[Editor’s note: ‘Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing’ is a 2022 essay collection edited by Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina, published by Anvil Press Publishers in Vancouver. The volume features the work of local writers reflecting on their craft. The collection is a big-hearted reflection on wading through the muck of life itself. The volume features an essay by Joseph Kakwinokanasum, featured here. In it, he reflects on how his experiences as an Indigenous man have shaped his life and work. Content note: this story contains information related to the residential school system and intergenerational trauma. It may be triggering to some readers.]
It was the summer of 1978 when I knew that one day I would be a writer. I was nine years old and my sister gave me a news paperback titled night patrol by Stephen King. I was inspired, and when I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she said, “Nothing like an Indian writer.
I look whiter than native, but I’m a James Smith Cree Nation cardholder; I always identified with myself, but that rarely helped me in the small northern village where I grew up. Moreover, having six siblings, five of whom preceded me in school, made it impossible to “pass” as white. On the first day of class, a teacher always asked, “How many more are there in your family?” After the class had stopped laughing, I would respond, “Just one more.” In elementary school, I transferred—along with the rest of the native kids—to the special needs group. I think it was the general assumption that the Indians couldn’t read, write, or count.
The establishment wasn’t the only obstacle I faced as an Indigenous writer. If you had a childhood like mine, I’m so sorry. If you are being abused, get out of the scene. Go out. What writing taught me is that there are stories worth shutting down; Of course, I wouldn’t change anything about what I experienced, but do I want to relive it? No. I ended up having a nervous breakdown and ended up in St. Paul’s Hospital in the psychiatric ward. That’s how I met my therapist.
The therapy helped me overcome my anxiety, fears and traumas and set me on a more self-aware path. It was my therapist who suggested journaling as a catharsis, and 20 years of that has led me to come to terms with my past and prepare for the future. I still have bad days, but I have a protocol for such events that makes it easier to manage my depression, chronic pain, and concussion syndrome.
I continue to work with my therapists. That’s right, therapists, plural. I have a backup just in case. I even have an amazing family doctor who is aboriginal, and all of my doctors know my story. At first, therapy was difficult because I struggled with my past, but now I have healthier habits than when I was an addict. It’s true! Not ashamed. I’m lucky to have had the experience. Through therapy, I understood my relationship with addiction, developed a personal relationship with my triggers, and learned how to deal with them safely.
There is much to be said about lived experience, and Aboriginal people are acutely aware of social barriers such as poverty, drug addiction, and a society that has only just learned about institutionalized racism and its own privileges. Of all the challenges I faced as an Indigenous person, the hardest was reprogramming the hardwired lessons that hit me as a kid. “You stupid Indian” was the most repeated message I remember growing up. I spent years looking back, wondering why, questioning myself, always doubting myself. I had no self-confidence.
A rough childhood and poor childhood might seem like a bad start to a writing career, but it can also be dangerous, especially if you’re Indigenous. and if I wanted to be a writer, I needed help.
Therapy and journaling were my first steps towards healing, even though I didn’t know it at the time. I constantly stumbled on a path to inner peace, where I finally found validation to unpack my ambitions to be a writer. During my therapy, I took writing classes; I read Natalie Goldberg Writing the Bones: Unleashing the Inner Writer and Stephen King On Writing: A Memoir of Craftsmanship. I wrote every day, built a box for my writing tools, spent all my spare money on postage, stationery, etc.
As bad as the writing was, I submitted it anyway. Then, one summer day in 2014, I received an email that reminded me of a long drawn out application I had submitted with the help of a good friend. I read the message: “Congratulations Joseph!” I had won the Canada Council for the Arts Creative Grant for Aboriginal Writers and Storytellers.
In 2015, I read the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and understood why growing up in my family was so difficult. The TRC has challenged Indigenous stories. It’s no secret to us Natives that the unpleasant experience of childhood is mostly reciprocal and eerily similar.
There were times when I was so wrapped up in the CVR that I got seriously depressed. To this day, a critic sits on my shoulder, gorging on my self-esteem, washing it away with my mind. As an Indigenous writer, I learned to work away from that voice until I couldn’t hear it anymore.
I’ve put a lot of time and effort into creating a safe space and support system to be a writer, and knowing when to step away from writing is as important a tool as knowing when to get back to it. It’s hard to sum it up in a few words, especially when you’re abuzz and neck-deep in your manuscript, so it’s important to write from a safe place and rest from the hard work of memory. writing.
When I write memoirs, I know there are risks inherent in the practice. I know I have to take it slow. I write for 10 or 15 minutes, I stop, then I get up from my desk and I go for a walk, or I do household chores, or I play with my cats. It’s more of a grounding exercise than anything; I have to physically remind myself to stay grounded and in the present moment or else I risk being pulled down by the severity of my trauma.
That said, I’ve learned that bad days are part of my creative process, and if I find myself slipping into darkness, I call my therapist, talk to my closest friends, and meditate. If I’m still having trouble, I’m going to bed. Seriously, I’m sleeping. If it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama, it’s good enough for me. Rest is best, and it’s important to remember that life is a practice, not a perfect one.
Writing is hard work, so I encourage all new writers to get involved with a writers group and even start your own group of readers who are willing to review your writing. I attended the Writer’s Studio offered by Simon Fraser University, where I made good writer friends who continue to inspire and support me on a daily basis.
A good friend of the program once said to me, “Joseph, you are not your writing.” And he was right. This statement is a reminder of where I started and that my past has less impact on my process. That’s why I don’t throw away my journals, because if I want to, I can take any and see how I’ve evolved as a writer and as a human being.
The writing experience allowed me to refine and sharpen my writing tools. Over the years, I’ve collected a shed full of tools that I use to tend to the huge manure pile that was my childhood. I dug this ground with blood, sweat and tears, turned it into a rich garden until my hands bled. I take care of my garden almost daily, and sometimes I have to fix it.
From this garden I have learned, through trial and error, what is good for me and what makes me sick with anxiety, fear and bitter sadness; and although my mother’s voice continues to ring out, she does not say, “Nothing like an Indian writer.”
Excerpted from “Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing”, edited by Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina. Copyright © 2022 the authors. Published by Anvil Press Publishers Inc. Reproduced with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.