For Cherie Dimaline, writing is about survival and resilience. Dimaline’s dystopian novel The Marrow Thieves (Dancing Cat Books) tells a dark tale of Indigenous people who are hunted for their bone marrow. The 2017 YA novel crossed over to readers of adult fiction after winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, receiving the Kirkus Prize for young readers’ literature, and becoming a Canada Reads finalist earlier this year. In May, television rights were optioned by the Vancouver-based, Indigenous-owned Thunderbird Entertainment. Also in May, Dimaline landed a four-book deal for two adult novels with Random House Canada and two YA novels with Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers.
“It’s been surreal,” she says by phone from her home in Toronto. “A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a documentary on Maya Angelou on Netflix. She said she got a call from Random House and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I got a call from Random House too!’ I started crying.”
The Marrow Thieves began as a short story after Dimaline was invited to contribute to the anthology Mitêwâcimowina: Indigenous Science Fiction and Speculative Storytelling, published by Theytus Books in 2016. At first, Dimaline was hesitant to write speculative fiction, a genre she had never attempted, but gave it a go at the urging of publisher Greg Younging.
“I love short stories, but it was the first time I’d finished a story and it wouldn’t go away,” she says. “I had to keep writing it. At that point I had no publisher, I’d never written YA, I’d never written speculative or science fiction.”
The meteoric rise of her dystopian novel, currently in its ninth printing, has kept Dimaline and her publisher on their toes. Marc Côté, publisher of Cormorant Books, where DCB is an imprint, has begun encouraging Dimaline to refuse engagements. “Cherie throws herself into everything she does,” Côté says. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time saying, ‘It’s okay to say no.’ Occasionally remembering she’s a human being and a writer.”
Côté was in the studio audience during the Canada Reads debates, but Dimaline refrained from attending. “The book sales were phenomenal and it was amazing to have platforms to talk about Indigenous stories and The Marrow Thieves, but I’m an incredibly anxious person,” she says. “During Canada Reads, I wrote till 5 a.m. so I would sleep through the morning chaos.”
Though the Canada Reads panel focused on the novel’s dark content, Dimaline offers another perspective. “The best thing was hearing from Indigenous youth and Two-Spirited people saying that it was a hopeful, empowering book,” she says. “Certainly, there are difficult parts, but this is history. All I did was move it into the future, so that people could understand we all have a part to play in making sure what happened in the past doesn’t happen again. We need books that could be problematic, because we need people to know you can’t change history or push those stories out.”
Dimaline’s forthcoming adult novel, slated for 2019, is just as foreboding. The novel is about a woman who believes her missing fiancé has returned as a reverend. He has ulterior motives and uses the word of God to justify partnering with extraction companies.
Readers of The Marrow Thieves will recognize the return of the traditional Métis story of the Rogarou creature, a large black dog who lives near the road and which people can be turned into by various means. The Rogarou first appeared in The Marrow Thieves in a story told by the elder, Minerva. “We grew up with stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and my grandmother told Rogarou stories to keep us off the road,” Dimaline says.
Dimaline feels a responsibility as a Métis “storykeeper” to address the perspectives of her community when considering the oil, gas, and mining industries. “When we are not on our land, when we are not hunting and in ceremony, when there’s a lack of traditional land use, it’s easier for resource extraction companies to get the permits they need for pipelines,” she says.
The novel is set in the Georgian Bay area of Lake Huron where Dimaline grew up. Yet from those familiar surroundings, she finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. “I always want to look at the ceremony of the everyday,” she says. “It’s about breaking open the mundane to see the shine inside of it.”