Our Stories: Strength and Survival

Thursday May 20, 8:00 - 9:30 p.m. EST (online)

Presenters:  Antonio Michael Downing (Saga Boy), Harriet Alida Lye (Natural Killer) and Darrel J. McLeod (Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity).

Host: Bee Quammie

These three memoirs tell the story of struggle: to rise above family trauma, dislocation and addiction; to survive a life-threatening illness against all odds; and to overcome a traumatic past in pursuit of a happy and meaningful life. But more than struggle, these are compelling stories of resilience, reminding us that the human spirit is not something easily broken. Join us for interviews with each author, followed by a group discussion and Q&A.

This event includes closed captioning.

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Saga Boy
By Antonio Michael Downing
Published by Viking Canada

An enthralling, deeply personal account of a young immigrant's search for belonging and black identity amid the long-lasting effects of cultural dislocation.

Antonio Michael Downing's memoir of creativity and transformation is a startling mash-up of memories and mythology, told in gripping, lyrical prose. Raised by his indomitable grandmother in the lush rainforest of southern Trinidad, Downing, at age 11, is uprooted to Canada when she dies. But to a very unusual part of Canada: he and his older brother are sent to live with his stern, evangelical Aunt Joan, in Wabigoon, a tiny northern Ontario community where they are the only black children in the town. In this wilderness, he begins his journey as an immigrant minority, using music and performance to dramatically transform himself. At the heart of his odyssey is the longing for a home. He is re-united with his birth parents who he has known only through stories. But this proves disappointing: Al is a womanizing con man and drug addict, and Gloria, twice abandoned by Al, seems to regard her sons as cash machines.

He tries to flee his messy family life by transforming into a series of extravagant musical personalities: "Mic Dainjah", a punk rock rapper, "Molasses", a soul music crooner and finally "John Orpheus", a gold chained, sequin- and leather-clad pop star. Yet, like his father and grandfather, he has become a "Saga Boy", a Trinidadian playboy, addicted to escapism, attention, and sex. When the inevitable crash happens, he finds himself in a cold, stone jail cell. He has become everything he was trying to escape and must finally face himself.

Richly evocative, Saga Boy is a heart-wrenching but uplifting story of a lonely immigrant boy who overcomes adversity and abandonment to reclaim his black identity and embrace a rich heritage.

Antonio Michael Downing grew up in southern Trinidad, Northern Ontario, Scarborough, and Kitchener. He is a musician, writer, and activist based in Toronto. His 2010 debut novel, Molasses (Blaurock Press), was published to critical acclaim. In 2017 he was named by the RBC Taylor Prize as one of Canada's top Emerging Authors for nonfiction. He performs and composes music as John Orpheus.

Natural Killer
By Harriet Alida Lye
Published by McClelland & Stewart

"I need people to know that I exist, that their experiment worked, that by some combination of luck and science, I'm alive."

In this harrowing and intimate memoir, Harriet Alida Lye explores how, at just fifteen years old, she was diagnosed with a form of leukemia called Natural Killer, named "the rarest and worst malignancy." The average survival time of patients with this diagnosis is fifty-eight days. There are no known survivors. There were no known survivors.

Fifteen years after Harriet's diagnosis, she became pregnant, despite having been told that her chemotherapy treatment would likely make conception impossible. To be a mother is to make a death, as death is bound up in life. She knew her body had the ability to create death. She never trusted, was told to not even imagine, that it also had the power, that magical banality, to create life.

Weaving in source material from the year she spent in hospital, written by both of her parents and her teenage self, this personal reflection is told through a seamless blend of narrative, snapshots, journal entries, and blog updates posted for friends and family.

With probing lyricism and searing honesty, Natural Killer explores what it's like to live with a life-threatening illness and survive it; what it means for a body to turn against itself, to self-destruct from within; and what it takes to regain trust in a body that has committed the ultimate betrayal.

Harriet Alida Lye's acclaimed debut novel, The Honey Farm, was published in Canada, the US, and Australia. She was the founder and editor of Her Royal Majesty, a literary arts magazine that ran for six years. Her work has appeared in VICE, Hazlitt, The Happy Reader, Catapult, The Guardian, and the National Post. She studied Philosophy and English at the University of King's College in Halifax and lived in Paris for the better part of eight years. She now lives in Toronto.


Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity
By Darrel J. McLeod
Published by Douglas & McIntyre

Peyakow, the sequel to Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (2018 Governor General’s Award for non-fiction) by Darrel J. McLeod, recounts a journey of steely perseverance and enduring love in the relentless pursuit of happiness and a meaningful life.

Time and again McLeod is devastated by the defeat, self-destruction and even death of those closest to him and constantly fears that he too will be dragged down. And yet, each new tragedy propels McLeod to greater heights as he shows the world he can overcome his traumatic past to accomplish as much or more than the white classmates who used to bully and torment him as a poor Cree child from Northern Alberta.

McLeod’s compelling storytelling builds on literary devices and innovations integral to Mamaskatch. He once again draws on inherited memory to set the stage for his book, telling the story of the negotiation of an historic treaty which changed his people’s way of life forever. With a sprinkling of magical realism reminiscent of Garcia Marques, Peyakow—a Cree word loosely translated as “he or she travels alone”—is a love song of gratitude to Mother Earth and an ode to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Darrel J. Mcleod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. Before pursuing writing in his retirement McLeod was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French Literature and Education from UBC. Peyakow is McLeod’s second memoir following the events in Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre), which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and was nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize, George Ryga Award for Social Awareness, and the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. Darrel lives, writes, sings and plays jazz guitar in Sooke, B.C. and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Bee Quammie is a multimedia storyteller: a writer, radio host, TV personality, and public speaker. She has written for publications like The Globe and Mail, Men's Health, Today’s Parent, Macleans, and more. She is the co-host of the Global News Radio show The Kultur’D Show and has been a featured panelist and commentator on shows like CityTV's Cityline, CBC's The National, Global's ET Canada, and CTV's The Social. Bee regularly writes and speaks on topics like race and culture, parenting, mental health, and more, and she resides in the GTA with her two daughters.

Need the book? Buy from one of our bookselling partners or your local independent bookstore:

Guelph: The Bookshelf is our Guelph bookselling partner for this event. Purchase online at bookshelf.ca or call 519-821-3311 x1 for curbside pickup, free local delivery or Canada-wide shipping.

Toronto: Another Story Bookshop is our Toronto bookselling partner for this event. Purchase online at anotherstory.ca or call 416-462-1104 for curbside pickup, local delivery or Canada-wide shipping.

Durham and York Regions:  Blue Heron Books is our bookselling partner.  Purchase online at blueheronbooks.com or call 905-852-4282 for curbside pickup, local delivery, or Canada-wide shipping.