Author Q&A: Waubgeshig Rice
By Anna Bowen, July 2018
Inspired by stories he read at a young age like the John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as well as more recently by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Waubgeshig (Waub) Rice wanted to write an apocalyptic novel from an Indigenous perspective. A long-time CBC employee and the brand new host of UpNorth CBC, Waub penned Moon of the Crusted Snow (ECW Press, 2018), which follows Legacy (Theytus Books, 2014), as well as a short story collection, Midnight Sweatlodge (Theytus Books, 2011). The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival caught up with Waub for his first-ever interview about the new novel, a post-apocalyptic thriller that takes place in a remote First Nation in northern Ontario, that had us hooked from the first page. Catch the Q&A here, and listen to the podcast on our website or on BookishRadio.ca.
AB: When did you start writing?
WR: I had a pretty good storytelling foundation to begin with because my parents and my family and my community told a lot of our old stories, a lot of traditional Anishinaabe stories to us as kids, so I knew the value of stories pretty young.
AB: How does that same value translate into the value of the stories you are telling?
WR: It had more of an influence on my journalism starting out. I think that was because I more or less saw myself as a conduit for other peoples’ stories… I didn’t really make the connection between traditional, or I guess cultural, storytelling and literature until much later on in my high school years. Because I just didn’t know there were Indigenous authors – we didn’t learn about them in high school, they weren’t part of the curriculum. I was fortunate to have an aunt who knew that I was really keen on writing and reading and she knew that I wasn’t learning about some of the authors that were really blazing trails back then, back in the early to mid-nineteen-nineties. She gave me books by people like Lee Maracle, Louise Erdrich, Richard Wagamese, Thomas King, people like that.
AB: Why journalism at Ryerson?
WR: It’s interesting… I was always keen on news and current affairs, I read the paper religiously even as a young kid and I listened to the radio. I took a shining to that sort of storytelling because I saw it as an opportunity to relay real experiences… but I didn’t know that I could become a journalist, again, because I didn’t see Indigenous people doing that job in the mainstream. When I moved to Winnipeg in 2006 to work for CBC, I had received a Canada Council grant a few years back to develop Midnight Sweatlodge and when I got to Winnipeg I connected with the Aboriginal Writers’ Collective there…and that was essential in terms of getting feedback. That was the first time I had really seriously considered getting published.
AB: For listeners, who aren’t yet able to get a copy of the book, can you give a quick snapshot of what the novel is about?
WR: It’s a story about a northern community that experiences an apocalyptic event and is forced to really make some crucial decisions regarding survival and regarding people coming in to try to survive with them. But it’s an opportunity for this community to renew and reconnect with the land and really figure out how to go forward in this new era of a post-apocalypse in some ways.
AB: Can you say a little about the kernel that began this story?
WR: I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, the stories that I read even from a young age like The Chrysalids or even Lord of the Flies really stuck with me through my life and I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I loved – and I thought I’ve read a lot of stories like these over the years and I’ve never really seen something written from an Indigenous perspective. Because if there’s some kind of apocalyptic event, Indigenous communities are going to be faced with the consequences as well, so why not write a story about how a community like that copes? The other interesting layer is that Indigenous communities in north America have already overcome an apocalypse… The other element to Moon of the Crusted Snow is that it is an allegory for colonialism … it’s like the second wave of colonialism in some ways in that people from the city start seeking refuge in the reserve.
AB: Was there a moment where this plot line occurred to you?
WR: I lived in Toronto for a long time. I was there when the blackout happened in 2003, and it really got me thinking, what would happen if an apocalyptic event happened here? I would go straight to my reserve… I grew up with that land-based knowledge, and some of that survival knowledge, even though I’ve lost a lot of it, being in cities for the past twenty years, but that would be the first place I’d go because that is where I’d feel safest, and I wondered, would other people try to do that too?
AB: What role does a connection to the land have to play in this book?
WR: I think it’s probably the most important relationship in this book. What it comes down to, in this community, hundreds of kilometers north of the city, the ones who are able to cope are the ones who know how to hunt, know how to build a shelter, know how to make a fire, know how to make clothing out of what they hunt, and that is knowledge that was passed down through countless generations.
AB: Near the beginning of the novel, the main character’s father, Dan, has an eerie dream. Can you talk about the significance of dreams in your writing?
WR: Those are my favourite parts to write. From a cultural perspective, Anishinaabe people place a huge importance on dreams, if you are out fasting or doing something ceremonial. But as a literary device, I think they are excellent in terms of foreshadowing … and it’s also a chance to really get surreal, that’s what I like the most about them – you can write some really trippy stuff if you jump into a dream sequence. I think there are four dream sequences scattered throughout the book and they come at very important points and they also hint back at some of the major themes, some of the major cultural themes too.
AB: How does fiction fit in a time of accelerating climate change and ongoing racism and unresolved settler colonialism?
WR: Everything I write about in terms of what this community is dealing with are real life experiences that I have seen and that I know that communities have gone through, so it’s basically like laying out things that have already happened… I’m able to collect all of these different kinds of things and put them into a work of fiction.
Reconciliation is such a big buzzword and the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous is framed that way… people may have the misconception that colonialism is in the past and all these wrongs happened in the past and that reconciliation is about just recognizing them and working towards creating a good relationship between community but in reality it is ongoing, there are things that communities continue to deal with as a result of being settled and being colonized and attempts at assimilation… the irony is that this community was displaced to begin to what was perceived as unfavorable land … but now that everything has fallen apart and chaos has ensued, their community and their way of life has become favorable and people are encroaching on it once again and how are they going to deal with it the second time around?
WR: I would say keep writing, share every experience you can if you are comfortable doing that…It’s about speaking your truth, documenting, and in some ways immortalizing your experiences – that’s the essence of storytelling It’s what kept our culture alive for thousands of years, and also in the face of the deliberate obliteration of our culture; people whispered these stories to each other at residential schools to ensure that some of these things would never be forgotten…For me it was essential to use as much of the language as I know in Moon of the Crusted Snow so people know what the language is and what it looks like when it is written (in the English alphabet).
AB: Who would you hope might read this book?
WR: Anybody! What I hope happens next in the world of Indigenous literature is that the mainstream starts recognizing that everyday genre stories happen to Indigenous communities… Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is the perfect example. It’s a young adult, post-apocalyptic story with Indigenous characters … basically the way the mainstream literary world has treated Indigenous authors and their books in the past is to look at the stories of dealing with trauma and how people have become resilient in the face of that, which are crucial stories and those books that have held us all up for the past twenty to thirty years … but having Moon of the Crusted Snow, alongside, say, The Road, shows that these stories can exist with Indigenous communities and with Indigenous characters at the center.
AB: What Indigenous authors would you recommend?
WR: Recently I read tommy Orange’s There, There … back to back with Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, and reading those two books together blew my mind. Books like those two take Indigenous literature to the next level.
You can find Waubgeshig Rice reading from Moon of the Crusted Snow, on Sunday September 9, 2018 at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival.
This interview has been condensed. Find the full interview on our podcast.