isn’t going well. I turn to something else and make sure to refresh with other healthy and pleasurable activities, trying again the next day. Having a project that I’m passionate about and building up the momentum with writing is key!
What defines a great work of non-fiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
For me, really compelling non-fiction needs to come from a genuine personal voice or a really grounded sense of place—something that shows an accountability to truth and knowledge, an intimacy with the topic. It also has to have the feel and integrity of a story, a narrative that carries you through as a reader and helps shape your understandings. And it has to be an important story. One great book is Maria Campbell’s memoir Halfbreed. It’s a part of our history that everyone should know as well as an incredible piece of writing: I recommend the new edition.
What are you working on now?
Between juggling work and homeschooling kids in the age of COVID-19, not much writing is happening! But I’m excited about my next project, which focuses on Indigenous arts in urban spaces. It’s always inspiring to see how creative processes carry forward Indigenous knowledges and lifeways.
Aubrey Jean Hanson is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and a faculty member at the University of Calgary. Her research spans Indigenous literary studies, curriculum studies, and social justice education. Aubrey has previously published in English Studies in Canada, The Walrus, and Studies in American Indian Literatures.