He was the founding editor of the award-winning Aboriginal Voicesmagazine, and the recipient of a MacLean-Hunter journalist award.
His short stories and feature writings have been published in Canadian and international publications.
Tobacco Wars is his first novella.
ML: What is your writing process?
PS: It’s not so much about a regimented process, but about finding that imaginative space, that momentum that takes you on a journey. I need distraction to challenge me – that can be the white noise of a crowded station, motion such as walking or driving a car, or having rock music or the TV playing in the background. I also like to write outside, in cafes, bars, shopping malls, on trains or planes. With pen and moleskin, old school. Sitting in a studio doesn’t do it for me nor does silence. It’s like grabbing little sparks that fly from the most unexpected places, a snippet of overhead conversation, a comment on a reality TV show, and then writing it down and taking it from there.
I don’t write with a linear plan or a sense of a story arc. Tobacco Wars is evidence of that. It’s a little like pieces of a half-completed puzzle. I prefer it half-completed. One reviewer referred to Tobacco Wars as an “anti-book”. I think it’s more like channel surfing or turning the dial on the radio that provides new ways of thinking about culture and history and myth.
ML: How long have you been writing?
PS: Certainly, since I was young boy at school, though it was never my dream to be a writer. My great hope was to be a visual artist or a rock musician. To me that has always seemed more immediately visceral; to create a song that grabs people or a painting that changes perception. And the adulation, or at least how I imagined it as a teenager – the girls, cars, sex and drugs –it was a pretty infantile desire really, fortunately squashed by a lack of talent. The real writing came later, stumbling into journalism and finally novel writing.
ML: Who are your influences in terms of writers?
PS: Haruki Murakami, Don Delillo and Jeannette Winterson would top that list. Then there are the Latin Americans; Borges and Cortazar and also Kathy Acker, Bill Borroughs, and Thomas Pynchon. Of Native American writers, I would certainly say James Welch, Tomson Highway and Joy Harjo, perhaps some Louise Erdrich. But Murakami tops the list. 1Q84 is to me brilliant, occasionally exasperatingly so, but in 900 pages he turns on this little strange vibe, like a Cronenberg film or Lynch, which I love. When a writer throws in exploding dogs, or mechanical talking ducks like in Pynchon – how can you not be seduced?
ML: How long did it take to write your novella, Tobacco Wars?
PS: Six months. 113 pages in the end. So fairly quick but even more productive as there’s likely another 113 pages that never made it in. It consumed me. And though I was working full-time and had two kids half that time, it was always a part of me. I lived it, breathed it. No matter how tired I was or how tempting it was just to do something else, Tobacco Wars called. There was no time for writer’s block. In fact I dislike that term. If you are going to write then write. If you can’t, just don’t.
I was blessed to have a first reader and editor, the marvelous poet and media artist Adeena Karasick, who was along with me from inception, and that was invaluable. Particularly, as Tobacco Wars is so fragmented, intentionally, and riffs on many things, many of which go undeveloped. When you’re writing that way it’s such a gift to have that person who can pull you back, offer a different perspective, or slap you down when necessary. And she still does.
ML: I found the character of Bear Woman the most interesting. There’s a lot of very graphic descriptions of bodies, bodily functions and sexuality with her. She seems to go between being all-powerful and, in the modern-day context, extremely marginalized in her separation from nature. Tell us about your process with Bear Woman and how you’ve depicted her.
PS: Thank you for that. I quite like her too. Yes, she is a little mystical and shamanistic yet she is also marginalized and destitute. She is the past but she is also the present; very sexual in her way, and also flatulent, excretive and sweating as we all are. She is human. She is decidedly female. And for all the bear-baiting and being abused and incarcerated, she survives.
Bear Woman’s sexuality has drawn ire from some critics but it is deliberate on my part. The colonization of the Americas has inflicted many things upon Indigenous peoples but the perversion of a healthy sexual life within our communities has to be one of the most tragic aspects. And far too rampant are the generational affects from the abuses committed by priests in the residential school system, the severing of familial bonds and the subsequent dysfunctions – abuse, incest, targeting of Indigenous women, children, what we see on the streets –Bear Woman bears that. She will not be cloistered. She will fart, shit, piss, have sex, as all women do. And, she perseveres in beauty. That, in itself, in this context, is a revolutionary act.
ML: The narratives in Tobacco Wars are mostly non-linear and told from a very clear Aboriginal perspective, both the “classic” myth about Pocahontas, as well as the role of tobacco (historically and post-contact). You weave two different, but connected, storylines and timelines together. Tell us about your process of writing this particular narrative in this way.
PS: Well, the myth of Pocahontas, is a good way of putting it. In literature, the relationship between fact and history is complicated. Often representations of her have been completely devoid of historical fact or recreated through a range of imaginative lenses. Pocahontas has been Disney-fied, that is likely the most recognized meme today, but she is also been fetishized in Halloween costumes, German Indian re-enactorist culture, even in porn films, believe it or not.
So, she lingers.
From the get-go, I was not interested in the prevailing memes of her. Rather, since tobacco was the commodity that brought her to England, and here we should recognize that tobacco, at this point went from the sacred to the profane – so too, did Pocahontas go from the natural to the exotic. Tobacco Wars becomes about weaving these two seemingly disjointed strands together. It’s a meta-history, one that exists between fact and fiction, that transgresses colonial boundaries, draws sustenance from orality, boasts “who says it can’t be this way?”
Similarly, with the italicized bits of the book. There is a storyteller there. A trickster, a rogue. playing with us. Reminding us that there are untold stories, lost memories, whispers in the woods.
ML: You’ve written the European characters, almost all of whom are male, in extremely unflattering ways, particularly John Rolfe and Ben Jonson. While I enjoyed reading their stories from the perspective you took, have you experienced any negative reactions to this portrayal?
PS: Well, as a male, perhaps I can be allowed a certain insight. Yes Rolfe is the businessman, cold and consumed with little else but profit, whereas Jonson is the bad boy, lecherous but impulsively creative. It is reductive to boil men down to one of these two tropes but I do feel, if anything, I have given these two the benefit of the doubt. The views of men in the 1950s would shock and appall most people today. Can you imagine the views and beliefs of a European man in the early 1600s? We are creatures of our times. And they hadn’t even progressed to witch burnings yet. Salem was still to come.
And there is more to Jonson than his carnal cravings. He presents a masque in the new world, convinces King James to assemble a fleet to do so, romances Pocahontas, romances the idea of the “indian”. His is the outside gaze, flawed but, in his case, not infused with malevolence.
ML: What advice do you have for writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print?
PS: Well cliché time, but firstly read. And read. Whatever novels, poetry or short stories that grab you. Learn from those writers you admire. Then write. Some people are blessed and have their voice from the get-go. Others sweat, hit their thumbs, and take years to learn their trade. But view writing as a trade. A discipline. If you are going to write then write. Then read aloud and listen. Develop a thick skin. Don’t take things personally. Throw envy out the door. There will always be someone who wins the awards, sells more books, gets laid more often.
Lastly, find people to read your work and don’t diss them. Lastly, the publishing world is in turmoil. But there are options now – many –to being published. You have choices. But most of all, read.
ML: What are you working on right now?
PS: A new novel, a kinda Native Two Lane Blacktop (google that if you’re under 40). A little Cree rock’n roll existentialist trip. And also a graphic novel on the Popul Vuh, in collaboration with Gesu Mora, a very cool Indigenous-Mexican artist.
ML: And last question, are there any other comments that you’d like to share about your writing, the writing process and getting published?
PS: Simply, to quote a master:
“Art is affirmation.”
―N. Scott Momaday, Ancient Child
ML: Thank you, Paul!
May blogs at maysie.ca, ranting and raving at any and all injusticesand uses the f-bomb regularly.
She’s been published in the Toronto Star, Fireweed Magazine, Siren Magazine, in the anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, at section15.ca and rabble.ca. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Friday June 15 for a video of Paul Sessequasis reading from his novella “Tobacco Wars”.