In a previous post, I talked about why I wrote and submitted a short story to Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History. Given the differences between my personal background and that of the main character in the story, I had to do a lot of research just to write the first draft. This post is about that.
The main character, Thomas Greyeyes, lives in a different era from me (the story is set in 1919), is a First World War veteran, is an Anishinaabe man who worked as a trapper in northern Manitoba, and has barely seen his children in years. I’m of English and Icelandic descent and grew up in the late 20th century. About the only things I had in common with my main character are where the story is set (Winnipeg, where I have lived most my life) and age — Thomas and I are both around 40 years old. And, like him, I’m a father.
For the rest of the context for the story and for who Thomas is, I read as much as I could; and I asked people who know better than me.
I was very fortunate that a friend of mine from high school, Marlo Pisa, now a high school teacher herself, generously shared her time to start teaching me some basic vocabulary in Ojibwe (not the dialect spoken by the character in the story, but many words are similar). Through her I found out about Aboriginal Languages of Manitoba. She advised me to go there to get a textbook her language teacher highly recommended. ALM is a wonderful cultural centre here in Winnipeg, and you can learn more about what they do here.
After visiting the centre and learning about the translation services available, I contacted them when writing “A Deeper Echo.” (To be clear: I wanted to learn Ojibwe for various reasons, high among them to be gain a greater understanding of Anishinaabe culture. There’s no way I would attempt to use phrases from the language based on my own limited understanding.) I spoke to Cindy Lavallee there about the story I was writing. She offered to put me in touch with one of their translators for Island Lakes Dialect Ojibwe (which has also been called Oji-Cree, which I later learned was not the preferred term nowadays).
Roger Roulette took a look at the list of phrases and words I thought the main character in the story might use, either to himself or with others. Roger was a huge help in this and I would like to thank him here again for this. I felt the Ojibwe-Cree words were important because part of the story is the bond Thomas attempts to establish with his family through their first language. Thomas also sees the effects of Canada’s brutal policies that attempted to eradicate those languages through residential schools.
I had already been reading up on the residential school system, so I read more. (If you want to see how this state-sponsored program of forced assimilation continues to affect people today, read what Robert-Falcon Ouellette has to say about reconciliation, or how Matt Henderson approaches teaching students about Canada’s apartheid.)
Long Hidden editors Daniel José Older and Rose Fox wanted to see “research bibliographies and suggestions for further reading” with submissions. Man, you do not say this to a research nerd. I was only too happy to put together a bibliography. (I also kept researching even after I submitted the story and got the great news that “A Deeper Echo” had been accepted). At one point before I submitted it, I queried whether they wanted footnotes throughout the story. Rose politely wrote back that that was not necessary.
So, for those of you who are interested, here’s the bibliography I sent in with my story.
Artibise, Alan. Winnipeg: An Illustrated History. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1977.
Bell, Steven A. “The 107th ‘Timber Wolf’ Battalion at Hill 70,” Canadian Military History, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1996.
Bumsted, J.M. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History. Watson & Dywer, 1994.
Godefroy, Andrew B., ed. Great War Commands: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Army Leadership, 1914–1918. Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2010.
Krawchuk, Michael. Wall of Fire: The Battle of Vimy Ridge. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 2009.
MacKinnon, Mary, “Trade Unions and Employment Stability at the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1903-29,” paper presented at the 2001 Luxembourg Conference on Employment Security and Career Mobility in Historical Perspective, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, 2001. See http://www.clarku.edu/faculty/jbrown/papers/mackinnon.pdf
Mech, David L. And Luigi Boitani, eds. Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Miller, J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996
Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
Winegard, Timothy C. For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012.
I wanted to get all the details right. What battalion might Thomas would have served in? The 107th, for example, was raised in Winnipeg and nearly half of the people serving in it were First Nations people. During the Winnipeg General Strike, would there would have been any workers still on the job at Canadian Pacific Railways? What was the political mood in the city at the time? What difficulties might Thomas have in tracking down his children? People in Winnipeg had to deal with the aftermath of the First World War, the flu epidemic, and great inequality in wealth and working conditions that provoked the general strike that shut down the city for weeks. As well, a tuberculosis outbreak had disproportionately affected First Nations communities.
A lot of what I read up on did not make it into the story at all. For example, I had to read a lot about the residential school system and the Battle of Vimy Ridge. To introduce too many details of these things into the story would have slowed it down. I tried to show as much of the effects of these things on the characters as I could without breaking into a history lecture. However, without looking at all those things, I never would have made the connection that Thomas’s “shell shock” might well have corresponded with the effects on his children of being abused in a residential school. The more I read about the long-term effects of both, the clearer it seemed. And in both cases, the people experiencing it were expected to just get over it and fit into mainstream society.
Books, of course, can only take you so far.
After getting the good news that “A Deeper Echo” had been accepted for Long Hidden, I worked mainly with Daniel José Older on edits. He had many insightful questions, points and requested revisions, and the changes made the story much stronger. (I think the only point I didn’t want to change was the word “demobbed” — a Canadian/British word that is short for “demobilized,” which came into use after the First World War to describe the process of soldiers returning to civilian life.)
I still worried that as a non-First Nations person writing about Anishinaabe culture I would be getting things wrong or at least out of context. So I approached a friend of mine, David Robertson, a writer known for his graphic novels and series such as 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga, to ask whether he would take a look at the story for me. He agreed, and did more than that — he offered to have a cultural consultant at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, where he works, read it as well. He had some insightful things to say and corrected me on some issues in the story, so I was happy to make changes. Getting his perspective underscored, for me, the challenges in writing about another culture in such a way as to be respectful to readers from that culture while still including enough context for other readers who don’t share that background. (I am not sure I succeeded in striking this balance.)
After sending in final rewrites to Daniel, the story was out of my hands until I was sent page proofs to go over, just to be sure there were no typos or errors.
One thing I noticed was that Rose and Daniel had chosen not to italicize the words and phrases in the story that were in Island Lakes Dialect Ojibwe — something I had done out of habit, based on many years as a copy editor where I had ingrained the practice of italicizing any non-English word. I realized after seeing the page proofs that italicizing those words was a way of marking them as different, or foreign, in a story that was meant to centre Thomas, his family, and his culture. In essence, that unconscious editing convention was othering him and his language. So seeing the words Roger had translated for me integrated into the story in Roman text along with the English words not only seemed right, it drove home that even when trying not to other the main character, I was sometimes doing it without realizing it.
The final judgment whether the story stands up will belong to the reader, of course. (Long Hidden will be launched on May 10; for more information on the book, click here.)
There are likely other ways I could have or should have approached writing this story to do it better. You can read what Long Hidden author Kima Jones wrote about the process for her story, “Nine,” here. I’d love to hear from others — writers, readers, people who have seen this done well or poorly, or anyone in fact — who have suggestions or recommendations.
UPDATE: If you haven’t already, see what Long Hidden author Sunny Moraine (“Across the Seam”) has to say about the story behind her story here.
UPDATE 2: More Long Hidden authors are blogging and posting about their stories, and you can find the links to them beside each title here.