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Angie Abdou on seeking permission to use First Nations stories

by

Angie Abdou

When I embarked on writing what would become my latest novel, I did not set out to write about Indigenous characters. I began composing a work of straight-up horror, hoping to be the next Stephen King. But that’s not how In Case I Go turned out. The connection between where I started and where I ended seems obvious now. After all, Canada’s treatment of* Indigenous peoples is horrific.

But my own line was not so straight. I floundered. The supposed horror novel morphed into a story about the ways we’re haunted – by addictions, by genetics, by our ancestors’ mistakes. My narrator buckled under the weight of his great-great-grandfather’s misdeeds, particularly the exploitation of the environment and betrayal of a young Ktunaxa woman. I wrote, as I often do, without knowing exactly what I was writing.

My vision cleared at the 2014 Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival. Speaking to a guilty-looking white audience, the late author Richard Wagamese said: “I make you feel bad. You don’t know how to right the wrongs of the past. Don’t worry. You can’t change the past. You don’t even have to say sorry for the past. All you have to do is say, ‘Yes. Yes, this happened.’ We start with that yes.”

In Case I Go is my yes.

I do not tell the Ktunaxa story. In Case I Go is the story of Eli, a white boy trying to figure out how to make amends for the past and move forward. Since the Ktunaxa are a part of the story, however, the novel has Ktunaxa characters.

We are, understandably, not at a point in history where white people are invited to write about Indigenous peoples. Still, I had invested considerable time and energy in a novel I believed in. I had to figure out what to do with it. I knew I needed to consult with Indigenous people, with Ktunaxa people. But how? I had no set of rules, and I found the prospect terrifying. What if I approached the Ktunaxa and they were angry or hostile? What if they didn’t like me? What if they said no?

Not knowing where else to turn, I started with family. I hoped my extended family would understand my good intentions and gently guide me away from any disastrous missteps. I contacted Cree writer Frank Busch, author of the novel Grey Eyes. My Syrian grandfather is Frank’s great-grandfather.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Do I offer you money? Does it feel weird talking about money?”

“I’m an accountant,” Frank said. “I never feel weird talking about money.”

He sent me an invoice labelled “Cultural Consultation,” and I learned my first lesson: always compensate readers financially for their time, knowledge, and energy.

Frank told me of the racism he experiences regularly. I wrote it in. He told me the novel’s Ktunaxa girl couldn’t be a ghost. She had to be real and solid and of this contemporary world, like Eli. I changed it. These were big edits. I now had a ghost story without a ghost. That’s another lesson: writers who ask for input have to be willing to make changes.

I incorporated Frank’s suggestions and felt a tad self-congratulatory. I was doing okay at this cultural consultation thing after all.

Then Frank said, “Now you need to consult with the Ktunaxa.”

“I do?”

“You can’t use their name or language without permission.”

So I cold-called Natasha Burgoyne, the Ktunaxa Nation Council’s cultural liaison. When I talk about learning how to write a novel in 2017, Natasha features large. My reverent tone conjures the stereotypical “wise old Indian woman.” Let me dispel that notion. Natasha is much younger than me, maybe in her 20s. She is urban. Before she held the position as cultural liaison, she worked as a Vancouver hairstylist. Natasha is not old. But she is wise.

When she got in touch after reading the novel, she began with enthusiastic praise. Once I relaxed, she started listing her suggestions for changes. She had several. I reacted poorly. People do not write novels because they enjoy group work. I hate group work. Who does she think she is? She’s never written a novel. What does she know? See how easy that is? To dismiss? To resist input? After we hung up, I went for a contemplative walk in the woods and then emailed Natasha and promised to respond to all her suggestions.

The next time Natasha and I connected, she told me, “You need to ground this story in the country’s history. The residential schools, the Indian agents, the reserves. If you don’t, what’s Eli apologizing for? Without the facts, the apology means nothing.”

Again, I resisted. “I don’t want to write a novel about residential schools. We all know what happened. Do I have to say it?”

She looked at me.

“Okay. I know. I have to say it.”

“Yes,” she said. “You do.”

So I grounded the story in our awful, shameful history, and I grew to trust Natasha’s reactions. If a scene discomfited her, I revised until she approved. Group work is not so bad, I congratulated myself.

And then I thought we were done.

“Now,” said Natasha, “you present to the elders.”

“I do?”

“Yes. To get their permission.”

This was the most terrifying moment yet. What does an elder council meeting look like? I couldn’t picture it and, therefore, couldn’t reassure myself by imagining it going well.

The elders met in a typical board room, about 15 people sitting around a U-shaped conference table. I squished into a seat between Natasha and a 60-something Ktunaxa man. “You can call me Fudge,” he said. “If you want. Everyone else does.”

“Fudge,” I said, “I’m so very nervous.”

“Well,” Fudge said, “you’ll either get over it or you’ll get used to it.”

I stood in the centre of the U and told them about my novel. I said if they didn’t like my representation of the Ktunaxa, I could create a fictional Indigenous name, just as I used the fictional town of Coalton as an approximation of Fernie. “But if I use a fictional people, I lose meaning. Once the Indigenous group is fictional, who is the book apologizing to and what are we moving forward from?”

The elders did not, of course, speak with a single, unified voice. Some nodded, others seemed skeptical. A few had questions. They talked in front of me, among themselves. They talked more after I left. A week after we met, three of them asked to see the manuscript, which I sent without hesitation. I would not have done that the year before.

In the end, I release this novel with Ktunaxa Nation Council’s enthusiastic support** and with Ktunaxa elders’ approval. That means everything.

My final talk with Natasha came the day Richard Wagamese died. We were both sad. I grumbled I had no idea why I wrote this stupid novel in the first place.

“Really?” said Natasha, sounding genuinely surprised. “You don’t know?”

“No. I don’t write historical novels. Nor Indigenous characters. There are so many ways to go wrong. I don’t know why I wrote it.”

“You will,” she promised me. “When it’s out, you’ll know.”

With Natasha’s words, I felt an uprising of hope. I want her to be right. As I write this, my novel is not yet out in the world, and I don’t have a clear answer to my question, but I suspect it will have to do with the closeness I felt to Natasha in that moment. The answer will be connected to my unexpected surge of optimism at Natasha’s promise and to the sense that she and I are on the same side, working toward a shared goal. The goal of a better world.


**Author’s note, Sept. 27, 2017: I apologize for my incorrect wording in this essay. It is inaccurate to say the Ktunaxa Nation Council endorses or “enthusiastically supports” my novel. A Nation Government does not endorse a work of art. I should have said that “I felt enthusiastically supported by the individual Ktunaxa people with whom I consulted.” The Ktunaxa Nation Council welcomed my approach and entertained my visit with the Advisory Committee. I worked closely and extensively with the Ktunaxa Nation Council’s Cultural Liaison to ensure that my representation of Ktunaxa people was not exploitative or offensive. The Ktunaxa Nation Council itself does not enthusiastically support, or even endorse, my novel.

I also should not have written “Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples is horrific.” I see now that the possessive pronoun is offensive. In the pronoun, I was thinking of Canada as the land not Canada the government – the people of this land. I see my error and confusion.

Editor’s note, Sept. 28, 2017: In the print edition of this personal essay, there is wording in a dek that suggests Angie Abdou was seeking permission to use Ktunaxa stories, which was not the case. Q&Q apologizes for the misleading language, and any confusion it may have caused.