Quill and Quire

Tomson Highway

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The universe of Tomson Highway

In Cree cosmology, everything's in balance, everything's connected and nothing's without value

Tomson Highway

(photo: Susan King)


Tomson Highway loves the company of women. At the moment, he’s sweet-talking Maggie the waitress, and Maggie is having none of it.

“You want a receipt,” she repeats, looking at Highway and his guest, eyeing the tape recorder. “Well, we don’t have receipts here. All I can get ya is a piece of paper, and I’ll have to write it down.” It’s not an explanation, definitely not an apology, and her demeanor suggests that this had better be okay.

“Maggie is the queen of the Winchester,” Highway yells over the din of two pool tables and a big-screen TV. Then the band in the (empty) back room strikes up a country song about a hard-drivin’ woman, and the whole setup begins to resemble a scene from one of his plays. Highway lights up the first of many cigarettes. “At least there are no chairs flying!” This is Monday. The chairs fly on Saturdays.

The Winchester Hotel bar is on Parliament Street in Toronto’s Old Cabbagetown neighbourhood. “This was my brother Rene’s favourite neighbourhood. The first place I ever lived in Toronto, 20 years ago, was just around the corner. I moved in with him. That’s probably why I stay here,” Highway says.

Highway’s debut novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen – released in September by Doubleday Canada in a swell of industry buzz – is the semi-autobiographical tale of the relationship between the brothers Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, the abuse they suffer at residential school, and how that pain affects their adult lives. Aboriginal people believe that unacknowledged pain leads to an imbalance among mind, body, and spirit that is manifested in sickness. In Highway’s case, the pain was insistent and the sickness serious.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Highway says. “I had to write this book. It came screaming out because this story needed desperately to be told. Writing it hit me hard in terms of my health. So I went to a medicine man, who helped me defeat the monster. We lanced the boil and cured the illness,” he says.

Tomson and his brother Rene were removed from their family and sent to a church-run residential school in the 1950s. Tomson eventually went on to university in London, Ontario, where he studied classical piano and English literature and embarked on a promising career as a concert pianist. By the 1980s, though, he had abandoned the concert hall to write plays, and became a household name during his six-year tenure at Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts. Rene, meanwhile, survived residential school to become a gifted dancer before dying of AIDS in 1990. Aboriginal people don’t think of death as an end, just a different way of being. They are surrounded by the dead. The dead help them to live.

“My brother has always taken incredible care of me,” Highway says. It was his brother who led him to his house, he says, a “safe and lovely place” he’s shared for years with his longtime male partner. “Cabbagetown was the last place I was thinking of buying a house. I looked at 36 houses and didn’t like anything. Then I met up with an ex-dancer who had known Rene, and he told me about my house the same day the sign went up. I looked at it and bought it on the spot. [It] is literally 90 steps away from the first house Rene and I lived in all those years ago. I moved in with him in October 1978. He died on October 19,1990. And I bought my house on October 19, 1991.” There is no word for “coincidence” in the Cree language. Everything happens for a reason.

Highway may owe his “exquisite little house” to his brother’s spirit world real-estate connections, and his regained health to the work he did with the medicine man, but he owes his spiritual, emotional, and psychological strength – which enabled him to survive the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of residential school – to a solid upbringing in the Cree tradition. Born in a tent on his father’s trapline, Highway spent the early years of his life in the bush before his family was forced to settle at Brochet, a Cree community in northwestern Manitoba. “We had fish camps way up north on Rainy Lake. My father had five camps, and he rotated his fishing and trapping schedules over five years so the lakes and land could replenish. At every lake we had a cabin, an ice-house, and a fish house he built with his own two hands. We had two canoes at every camp, a set of traps, and nets for an entire summer of fishing.

“The first six years of my life were magic. I had the trapline, the dog sleds, the caribou. My first diaper was rabbit skin. I had my parents. My parents were married for 60 years. Their love, dignity, and respect built me a house on solid rock. After that, anything could happen, but nothing could tear that house down,” he says. Instead of being bitter, Highway says he has emerged from his residential school experience learned and at peace.

“I’m very lucky,” he admits. “I have a wonderful life. Despite the physical manifestations, writing the book was incredibly therapeutic – for me and, as it turns out, for all the people who went through residential school, who had the same experience, and whose lives were almost destroyed.”

The writing process was rendered difficult not only by physical symptoms but also by Highway’s uneasy relationship with the English language, which was forced upon him at residential school. “For long periods, I couldn’t even look at [the manuscript]. I’m very angry at the English language. I wrote the book in Cree, really, and translated it as I went along. A character would speak to me in Cree, and I would translate it into English to put it on the page. And I would talk with my mother in Cree, but would write down the ideas in English. The humour, the workings of the spirit world, the fact that Cree has no gender, the concept of god as two-spirited [both male and female] – everything is so difficult to explain in English. And the business of [circular] time doesn’t translate. It was such a struggle, every step of the way.

“English is so hierarchical. In Cree, we don’t have animate-inanimate comparisons between things. Animals have souls that are equal to ours. Rocks have souls, trees have souls. Trees are ‘who,’ not ‘what,'” he says with a note of exasperation.

Cree cosmology is at once complicated yet very simple. Everything is in balance, everything connects to something else, and nothing is without value. Highway knows that some connections have been devalued in the linear colonial world – such as the sacred and essential connection between women (as life bringers) and the Earth (as life sustainer).

“Women have more [innate] power than men,” Highway explains, “so men try to pound it out of them. Some of my own sisters are battered. I see it so much, and it s just accepted as the way things are. It drives me crazy.” So he vents his frustration by writing about it. Kiss of the Fur Queen makes pointed reference to the violence many women endure. And Highway’s plays-especially The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing – cover the same territory.

“I feel like a one-note wonder sometimes, because I keep writing the same stuff over and over,” Highway admits. “But men are just so dysfunctional. They’re hiding; they’re denying. Men are completely freaked out by the power women have, and that terror breeds violence. It is just so poisonous.

“There’s a major fault in Western society,” he continues. “It makes room for only one god, and in only one gender. There’s no balance, no co-existence, no partnership. We must restore the idea of Earth as mother. My brother’s death – all these diseases like AIDS – are just a reflection of what we’re doing to the Earth, of what we’re doing to women. We must restore the balance or reap the consequences. In Kiss of the Fur Queen, I try to restore the goddess to her rightful place. It’s the only way I can make a contribution to change.”

Maggie the waitress is back, with a little square of paper on which she has written the total charge for the night’s libations. She’s left a little space at the bottom, and Highway seizes an opportunity. “Hey! We can write in some more charges! Thanks, Maggie. Isn’t she great?” he asks. “I love women. I have to be surrounded by them.”

Kiss of the Fur Queen is a requiem – for childhood stolen, for a life lived, for a world out of balance. But it is also a celebration of survival. “Death is the most miraculous passage,” Highway reflects. “It is a huge gift. I’m living for two people now, and my life has become richer for it. When Rene was in the hospital, when he realized he was going to die, he took my hand and he told me, ‘Don’t mourn me. Be joyful.’ So I’ve been joyful ever since. He wanted me to have that. I used to write music for him to dance to, and now I’ve written this. It’s my way of saying thank you.”