There are a number of First Nations writers whose work I greatly admire, most notably: Thomas King, Richard Van Camp and Joseph Boyden. Of the three, I can only read King’s work. Van Camp and Boyden’s stories feel too close to some of the stuff I’ve been writing. I don’t want to sound as I’m putting myself in their league. That’s simply not the case.
Richard Van Camp
Van Camp covers similar subject matter and some of his recurring characters are similar to some of mine. I first learned of Van Camp’s work in 2005–2006. Someone familiar with my work handed me a copy of Angel Wing Splash Pattern. I was stunned. Van Camp covers similar subject matter and some of his recurring characters are similar to some of mine. I first learned of Van Camp’s work in 2005–2006. Someone familiar with my work handed me a copy of Angel Wing Splash Pattern. I was stunned. In some cases all I needed to do was change the setting from the Northwest Territories to Lytton, and change character names and details – Van Camp’s superior skill as a writer notwithstanding – and the stories could be interchangeable.
I’d been working on mine on and off – mostly off – for twenty years; stories and characters that have buzzed me like flies over a corpse. I was, and remain certain I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, discard them without first writing their stories.
The person who’d handed me Angel Wing Splash Pattern saw the “spooky similarity,” too. She said that was part of the reason she’d handed me the book in the first place. As with most great writers I’ve read, I wanted to devour everything Van Camp had written. But I’ve refrained. Once I’ve completed these characters’ cycle of stories – a dozen short stories, one novella, and two novels – I will take a month and enjoy Van Camp’s work.
Joseph Boyden’s work poses a different sort of problem for me. My 3-Day Novel contest entry takes place in 1898, forty years after the Fraser River gold rush. This story is the result of research for a novel I’ve started that takes place during the Fraser Gold Rush. As my native themed stories generally take place in the early- mid-1970s, I suppose they could be classified as historical fiction. But the newer work, being set about 150 years in the past, is definitely historical.
Boyden’s newest novel, The Orenda, contains the sort of magic I imagined in some of my stories, even though our ancestries and customs are a little different. Genetically, we’re both mutts: I embrace my Nlaka’pamux heritage – a member of the Lytton First Nation first, Canadian second – and acknowledge my wild Irish relations. The Orenda is a great read. But for me, it ground to a halt on page 53. Thematically, I’m not sure how similar my work is to Boyden’s. Mostly, I’m afraid I may inadvertently plagiarize him. I don’t know how long it will be before I complete the two historical pieces. When they’re done, I’ll feel comfortable and free to read and enjoy Boyden’s work, too. His books are thicker than Van Camp’s, so it will probably take me more than a month to get through them. But I will.
I would be honoured if one day my name were mentioned with King, Van Camp and Boyden’s, as one of Canada’s notable First Nations writers. In order for that to have a chance at happening, I need to work hard. (Some good luck along the way would be helpful.) And, sadly, remain sequestered from the work of writers I admire.