It was a subdued Joseph Boyden who answered the telephone in his New Orleans home this week just after learning that his new novel The Orenda had surprisingly not made the short list for the prestigious $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The 46-year-old Ontario-born writer was philosophical that given his last book Through Black Spruce had won the 2008 Giller he couldn't win them all. And of course The Orenda is already on the short list for the 2013 Governor General's Literary Award for English language fiction to be handed out Nov. 18.
The Orenda, which refers to the native life force or soul, details the often brutal first contact in the mid-1600s between Europeans and First Nations people in Canada and the United States. His mixed-blood ancestry, which includes Ojibwa roots, informs his vision of the world and fostered his enduring interest in Canadian history.
Ahead of his Oct. 18 reading at the Centre culturel franco-manitobain with local Métis poet Katherena Vermette, Boyden spoke with Free Press art writer Kevin Prokosh.
FP: What drove you to take on the this huge story about the conflict between the Jesuits, Hurons and Iroquois?
BOYDEN: I don't set out to say anything but tell a good story. I wanted to show the incredible complexity of the society that was already here before the arrival of the Europeans. This was not the land of some Neanderthals running around in loincloths. These were complex cultures, socially, religiously and politically. They were all in fine balance until the Europeans injected themselves and their rifles into it. That was the first arms race in many ways.
FP: Is The Orenda a cautionary tale for Canadians?
BOYDEN: We are in a big transitional place in our history. First Nations youth is the fastest-growing population in our country. If Canadians don't recognize or realize that they are not going anywhere and are becoming more educated, more political, more savvy, we could go down a very different road if we are not careful. I didn't set out to write a cautionary tale but it also talks about how the environment and economics are intimately related, and how immigration and who you let into your community and who you don't is fascinating. It deals with a lot of contemporary issues and themes that certainly can be weighed and measured in real ways today.
FP: What is it about Canadian history that you find so compelling to write about?
BOYDEN: All my life I've heard that it's boring and I've never understood why people say that. It's incredibly rich and complex and fascinating as any other history. I think people would say that because we have to compare ourselves all the time to Americans who love the idea of aggrandizing and self-mythologizing while Canadian don't do that much. You have to know your history or you are doomed to repeat it. I think something like Idle No More doesn't come out of nowhere. It comes out of long-held grievances that go back to first contact.
FP: How do you view the Idle No More movement?
BOYDEN: Idle No More is something Canadians shouldn't be afraid of. It's about standing up for individual rights against big corporations. A lot of people see the tarsands as insanity but it is sold to us as our economic future, which is madness in my eyes. I think Stephen Harper is confused and doesn't know what it is. I'd love to be involved and will be.
FP: You wrote about Louis Riel in the Extraordinary Canadians series, was he saint or madman?
BOYDEN: Neither. I think he is impossible to pigeonhole, that's what I learned about him. He was brilliant in many ways and was deeply troubled in others. He believed what he was doing was the right thing. He really wanted to help people and not just the Métis. He should have let Gabriel Dumont militarily do what he wanted to do. It would have been a much different outcome.
FP: Are there other historical figures worthy of a book?
BOYDEN: There's lots more to write about. Look at Tecumseh, an incredible warrior and man. He should be considered one of the fathers of Canada. Without him we could have very well lost Canada to the U.S., or at least great swaths of it. There are so many historical episodes in our history that are fun and fodder for history.