This article was originally written for The Charlatan. An edited version appeared online on Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Volume 47, Issue 2.
As June comes to a close, so does the end of National Aboriginal History Month and Indigenous Book Club Month with people and communities across Canada celebrating Indigenous writers online and in person. In celebration here are some of my favourite books by Indigenous authors, from a well-known classic, to lesser known names, and new breakthrough authors who are taking Canadian literature by storm.
Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine
Kuessipan is an incredibly strong debut novel that has set Naomi Fontaine on a list of young writers to watch. Originally translated from French, Kuessipan is snapshots of an Innu community in Northern Quebec and is primarily based on Fontaine’s experiences. The majority of characters don’t have names, but are identified in relation to each other, the land and their community. Through multiple perspectives and events, Fontaine weaves a narrative of a community, struggling, dreaming, hoping, celebrating and transforming. Kuessipan is a moving, and wistful read that packs a large impact for such a short book.
Skin Like Mine by Garry Gottfriedson
Drawing together individual experience and relationships to the land, Garry Gottfriedson is an incredibly impactful poet. Skin like Mine is his third collection of poetry and is one that I’ve continually returned to over the years. Gottfriedson’s poetry balances the thin line between lyrical and blunt, examining issues of racism, historical whitewashing, and the struggle of finding identity. His poetry also talks about the land, his concerns about clearcutting and the damage of the pine beetle. The majority of the poems are centered in Secwepemc territory where he grew up in Kamloops, BC and paint the land to life.
Eden Robinson is best known for her debut novel Monkey Beach which captivated Canada’s literary scene with its release in 2000. Earlier this year she’s returned with a new book in an unexpected genre, young adult fantasy. Set in Kitamaat, BC like the majority of Robinson’s work, Son of a Trickster is a coming-of-age novel about a young man named Jared who’s a teenage burnout with family problems and who makes money on the side by selling weed cookies. However Jared’s life gets a lot more complicated when the raven’s start talking to him. Son of a Trickster has all of Robinson’s trademark wit and characterization. She’s incredibly at developing characters who are real and the dialogue in Son of a Trickster shines as some of the most genuine and hilarious I’ve ever read.
Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
Green Grass, Running Water is a classic of a book for a reason. Blending together oral and written tradition, the novel is told in four parts, weaving back and forth between the residents of a Blackfoot reserve in Northern Alberta, four Elders who have escaped from a mental institution, and various characters from Native tradition. Green Grass, Running Water is a beautiful read that uses satire to examine dualism between Indigenous and Eurocentric cultures, blending together the contemporary, history, spirituality, oral history and written tradition. This is very much a book to reread multiple times as the characters delight and the humour of the story draws the reader in.
There’s a reason why The Break took Canada by storm and was included in this years past Canada Reads. The Break is Katherena Vermette’s first novel and it’s an incredibly powerful piece of fiction. Each chapter is told from a different perspective as characters (and the reader) try to piece together the traumatic events that happened on the Break, a cold, empty stretch of land on the outskirts of Winnipeg, one cold winter night and struggle to maintain control of their lives as tragedy unfolds around them. One of the main strengths of The Break is Vermette’s unflinching portrayal of complicated women and girls as they make mistakes and struggle. The Break deals with a number of hard issues that are an unfortunate reality in many Indigenous community in Canada and other countries, such as rape, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women, poverty, incarceration, gang violence and substance abuse. But the book also has a strong, hopeful, healing component to it, as characters band together to overcome trauma.