New Orleans may have dropped out of the media spotlight, but according to Joseph Boyden it’s still sinking. “Things are slow,” he says, calling from his adopted hometown in advance of a visit to Vancouver’s Talking Stick Festival. The Ontario-born novelist has been rattled by the recent killing of a fellow Canadian, the ninth murder this year in this post-hurricane city of 200,000. And he’s irked by the lack of resources available to a metropolis that has been battered by poverty even more than by storms.
“There’s been no promises kept by the federal government, on top of everything else,” he says. “So it’s a real struggle, but New Orleans has a spirit that I think is going to continue.”
Of course, survival in the face of official neglect is nothing new to Boyden. He’s spent long stretches of time in the Native communities of Northern Ontario, which themselves suffer from tainted water, unemployment, and governmental indifference. Those firsthand experiences helped spark his debut novel, the Governor General’s Literary Award–nominated Three Day Road.
Set in the trenches of World War One and the forests adjacent to James Bay, that 2005 release is a spellbinding and evenhanded study of identity and addiction, topics this mixed-race writer (Métis, Scottish, and Irish) will return to in his next full-length. For now, he’s calling his book in progress She Takes You Down, although that name is the subject of some contention.
“My editor loves it and my wife hates it, so I’m very torn,” Boyden admits.
What’s clear is that the new story takes us back to the boreal locales featured in its predecessor, but rather than revisit the battlefields of Flanders, its alternate site is the island of Manhattan.
“It’s my first venture with a novel into the contemporary world, and it’s actually about the grandchildren of characters in the first novel,” Boyden explains. “It’s not really a follow-up so much as a continuation of the family line that kind of fascinated me. It’s about a family struggling with another family up in James Bay, and the search for a disappeared family member. The older sister goes looking for her younger sister, who’s disappeared, while the uncle of the two girls stays at home and tries to deal with the fallout from that.
“It’s all about identity, too, just as the first novel is a lot about identity and how you can lose yourself,” he adds. “That’s one of the recurring themes I’ve been exploring.”
As with Three Day Road, Boyden is in an ideal position to address that topic without sugarcoating First Nations realities or dismissing all Caucasians as misguided. “I’ve always felt that I’ve got one foot firmly placed in my white roots and one in my Métis roots,” he says. “It allows me to act almost like a bridge between the two, in some ways.”
And it seems he’s getting some help with that from his subjects. “I know these characters so well that I just let them go, and they travel, sometimes to places I didn’t expect,” he says, laughing. “That’s kind of exciting.”
Joseph Boyden reads from Three Day Road and the manuscript of She Takes You Down at UBC’s First Nations House of Learning at noon and the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (February 7) as part of the Talking Stick Festival.