Author Q&A: Carol Rose Daniels
By Anna Bowen, June 2018
Carol Rose Daniels is the author of novel Bearskin Diary (Nightwood Editions, 2015), which was awarded the Aboriginal8 Literature Award last summer and was selected for the First Nation Communities READ program for 2017-2018. This month, Carol discusses her debut poetry collection, Hiraeth (Inanna Publications, 2018). Carol was a journalist for 30 years and in 1989 became Canada’s first Indigenous woman to anchor a national newscast. She is Cree/Dene with roots in Sandy Bay, northern Saskatchewan. Her second novel, Narrows of Fear is forthcoming.
AB: When did you start writing poetry?
CRD: It’s something I’ve done all my life. I love poetry, I think it’s the most honest form of writing, or it should be… I think writing poetry is just also therapeutic. That’s one of the reasons I really appreciate the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild, because they’ve had summer camps for young Indigenous writers, and I designed them as well as facilitated, and it’s great to see these young people expressing themselves that way. It’s such a positive thing to say whatever it is you want to say — and it’s safe.
AB: Which writers have had the biggest impact on your writing?
AB: You work in so many mediums and genres; what did fiction (Bearskin Diary) allow you to do differently?
CRD: I’m really attracted to fiction writing because I spent more than 30 years having to stick to only the facts in journalism, as it should be. I find it freeing to say whatever you want – your character can fly if he or she wants, they can be in situations that are totally from the imagination… so that’s why I’m more attracted to fiction. Although I love reading non-fiction; Ken McGoogan is one of my favourite authors.
AB: How is writing poetry different for you?
CRD: I also do song creation because I’m a singer/drummer as well. I find it’s the same sort of process you are putting into trying to get something in a poem that has a lot of feeling to it, and that people will identify with… I’ve talked to so many people who’ve read [Hiraeth] but who’ve said, I couldn’t finish it, I had to put it down because you made me cry. And it’s like well, you know, a lot of the stories in there are tragic and sad, and I just wanted to get them out… I have been carrying that stuff around all my life, so now I’ve managed to get it out and will move on from there… That’s the thing about poetry, it’s a very freeing process. It’s all around – all you have to do is go outside on a day like today, and it’s amazingly beautiful out there. And I think it’s a good thing to just say, Thank you God for this beautiful day – and then write something about it.
Winter seems to be my time [to write] because it’s cold out and it gets dark quickly so I find it inspiring to just wrap myself in a blanket and sit and write… When I get inspired I am kind of like a hermit… my sleep is totally disrupted. I could be up writing from two in the morning until I get tired at eight or nine, then I’ll go to sleep for a couple of hours, get up and continue to write.
AB: Hiraeth – what brought you to write this collection?
CRD: I was the first Indigenous person to work in a television newsroom, it was a struggle but the thing is I was so used to being chastised and bullied and put down because of the colour of my skin because that had been happening my entire life. It’s a terrible thing to say, I was used to it – but I was able to say, whatever… it has nothing to do with my abilities as a reporter. That was kind of an odd strength, to able to ignore that. People have been saying to me, “your life is so easy” – actually it’s really not, but somehow I managed to get things done and a lot of the poems talk about discrimination within the family I grew up in. I have to make it clear that it wasn’t all bad – I had a really wonderful friend growing up… my dad was wonderful and my grandma was wonderful. But when Dad wasn’t home I would hear things from my brother or sister, calling me an ugly little squaw… you don’t do that to a child.
Because I’m a mom I think it’s important to stand up for myself and demonstrate to my children, if you see something wrong, speak up.
But… there have been many wonderful people in my life who I’ve met as a reporter, elders or cultural traditional people within my Indigenous culture who have been really influential in guiding and teaching me things I should’ve known as a kid but I didn’t because I was taken out and placed in the foster care system the moment I was born. It’s important to say, this was the path, it was dark in some ways… but there is celebration and there are so many wonderful things.
AB: If this poetry book could find its way into anyone’s hands whose hands would you like it to be in?
CRD: It’s not possible, but I’d really like my dad and my grandma to read it, but they are in the Spirit World… As writers we support each other so a lot of the writers I admire have already seen it and I appreciate their input and their advice.
AB: How do you think different audiences will receive the book?
CRD: People who are non-Indigenous will read this and say, “I never knew this” and be appalled. Well they should be appalled, but at the same time be grateful that we are all trying to make it a better place for our children and grandchildren.
AB: Some poems talk about reconnecting with a lost ancestry, for example “Sweetgrass, Sage, and Cedar” – a poem about smudging.
CRD: I was told that my culture was evil and the things we do are “of the devil” – this is the conversation that went on when I was a child. So yeah, I was terrified when I first started meeting people and the spiritual practices were new to me and uncomfortable, but I did them anyway – for example the first time I went in a sweat lodge. I’m claustrophobic and used to have a terrible fear of the dark, so to go in there took a lot of courage.
AB: What would you suggest for Indigenous people of your generation who grew up in white settler families who want to reconnect with their culture?
Just go to your local friendship center, pay attention to when there are pow wows, round dances, or feasts, and go to them and just start talking to people. One of the things I’m involved in is setting up these little libraries on reserve in Saskatchewan… In Ontario there are 50 or 60 fully staffed, fully stocked libraries [on reserves] – here we don’t have any; it’s a shameful thing. But we’re having the youth decorate these littles structures, and people just talk to you. So I’ve been out to these First Nations communities and people just talk to you. They ask, “Who are you? Where are you from?” Just go to places where you will meet people, and that’s how you start learning.
If possible, try to reconnect with your family. What I did is I wrote a letter to the ministry of social services back when I was in my 30s. Find out what you need to do to try to reconnect with your family, and start from there.
AB: What is the meaning of Hiraeth?
CRD: [It means] a yearning for a place you can never go back to, a longing to find a home that doesn’t exist. And because it’s not of my culture, it made perfect sense because so much of the writing has to do with growing up outside of my culture.
AB: What advice would you give to young Indigenous writers?
CRD: The advice I give to everyone is be fearless, don’t worry about polite conversation when you are writing. If you are feeling rage then write that. If you are feeling absolute love for something then write that. Don’t censor yourself, ever, because writing is no place for polite conversation.
AB: Where did you find your strength and your hope through all of this?
CRD: I think it’s just women – hanging out with women, talking and mostly I think listening, is where I found it, especially with older women, someone of Kookum’s age. It doesn’t matter if they are related to you or not, they just want the best for our young people.
Like the poem I wrote about Lilly, who was my mother-in-law – she told me her life story and it was tragic, but through the tragedy she found happiness, and that came through the culture. In fact, one of the other poetry manuscripts I want to write specifically has to do with the strength of women, our Indigenous population, obviously, but women in general. My oldest sister, she’s Dene and I never grew up with her, is one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met and I get sad – why didn’t I get to grow up with you? In my biological family we have lawyers, nurses and educators, and it’s like OK, these are not the boogeymen I was told about growing up. I’m just happy to have reconnected with them. But with my older sisters, they are all fluently Cree, they helped me, I put Cree language into my writing. Even though I’m not fluent I think it’s really important to honour the language by using it. And one of the lines for a poem that has yet to be written, is “Grace is the name of every woman I’ve ever met.” We as women, especially as Indigenous women, we really need to take our place and say, “You know what? We are pretty awesome.”
AB: What are you working on now?
CRD: I’m working on my third novel, and it’s pretty different… there will be elements of the spirit in there and Cree mythology, women fighting back, and part of it has to do with missing and murdered Indigenous women and the discussion that is happening at the moment. Because we don’t need to be feeling like we are victims anymore. My main character came to me in the night – her name, I don’t know why, is Wren Lonechild. Like I said, my creative process has its own life.
You can find Carol Rose Daniels reading from her poetry collection, Hiraeth, on Sunday September 9, 2018 at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival.
This interview has been condensed. Find the full interview on our podcast.