With three new books due out this fall, it’s hard to believe author Melanie Florence only returned to full-time writing within the last two years. Before that, the single mother had stepped away from her career for several years to focus on her son, now 11, and daughter, nearly 10. In the short time she’s been back at her craft, Florence has won Second Story Press’s inaugural aboriginal writing contest and secured six book deals – all while planning a wedding and moving house.
The successes are nice, and Florence is grateful for them, but they’re not what drive her. Instead, she does the work out of a sense of pride and duty.
“My grandfather was Cree and did not ever speak of it, did not admit it,” says Florence, who is also part Scottish. As a residential-school survivor, he was taught to be ashamed of his culture and died having never shared details of his experience or of the family’s heritage. These were things Florence, now 43, began discovering in her late teens. “My grandfather was very ashamed of who he was and I’m not. I write from that place.”
The desire to encourage cultural pride in aboriginal kids fuelled her first book, Jordin Tootoo: The Highs and Lows in the Journey of the First Inuit to Play in the NHL, published by Lorimer in 2010, and it’s at the heart of her second, One Night, published in September under Lorimer’s gritty YA SideStreets banner. The book tells of Luna Begay, a smart, school-oriented Cree teen. When she gets pregnant after being raped at a party, she grounds herself in her family and heritage, both of which ultimately factor into her decision to put the baby up for adoption.
Florence says it was important that there be a point in the story when Luna could become “this tragic Indian girl who has a kid on her hip,” but who ultimately defies the stereotypes that often define native women. “I find it very important as an author to not write a weak female character because I don’t want to read that and I don’t want my daughter to read that. And I don’t want the aboriginal community reading that.”
Though Florence prefers to focus on the positive, she doesn’t ignore the difficult issues that many aboriginal people in Canada grapple with today. The crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, for example, figures into her new picture book, Missing Nimama (Clockwise Press). “I wanted to give a voice to someone who lost a mother in this way,” Florence says. “These women who are going missing have families and people who love them.”
It’s a story that celebrates female relationships as well as the Cree language, which is woven into the text and the images by François Thisdale. “I felt strongly that I wanted to put that in there [because] we have the issue of language being lost and stolen from aboriginal people,” says Florence, noting her own grandfather likely lost his ability to understand Cree while in the residential-school system.
The author will explore those experiences on a broader scale in Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Residential Schools, her second title with Lorimer (tentatively) scheduled for release this fall. “As I grew up, we learned nothing of residential schools, of the history of genocide in this country,” Florence says. Discovering this information during her research left her devastated, but driven: “It’s our duty once we learn about this history to pass it on.”