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David A. Robertson

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The prolific David A. Robertson on reconnecting with his Cree heritage and paying tribute to his father

Photography of David A. Robertson by KC Adams

David A. Robertson has the house to himself. It’s a rarity for the 43-year-old father of five. His wife, Jill, has taken the family – Emily, 17; Cole, 15; Anna, 12; Lauren, 10; and James, 5 – to the beach, and Robertson has been using the time to work, his usual soundtrack of alternative rock on rotation in the background. (This week it has been the unlikely alt-rock crowd-pleaser folklore by Taylor Swift.)

There isn’t a lot of time for long writerly jags in the Robertson household – he relies on Jill to update the family Google calendar, which allows him to carve out time to work on his competing book projects without sacrificing family activities. “She’s scheduled my writing time, my research time, the kids learning time, everything,” he says by phone from his home in Winnipeg.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. Since Stone, the first graphic novel in Robertson’s 7 Generations series, was released 10 years ago, he’s published 20 graphic novels, a YA trilogy, the adult novel The Evolution of Alice, and the picture book When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett, which won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature – Illustrated Books.

This fall is crowded even by Robertson’s standards, with three books set for publication: The Barren Grounds, the first instalment in his new middle-grade trilogy The Misewa Saga (Puffin Canada); Black Water, a memoir about his relationship with his father and reclaiming his Cree heritage (HarperCollins); and Breakdown, the first graphic novel in The Reckoner Rises series, a sequel to his Reckoner YA trilogy (HighWater Press).

The fantasy epic The Barren Grounds pays winking homage to Narnia, as two artistically gifted Indigenous foster kids, Morgan and Eli, travel through a portal to the ravaged village of Misewa, which has been robbed of resources by human greed. They join Ochek, an anthropomorphic fisher (a weasel-like creature with thick fur and a long snout), and Arik, an ebullient human-sized squirrel, as the new allies set forth on a quest.

Robertson refreshes these fantasy tropes by incorporating the legends and storytelling traditions of his Cree heritage. Environmental sustainability is pitted against empire building, heroes are honoured with constellations in the sky, and it all ends with a high-speed canoe chase.

The first third of the book is dedicated to developing Morgan and Eli’s experiences as new arrivals at the Winnipeg home of a foster family – an unusual amount of character-building for a middle-grade novel. It was worth it for Robertson, who points out that there are more Indigenous children in foster care today than ever attended residential schools.

Robertson had originally conceived of the novel as a book for adults. “I had a different experience set out for Morgan that was really too difficult for kids to read,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to talk about the foster care system in a way that wasn’t traumatizing for anybody.”

It’s characteristic of how Robertson writes for younger readers: he considers the age appropriateness of the subject matter before the complexity of the writing. “I didn’t want to write down to children because I’ve met enough to know that they get it and that they’re ready for work like this,” he says.

In the Reckoner trilogy, the protagonist is a teen Cree superhero grappling with an anxiety disorder; the second book, in particular, devotes significant attention to the character’s mental-health crisis. “At almost every school I read that book at,” says Robertson, “I had at least one kid come up to me who had never talked about their mental health before and say, ‘I’m going through that.’”

Before group therapy, Robertson himself felt like his anxiety disorder was uniquely isolating. “You feel like there’s no one else who could possibly understand what’s going on in your mind and your body,” he says. “It’s such a lonely feeling. But when you start to talk about it, you realize that other people feel that way. I think it’s very important to be able to make people realize that they’re not alone. Probably the most important decision I’ve made in my career was to say I can’t hide the stuff that I’m going through anymore.”

He recalls sitting with Jill in the parking lot outside of Winnipeg bookstore McNally Robinson in fall 2010, before the launch party for one of the graphic novels in his 7 Generations series. That summer, he had experienced a nervous breakdown. He writes in Black Water, “There were so many changes in such a short span of time, and my body, my mind, gave out.”

It was one of his first launches, and he couldn’t do it. “I can’t even stand up,” he told Jill. “My knees are going to give out. I’m going to die halfway through this [event].”

“If you feed this anxiety, it’s just going to get worse,” she said. “You have to do things that your anxiety is telling you that you can’t do.”

Somehow Robertson pushed through, setting a precedent that has kept him taking steps forward no matter how much his anxiety tries to yank him back. “Early in my career, people wouldn’t know how hard it was for me, how bad my mental health was,” he says. “I put on a face, and I went out and did my public speaking and I did my launches and I did my readings and I did classroom visits – oftentimes feeling that I was going to fall over during them.”

Today, Robertson is on medication but continues to experience bouts of anxiety. “Sometimes I’ll be in such a bad place that maybe I can’t [work as clearly] as I need to. But I can always edit it and fix it after,” he says. “I can honestly say that I don’t think it’s stopped me from doing anything.”


Donald Robertson and David Robertson (Courtesy of David A. Robertson)

Black Water is structured around a trip Robertson took with his father, Donald, to the eponymous northern Manitoba trapline – a tract of land used for hunting – that the latter grew up on.  In the memoir, Donald is described as having a reputation for radiating a steady peacefulness. Robertson writes that The Marrow Thieves author Cherie Dimaline wanted to sit near his dad when Robertson brought him to the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Awards, because “there was a calmness to him that she felt drawn to.” Illustrator Julie Flett also remembers sticking close to Donald that evening. “I fell in love with them,” she says of Robertson’s parents. “I missed my family and they made me feel at home. Knowing that they were there in the audience to hear our acceptance speeches, David’s dad listening for my Cree pronunciation, encouraging us, meant the world.”

When Robertson was three, his father became superintendent of the Manitoba Indian Education Board and the family moved to Winnipeg. But the demands of the job kept Donald away from home, creating a division in Robertson’s parents’ marriage that proved insurmountable. After they separated, the young Robertson was left heartbroken by his distant relationship with his father.

“He conveys so beautifully the absence of his father and then the reclaiming of that relationship,” says editor Jennifer Lambert. “That tenderness with which David writes about himself as a child, and that understanding he brings to that child, I found remarkable.”

This estrangement was complicated by his parents’ decision not to raise David and his older brothers, Cam and Mike, as Cree. (Their mother Bev is English, Irish, and Scottish.) As Robertson writes in Black Water, his parents hoped “to keep us from the difficulties they thought we might face growing up in Winnipeg as First Nations kids.”

The book is the sum of a conscious effort to repair those severed cultural ties. Robertson also rebuilt the relationship with his father to the point where, in Black Water, he calls him his best friend. “The work that we did over the last 30 years brought us to the point where we felt we were ready to go to Black Water,” Robertson says.

On Dec. 27, as Robertson was revising the memoir, his father passed away at the age of 84. His death was sudden but peaceful, and it made Black Water at times painful to complete. “Nobody in my family has read it yet,” Robertson says. “I think it’s too hard for them. It’s been hard for me to read it.” He describes having to stop between chapters while recording the audiobook “to have a little breakdown.”

Robertson and Lambert considered different approaches to address the tragedy. They considered prefacing it early in the memoir, but Robertson ultimately decided to write a new epilogue to acknowledge his father’s passing.

Donald Robertson (Courtesy David A. Robertson)

“It’s not about his death, it’s about his life,” says Robertson. “It didn’t really change much in the story. But I think it changed what the story means to me. It’s a tribute now – a way to honour him. I’m sorry that he never got to read it, but I think he would have been proud of it.”

He hopes that as much as Black Water represents his own personal record of reconnecting with his Cree heritage, it can guide others as they navigate their own journeys of reconciliation. “My dad always used to say that our story isn’t a story of trauma,” says Robertson. “We have trauma in our history, in our lives, in our family. But really our story is a story of resiliency and a story of cultural reconnection and a story of love. I feel like that will help people understand what healing really means.”

Photography of David A. Robertson by KC Adams