My "Honouring Words" 2003 Top 10 World Indigenous Literature Reading List


Richard Van Camp

Sue Abbey, Editor at the University of Queensland Press, said it best: "Indigenous literature is the new literature." She said this at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this past summer during the Honouring Words II Tour, and it got me thinking about the beauty of "voice" in world Indigenous literature because whether the story is taking place in Murri country in Australia or in Maori territory in Aotearoa or in Indian country throughout Canada, I know these characters; I know this narrator; I know these people. Maybe their songs are different; perhaps their ceremonies are different, but I know these people and can't wait to know more about them. There's a Sue Wilson standing outside every bar everywhere: young, furious and starving for a new life in Melissa Lucashenko's Steam Pigs. My uncles were exactly like Mulga and Bindi in Herb Wharton's Unbranded -- still are, actually!

The Honouring Words Tours across Canada in October of 2002 and across Australia during July and August of 2003 has both humbled and inspired me in so many ways. During these two tours throughout this past year, I have met the most incredible people and was introduced to three generations of world Indigenous authors and artists, and I love it! If you'd like more information on the tour and all of its participants, please check it out for more information.

Yes, world Indigenous literature is "the new literature" because, like myself, so many Indigenous authors are writing down the stories of their people for the very first time. My grandparents, Pierre and Melanie Wah-shee, were traditional Dogrib Dene and spoke very little English. To speak to them, I had to use translators. What they shared with me and what I learned from other Dene elders and storytellers across the Northwest Territories is what I am sharing in my writing now. This is happening worldwide. More and more Indigenous knowledge is being shared in our literature. Teachings, insight, wisdom, knowledge and a perspective that has never been shared before is now being shared by authors for the first time, and this propels me to share what I know, what I have seen and what I feel with the world through my writing and storytelling.

At the request of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, poet, publisher, and visionary behind the Honouring Words tours, it is my pleasure to share with you some of my favorite works that I discovered during these past two years on the Honouring Words tours, before, during and after. Enjoy!

  1. skins: contemporary indigenous writing edited by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Josie Douglas (Kegedonce Press). For me, this was the anthology that led me into the garden of world Indigenous literature. As Aboriginal people in Canada, we often do not know who the new Native American Indian voices are in the United State -- never mind what's going on overseas with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. It was a joy to read the authors from across Turtle Island: In the US, skins features Sherman Alexie's "The Farm", Kimberly Blaeser's "Fancy Dog Contest", Joseph Bruchac's "The Hungry One", Louise Erdrich's "Grandpa Kapshaw's Ghost" and Linda Hogan's "Dora-Rouge's Bones"; across Aboriginal -- Australia, there's Richard Frankland's "Who Took The Children Away?", Kenny Laughton's "Night Games", Melissa Lucashenko's "Let Me Tell You What I Want", Sally Morgan's "The Letter" and Alexis Wright's "The Serpent's Covenant", and from Maori -- Aotearoa, there's Patricia Grace's "It Used to Be Green Once", Ngati Kangaru's, Briar Grace-Smith's "Charlie the Dreaded", Witi Ihimaera's (of Whale Rider movie fame), "Life As it Really Is" and Zion A. Komene's "Wairua is designed to flow in a Koru style." From Canada, there's Thomas King, Maria Campbell, moi and Alootook Ipellie.

  2. Unbranded by Herb Wharton. (University of Queensland Press). I had a chance to spend time with Uncle Herb at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this past summer and what a lovely man he is. The nights were cold out in Byron Bay (we were there in the Australian winter) and I had jet lag, so I would start reading Herb's book at five in the morning. This was great because I'd see him at breakfast and I asked him so many questions about this fabulous story.

    Unbranded is the epic story of the outback championed by Sandy, Mulga and Bindi, three mates, one white and two Murris, with three different dreams who help each other get where they want to go. I really loved this novel because it was written by someone who truly knew the land intimately and peppers it with goannas, snakes, emus, roos, dingoes and cattle. A former drover himself, Herb Wharton leads you through his country, Kooma Country. He shows you how giving the earth can be but also how cruel it can be with drought and scavengers. One of the most endearing characters in this story is "Comet", a horse that all three men adopt but who's stolen by one of the many rough dudes in the novel: "Forklift." Braided expertly with humor and gorgeous writing, you've got a front-row-center seat to cattle stampedes, bare-knuckle brawls between stockmen and townies, bush tucker so bad that it killed four dingoes, gutsy bush rodeos and friendship for life.

  3. Steam Pigs by Melissa Lucashenko. Murri literature at its finest! Melissa Lucashenko's hero, Sue Wilson, suffering from the claustrophobia of her too-large, too-poor family in a too-small town of Townsville craves the anonymity of the city life in Eagleby. Lucashenko's writing is so dazzling you'll need a neckbrace for every whiplash she's gonna give ya!

  4. Not Quite Men, No Longer Boys by K. C. Laughton. One of the best things about the Honouring Words tours are the friends you make for life. Kenny Laughton is not only one of my favorite authors on the planet, he's also one of my dearest friends. I first met him in Sydney while we were launching skins, and we had the pleasure of inviting him to the first Honouring Words tour across Canada, and he took magnificent care of us while we were in his territory and hometown of Alice Springs during the second tour.

    Not Quite Men, No Longer Boys is Kenny's factional account of what happened to both him and his fellow Aboriginal soldiers while fighting the unwinnable war in Vietnam. Kenny was there for two years and his novel takes you with him from the fleshpots of Saigon to clearing mines at Nui Dat, to watching him become a tunnel rat of Phuoc Tuy. If you thought you knew what it was like in Vietnam, think again. This book will show you how it really was from one who knows and remembers and is warning the world through literature that war, long over, is carried by every soldier who ever went there. Forever.

  5. the binna binna man by Meme McDonald & Boori Mondy Pryor (Allen & Unwin). "Stories from my brother's reserve in The Deep North" is how Melissa signed this book to me after she passed it along after we met in Sydney at the launch of skins and what a story this is. This is a story told by a young man in a car on his way to a funeral. The voice in this work is so pure, so innocent and so in awe of the world around him it's magic. I love the fact that there are real pictures of the Indigenous people of the North country and, God, they're beautiful. Beautiful smiles, beautiful brown skin, beautiful everything…

  6. Maui: Legends of the Outcast written by Robert Sullivan, illustrated by Chris Slane (Godwit Publishing). If you know me, you know I love graphic novels and this is illustrated literature at its best. This is the story of trickster-hero Maui Tikitiki-a-Taranga. Spurned by his mother and despised by his brothers, Maui Tikitiki-a-Taranga, is outcast and has to make his own way alone through the land of his people. During his journey and armed with the jawbone from his grandmother, Murirangawhenua, Maui Tikitiki-a-Taranga takes on the Goddess of Fire, thus turning the earth into a raging inferno. He then takes on the Sun God. It's nonstop action and beautifully illustrated. Check it out!

  7. Poetry by Michael Robinson (Martin House). Michael Robinson is of Cree and English ancestry. I think he is one of our most unknown yet most important voices in Aboriginal literature in Canada. His books The Earth and the Dancing Man, Touching the Serpent's Tail and A Bird Within a Ring of Fire are the perfect marriage of one man's visionary and spiritual art with perfect poetry. Check out his website for an immediate glimpse at a living treasure.

  8. Without Reservation: Indigenous Erotica edited by Kateri Akiwenzie Damm (Kegedonce Press,) Well, it's about time! Kegedonce Press breaks trail once again with an anthology that'll make you blush, howl, laugh and thirst for num-nums(!). Seven years in the making, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm has gathered some of the finest erotica from all over the world in Indigenous country to create the first ever collection of indigenous erotica. Without Reservation is the sweetest medicine. Over 40 Indigenous authors bare it all and blow a pile of stereotypes away. Yes, we have great sex! Yes, we are sensual! Yes, we're leaving the shadows of shame behind, and we're leaving it together, holding hands and proud. This anthology is going to save lives and pay dividends in the baby department. It's that good!

    I think every contributor to this anthology had been waiting years for the right publication to unleash our freak on, and this was it. No holding back. No apologies. Selfless. Naked. Vulnerable. Glorious. Hey, strength in numbers, right? If you're gonna streak, it's always best with a group, right!

  9. Gatherings 14: The En'owkin Journal of First North American Peoples: Enowkin Reunion edited by Karen Olson (Theytus Books). This fourteenth edition of the Gatherings anthology highlights the students, staff and visiting lecturers who have visited the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, BC since its inception in 1985. Of all of the fourteen editions of "Gatherings", Reunion is my favorite because it honours our instructors (I attended En'owkin from 1992-1993) and mentors such as Jeannette Armstrong, Maurice Kenny, Gerry William, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Rasunah Marsden, and Karen Olsen, but it also honours the students that I had the honor of attending class with: Lorne Simon, Wil George, Tracey Jack, Barbara Helen-Hill, Gunargie O'Sullivan, and it honours my fellow alumni (who I would have loved to attend class with): Brenda Prince, Krystal Cook, Vera Wabegijig, Trevor Cameron, Graham Scott Proulx, Dennis SaddlemanÑto name a few. This issue also introduced me to the new generation of students currently attending the En'owkin Centre: Jacqueline Wachell, Robyn Kruger, and Joe KrugerÑagain, to name a few students. But on top of this, the writing in this anthology is so brilliant, so blinding in its beauty, check out Brenda Prince's first chapter in a story that's dying to be a brilliant first novel in "Grand Entry," Check out the very best short story I have read all year: Sherida Crane's "Too Wicked." Check it all out and see why there's no stopping world Indigenous literature now. We have our own editors, publishing houses, award ceremonies, designers, lay out artists, and publishers.

  10. Somewhere in this Inferno by Chris Bose (Theytus Books). Theytus Books is about to release a new voice in Aboriginal literature that questions absolutely everything about us as Aboriginal people, as Canadians and as a human race. Whereas so many Aboriginal authors do not wish to shed light onto our own problems and cycles of abuse and neglect, Chris Bose is not afraid to talk about the issues that matter most right now in this chapter of our evolution. He questions our leaders, our spending, our history, our new rituals and he does it by exploring himself. Chris Bose walks his talk and Somewhere in this Inferno is No Logo and Adbusters the Indian Way. I have been waiting for a book to be published like this my whole life because Chris Bose has the guts to ask the hard questions and demand answers. I have had the honour of both editing this book and writing the Foreword and I cannot wait for it to be published. Chris Bose is one of our greatest new voices and I believe Somewhere in this Inferno will spark a new generation of Aboriginal authors here in Canada: ones who are fearless and ones who've been waiting a lifetime to be heard.

As always with anything Indigenous, I cannot wait to see what will happen next! Case in point: I was just given a fabulous book by Sami poet, Inger-Mari Aikio, while in Roveniemi, Finland, where we were doing readings at the University of Lapland at the Nordic Association for Canadian Studies' conference in October, 2003.

Beyond the Wolf Line: An anthology of Sami Poetry edited by Anthony Selbourne, translated into English by Pekka Sammallahti (Making Waves). If you would like an intimate reading of Sami Poetry, please check out this darling anthology featuring the work and gorgeous illustrations of Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, Synnove Persen, Stina Inga, Inger-Mari Aikio, and Inghilda Tapio. As the welcoming and informative introduction states by Anthony Selbourne: "The Lapps or Samis are Europe's most northerly people, inhabiting a vast area stretching from the western coast of Northern Norway, to the Kola Peninsula in Russa. They are also Europe's sole, if not oldest, remaining native people." This anthology is written in both the language of the Sami and translated into English by Pekka Sammallahti.

If you would like to read other reviews of Aboriginal literature that I adore, come visit me at my website. Not only that, but you can read my diary of the first Honouring Words tour across Canada. It's a hoot!

Mahi cho to you and mahsi cho to everyone I have met on the Honouring Words tours. A huge shout out to the organizers behind every tour and everyone who has supported us. In Canada, mahsi cho to CBC Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and in Australia, mahsi cho to the Australian Arts Council and Koori Radio. Mahsi cho!

© 2004 Richard Van Camp

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