Celebrated Vancouver-born author, poet, artist, and activist Lee Maracle, a member of the Stö:lo Nation, made her mark in the early 1970s as one of the first aboriginal writers to have fiction published in Canada. Reinventing traditional stories she has known since childhood, Maracle seamlessly blends mythology with contemporary concerns. The Métis-Salish author’s latest novel, Celia’s Song (Cormorant Books), returns to many of the characters that appeared in her 1993 novel Ravensong. The story follows multiple generations of a Stö:lo family from the Pacific Northwest through various tragedies and hardships, as witnessed by a shape-shifter named Mink.
In October, Maracle spoke about her writing practice with author, editor, and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who is of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry and a member of Alderville First Nation. Simpson is the inaugural recipient of the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award; she is also the author of three books, including Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and A New Emergence (ARP).
Lee Maracle: I have to tell you, this has been a long road. It began in my twenties with a group of young people in a house talking about what they wanted to do with their lives – it was like we were visioning. I said I wanted to write books so that Canada could see us, and change the way they thought about us. And somebody said, “Oh, that’s stories and novels.”
So, one of them was Ravensong. I hadn’t intended to do Ravensong when I did it. I entered a three-day novel writing contest and it sort of popped out. I got this award in Washington, which was money plus a month’s writing retreat. And I remember being terrified, and thinking, “What if I don’t want to be a writer?”
I wrote because I had to, you know what I mean? It wasn’t that I popped up one day and fell in love with this thing. I was mostly into poetry, not stories and novels. But then I went to writing school. I was taking courses at the same time as I was teaching courses. Short stories were my medium, and then the novel Sun Dogs popped out, and right after that came Ravensong. And I thought, “Okay, this is alright.”
Leanne Simpson: I can’t think of any novel that’s remotely like Celia’s Song. One of the things I noticed when I was reading it was the response of my body and my emotions. When I’m reading a book I usually go in with a critical mind. I think it’s because I don’t trust the writer. And I feel I really trusted you. The first sentence: “There’s something helpless about being a witness.”
Maracle: Yeah, I’d love to take credit for that. That line was in the middle of the book, but Cormorant publisher Marc Côté thought this should be first.
Simpson: It’s a fantastic line. As an indigenous woman reading your book, I feel that, although it’s going to take me to some dark places, and I’m going to have to stand there and witness it, and there’s things I’m going to have to face myself – things that have happened in my own life – it’s also going to be okay. You’re going to take me on this journey and it’s going to be okay.
I have a trust in this novel that indigenous women are going to be portrayed not just in a positive way, but an amazing way. And I feel like I’ve come out of this feeling proud; I’ve come out feeling powerful; I’ve come out feeling defiant. It’s like you wrote it for me.
Maracle: I’m happy to hear you say that, but I have to say, it’s culturally based, you know? We have this saying, “We spiral down to a moment of peace and recognition and then we spiral out and greet the world.”
I’m always trying to find the voice of the elders. I think Pauline Johnson called the Salish people the most natural poets she’d ever come across. I listened and reclaimed that language because I’d lost it going to school. It started with radical poetry but that was not at all what I was looking for. I was looking for the everyday language that is so beautiful when we’re talking about difficult subjects.
I’m really glad you were relaxed, because I wanted the person reading it to be totally relaxed, so the language is quite soft all the way through. It’s as beautiful as I could make it. It’s as true and honest and deep as it needs to be so we can swim in it and come out with understanding.
Simpson: It’s such a multilayered story. It’s complicated, it’s so full of Nuu-chah-nulth woman intelligence.
Maracle: In my life, the male stories are different from the female stories. The women tell one version that’s internal and the men tell the external version. That’s another interesting thing that governs my writing.
Simpson: So women tell stories about the body?
Maracle: The body, the heart, the mind. And how that gets shared.