When I was asked to write this gift guide, I was presented with a vast selection of titles to choose from. Since I knew there was a dearth of literary talent in the Indigenous writerly world, I decided to highlight the work of Indigenous writers, some of whom were already on my to-read list, and a couple who were new to me that I stumbled across on the ALU website.
Compiling this list of titles was an agonizing process, but I managed to narrow it down to only 6 books (no mean feat)! With difficult decisions had to be made, I chose to focus on those dazzling, dark, and complex stories that most caught my eye, stories that I was eager to read anyway—writing this guide gave me an excuse to buy some early-holiday gifts to myself, and I strongly recommend that you do the same (they also make great gifts for other people too).
In no particular order, here are my recommendations:
Islands of Decolonial Love
Leanne Simpson (ARP Books)
A jewel-like collection of inter-connected stories and songs, each chapter is like an island, and each one revolves around themes of love; romantic, moody, problematic, and strange. Formed around kernels of Anishinaabe words, these stories grow into out-of-control bonfires that threaten to burn down entire islands and body-thieves stealing from coffins (for the most virtuous of reasons) in “jiimaanag”, to a love-story of Sabe the sasquatch in “she told him 10,000 years of everything,” and a song in staccato phrases (which I’ve had the good fortune to hear performed live) that tells the story of burial mounds and ancestor-skeletons under orange tarps from Canadian Tire, unearthed to make way for cottages on the shores of Rice Lake in “jiibay or aandizooke.” These stories are compelling, they ring of truth, the struggle for existence, and the struggle to love, decolonial.
Favourite Line: “if you don’t have 7up you can mix vodka with beer” (p.96)
A Gentle Habit
Cherie Dimaline (Kegedonce Press)
This book is a stunning collection of six stories with thoroughly enjoyable prose, that range from: the heart-wrenching, realistic cruelty and social stratification of the playground found in “The Bead Fairy,” to the Bukowski-worthy junk-sick filing clerk who has acquired a newfound, and perplexing word-eating fixation in “Chasing the Ants,” to the pathetic suburban father obsessed with discovering the flower thief who has uprooted his beloved garden in “36 Holes,” to the sinister and Gaiman-esque girl born with missing bones in “The Memory of Bones,” to the intricately painful navigation of adolescent lust and love in “all the small things that collect at the bottom of the day,” to an inverted re-imagining of the classic haunted-house story, in which a house haunts the succeeding generations of one family in “Heave.” This is a great read!
Favourite line: “There is a moment that lies in the softest part of a person’s gut, rubbing its dirty fingers along entrails, coaxing out the kind of pain that sings… an indeterminable aria that sits in the heart” (p.153)
Dawn Dumont (Thistledown Press)
You really really won’t be disappointed if you pick up this book, Rose is such an endearing, well-realized and sympathetic character, who has occasional and easy-to-identify-with low self-esteem, but she is also brave and just plain likable. This is the story of 35-year-old mother of two Rose Okanese, who unwittingly decides to run a marathon after she has talked herself into a corner. The race forms the structure for the story, her training sessions, her daily trials and tribulations, aches and pains, the raising of her two daughters, a new love interest, the mystery of a ghost, and suspense about how the race will play out draws you along through the narrative. Set on the Pesakestew Reserve in “middle of nowhere-fuck Saskatchewan” Dumont manages to keep the narrative fast-paced, and the tone light-hearted and humorous even amidst moments of the most painful dramatic tension. You can’t help but worry about, and cheer for Rose Okanese. This novel is a joy to read. Seriously, go buy it!
Favourite line: “[her friend’s] integrity had forced her to do many things in the past: paying parking tickets, apologizing for running over someone’s dog, and then apologizing for trying to pass off a similar-looking dog as the dead one.” (p.107-108)
Witness, I Am
Gregory Scofield (Nightwood Editions)
A slim volume with Cree words interspersed throughout, these poems are great to read aloud just to hear the sound of the language, the English translations appearing right-justified in italics; these poems are elegies, memorials, honour songs, and dedications that explore themes of identity, love, and loss. The longest poem in the collection, “Muskrat Woman,” is a re-imagining of the Flood story, with biblical references interspersed throughout, references to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the highway of tears, and Robert Picton’s farm, all told from the point of view of Muskrat Woman, who gathers the fist-full of dirt after the Flood to re-make the land and create Turtle Island. It also includes the chilling audio transcript of Amber Tuccaro and her presumed murderer released by the RCMP.
Favourite line: “Fuck you!/ Get your own dirt” (p.9)
Set in Weyakwin Saskatchewan, the story begins in the distinctive voice of Charlie Muskrat who is going winter moose hunting from his car window, because it is cold out, and “Thelma” is coming to visit, and the moose he “shot last fall was not going to be enough to feed that woman.” The humour is wry, tongue-in-cheek, ripe with mis-hearings and miscommunications in the same vein as Thomas King, in a genre of mythic-realism. Along the way, Charlie picks up various hitch-hikers, and incarnations of the culture-hero Wesakicak, who goes up to Mount Olympus to visit the Greek Gods in Greek Heaven, since Charlie’s “father was Greek and his mother was Cree,” and he is trying to figure out where Charlie belongs in the afterlife. The author also appears as a character with a cameo appearance, as one of the hitch-hikers Charlie picks up on his journey, in an interesting fourth wall break: “Harold Johnson, what the hell are you doing out here?”
Favourite Line: “we are written here, Gutenberged” (p26 ‘Gutenberg’ used as a verb!)
Gwen Benaway (Kegedonce Press)
A fiercely intelligent poet and writer, I’ve also had the good fortune to hear Gwen read from this new collection of poetry, which hasn’t yet been released (but lucky for you, it will be out very soon!) She writes with a level of truth and integrity that’s so piercing, you can’t help but to feel pained at the level of honesty and bravery it must take to share these stories. This one is definitely on my to-read-list.
See the original article on the All Lit Up Blog here: https://alllitup.ca/Blog/2016/Gift-Guide-Week-Nathan-Niigan-Noodin-Adler