Published by Doubleday Canada, The Inconvenient Indian was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction and won the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize. (As winner, King was asked to nominate a recipient for the Taylor Prize’s inaugural emerging writer award. He selected educator and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who describes King as “brilliant and delightful to be around, funny and down to earth.”)
King returned to The Back of the Turtle for the opportunity to write about “the kinds of communities that we create,” especially in the wake of large-scale environmental disasters. Although the book is not based on a specific event – King says much of his work “inhabits that middle ground between fiction and non-fiction” – he had no end of examples to draw on for his research.
“In the novel I have a scenario where the holding ponds at the tar sands facilities along the Athabasca River burst and wind up in the Athabasca, then end up in the Mackenzie River, and into the Arctic,” he says. “I think it’s only a matter of time [before that actually happens]. I don’t think I’m doing anything that resembles science fiction.”
The novel’s protagonist, Gabriel, is a brilliant scientist whose work is behind GreenSweep, a bacterial defoliant that causes an environmental disaster near the Smoke River reserve, where his mother grew up, and where she now lives with his sister. After witnessing first-hand the destruction his science helped cause, Gabriel returns to the West Coast to vanish, with plans to drum and sing until the sea takes him. But while waiting to die, Gabriel witnesses people drowning in the crashing surf, and intervenes to save them.
At the same time as Gabriel is grappling with his guilt, Dorian Asher, CEO of Domidion, the corporation that created GreenSweep, is in Toronto, wrestling with his own emotions. “I wanted to look at the world as a whole, and Dorian represents a particular part of that world,” King says.
“By and large, we don’t have a particularly good sense of community. We’re mobile and so a lot of us move around – and you don’t get attached to a place or neighbourhood,” says King. “That is part of Dorian’s problem – he is completely detached from that. He is a community of one. Whereas out in Samaritan Bay, it’s struggling to try and put itself back together and the question is whether a community will survive, not just a single person.”
King says he’s curious as to how readers will respond to the story, which is grounded in aboriginal myth. “My writing is no more than a blueprint for the imagination,” he says. “Once I set it loose in the world people do with it as they will. I try and give them as much latitude or as little as they want with it.”