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By Marian Dodds (she/her), retired teacher, Vancouver

Marian: Welcome Jo. When we met in 2018 in the Creative Non-Fiction Cohort at Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio, I found your writing compelling. Four years later, you’ve launched your first novel, My Indian Summer, a fictionalized story emerging from your lived experience. Congratulations! Let’s start with what it’s about.

Joseph: Twelve-year-old Hunter, coming of age in the late 1970s in a tiny, predominantly Indigenous town in northern BC, is desperate to escape a family still reeling from the aftershocks of colonization. It’s an entertaining, adventurous story of survival, about how one ingenious kid, using humour, street smarts, and allies, refuses to be defeated by poverty and racism.

Marian: Your story begins with Hunter’s enraged mother escaping with her kids to northern BC to evade social workers. Three years later, it’s 1979 and we meet Hunter at twelve, hiding his odd job money in a Crown Royal bag in his mattress and plotting his own escape from his abusive home. After several unsuccessful schemes to earn money in small town Red Rock, Hunter and pals Jacob and Eric are hoping to cash in during the Labour Day rodeo weekend, when things take a dangerous turn. A thread of humour propels readers though your high-stakes drama. Tell me about that.

Joseph: Laughing at the human condition is a survival strategy. It can be dark and ironic. Many of the funniest scenes in My Indian Summer occur when the three boys are together, with Hunter and Jacob teasing Eric, who is white, about his unbelievable naiveté and entitlement. Humour can be self-deprecating too. For example, when the three boys are hiding in the woods and Hunter pisses on his shoes in the dark.

Marian: Author Darrel J. McLeod, who selected you as a 2022 Writers’ Trust Rising Star, said, “He draws you into his gossamer web of his vibrant storytelling.” What influenced your writing?

Joseph: Being immersed in nature. I would run away to the forest, observing the natural world, looking up through tree branches at stippled light, the sound of the wind in the branches, watching birds. If you watch animals, they’re never relaxed, always on the lookout for danger, preparing for the worst, hoping for the best. My protagonist Hunter is always in flight or fight mode. He needs to read a crowd and be alert to triggers, to flee from bullies. In the forest, my grandfather shared secrets about medicinal plants. There’s some of him in my Crow character.

I read a lot too. We called the school librarian “Dragon Lady” because she made us stay silent and wouldn’t let Native kids take books home. Sometimes I got a white friend to take out books for me or used the public library. My sister gave me Stephen King’s Night Shift. One Grade 12 remedial English teacher made us feel like we were not the “stupid fucking Indians” we’d been told we were. He said we had street smarts. He read The Hobbit aloud, acted it out, used different voices—it was amazing. Other teachers would come by to watch him teach. I loved him like a father. I was walking down the hall one day, acting like a class clown, when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You know you need to harness that; you need to write.”

Marian: School isn’t a safe place for Hunter, especially when he’s subjected to blatant racism from Mrs. McDonald. You also include a tender scene where Mr. Gregory shows him empathy. What motivated you to write these characters into the book?

Joseph: I didn’t want to paint all teachers with the same brush. In Grade 3, a teacher put an elastic around my tongue for swearing. Another time, starving and afraid, I’d stayed up all night studying for my Grade 7 remedial class spelling test—we were so poor I’d cut up paper bags and the backs of cigarette packs for paper, drawing lines on them to write out the words. When I failed that spelling test and was bawling my eyes out, my teacher sent the rest of the kids to the gym and allowed me to sit in his class to compose myself. I had good and bad experiences in school. School was half my day, and I did have friends there. Eric and Jacob are modeled on my two best friends: one Cree, one white.

Marian: What message do you hope teachers take from Hunter’s story?

Joseph: Never judge a book by the cover. Sometimes the ratty, disheveled kid is crying out for help. It’s not his fault. Maybe the mother had a lot of strikes against her—in my case, no matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough for my mom. I hated her, feared her, and just wanted away from her.

Marian: You’ve said reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report was a breakthrough for you in how you characterized the mother in your book.

Joseph: For sure. I read it from front to back and realized what my mother went through in residential school. She was like a traumatized war vet wanting nothing to do with her past. That TRC report illuminated the past, connected dots, explained the anger, and saved the mother character from appearing as a complete demon. Transforming her from this monster helped me let go of my anger. It mattered a lot.

Marian: Theory of Crows author, David A. Robertson, has said, “Art saves lives.” Do you agree?

Joseph: Listening to music and playing guitar helped in dark times. My twelve-year-old self thought, “Playing guitar could be my ticket out of here. I could become famous.” I’d visualize myself on stage, with supportive people applauding. I felt that way at my book launch last September, looking out at the crowd and thinking, “These people are here to support me.” I’d overcome beatings, starvation, and neglect. Writing saved my life, gave me hope.

Marian: What advice do you have for kids in situations like yours?

Joseph: Observe the world around you. Look to those you see succeed, ask their advice, take it to heart. Find your support system. The kokums in my book are a collage of the aunts, uncles, and grandfather, who fed me, gave me clothes, found me odd jobs to support myself, and taught me.

Marian: How can educators support Indigenous kids to thrive and flourish?

Joseph: Read the TRC report, advocate for rights and sovereignty, be an ally. Include Indigenous writing in your class. I wanted My Indian Summer to be entertaining and impactful, not to induce guilt.

Most Canadians didn’t know this was happening until the late 1990s. The blame should fall on systems: government, church, education, and police. My book is a microcosm of a more universal experience suffered by many affected by trauma across generations. To me, teaching current students and the next seven generations truths about what happened is essential to opening pathways toward reconciliation.

More information
To read more about Joseph’s work or purchase My Indian Summer, visit starblanketstoryteller.ca/joseph-kakwinokanasum.

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