If you’re a major, wide-ranging cultural event that’s launching a new literary series, as the Harmony Arts Festival is doing this year, you might as well start by getting to the heart of the matter: the power of storytelling itself.
And if you’re looking for eloquence on that subject, you won’t do better than by asking Joseph Boyden, the headlining guest of the West Vancouver festival’s inaugural Readings in the Park program. Not only is he one of the most gifted and respected Canadian novelists working today, but he has views on the art of story that stretch back centuries.
Boyden is best known for books steeped in the long, tormented encounter between Canada’s aboriginal and nonaboriginal peoples, such as Three Day Road, the Giller-winning Through Black Spruce, and 2013’s riveting The Orenda. The theme reflects his own heritage, which blends Scottish and Irish strands with his Anishinaabe First Nation ancestry.
As he explains to the Straight, he’s gradually come to see his fiction as joined in deep ways to much older aboriginal approaches.
“I’ve never really consciously pushed that, especially at the beginning of my writing career, when I wrote Three Day Road, for example,” he says when reached in New Orleans, where he now lives. “But then I realized that every time I sat down to write a character, the character demanded that I tell the story in the first person and in the present tense. You’ll notice that any of my novels are first-person present.
“And if you ask any writer, that’s not an easy way to pull off a long novel—it can become very annoying to the reader as well as the writer. But the characters demanded that I tell it in the here and now, and I came to realize, ‘Wow, maybe this is a carry-on of the oral tradition in some sense.’ ”
There’s a lot of historical weight in such a realization, especially when it involves narratives as tragic as those Boyden creates about the fates and powers of indigenous people here. But he never lets it deflect him from what he sees as the main task of storytellers, no matter what culture they belong to.
“Whether around the fire at night or at the dinner table, stories are told to entertain, number one, and I try never to forget that—that I’m a storyteller, not to beat you over the head and shoulders with my stick of morality,” Boyden notes. “And I think that’s what storytelling has been from the beginning of time—it’s like, ‘Let me entertain you tonight.’ Then, maybe, I can feed you a little medicine, but wrapped in bacon so you don’t even know you’re getting the medicine.
“That ultimately was what elders were trying to do, or parents were trying to do with their children, whether they were First Nations or European or Irish—it was ‘Let me tell you this story, but there’s a reason why I’m telling you this story, so listen carefully. And let me entertain you, but at the same time maybe teach you something.’ Again, I don’t set out to do that in my writing at first. But I realize that if I’m doing things right, everything should naturally fall into place.”
This focus applies even to a topic as morally charged as the residential-school system and its ruinous effects, which Boyden says are so inescapable that they’re implied in The Orenda, a novel set in the 17th century, long before the schools themselves existed. Going Home Star, the acclaimed 2014 dance piece he helped write for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is explicitly about this lasting collective wound. And yet here, too, Boyden allowed himself to be guided purely by the demands of the tale.
“It was some pretty sacred ground we were treading on, and you had to be very careful,” he points out. “But then I realized that a good story is a good story, no matter the format, no matter the medium. How do I bring to life something as complicated and traumatic as residential schools? The way I do it is I don’t approach it head-on. I walk around the building, I walk around the school till I can find the back door or side door that my characters can slip into.”
This veering path, Boyden says, follows individual experience, imagining it in its fullness and allowing another kind of truth to enrich the cold facts of history. And with that may come chances for empathy, and thus reconciliation, that would not have existed otherwise.
“The historian’s story is not the be all and end all,” he remarks. “I think it’s only one dimension of a multidimensional world that we live in. I think the storyteller gets to add that really important next layer, that next dimension that brings to life that truth.
“These are incredibly complex cultures,” he adds, “and I needed to tell that side of the story, my truth. And that is the power of storytelling: introducing the viewer, the reader, the person wanting to hear the story to a completely new dimension. You’ll see it through a lens suddenly that you’ve not thought about or known before.”
An Afternoon With Joseph Boyden takes place at West Vancouver’s John Lawson Park next Thursday (August 4), as part of the Harmony Arts Festival.