For this bonus episode of the KWL Podcast, we are honoured to share a conversation between Kobo’s Diversity and Inclusion committee, led by Alyssa Andino, and Kobo Emerging Writer Prize winner Michelle Good. During this conversation, Michelle speaks to us about the writing and research process behind her award winning novel Five Little Indians, a story about five survivors of residential schools in Canada, and the long lasting impact the residential school system has had on the Indigenous community. Michelle also speaks to us about finding joy and healing within her community and she shares resources for those who want to learn more and become a better ally to the Indigenous community. She also tells us what changes she has already seen that give her hope for the future.
Five Little Indians by Michelle Good
“‘Play Indians’ inflict real harm on Indigenous people” by Michelle Good
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
The Strangers by Katherena Vermette
Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America by Michael John Witgen
Michelle Good is of Cree ancestry, a descendent of the Battle River Cree and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation. She has worked with indigenous organizations since she was a teenager and at forty decided to approach that work in a different way obtaining her law degree from UBC at 43. She has practiced law in the public and private sector since then, primarily advocating for Residential School Survivors.
She graduated from UBC with a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing MFA in 2014 where her novel Five Little Indians first started taking shape. Her poetry, and short stories have appeared in a number of publications. Her first novel, Five Little Indians won the HarperCollins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize and her poetry has been included in Best Canadian Poetry in Canada 2016 and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry in Canada 2017. Michelle is currently working on her second novel.
Joni: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your host, I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life. Today is a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, which honors the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities. To acknowledge this, we wanted to share a conversation with Kobo’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee featuring Kobo Emerging Writer Prize winner, Michelle Good. Michelle spoke to us about her writing and about her book, “Five Little Indians,” which tackles the experience of survivors from residential schools.
Joni: This was a really wonderful conversation and Michelle was an extremely insightful guest. We hope that you listen and enjoy and learn a lot as we definitely did. We did also want to just give you a heads up as you’re listening, that she is discussing residential schools, so she does talk about the topics of racism and child abuse. So we just wanted to give you a little warning. We hope you enjoy the interview.
Alyssa: All right, welcome everyone. And, obviously, welcome, Michelle as well. Just to begin, though we’re meeting virtually, we would like to acknowledge that Kobo headquarters are on the treaty lands and territory of the Mississauga of the Credit and the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabe. We are grateful to work on this land. My name is Alyssa Andino. I am the manager of campaign production here at Kobo, and I’m very excited to introduce Michelle Good as well. Michelle is of Cree ancestry, a descendant of the Battle River Cree, and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation. She has worked with indigenous organizations since she was a teenager and at 40 decided to approach that work in a very different way, obtaining her law degree from UBC at 43, she has practiced law in the public and private sector since then, primarily advocating for residential school survivors.
She graduated from UBC with a master of fine arts degree in creative writing MFA in 2014 where her novel Five Little Indians first started taking shape. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in a number of publications. Her first novel, Five Little Indians, which we’ll speak primarily about today, won the HarperCollins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize and our very own Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for literary fiction. And her poetry has been included in Best Canadian Poetry in Canada, 2016, and Best of Best Canadian Poetry in Canada, 2017. Michelle’s currently working on her second novel. So welcome Michelle. We’re so grateful to have you here with us. There’s a ton I’m excited to talk to you about with this book. Just to let you know, we’ll also leave some time at the end for some questions from the group as well. So anyone from Kobo that has any questions, please feel free to post either directly in the Zoom’s Chat or to Slack Renee directly as well, either way will work. But again, thank you again, Michelle, for joining us, and welcome.
Michelle: Thank you so much. I’m very pleased to be here. I was really happy to get the invitation not just because this is, you know, my life’s work to talk about the subject of this book, but also to have an opportunity to express my thanks for the Kobo Emerging Award, which I mean for me is a wonderful thing. But to have the award itself to acknowledge emerging writers is so important because it’s such a struggle. It is such a struggle to get that first book out. And when you do to have some acknowledgment for you, it elevates not only the book but you as a writer. And I just was very pleased and humbled and thankful for that. So, thank you.
Alyssa: Of course, honestly, very, very well deserved, of course, and leads very well into my first question, which is that reading this book, it’s such a beautiful expression of trauma, resilience, love, and healing. Has tons of accolades already, including from us, and it deserves every award it’s received. Even Howie notes kind of the healing power of telling your story. Can you tell us more about the journey that went into writing the novel and anything you learned during that process?
Michelle: What a long journey it was, that book developed over a nine-year period from writing the first paragraph in the fall of 2011 to, you know, it’s released in the spring of 2020. It was a long and arduous journey and actually started before then in the sense that I’d been threatening to write this book for decades, right. You know, whenever somebody would confront me with profound ignorance, right. I would just like, Oh my God, I have to write a book. I just have to write a book.” And it was the same thing. You know, I was 40 when I went to law school and, you know, it was the same kind of moment of reflection, “If I don’t do this now, I likely won’t.” And so I was still practicing law when I went into the MFA program and I was running my own little firm.
I went to the MFA program specifically to write this book because I knew with my other obligations without a very specific structure that obligated me to other student colleagues that I likely wouldn’t give it the time that it needed. Primarily, you know, the real drive to write this book came from the response that I would hear individually, but also what I would observe in media, whether it’s online media, newspapers, interviews, comments, whatever, you know, from sort of just average Canadians asking quite legitimately and often without venom, you know, “Why can’t they just get over it?” And it was so infuriating and just so confounding that people just didn’t understand what they were saying when they uttered that question, “Why can’t they just get over it?” Get over it. You know, so I’ve been starting to try and really condense my responses to those kinds of questions so that they’re more easily or that they more effectively trigger an understanding.
But I have started to respond to that with a question, “What exactly is it that you think we should get over? What exactly is it that you think we should forget?” 130 years of coming to our doorsteps and saying, “We’re here for your children.” 130 years of children not coming home with no explanation, sometimes parents never knew. There are 197 first nations in British Columbia, imagine 197 communities with no school-aged children. And when we speak of intergenerational trauma, we often think of the children of residential school survivors, but it goes in the other direction as well because the parents are traumatized by the kidnapping of their children, the use of law and policy to do that. The grandparents, generations of our ancestors who were prevented from communicating traditions, language, culture, protocols, and so on. And then, of course, the children. So that’s what we’re being asked to forget. That’s what we’re being asked to get over. And, you know, nobody would say, “Let’s forget the Jewish Holocaust.” Right?
Alyssa: Thank you for sharing that because that’s such an important message, especially as you mentioned, like, even with politicians and media constantly referring to these tragedies as such a dark part of Canada’s history, but it’s not the history, it’s a current and persisting issue and you’re absolutely right. This book does such a good job at answering that question of, “How can you say this is history when this is really what it looks like?” Speaking of, I know that… Well, I read that the book is largely based on the experiences of your family. Can you talk a little bit about that as well?
Michelle: I wouldn’t say that it’s largely based on experiences of my family, but there are allusions to experiences that my mother and my grandmother had at residential schools. When I first started working, you mentioned at the beginning that I began working with indigenous organizations when I was 18, I had just aged out of foster care at that point, and I was living in Vancouver. I was living in the setting at the time that the book opens up, that the book starts. And everybody that I worked with, all of the indigenous people that I worked with in these organizations were survivors. They were people that within, you know, the last 10 years from that time had come out of residential school. So my entire world was observing and being in relationship with people who had immediately experienced this. So it really became, you know, a significant part of the fabric of my life and seeing people trying to cope, people that are trying to do something, you know, politically important at the same time, coping with, you know, deep trauma, it isn’t really something I had to learn because it was something I lived in just my day-to-day life.
Alyssa: What really struck me about the book is especially because it has five protagonists that interact with each other, largely throughout the book, there’s really a theme of community there. And it was really clear that community kind of helped them heal in a way. Can you talk a bit about the importance of community in both when they’re enduring injustices at the time and healing from it thereafter?
Michelle: Absolutely. And you know, I really appreciate that question because community is so critical in survival and even the emergence of indigenous activism in the ’60s and ’70s helped solidify that sense of community that these lost souls, you know, that no longer fit in their families, no longer fit in their communities, that they could create their own community to support and encourage each other. There’s a passage in the book where that notion of community is observed, and we’re talking about the Downtown Eastside in that. But I describe, or I said in there, or the narrator said that people would be uncomfortable in Downtown Eastside, basically, that’s what it was inferring, but that it was like it was their neighborhood. It was their community with all of the comforts and joys of any other community. It was their home, their place of belonging.
The sense of community that I really, really wanted to emphasize was the relationships between the five protagonists and how their shared experiences at the residential school bound them together forever. And I guess, the understanding that I wanted to convey there is that nobody else would understand, you know, it’s like a war veteran, nobody else is going to understand what they experienced, but in the community that they create with each other, they don’t have to explain. They don’t have to show, they don’t have to excuse. They don’t have to do any of that because without words, without anything they understand and they understand what each other needs in terms of care and support.
Alyssa: One part of the book that struck me, that’s kind of relevant, there is a part where Lucy’s off studying nursing finally. And she mentions that she longs to work at the hotel again. And that really struck me because supposedly, she should be in a better place now. She’s moved on from this, what was objectively a terrible job, but longed for that space again, just because that was at least a space where she had her people around her. This being, like, also a diversity and inclusion talk, it really struck me because what stood out to me about that is that, it’s really not enough just to be let into spaces, you need to be fully welcomed and included as you are. So I really love that you pointed that out and included that in your book. That was really important to me too.
Michelle: Yeah. And it wasn’t about her wanting to be back at the crappy job at the manager with horrible Harlan, right. It was the manager for those of you who haven’t read the book. It was about, you know, having no community, having no sense of belonging in that hospital where she was training, nobody has your back, nobody understands what she’s going through and just missing that camaraderie and community. It’s not that these things were premeditated in the writing, it was just the reality that was reflected in the story. It was the reality that was a part of the story. And I often say this, that readers write the book, once the book is released, it’s no longer my book, it’s the readers’ book. And, you know, the readers complete the writing of the book by they put between the lines, right. As you have done with that observation about the issue of inclusivity and belonging in places where you wouldn’t normally belong. So, you know, I love that, I’ve loved watching that as people respond to the book. Yeah, it’s been great.
Alyssa: That’s beautiful. I love that. I also noticed that there was… This is mostly just a curiosity thing, but I noticed there was one chapter where that wasn’t named after one of the five residential school survivors, and the chapter named Mariah where Clara first ends up at her cabin. So I’m mostly just curious, was there a specific reason for that?
Michelle: Yes. And I had a big fight with my editor about it. I shouldn’t say that. My editor is the most lovely woman and we had, and have a really great working relationship, but she said, “It just makes it stick out, you know, it’s not consistent, blah, blah, blah,” you know, typical editorial comments, and I insisted. The reason that I insisted is that that’s what I wanted it to do. I wanted people to go, “Hm, pay attention.” Right. This is a little different. And also because what happens at Mariah’s cabin with Clara and Mariah is so important to the whole concept of where indigenous people… I wanna say must go. But you know, and can go for real healing and a return to an accurate reflection of themselves. And that is what is missing. And, you know, I wanna say something here, there’s some talk right now, there’s some work right now going on in Edmonton about renaming a street. And the street is currently named after Bishop Vitel Grandin, who was a key player in promoting the residential schools. And I have this little quote from him in the late 1800s. It’s a little quote. He says, “We instill in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin. When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything native except their blood.”
Yes. And so that’s why I needed to really do like a dark underlying under that chapter and call it Mariah because Mariah’s reflective of healing, and Mariah’s reflective of the cultural traditions and the accurate way of perceiving ourselves as opposed to being humiliated by the concept of being indigenous. Isn’t that awful? Isn’t that just like, you know, and so for anybody who might think, because there are people that still do, and I mean, I don’t say this with judgment in any way, but, you know, for anybody that thinks that this was incidental, unintentional harm, that this kind of harm was not intended, that this was an innocent thing, you know, that should change your mind.
Alyssa: It’s so heavy whenever it comes up, and I wanna thank you for bringing it to our attention as well and sharing that. Something about Clara’s whole journey throughout the book also struck me because even in the beginning, when she was at the school, it almost seemed, and correct me if I’m wrong, it almost seemed like she was almost the most, like, successfully indoctrinated. I remember when Lily was sick, she was genuinely praying to the Christian God to help heal her. And almost it was clear that obviously those prayers weren’t answered and she really was broken and affected by the loss of, like, almost all spirituality in that sense, like she was truly fueled by rage the rest of her life, and seeing that journey and the deep work it took with Mariah to unlearn that first because she was very resistant at first.
Michelle: Afraid, and you know, that’s something that I think is really important to understand is that there were children in these schools whose tongues were pierced with needles when they spoke their language. If they spoke their language and often like my mother, they didn’t speak any other language when they were brought to the schools. I’m not saying that that was widespread or anything, but it happened. And certainly, they were physically abused if they spoke their language or referred to, you know, their own ways of being and so on. But with Clara, her story about her spirituality and her sense of her place in the world really starts when she’s walking through that grove of birch trees, coming home from church when she’s a little wee girl. And, you know, I struggled with that decision to have her and her mother going to church, but it’s accurate.
And, you know, that was reflective of the previous generation to… You know, Clara’s parents, grandparents, great grandparents. Remember this went on since, you know, the early 18 or well, mid to late 1800s. And so, you know, that church indoctrination was already woven into the indigenous communities. Clara’s journey started when she hears her angels in the birch trees, right. And with her mother saying, your grandmother says that’s a place where the little people live and the little people, they’re like little messengers from the spirit world. That was, you know, a perfect encapsulation of indigenous spirituality and an indication to this child that she had a spiritual role to play and a spiritual place in the world. So it starts there. And then she goes to school and, you know, carries on the indoctrination and so on and so forth. But she had to experience that in order to understand that it wasn’t her, that it wasn’t her ultimate spiritual fabric. Yeah.
Alyssa: I wanna talk a little bit about…because Clara ends up becoming this incredible, incredible activist who… I think we should all want to be a Clara, I think. And you have been advocating for survivors of the residential school system for years. What changes have you seen that do give you hope and what do you wish people took more urgent action on?
Michelle: You know, we see the response to this book, which shocks me, it continues to shock me that this has sort of gone through the stratosphere, so to speak. Some people respond to the title there “Five Little Indians,” right. And, you know, things like nomenclature, where now we’re called indigenous and people are moving away from this sort of Pan-Indian kind of conception and this understanding that we are unique peoples with unique cultures across the country, that we’re not all one people. You know, I think that there is a growing understanding, but the thing that continues to sort of knock my socks off is in the responses that I get to the book, like readers reach out and they send me messages through my web page and they almost to a one start with, every Canadian should read this book.
But virtually all of them say, you know, “We just didn’t know this was happening. We didn’t know.” And, you know, and I have two responses to that in myself. I mean, not necessarily ones that I would write to people but, you know, one of them is, “Why is this new to you?” And when we look at the discovery of the unmarked graves that, you know, has been happening, we’ve known about that forever. Plus, there are government documents that refer to the death rate in the residential schools that go back to 1907. So why is this news and why is it that we had to come up with the evidence, we had to produce the skeletons in order for people to accept that, in fact, this happened? And I recently saw a post on Facebook that said, “Oh, this is just an effort to attack Christians again.” It was natural causes. Okay?
And to that, I say, I’m gonna do a big, long, answer to this question. Some of you may have heard of a man named Dr. Peter Bryce. Dr. Bryce was the chief medical officer for the federal government for the Department of Indian Affairs. And he was commissioned in the early 1900s to do a review of the conditions of the residential school arising largely from, you know, huge numbers of complaints from indigenous parents. He came back and he said in his report, “If we had been commissioned to create a circumstance that would promote the transmission of tuberculosis, we have done this with the residential school.” I’ll give you another little quote. He said, “Even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed on our Indian wards,” Duncan Campbell Scott’s response to this who was the chief superintendent of Indian affairs says, “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages.
But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of the department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem. Ultimately, there will be not one Indian that has not been absorbed into the body politic. There will be no Indian problem and no Indian department.” Duncan Campbell Scott used the term “final solution” before Hitler did, in Canada. And Scott was also quoted later in an essay saying, “It’s quite within the mark to say that 50% of the children who pass through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” 50%, not in all the schools, but yeah, 50%. So why don’t people know this? Imagine if this was non-indigenous schools and 50% of the kids were dying. Okay. Imagine if COVID just went wild in all the schools and people said, “Well, you know, we still want them to learn their ABCs, so it’s okay if they die, it’s okay if they die.”
But it takes me back. Like I say, my big, long rambling answer takes me back to the reason that people don’t know is because they were not intended to know. These schools were total institutions, which means no oversight, no such thing as an ombudsperson to complain to. And there’s a wonderful book that I recommend to people, it’s called “Seeing Red.” I always forget the second part of the title, but it’s something to the effect of natives in Canadian newspapers. And what it’s about is how the media has been complicit with government, and they call media curriculum, where it’s teaching people what to think, it’s teaching people how, you know, that whole theme of, we’re helping the poor native child, you know, was supported by media. It was supported by all of the subliminal influences that we experience in society.
But if anybody ever really wanted to know, all they had to do was just look just slightly below the surface. And I think that what’s finally happening, you know, after 130 years, is that people are going, “Wait a minute. What?” You know, and I hear that again in responses to the book where people are just horrified and shocked, and that is a change, that is progression, but I also feel strongly and I say it regularly that non-indigenous people need to take responsibility for their own education. We are burdened with that. People come to us all the time. We have carried the responsibility for, you know, fighting against the resistance to the education and then also putting in that work. It’s been us that has done this, and we are living with the impacts of residential schools, the impacts of colonialism. And we need to put our energies there.
And so non-indigenous people need to step up, take responsibility, read a book, go jump into the archives, Google “Duncan Campbell Scott,” right. You know, Google “timeline of residential schools,” just these simple little internet searches will provide you with just an incredible amount of information. And I mean, I did my research because I started an LLM program before I decided I didn’t wanna do an LLM, but I had done all the research and that’s where I originally found all of this stuff. And it was before, that was, like, in the year 2000. So it was before all of this was so accessible. It was, like, in the dusty archives then, it’s there. If people wanna know, if they wanna learn, it’s there. I’m gonna read you one more quote and then we’ll move on. This one is from Sir Johnny McDonald and it’s to the house of commons in 1883.
And he says, “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents who are savages. He is surrounded by savages and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training, and mode of thoughts are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself as the head of the department, Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes and thought of white men.” That’s in the House of Commons debate. You know, anybody who wants to find this stuff, they can. Yeah, go to the Hansard, you’ll find everything you wanna know. I think that just sort of opens a window onto the mindset of who we were, of how non-indigenous people in colonial Canada thought we were, how they thought of us.
Alyssa: Thank you for sharing all those important calls to action. I urge all of us… Can I hope all of us will follow those and because they’re so crucial and we need to put in the work, absolutely as you said.
Michelle: Well, thank you for the opportunity to be bossy.
Alyssa: This is what we need to do. We also know that you are currently working on your second novel. Is there anything you can share with us about that?
Michelle: Yeah, it’s another work of historical fiction. This one goes back starting in 1856 and is loosely based on my great-grandmother and my mother and well, and Cree as you know, my great-grandmother was the niece of Chief Big Bear who was very, very prominent chief in the Prairies and was largely responsible for the negotiations of Treaty Six. She, of course, was in his band and was at what is called the Frog Lake Massacre. I referred to it as the Frog Lake Incident. What was going on at the time… I’ll go back a little bit. How many people know that the City of Regina used to be called Pile of Bones and… Yes, that’s another really good one to Google, right? Because what you’ll see is a picture of a guy, like a man, and he’s a buffalo hunter and he’s about this big and next to him is a pile of bones that is about this big.
And what happened was, you know, settlers and, you know, colonial folk were encouraged to just kill buffalo. They used…and bison. They used to get on the trains and they would just shoot them off the trains, just kill them off. And the reason for that is that buffalo and bison were food, clothing, and shelter for indigenous people. Okay. And so, what they did is they created a circumstance of imposed starvation. And then through treaty and treat negotiations, provided rations so that people wouldn’t die. And what Sir Johnny Macdonald did in a directive to Indian agents was, he told them to withhold rations to force people to sign treaty, even if the terms of the treaty were not what they wanted at that time. This is what was going on in Frog Lake, and there was a very sadistic Indian agent up there who was withholding the rations.
And the structure of the band is Big Bear was the chief, but he had co-chiefs who had specific responsibilities and the war chief took over. It had been weeks since they had been given any food, they were starving. They were boiling twigs to feed the children. It was just a disaster. And he confronted the Indian agent, the Indian agent laughed at him, so he killed him and he killed several people at Frog Lake. And then of course they’re all on the lamb, right? So the North-west Mounted Police came in and hounded them across the border into Montana. And there were a couple of skirmishes in-between times. And then they were in Montana, they were welcomed by the Rocky Boy Reservation, long story longer. There was ultimately an amnesty and they were allowed to come back. And those that chose to come back were put in a boxcar, like, you know, what kind of image does that inspire?
And they were brought into Alberta. And to this day there is a first nation in Alberta called the Montana Band of Cree. So my great-grandmother never saw a non-indigenous person until she was in her late teens, maybe even 20, because Frog Lake happened in 1885. She was born in 1856. And so what we have in her and in the character that is based on her is this book is a pre-colonial indigenous woman. Yes, of course, you know, in other parts of Canada, the colonization was, you know, more advanced, but we have a woman living in traditional Cree lifestyle. And then we have her coming into collision, right. With the colonial forces. And then we see, you know, how her life unfolded with that and her influence on my mother as a result of those experiences. So the other underlying theme that I want this book to have similar to “Five Little Indians” is how it became entrenched in Canadian society that indigenous women are disposable and that it’s okay to rape, brutalize and kill indigenous women. My grandfather was a child of rape.
My great-grandmother’s, who is in the story, son was a child of rape by a North-west Mounted Police officer. You know, therein is a truth that we continue to see in the just shocking rates of indigenous women that are being murdered and going missing. So that’s kind of what the story is. And my mother was a force of nature. Yeah. Oh my God, my mother, they’re just… yeah, she went from residential school to nurses training in New Zealand. She was so determined to get an education. And in Canada, it was illegal for indigenous people to get an education beyond grade nine. And so she fought her way through this and that, and this and that. And, you know, with the support of the Anglican church, she got a scholarship to take midwifery and nursing training with Maori Women in New Zealand. So all that is going to be… You know, her story in that sense is gonna be part of this novel as well. So long story longer, never ask me a question, [inaudible 00:34:10] be an open-ended question. I’ll go on.
Alyssa: No, we love it. Oh my goodness. I’m so excited for your second novel to come out. I can…
Michelle: We’re hoping for it to come out the fall of 2023. I have a deadline for first draft of April. So you’re gonna be among the last people I’m doing events with because I gotta get back to writing.
Alyssa: That’s fair. We’re very honored that we have you for this. But yeah, I’m so excited, honestly. I can kind of already get a sense that because of the similar structure to “Five Little Indians,” I feel like what you do really well is… Your books are very, like, all-encompassing. It doesn’t deny any of the trauma, but it doesn’t deny any of the joy either as they heal through it. It’s a very complete picture.
Michelle: Well, and that’s, you know, something… I can’t remember who. Somebody asked me about that and I said, “You know, in every life, no matter how awful it is, no matter what terrible adversity someone is facing, there’s always joy. You know, there’s always the love and there’s always, you know, everything. And I wanted these characters to be whole people. Not…you know, we are much more than our trauma. We are whole living people with every, you know, every experience in life that everybody has. I didn’t want it to be trauma porn, you know, it’s just… And also, you know, there’s a lot of humor in the book.
Alyssa: Yeah. There is. There’s funny people.
Michelle: And you know, humor has become a real healing mechanism. We use humor to make light of the things that try to destroy us. And you know, so that was really an important part of the development of these characters as well. Yeah.
Alyssa: Just keeping an eye on time. I have one last question before we get to any audience questions, but [crosstalk 00:36:09.494] Kobo is a book company after all. So we’d love to know. What have you been reading lately that’s made an impact on you?
Michelle: I can’t say why I’ve been reading all these books, but I read 138 books on top of everything else that I’m doing since May.
Alyssa: Oh my goodness.
Michelle: Yeah. And so I can’t talk about why I’ve been doing that, but it will eventually be known, but I recently read Katherena Vermette’s book. It’s not out yet. I read it as an arc. Katherena’s my friend. We went to the MFA program together at UBC and she’s written a new book called “The Strangers,” and it’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful. So it’s out on the 28th of September and I highly recommend it, highly recommend it. Yeah. Very good. Yeah. She’s a wonderful Metis author for those who may not have heard of her. Oh. And I had to read it on my Kobo. All those books, there it was [crosstalk 00:37:08.883].
Alyssa: Great. Any questions coming in from…
Michelle: Yes. Yes. Tara says, that this book is nominated for a Giller and it is. Yeah. So, I’m just so rooting for Katherena. Yeah.
Alyssa: Micah has a question on, what kind of things can Kobo do to promote indigenous writers?
Michelle: Well, you know, one of these things is, you know, I mentioned earlier my appreciation for the emerging writers’ award. You know, I think, you know, something like that, maybe not necessarily an award, but maybe, you know, like, ongoing contests for indigenous writers, those kinds of things give people profile, perhaps highlighting indigenous works, you know, maybe offering an indigenous work to come with a Kobo or something like that. I think, you know, those kinds of things really, you know, sort of like the incidental support, right? Where, well, oh, I’m gonna get a Kobo anyway, but with it, I’m gonna get Katherena’s book, right. Something like that, preloaded to a Kobo or something, off the top of my head, that’s, you know, maybe an idea.
Alyssa: And then one from Tara, she mentions that she really loves your book, and that your next book includes the Maori aspect. It’s so important for people to be aware of how systematically this is happening during colonialism worldwide. Has there been actions in New Zealand that you think Canada can do or vice versa?
Michelle: Oh, absolutely. The Maori have a bit of an advantage, right. In Canada, the indigenous populations are so diverse. You know, we have Longhouse people on the West Coast, we have Prairie people, we have, you know, Fisher people on the east coast. We have such a huge diversity. In BC alone, there’s 52 different dialects, different languages, and then more sub-dialects and so on. But with the Maori, they’re all one language, all one people. And that’s been an advantage to them in terms of their organizing, because, you know, they don’t have a government that’s trying to get everybody to agree on things that don’t necessarily work for one group or, you know. Anyway, but, you know, they have developed a Maori parliament, which is really, really, really quite fantastic and an excellent example. They’re also very heavily present in universities throughout New Zealand, and much sooner than they were in Canada.
I mean, we’re starting to see that developing now in Canada, but it’s also a bit of a haven for Pretendians in Canada. But yeah, definitely those kinds of things. And there’s been, you know, quite a strong relationship between the Maori and Canadian indigenous organizations. So I think that, you know, their successes and their initiatives are something that we’ve considered for a long time. I was actually involved with the World Council of Indigenous People when I was 18. I was just a little girl…
Alyssa: Oh my goodness.
Michelle: And, you know, was introduced to some Maori leaders at that time and it was just spectacular. Just a wonderful thing. Yeah.
Alyssa: Thank you. We have a question that, are your books available in Spanish and/or Portuguese or, and published in Latin America? There’s an entire Spanish and Portuguese-speaking continent that also has a lot of descendants of Native Americans with horror stories like yours that will resonate strongly.
Michelle: No, but you know, that’s something that might happen. We have had some interest from different countries to translate the book into different languages but not any Latin American countries yet, but, you know, it’s still early days for that kind of development. And I’m really hoping that it will expand because as you say, you know, particularly if you think about Mexico, you know Mexicans are indigenous people primarily, and that’s something that I think would resonate in that population as well.
Alyssa: We’ll look forward to that day. We have a question from Chenice that it’s so important to see indigenous presences in media and on screens, and we’re only just seeing more and more projects in development. Are there indigenous-centered movies or TV shows that you’d recommend?
Michelle: I don’t watch TV. I don’t even own a TV, but “Monkey Beach” is one that I would highly recommend, primarily because I know Eden and I know Loretta Todd, and they’re both so wonderful in what they do, but, you know, you might be able to see “Five Little Indians” soon. The option for a limited series has been picked up and…
Michelle: I know…
Michelle: Well, I’m very excited about it because I think it’s a very visual book.
Alyssa: Yeah, it is.
Michelle: On one hand, but on the other hand, you know, my son was very dyslexic and it was very sad to me because he would’ve rather poked himself in the eye than read a book because it was such a challenge and there’s lots of people that don’t read for one reason or another. And so this, I think would give an opportunity, you know, for this story to be told in a different media, if you will, medium, I mean, and the screenwriter who is one of the producers is Cree. So I’m really, really delighted about that. So, you know, I mean it’s a long process to get that from beginning to, you know, release, but fingers crossed, we’re looking for a broadcaster, so yeah.
Alyssa: Oh, amazing. I can’t wait to watch that. I am ecstatic about that news, to be honest, and we have a question also from Zach. You spoke a little bit about humor, laughter, and joy as part of the indigenous resilience. Where are some of the places where you look for and find indigenous joy?
Michelle: Me, personally? My community, my family, my coworkers, my colleagues, my characters who are like my children. These characters still live with me. I mean, they hung around my consciousness for nine years and you know, they feel like family and I think of them a lot from time to time. And I think the joy is so critical. And I particularly find that in my spirituality. I practice traditional spirituality and it not only is a joyful experience, it’s a peaceful one. It engenders peace when I’m, you know, raging, which you might not think that because we’re having a happy talk today, but when I’m raging, that’s where I go to remember that there’s so much to be thankful for and to be at peace and that, you know, everything is as it should be. Everything is moving forward and to just do your best. And that’s what I tell everybody. Just do your best.
Alyssa: That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. And we also have an important question, I think, from Tracy. She mentions that she’s ashamed to not have known more about the residential schools. Is anything happening now that needs to be seen and understood?
Michelle: The body count is over 6,000 now and that’s with only a handful of residential school sites. And I think… You know, when we talk about allyship, I think what people need to consider is how they can use their privilege and their voice. And this is already fading, right? This issue of the unmarked graves is already fading from media attention because it’s no longer news. And I think it’s something that… And I know that people often, you know, their hackles might get up a little bit when people talk about privilege, about white privilege and they think, “Wait a minute, you know, my parents were poor. You know, I’ve had to work hard for everything that I’ve had in my life and so on.” Privilege isn’t to say that that’s not true, what privilege is, is that you didn’t have to overcome your identity.
You didn’t have to overcome being brown or other, if you will, in order to achieve your goals in life. And to use that privilege, raise your voice and don’t step back. Don’t stop. We need drinking, why? I watched online, I watched the debates in this election, and one of the questions was about drinkable potable water for indigenous people. Why is that even a question? Yes or no? Are you kidding me? And you have to remember that the primary motivation of any politician is to become prime minister and to hold on to power. And you have the franchise, you have the vote, vote accordingly. I won’t say who.
Alyssa: I think we have time for one last question coming in from Sam. She had never heard the term “Pretendians” before, she just Googled it as you mentioned it. Can you speak a little bit to your experience with people who would fit into that category?
Michelle: Oh, well, first of all, you can go to the globe and I wrote an essay on Pretendians for the Globe a few months ago. You can find that. And it’s actually a, you know, pretty good analysis of the whole thing. The title is something about, you know, “The Harm Caused by Playing Indian.” Joseph Boyden, probably the most notorious Pretendian, was my thesis supervisor. And I didn’t understand why he offered me basically nothing until that. I mean, I had my suspicions about him. Like, I kept telling people, “Something’s off here, something doesn’t feel right here.” And this was in, you know, 2011 through 2014, and then afterwards, you know, when my suspicions were confirmed, I realized, “Oh, he doesn’t want my voice out there.” [crosstalk 00:47:51.435] Right. I mean, anyway, so the real danger and the harm caused by Pretendians, and it’s huge, actually, it’s a huge issue, is that they are presenting a palatable and inaccurate perception of indigenous people.
I refer to Boyden as the palatable Indian, okay? In the sense that he is the colonial reflection of the noble savage. I mean, oh my God. Sometimes, I just shake my head at the things that he has said publicly. And, you know, he was an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, and that is just a travesty. He knows nothing. He was educated by the Jesuits for God’s sake, okay? But that’s the point. That’s the issue, is that what they’re doing is they’re promoting colonial values, colonial perceptions of indigenous people. They are not legitimate and they are not authentic and that harms us significantly. It set us back. Yeah.
Alyssa: Thank you for teaching us about that. I believe that’s our time, but truly, I wanted to thank you again, Michelle, for taking the time to speak with us today. I’m sure I can speak for everyone here when I say, we found this so, so valuable and crucial. Your book is absolutely… I agree with all the people who have sent you messages that every Canadian should read this. Absolutely, they should. You’re an absolute force and it’s been a joy chatting with you. Thank you again, and thank you again to everyone for joining, and for sending the resources along in the chat. I’m sure we’ll include that in the recording link as well. But thank you again and take care, everyone.
Michelle: Well, and thank you again. Thank you again. You know, I really appreciate the opportunities to have these conversations and I think these conversations are necessary. So if you’re looking for something to do, anything to do, have a conversation.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to this bonus episode of the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you are interested in picking up “Five Little Indians,” we will include a link to it in our show notes, as well as links to any resources Michelle spoke about.
Joni: This episode was hosted by Alyssa Andino, and huge thanks to Michelle Good for being our guest.