Waubgeshig Rice: There are shreds of promise in what’s smouldering
Interview by Will Johnson // from vol. 7, issue 1
Waubgeshig Rice has been a journalist, storyteller, and broadcaster for over two decades, but it’s only since 2010 he’s turned his attention toward literary ambitions, producing a short story collection and two novels in quick succession. With characters and stories that are deeply informed by his Anishinaabe heritage, he’s quickly become one of the most recognizable faces of Indigenous literature in Canada. The Humber Literary Review’s Will Johnson chatted with Rice about how Indigenous authors approach apocalyptic narratives, the experience of conjuring First Nations communities on the page, and whether or not it’s a coincidence that his villain shares a name with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
HLR: When I was one hundred pages into your latest novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, I tweeted that “it reminds me of the last season of The Sopranos. There’s a slow, pervasive dread that makes even the most mundane moments electrified with visions of what may be coming. The apocalypse has never been so quiet.”
I think the most remarkable thing about it is your restraint. It’s apparent the narrative is going harrowing, dark places, but it never tips over into schlocky horror territory. When you first sat down to write this book, did you have an idea of where you wanted it to land on the genre spectrum? How did you want it to be the same, how did you want it to be different, from other stories that feature the end of the world?
WR: I really appreciated seeing that tweet! It was neat to read feedback from about halfway through the story, knowing what was coming next for you. The slow burn of the story was definitely deliberate. That was the pace it needed to be to tell a story like this, in such a community. I never really had a vision for where it would land on the genre spectrum. I just wanted to write an “end of the world” story from an Indigenous perspective, and because of that it had to be different from popular post-apocalyptic stories in a few ways. Most stories like this that we see in the mainstream are grim and don’t offer any sort of resolution other than celebrating survival. But I think there’s hope and promise in being able to start over after everything falls apart. Indigenous nations on this continent have already been forced to do that. I wanted to be able to explore that through an Anishinaabe lens while contextualizing colonialism as it exists in ongoing waves.
The setting was also crucial in showing post-apocalypse in a different light. The mainstream stories we’re familiar with are often set in cities where the end is quick and chaotic. But in a distant and somewhat isolated First Nation, the collapse would happen much more slowly, and I think people would generally be more apt to cope. That also provides the space to build that tension and develop the characters. From a writing perspective, it was very enjoyable and exciting to explore that. These characters mean a lot to me, and I tried my best to do them justice in this relatively short book. I wanted readers to really know their complexities and histories, which doesn’t always happen in post-apocalyptic stories.
I also wanted the book to be unapologetically Anishinaabe. It was important for me to include even the smallest doses of language and ceremony. Reflecting the unique political and social dynamics of the rez was also crucial. In a small community there can be a lot of drama, but at the core, I think a lot of people really care about each other and would work together if the shit really hit the fan. These are all characteristics of my own rez that I’m proud of, and I know a lot of other Indigenous people from First Nations feel the same way about their communities. So in a lot of other stories like this, the home community is destroyed and the people move on. But in this story, the people find refuge and answers in their homeland itself. That was a really important element for me to get across.
HLR: While you were a writer-in-residence at Open Book, you wrote that “any Indigenous literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, is post-apocalyptic.” That’s something one of your characters says outright in Snow as well, asserting that the first two apocalypses were when the Anishinaabe were forced from their historical lands and then when they were forced into residential schools.
I think this is a revolutionary, hopeful way to think and write about the apocalypse—not as one Christian-style world-ending event that’s coming for us all, but as a series of dramatic transformations that humanity will survive, learning to adapt each time. Do you think this would be a better way to contemplate some of our looming futures?
WR: Thanks a lot for noting that. That’s a pretty profound analysis that I think takes an Anishinaabe world view into account. Contemporary dramatic fiction about apocalypse with roots in Christian storytelling can be pretty simple and final. There’s a beginning, middle, and ultimate end. But understanding history from an Indigenous perspective means looking at stories as events on a timeline that carries on well beyond our lifetimes. Telling stories then can consist of taking chunks of that timeline and stringing them together or holding them up against each other. There are always lessons in those stories, and they always look both back and ahead.
So having already endured apocalypse helps bolster that perspective and awareness. Indigenous nations have seen their worlds end, and they’ve survived the dystopia that’s followed. The elder, Aileen, spells that out pretty clearly at the beginning of the second part in a visit with Evan. That’s loosely based on a conversation I had once with my own grandmother. She grew up hearing stories about how her grandparents still migrated up and down the Georgian Bay shoreline before being forced to settle on small plots of land, including an island off the mainland. Then the trees were all logged, culture became illegal, and the kids were taken away. It was their end of the world. But they survived, and I was raised with that historical awareness. And she always encouraged me to move forward in this world with awareness of the history and culture that propelled me forward. Despite those horrors endured by my ancestors, there can be hope in those sad endings. There are shreds of promise in what’s smouldering. The ends of some things can be opportunities to start over.
HLR: The most unsettling thing about how things play out in your book is how plausible you’ve made everything—really going into the nitty-gritty details of what would happen if a remote Anishinaabe community were to suddenly lose power and connection to the outside world. How does it feel to conjure up your community on the page only to force it to go through a nightmare?
WR: It was a little tough to put these characters through this ordeal because I spent so much time with them (and still do). I care about them as Anishinaabeg, and as I mentioned, their community shares traits with my own home. But because I knew how the story would end before I began writing it, and because I always wanted to maintain an underpinning of hope, I was able to write through some of the more emotionally difficult moments. This circumstance would be a nightmare for any community, and it’s challenging to put a people and a culture that I’m directly connected to through something like this. There’s one particular passage in the second half of the book where the guys are basically recapping the death toll since the blackout began. That was pretty grim, and my editor, Susan Renouf, suggested cutting that down a bit. Needless to say, I agreed! In the end though, despite all the death and despair this community experiences, they ultimately come together when they need to. And the spirit of survival is strong, thanks to everything they already endured as a result of colonialism. I believe in the resilience of Anishinaabe people and Indigenous nations as a whole.
HLR: When Moon of the Crusted Snow first came out, you referred to your main character, Evan Whitesky, as a “rez everyman.” He’s hard-working, faithful to his wife, and a selfless public servant to his community. Good moose hunter too. If there’s much grey to his character, he’s hiding it well. That being said, I got a bit of a Ned Stark vibe from him, as right from the start he seems overmatched by his circumstances and unprepared for how dark things are going to get. At times it felt like watching someone fight a waterfall. Do you have a thing for underdogs?
WR: I don’t know if I’d call it a thing for underdogs. It’s probably more of an understanding of what it’s like to be an outsider with lots stacked against you. When you’re well aware of your existence far outside the mainstream from a very early age, you understand how much harder you have to work for recognition or just to be seen as an equal in the eyes of the mainstream gatekeepers. I’ve been trying to move away from the term “marginalized” because that’s relative to the white majority experience, but when you’re looking at dominant society from the margins, you know how it feels to be an underdog. So I have always empathized with characters like that in fiction.
While Evan’s challenges keep piling on him as the blackout prolongs, I never doubted his spirit or his skills. Because I saw him as a rez everyman much like my cousins and friends back home, I always believed in him. Those are largely the unsung people in First Nations today. We hear and see a lot of sensational stories in the mainstream media about Indigenous people living in communities across the country, and we rarely get a glimpse of those everyday experiences of maintaining a healthy family and surroundings. On the spectrum of contemporary Indigenous experiences, most Canadians are only exposed to extreme opposite ends. They either see Indigenous people as victims or tragic figures, or as exceptional triumphs who’ve overcome all odds (whatever that means). We rarely see the everyday people who make communities flourish. So in a crisis like in this book, Evan (or my real life friends and family back home) would be better suited to pull everyone through.
HLR: You’ve been quoted saying this book is “an homage to the everyday people on reserves across Canada.” You grew up at Wasauksing First Nation, so have first-hand experience with the realities on the ground. Your book is one of the only Canadian novels I’ve read set on a reserve (Eden Robinson’s Trickster books are the only other ones I can think of) and I was interested in all the ways the Anishinaabe reserve defied stereotypes. You’ve touched on some of the vices in the community, but for the most part it’s a self-sufficient and vibrant place to live—until shit hits the fan, that is. What did you want to show Canadian readers about life on the rez?
WR: I wanted to remind readers that most First Nations are healthy, functioning communities, and that the problems that can plague them are a direct result of being displaced and brutalized by colonialism. My rez is my favourite place in the world. I’m proud to be from there, and I’m very appreciative that I’ve been able to create a home there for my family. A big part of moving to Sudbury from Ottawa was to be closer to Wasauksing. Now my wife, son, and I are able to visit every week, if we like. I’m very happy that I can raise my son in his traditional homelands.
There are people on reserves with hopes and dreams just like everyone else. They want to raise kids to be happy and healthy. They take pride in their communities, and would love for others to visit. But the sad truth is very few Canadians have actually been to a reserve, due to stereotypes. My community is an island paradise on Georgian Bay just a short drive from the town of Parry Sound. But there are many people from Parry Sound who’ve never even been there. It’s just another example of the common divide between many towns and reserves.
More importantly though, I wanted this book to be familiar for Indigenous readers, especially those from Anishinaabe communities. I hoped they would see their own families and friends in these characters. There are moments and features in this story that are uniquely rez, as I mentioned before. If fellow Anishinaabeg can relate to what they read in Moon of the Crusted Snow, then I’ll have succeeded with this story. That’s the feedback that means the most to me.
HLR: The crisis in your book works both on a literal level and as an allegory for the destructive legacy of colonialism. This dovetailing forces readers to consider the destructive impact of Canadian history in a visceral, immediate way. As our country continues on the Truth and Reconciliation trajectory, what do you think are the truths about our past that we refuse to see?
WR: I think the truths about this country’s history are still emerging, and until there’s a more complete picture of the impact the formation of Canada continues to have on Indigenous people, reconciliation won’t happen. I’m not even totally sure what reconciliation means in the sense of a way forward, anyway. It means different things to different people. The residential school saga only really became common knowledge within the last decade. And even now there are people who deny its violent and merciless legacy. It’s frustrating to see those ignorant ideas and perspectives come to light.
And there are many more moments in recent history that aren’t understood by everyday Canadians. The Sixties Scoop only really made mainstream news in the last five or six years or so. Non-Indigenous people aren’t aware of treaty history and how those agreements predate Canadian confederation. There’s little awareness of the diversity of the cultures and languages of Indigenous nations on this land. The list goes on. Part of the design of settler colonialism that created this country was to keep people in the dark about all of these things.
A work of fiction can’t teach a reader about all of this history. But it can at least provide a glimpse of that crucial context that everyone needs to know. And I did my best to include some of those lessons throughout Moon of the Crusted Snow. It’s a challenge to walk that line in a work of fiction, because you run the risk of slowing down the pace even more, or perhaps boring a reader with history lessons, but it’s my job to try to provide educational moments where I can.
HLR: If you were to transform Snow into any other medium—graphic novel, stage play, short film, whatever—what would you choose? And if you had an unlimited budget and your dream collaborators, what would it look like?
WR: Before adapting it into any other medium, my dream would be to have Moon of the Crusted Snow translated into Anishinaabemowin. I know fluent speakers, and I think there would be some publishing interest, so it’s entirely within the realm of possibility! And to be honest, I didn’t have any ideal transformation in mind while writing it. It was a story that I wanted to exist in a literary way that could also be shared orally. That’s why the prose is somewhat conversational and concise. Of course, I intensely visualized everything as I wrote it, so if I was to say I never imagined a screen treatment, I’d be lying. I haven’t put too much thought into how that’d happen though. I’d just want to ensure that the director and much of the team behind a film adaptation were Indigenous.
HLR: I have to ask: your villain’s name is Justin, just like our prime minister. Is this a coincidence?
WR: Purely a coincidence. I hadn’t even considered that until I got an email recently from Warren Cariou in the English department at the University of Manitoba. He’s been a huge supporter of this story from the beginning, and taught it in one of his courses this semester. In his email he said his students were discussing it in class, and they wondered if Justin Scott’s name was a combination of Justin Trudeau and Duncan Campbell Scott, the notorious Indian Affairs minister. I thought that was pretty clever! I had to break it to him that, while that’s an amusing and smart theory, the name Justin Scott is totally random. I guess I wanted to make as Canadian-sounding a name as possible. Turns out people really loathe that character!
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and a journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published by ECW Press in late 2018. He’s also the author of the novel Legacy and the short story collection Midnight Sweatlodge. He currently works as the host of Up North, CBC Radio One’s afternoon show for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury with his wife and son.