Lessons in Humanity:
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail In Conversation With Darrel McLeod
Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. After a varied career, including the position of chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations, he now devotes himself to writing and music in Sooke, B.C. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018), a memoir, is his first book. It won the 2018 Governor General’s Award in Nonfiction.
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail: This book has been described as a series of linked vignettes, and you’ve said they started out as short stories in your course with Betsy Warland at Simon Fraser University. How did you access all those memories?
Darrel McLeod: One of the things I do when I’m writing is I put on music: I put on a song or two from that era, and floods of memories come. The time I spent at my great grandfather’s cabin in the bush. My cousins. My early childhood. That wasn’t difficult at all.
The childhood songs were just there in my memory from listening to them over and over again, and singing them too. Other ones that I didn’t know as well, I’d research. Then one song would lead to all these others. I’d listen to those songs over and over again. It turned on a lot of emotions - so evocative.
DMC: Along with music, you also describe a lot of smells throughout this book. Is that something you did intentionally?
DM: It came out really naturally and actually got toned down a bit. Betsy said: “There’s a bit too much of that in here!” As a kid – and I don’t know if it’s just me or a Cree thing – I was very attuned to smell. In that era, there were products that people used – makeup or aftershave – but it wasn’t overkill, so everyone had their own unique odor. I was very attuned to everyone’s unique smells and I thought it was absolutely wonderful.
DMC: These really become part of your voice, along with your use of language and accents. You use Nehiyaw (Cree) liberally throughout, but you also capture the Francophone nuns’ accents perfectly.
DM: I studied French and Spanish, and have a lot of friends from those cultures, so I wanted language and accent to almost be a character in the book. Several editors wanted me to take the accents out or tone them down. Luckily Barbara Pulling, the editor the publisher hired, agreed with me.
DMC: Your ear for language and dialogue allows you to do something a little experimental in this memoir: You include a few sections from your mother’s point of view.
DM: I think point of view is the trickiest thing for a writer to master, and I had to make some technical adjustments to make it consistent. When I flipped into Mother’s voice, I did it as a monologue. I felt like I had to do that, to counterbalance what was happening in “Little Darrel’s head”. I had to give mother’s perspective to balance it out.
Then for “The Eviction” chapter, it was a surreal thing – it just came to me. I wanted to take people to that place of someone living on the street. In Native families it was the worst thing that could happen to you then, to end up on Skid Row in Edmonton. I had to envision it and try to channel what she had told me of her experiences on the street. The city councillor. When her finger got cut off. It was incredibly painful for me and for her when she told me. We were both crying.
“I wanted to take people to that place of someone living on the street. In Native families it was the worst thing that could happen to you.”
DMC: There is a lot of pain in this book, a lot gut-wrenching moments and in-your-face truths. But you never overwhelm the reader. Did you struggle with what to include or how to write it?
DM: I didn’t struggle with it while I was writing. I trusted Betsy [Warland]. When I submitted it, I was worried Betsy would say it was too raw and racy, and I would ask her and Shaena [Lambert] deliberately. They were such good mentors.
I’ve been very protective, almost secretive, about my personal life for so long. But reading books by other authors, I thought there were gaps. The authors wouldn’t portray their deepest personal feelings, wouldn’t portray their humanity in either fiction or nonfiction. They left me wanting more, so I was determined to put it all out there.
“The devil is in the details.” I don’t like the expression but details are very evocative. I wanted to put people at ease by telling my own truth that was raw and explicit. I wanted to show people, you can tell your story too. You don’t have to hold back or sugarcoat your story.
I wanted to write this book to help other people, and that’s what’s happened. Some of my cousins back home say “that could have been my life story.” They identify with so many aspects of it. Other people have been disclosing things to me about struggling with religion or abuse. For other readers, it brings it home and makes it personal. They realize, this is happening right here in our neighbourhood.
DMC: Which is scary for some to contemplate. And in your book, there is a sense that danger is lurking everywhere: in your family, behind charming facades. I wondered at times how you managed to keep your faith in humanity.
DM: Shaena told me that what astonished her was even with everything I went through, I always had this unbridled optimism. She said, “It’s like you’re not scared of anything.” And I feel like that’s true. I’m really thankful that’s part of my personality. I can work with anybody. I can give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
But I’ve learned not to be naive. The Cree version of the devil, which is much scarier than the Christian one, I think, is machi manito. It kind of lurks everywhere, behind everything. You always have to be on guard. However if you’re walking on a good path, you don’t have to be afraid. The good spirits will shed light on the evil wherever it crops up. But it’s important not to be naive.
And I’ve sought help at different times. I got spiritual help and counselling. I still ask for help regularly when I’m troubled.
DMC: It sounds like part of that guidance comes from your great-grandfather, Mosom. Can I ask how he figured into the writing of this memoir?
DM: Mosom helped guide me completely. I always ask him for guidance. I also do yoga and in the opening prayer for that I seek his guidance.
It’s amazing how things came to my mind, came to my dreams. Sometimes I would be writing and I didn’t know what I was doing – I would say, where did that come from? Betsy would say, trust the narrative. So I would just write through until I got to the end of what was coming to me. Then I’d examine it to see where it fit in.
Shaena calls this “anagogical”. You’re transcending the physical world and moving into a spiritual realm and being evocative.
“Details are very evocative. I wanted to put people at ease by telling my own truth that was raw and explicit. I wanted to show people, you can tell your story too.”
DMC: Your sense of connection to Mosom and those who have passed into the spirit world is clear. I find it fascinating how you said this creates more accountability for you. Mainstream or non-Indigenous writers often think (or are taught) that we are “free” once someone dies to write whatever we want about them.
DM: My ancestors and my family members are with me, they’re ever-present. They’re here and they are very, very capable of letting me know if they’re displeased or if I’ve portrayed them unfairly.
In the Cree belief system our ancestors have a lot of power. They have more power than living beings. No matter how our relationship suffered when my family members were living, my love is strong and unequivocal for each of them. So in my writing, I have to be true to my love to each of those people.
DMC: May I ask how you knew how to write about them? Because while you write about them with empathy and tenderness, these are unflinching portrayals.
DM: Ideally I would do ceremonies every day. I ask for wisdom and clarity and peace of mind. And I did a lot of soul searching as I wrote different chapters and different parts of the book. I was also cautious and sought guidance to portray people honestly, not to romanticize them – we do that all the time, especially after people die. I wanted to present a balanced perspective. The one character I perhaps romanticized was Mosom. He must have been seventy-five or so when I was born, so he was already this wise and beautiful spiritual man.
DMC: I was so sad to finish the book because I loved it so much, but I hear you’re working on a second memoir. Can you tell me a bit about that?
DM: I finished that manuscript and am now working on edits. The working title is Peyakow. It has some magical realism based on two dreams I had. They were so amazing, I had to get up and write them down before I lost them. I didn’t have Betsy and Shaena to work with, which was a little nerve-racking, but the publisher likes it. They hope to have it out next fall.
I’m also halfway through a work of fiction I started while at a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. The instructors were amazing and they gave me a music studio with a grand piano. Writing and music for five weeks. It was heaven!
The book’s going to be very unique with a lot of experimental stuff. I was inspired by authors like Ben Okri and Gabriel García Márquez, but it takes place in an Indigenous community.
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail specializes in telling hidden histories. She is the author of two books of aviation history and the editor of In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation (Brindle & Glass, 2016). She is currently working on a creative nonfiction book about the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital and is based in Houston, Texas. www.daniellemc.com @Danielle_Author