Since her debut novel, Five Little Indians, was released in 2020, Michelle Good has received hundreds of emails from people thanking her for opening their eyes to the residential school experience.
One woman even apologized for being a racist all of her life, and she wrote that reading Good’s book – which humanizes five young adults as they navigate life post-residential school – had changed her into a better person.
Beyond eliciting reader mail, the book also won a litany of awards in 2021, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, and CBC Canada Reads. With Five Little Indians, the Cree author has said she was trying to respond to the question “Why can’t they just get over it?” – the often-heard refrain from non-Indigenous people about the myriad issues that Indigenous people in Canada still deal with daily.
“For some reason that I don’t necessarily even understand at this point, this book has touched people in a very transformative way,” Good says. “I thought, this is a time to reach further into that willingness, and to expand the conversation from residential schools to the entire colonial agenda, of which residential school was one implement.”
That’s the idea behind her forthcoming collection of essays, Truth Telling: Seven Conversations about Indigenous Life in Canada (HarperCollins), which explores everything from pretendians to the Land Back movement.
With this new nonfiction book, Good is hoping to answer a new question: “What do they want?”
Over seven essays, Good explains, clearly and in accessible writing, what Indigenous people are advocating for, and encourages non-Indigenous Canadians to do more, such as supporting reconciliation efforts and using their voices and influence to push for Indigenous people to have the resources they need to enact change. As she writes in her introduction, “It is simply not enough to wear an orange shirt or issue empty land acknowledgements. The non-Indigenous population of this country must not only talk, they must also act.”
Good often says she wants people to reconsider what they think they know. It’s a mind frame she employed herself while writing Truth Telling, which took her four months to complete. She tried to reconsider things she believed were facts, and spent many weeks going back to sources to confirm her understanding of things.
“What I wanted to do is to offer people tangible resources that will help clarify, for example, when we talk about Land Back, that no, we don’t want your cottage,” she says, laughing. Good sets out the origins of Crown land and describes how, “without a return of land and without a proper share of the resources that have been taken from our land without our consideration, without recognition of jurisdiction and self-determination, how can we possibly rise above being a colonized oppressed people?”
A light tone when conveying heavy facts rooted in history, and an understanding of the law informed by her work as a lawyer are what readers can expect from Good in Truth Telling. The informal personal essays include stories of her own family life, pop culture references, and one spot-on comparison that employs the scientific definitions of plants in the “Cultural Pillagers” essay that is just perfection.
“I tried to couch it in my own experience, to assist people in understanding how these things function on the personal level, so that they can perhaps relate to what they’re seeing in the world today as it pertains to Indigenous peoples in Canada,” she says.
A somewhat new personal experience for Good includes becoming an “emerging writer” at the age of 64. Headlines trumpeted this with Five Little Indians’ release, and Good received the title with a sense of humour.
“It’s a good thing I’m not one of those women that are very sensitive about people knowing their age,” she says. “But I also thought it was quite telling that people found it surprising that somebody would enter an entirely new way of being in the world at that age.”
Instead, Good sees the evolution of her career as just another stage of lifelong learning.
“People have often asked me, ‘How did you find the transition from law to writing?’” she says. “I don’t think it is a transition. I’m doing the work that I set out to do when I was 18. I did that as an activist, I did it as a lawyer, and now, I’m doing it as a writer. It’s all the same stuff, just a different method.”
And upon the release of her second book, she has modest hopes that Truth Telling will make it into the “hands, hearts, and minds” of people. When you try to pin her down about her expectations, she deflects and insists that she’s trying not to think about the book’s future following the success of her debut novel.
“Nobody is more surprised at the awards, the accolades, at the reception, than I am,” she says – because the success of Five Little Indians was quite daunting. “It’ll unfold as it does, and I’m good with that.”