Author and guest curator Tanya Talaga finds strength in storytelling at Vancouver Writers Fest

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      Tanya Talaga is guest-curating three events at the Vancouver Writers Fest—and one of them is not like the others.

      The apparent anomaly would be A Tribute to Stephen King, in which the author, journalist, and 2018 CBC Massey lecturer will join more than a dozen other authors to celebrate the creator of The Shining, The Stand, and It.

      “He’s not just written horror books or thriller books, you know; he also writes about writing.…and his words on writing as an art are amazing,” Talaga says, calling from her Toronto home. “I was sitting around with my partner, and we were talking about what we could do that would be fun. And we said, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great if we could get Stephen King?’ And apparently Stephen King’s always invited to various writers’ festivals in Vancouver, but he won’t come. So we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just hold a night without him.’ So it is a fun sort of night; just come and share and talk about your favourite Stephen King book. It’ll be wild!”

      Talaga laughs, recognizing that the event sounds somewhat out of character. It’s not that the Anishinaabe and Polish-Canadian writer is unacquainted with horror: she faces it head-on in her debut, Seven Fallen Feathers. But the malignancy she describes in that powerful and disturbing volume is far from fictional, having to do instead with the political apathy, police negligence, and deeply ingrained racism that led to the deaths, by murder or suicide, of seven Indigenous youths from northern Ontario. Subtitled Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, the book is set in Thunder Bay, but one of its hard truths is that its events could just as easily have taken place in Prince George or Fort McMurray or Chicoutimi. The violence it describes is endemic in this supposedly peaceful and progressive country.

      All Our Relations, which compiles Talaga’s Massey lectures, is a more hopeful undertaking. It’s a clear-eyed look at how to go beyond the hollow promises of “reconciliation” towards real Indigenous empowerment—and, for us settlers, how to gain a deeper understanding of the historical and present-day injustices Canada’s First Nations have endured and are enduring.

      “We still have boil-water advisories in many of our communities,” Talaga points out. “We still have inequities when it comes to our kids not being able to get access to high-school education, access to clinics with doctors and nurses that are stocked with medicine, the lack of Indigenous participation in the job market, prisons in Canada being full of our people.…There are still so many inequities everywhere we look. Where have we gone in the last three years? It doesn’t seem like it’s too far.”

      For all that, Talaga describes herself as optimistic. “I have faith and hope in the people that I know and the people that I see—Indigenous leaders throughout this country we call Canada,” the mother of two reports. “And in the youth, I should specifically say. You see hope with the youth, you know, and some of the work they’re doing—the language revitalization, getting back on the land, finding out about who they are, where they belong, and how to carry the rest of us forward. That gives me faith, and that gives me hope. [Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman] Murray Sinclair once said to me, ‘We can’t rely on others to get us to where we want to be. We have to do things for ourselves.’ And.…his words are so true.

      “I think the artists are leading the way,” she adds, and that’s borne out by the other Writers Fest events she’s coordinating. On Belonging: Indigenous Strength and Hope in the Wake of Genocide places Talaga in the company of poet Cassandra Blanchard and essayist Alicia Elliott to look at how positive change might come out of the rising awareness around Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. Voices for Change, in turn, brings her together with interdisciplinary artist Carey Newman, lawyer and author Harold R. Johnson, and activist academic Daniel Heath Justice to expand on the message of the latter’s book, Why Indigenous Literature Matters.

      “We’re all storytellers telling our truth, and all of the literature that we write, be it fiction or nonfiction, it all tells truth in story, and it’s all essentially political,” Talaga says. “It’s all about rights; it’s all about strength and hope and love for community. Everything we do—music, art, fiction, nonfiction, poetry—it all has the same base, and art is always at the forefront of social change.”

      As for what Canada’s non-Indigenous population can do, Talaga has a straightforward message. “Look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action,” she says. “Try and apply one of those to your life as a settler. What is in there that you can do just to change something small about your actions and your life? The 94 calls are really easy to read; most of them are just a couple of sentences, and they offer some insight for everyone on what they can do to help. And, other than that, stay politically engaged. Support Indigenous people, know what the true issues are for the country—and get out there and vote.”

      Memoirist Jael Richardson interviews Tanya Talaga as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s opening-night event, at the Waterfront Theatre on October 22. A Tribute to Stephen King takes place at Performance Works on October 24. Voices for Change is at the Granville Island Stage on October 25. On Belonging: Indigenous Strength and Hope in the Wake of Genocide is at SFU Woodward’s Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema on October 26. For the full Vancouver Writers Fest schedule, see here.