Monday, 30 January 2012

TO ~ First Nations House Writers Gathering

Details at
Many famous and fabulous authors will gather in Toronto next week, the majestic Lee Maracle, journalist and hiphop artist Wab Kinew (familiar to the CBC crowd for hosting 8th Fire, among other duties) and many more: for a full menu visit FNH blog.

Two authors who grew from the same northern branch, the Kolsons of Yellowknife, will be among the guest artists. Both of these writers have published a first book in recent years, Bren Kolson with a strong nonfiction title drawn down from some 900 pages of her original diary manuscript, and Amber Lee Kolson transforming life experience through the magics of fiction. (As I have read only one of these books, what follows is a review of one and but a glimpse of the other.)

Eschia Books
Bren Kolson's book Myth of the Barrens won the inaugural NorthWords Prize (2010). This is one of the most involving books I've read in recent years, a story full of interest, from the poetic "Preview from a Carriole" through the days and nights of two "back to the land" sessions of several seasons with trappers Louison Drybones and Richard Black, unfolding in real time (as one reviewer put it).

Bren shares the observations, discoveries and reflections of a young woman experiencing life on the barrens in the early and mid 1970s. This is a breakthrough book from that perspective: born in the north and living there now, Bren's introduction to the people, places and ways of the north are not a southerner's suppositions, but a northerner's perspective. Her movement from Yellowknife to the Barrens and back, and through the experiences of seasons of love, is shared with a sensuous specificity that allows the reader to engage in a deeper than ordinary way.  Immediately after my immersion with "Myth of the Barrens," I got thinking about my own transitional years from girlhood to womanhood, my own travels and experiences-- that is when i got interested in my own past enough to take the time to re-create the maps shared on an earlier post. Another reviewer's comments underline that this encouragement to reflect and respond may well be inbuilt, a result of this author's approach.

The book has an old style feel to it, whether that be the conversational or storytelling flavour of the language of telling, or the old style novel approaches-- including letters from characters we don't otherwise hear from directly, to balance the narrative voice.  The only fiction though is the cover art, and I am looking forward to a new edition that dignifies the text with something that affirms the content, rather than confuses and misleads. My impression is that the publisher was advised that an inuksuk would help sell the book: given that the story is centered on a Metis woman's experience with a Dene trapper and a non-ndn trapper from the US, and the geography of the story is western Arctic not eastern Arctic, I suggest that any of the photos or drawings included in the book might serve as a better cover image to sell the book, than the current lovely but irrelevant image. It is a myth that inuksuit are the only interesting and original thing that the North has to offer, and this book is a good long step toward a more realistic take on "what is."

I am looking forward to many more books by this author.

Theytus Books
Amber Lee Kolson is slated to share comedy at the festival. Her book Wings of Glass is a fictional take on a very different Metis lifestyle, the suburban mom haunted by the past. Born in Yellowknife but long at home in Edmonton, Amber Lee was one of the many authors that I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing at North Words Festival last June. Her high tension, deeply serious book, and her playful and popular stand-up comedy, make her a study of contrasts in performance, and another author to watch.

Each year, First Nations House at the University of Toronto hosts a feast of literary teaching and festivities, open to the public, and one of the best places to meet and greet Canada's indigenous literati. Check out what the organizers have planned for you on February 9 & 10, 2012: event details and locations  here.