INTERVIEW WITH WAUBGESHIG RICE

Waubgeshig Isaac Rice is a broadcast journalist and a writer. He lives in Ottawa and grew up in a beautiful place called Wasauksing.

His dad is Ojibway and his mom is Canadian, and he is proud of his background.  Rice speaks German better than he speaks Ojibway.  Music is the second most important thing in his life.  

He likes books that make you re-read the last 20 pages right after you finish.  His favourite teams are the Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays, and Bills.  Rice’s first book is Midnight Sweatlodge.

BCP: Why short story?

WR: When I first learned about literature in high school I was really drawn to short stories and how powerful they can be. It started in Grade 9, studying classic stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart and Isaac Asimov’s All the Troubles of the World. I really enjoyed creative writing in my free time, so I tried to write stories of my own. I looked at the world around me – the rez – and tried to capture some of those unique experiences in short stories. I think a short story can concisely and effectively capture a specific and unique lesson or experience and really resonate with readers in ways longer fiction can’t.

BCP: What is your writing process?

WR: My writing process honestly doesn’t involve a whole lot of actual writing. When I get an idea for a story, essay, or some kind of piece, I usually spend most of my time thinking about it. Whether it’s while out walking, driving, or just relaxing in my home, I try to thoroughly get the details and the story straight in my head before actually writing out a linear text. I’ll make some crucial notes, but I like to make sure I have the creative process committed to memory before actually typing out the story. That way, I find the physical process of writing much easier.

BCP: Who, or what, are your influences?

WR: My biggest influences are Aboriginal writers like Thomas King, Jordan Wheeler, Lee Maracle, Richard Wagamese, Louise Erdrich, Joseph Boyden, Beatrice Culleton, Richard Van Camp, and the rest in the contemporary Aboriginal literary canon. Seeing their unique stories in print inspired me to pursue my own path to become an author. As for non-Aboriginal authors, I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk, Dougas Coupland, Henry Miller, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

BCP: How much of Midnight Sweatlodge is autobiographical?

WR: I get this question a lot. The only story that’s directly based on something that happened in my life is Dust. In the mid-1980s there was a protest in my community of Wasauksing against CN crews that were taking sand from a sandpit. CN didn’t have an operational rail line through our community anymore, so our people were getting fed up about it. It was a pretty monumental moment that I believe led to an important reclamation of Anishinaabe culture in my community. The version in Midnight Sweatlodge, however, is greatly fictionalized. The real protest ended peacefully and no one was hurt. With the version in the book, I wanted to pay tribute to other Aboriginal activists like Dudley George who lost their lives standing up for their land and their people.

BCP: You are a journalist by trade.  Is it hard to switch from non-fiction to fiction?  Has being a journalist helped with your fiction?

WR: I don’t find it too difficult switching up between the styles of writing. I often equate it with the difference between swinging a golf club and a baseball bat. You’re using a lot of the same muscles, just in a different way for different results. However, I do find it hard after a long day of working to a deadline to come home and try to write fiction. Being a broadcast journalist can be very intense with stressful deadlines, and when you’re using all your creative energy to meet those deadlines, there’s often little left in the tank when you get home to work on other projects. Lately I’ve been writing fiction in the morning before I go to my day job as a journalist, and I find that’s been working.

BCP: The dialogue in your stories is amazing!  How did you get it to be so accurate and crisp?

WR: Chi-miigwetch! I haven’t had much feedback on the actual dialogue in the book, so I appreciate you noticing. I think that’s due to the role of the oral narrative in reviving our culture when I was growing up. I was really drawn to a lot of the stories about Anishinaabe traditions, and the ways they were told by the elders really captivated me. The spoken word is crucial in our culture. Although there aren’t a lot of teachings in Midnight Sweatlodge (I also wanted to stay away from that), I learned early on in life that the detail in dialogue is crucial and I wanted to convey that in those stories.

BCP: Theytus, a small Aboriginal press, published Midnight Sweatlodge.  Do you prefer to work with an Aboriginal publisher?

WR: When I first started shopping my manuscript around, Theytus jumped on it immediately and were hugely supportive from the get-go. They recognized that there would be an audience for Midnight Sweatlodge and they worked really hard to get it out there. I’m not sure if other publishers would have recognized that right away. Also, this is my first foray into fiction, so I really didn’t have any experience prior to this. Theytus took a chance on me, and I will always be grateful to them. They’re a strong, creative, and really supportive team.

BCP: You deal with difficult themes in your book: suicide, addiction, corruption, wife abuse.  Do you ever fear that your book can be used to ‘confirm’ stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples?

WR: I was originally worried about that, but at the same time those are real issues that a lot of communities deal with. I didn’t want to sugarcoat what life on some reserves can be like. Although there are really negative themes in the book, I thought it was really important to provide context as to why life was like that for some of the characters. They’re all dealing with lingering effects of colonialism and being excluded from an evolving society around them. Ultimately, I wanted to tie the stories together with a theme of healing and spiritual reconciliation. While they contend with various forms of abuse, there’s an underlying hope.

BCP: In all your stories when you describe an Aboriginal character’s skin you use the colour “brown”.  With some many Aboriginal folk living with different skin tones (white, black, brown) why do you choose the colour brown consistently?

WR: I think that’s because that’s what I remember seeing growing up. Where I’m from, people are various tones of brown. I didn’t consciously exclude other skin types Aboriginal people may have. I wanted to provide some uniformity to the characters. It wasn’t a major factor in writing the details, though. It’s really just a visual aide.

BCP: The word “ancient” is used to describe ceremony and ways of life in your book.  To some folk that word is problematic.  Why do you use it?

WR: That’s a good point. I used it because I wanted to convey how far the characters in the book are from their traditional way of life – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Most of them have no concept of what it is to be Anishinaabe. People lived that way generations before them, but they have no tangible connection to it, therefore they perceive it as “ancient”. But the reality is, they’re closer to it than they think. As the characters begin to bond with the old way of life, it becomes less “ancient” to them and it helps define them as contemporary Aboriginal people.

BCP: How has your community taken to your book?

WR: My community has been hugely supportive. It really warms my heart to know that so many people from Wasauksing have read it and have enjoyed it. Although the community in Midnight Sweatlodge isn’t named, it represents Wasauksing in a lot of ways – mostly physically and spiritually. I hope a lot of people see the underlying positivity in the book and the potential for greatness that’s always been there.

BCP: You are writing about a ceremony that many people are still secretive about.  Has that brought you any harsh criticism?

WR: I haven’t heard any harsh criticism, but I have been questioned quite a few times about why I choose to write about such an intimate and sacred ceremony. The stories deal with a lot of harsh, negative and painful issues, and to provide the characters a sense of hope and an opportunity to heal and move forward, setting them in a sweatlodge was crucial. When I was a kid, it’s what I saw help the young people in my community. Also, I chose to write about the sweatlodge in the most basic way possible. I wanted to make sure I only skimmed the surface, and wrote about what any newcomer would learn when coming to a sweat. I don’t have the right to go into detail about the traditional teachings that led to the ceremony being gifted to us. So I basically wanted to provide a setting and an idea that this is one way people can gather and share their stories, all under the guidance of traditional wisdom.

BCP: Your writing is very political. What do you try to convey to your readers?  Is there a specific audience you are trying to reach?

WR: Essentially I want to convey to readers what the young Aboriginal experience in this country can be like. By no means am I trying to create a singular reference point for life on the rez. As Aboriginal people, we are born into political struggles whether we like it or not. Political struggles define us as a people. They unite us and divide us. They draw us closer and pull us away from non-Native Canada at large. But I feel that’s only a minor theme in the stories in Midnight Sweatlodge. The main audience I’m trying to reach is young Aboriginal people, and the secondary audience is the rest of North Americans who are unfamiliar with us.

BCP: Was it hard to write some parts of your book?

WR: The hardest parts to write were the sweatlodge scenes in between the stories. All of the stories were written at various points of my life when I was much younger. I revisited them later in my adulthood and tried to tie the stories together with the sweatlodge setting. I had to really unify some of the facts, details and chronology. The stories also switch between voices. For example, the first two stories Dust and Solace are in the first person, while Bloodlines and Aasinabe are in the third. I tried my best not to make it confusing for the reader, but for a while I really felt like I bit off more than I could chew. At the end of the day though, I just hope it’s enjoyable for people who read it.

BCP: Bloodlines is my favorite story in your book.  It deals with such a touchy subject: mixed race relationships. What made you go there?

WR: That was a story that almost didn’t make the cut. I originally wanted to include six stories in the collection. I cut two almost immediately because I didn’t think they fit with the overall theme of healing that I wanted to accomplish. I also didn’t think Bloodlines fit, because it was set in the city, and I was worried people might think it was too personal of an anecdote. But if I cut that too, I definitely wouldn’t have had enough material for a book – Midnight Sweatlodge is barely 100 pages as it is! So I just had to suck it up and keep it in. And honestly, it’s one of the stories I’ve had the most positive feedback about. I think a lot of people who leave their communities and date outside of their own cultural backgrounds can relate to it. I’m glad you like it! Miigwetch!

BCP: How long were you working on Midnight Sweatlodge?

WR: It was more than a decade in the making. That wasn’t a period of constant writing, by any means, but from when I wrote the first words to the actual publication, we’re talking at least 15 years. I wrote the first version of Solace – the oldest story in the collection – for a grade 12 English class (around 1996). I wrote the other stories in my spare time in the years that followed. I had a lot of short stories sitting on the shelf, but I saw it as more of a hobby, and never really seriously pursued trying to get them published. Once I was done university I revisited them and started looking at ways to develop them further and see about getting them published. In 2004 I applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to do that. I was awarded the grant and spent a couple of months revising/rewriting the stories and working on the unifying sweatlodge concept. I finished that in 2005, but sort of left it on the back burner again. In 2008 I dusted off the project and started sharing it with friends and other mentors in publishing. They overwhelmingly encouraged me to shop it around, so in 2009 I started pitching it to publishers, and Theytus graciously offered me a contract. They hooked my up with editor Jordan Wheeler, and in 2010 we started working on tightening it up. We were both working full time, so we worked on it when we could. It was finally published in June of 2011.

BCP: You are part of an Aboriginal writing a group.  How has being part of the group helped you?  How does this group differ from other writing groups you have participated in?

WR: When I lived in Winnipeg I was fortunate to be invited to join the Aboriginal Writers Collective. It was a great opportunity to bounce ideas off of other seasoned writers like Duncan Mercredi and Rosanna Deerchild and get some great feedback. Here in Ottawa I’m part of an artists’ collective called Fresh Tracks. You can’t grow as an artist/writer without the criticism of your peers and the mentorship of strong, veteran voices. It’s crucial for anyone looking to share their work on a bigger scale.

BCP: What are you reading now?

WR: Right now I’m undertaking some light, entertaining summer reading with Slash’s biography.

BCP: What will you be publishing next?

WR: I’m working on a full-length novel that picks up on one of the major themes in Midnight Sweatlodge. I hope to have it finished by the end of the summer.

BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there?

WR: Write with pride. Write without fear. Believe in your stories. Share them with everyone.

Tune into Black Coffee Poet June 22, 2012 for a video of Waubgeshig Rice reading from “Midnight Sweatlodge”.

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About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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4 Responses to INTERVIEW WITH WAUBGESHIG RICE

  1. Pingback: WAUBGESHIG RICE READS FROM “MIDNIGHT SWEATLODGE” | Black Coffee Poet

  2. Pingback: WIN A COPY OF “MIDNIGHT SWEATLODGE”!!! | Black Coffee Poet

  3. BCP,

    Great Job Fella you truly do wonderful work in what you believe in and your stories they tell the rest. You sure do got my Son’s and I’s support with all of what you do and represent for the Aboriginal People and carry the Pride well good to know you and glad to be Proud.

    Stacey

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