Award-winning author Joseph Boyden returned to Mount Allison on Monday for a reading of his internationally recognized novels and upcoming work, Wenjack, which will be released this October. To a fully packed Brunton auditorium, Boyden shared stories of his youth, advice for aspiring writers and some of his deepest secrets.
“My first secret to share with all of you tonight is: Every time I sit down to create a short story or an article for Maclean’s or when I especially try to create a new novel, I’m scared,” Boyden said. “Can I do this? Do I have it in me to put what’s here into someone else’s head?”
Of Anishinaabe and Celtic descent, Boyden’s emotionally evocative stories bring light to Indigenous resiliency with historically inspired characters. His upcoming novella, Wenjack, tells the true story of an Anishinaabe boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died while running away from a residential school.
“You learn about [residential schools] in the textbook. You learn that these were the institutions, this is what happened, but you don’t actually learn about the people,” said Diandre Stacey, a first-year Mohawk student. “He does bridge the gap. He puts a face to the people in the schools.”
The realistic and powerful characters in Boyden’s stories have captivated thousands of readers and Boyden himself.
“With me as a writer, I truly believe that it’s the characters who create the story…I don’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to show Canada [and] wield my hammer of righteousness,’” Boyden said.
“When I went to Belgium to go see the trenches again, to go see where Xavier and Elijah, my imagined characters, [walked], I felt like they were really walking around,” said Boyden, referring to the protagonists of Three Day Road. “I can’t shake that, and I wrote that novel a decade ago. I think [the characters’ experiences] certainly become a part of my make-up.”
As if destined to be an internationally acclaimed storyteller, Boyden received from Elder Basil Johnston the Anishinaabe name “One Who Enlightens,” which translates in English to “Shining Bridge.”
“[The name] is a gift, but gifts carry weight and a gift gives and you’re going to have to give,” Boyden said. “I am always thinking ‘How do I be a bridge? How do I be one who enlightens?’”
In the manner of his namesake, Boyden enlightened the audience with the Anishinaabe phrase for “everyone counts,” a motto succinctly capturing Mt. A’s theme for 2016, the Year of Indigenous Knowing.
As outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2015, Canada’s universities are offering increased educational programs on Indigenous affairs.
“In the spirit of reconciliation, ‘everyone counts’ is the idea that we all count,” Boyden said.
Boyden’s motto resonated with Spencer Isaac, a Canadian studies major and Mt. A Indigenous affairs intern.
“When he mentioned ‘everyone counts,’ I can only think of it as everyone should count. Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” said Isaac, a member of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation. “For me, personally, it’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and men, a statistic that’s really big…It’s a stat that isn’t being talked about either.”
Isaac’s brother, Chris Metallic, went missing in 2011 after attending a party in Sackville. “I’m still trying to keep my head up ever since my brother went missing,” Isaac said.
His mother a schoolteacher, Boyden and his ten siblings grew up learning the value and ubiquity of education. He and seven of his sisters followed in her footsteps and eventually became teachers.
“Education takes so many different forms. There’s the obvious education of sitting down and learning the specifics taught in the classroom,” Boyden said. “Education is everywhere. I always hope to be educated.”
As part of Mt. A’s Year of Indigenous Knowing, the Canadian studies program distributed 600 copies of Boyden’s bestselling first novel Three Day Road, now a popular part of several Mt. A course curricula, to the first-year class.
“I had to read it for two of my [English] classes,” said first-year Julianna Rutledge while clutching an annotated copy of Three Day Road.
Boyden hopes the distribution of his works and the works of other Indigenous authors can help push for a day of national recognition for the Indigenous lives impacted by residential schools.
“We’re going to release our projects into the world [with] the whole point being that we want not just the federal government, we want Canada to have a national day of recognition for both the survivors and those who didn’t survive residential schools,” Boyden said. “I think it’s high time, and I know that the government thinks so too, but it’s not about the government, it’s about us understanding that.”