Cherie Dimaline: The Importance of Dreams

by Niranjana Iyer

What if global warming nearly destroyed the Earth and left the survivors incapable of joy, bereft of the ability to dream? What if the Indigenous people of the North were revealed to house in their bone marrow the physical stuff of dream production?

What if global warming nearly destroyed the Earth and left the survivors incapable of joy, bereft of the ability to dream? What if the Indigenous people of the North were revealed to house in their bone marrow the physical stuff of dream production?

In Cherie Dimaline’s tender, wise and profoundly unsettling book, The Marrow Thieves, young Frenchie and his companions must evade government agents seeking to capture Indigenous people to harvest their bone marrow. They decide to make their way up north, where they plan to use their traditional wisdom to locate other survivors who live in peace with the land.

The Marrow Thieves won the 2017 Governor General’s award, The Kirkus Prize and The White Pine award. It was a Globe and Mail best book, and it was featured on the Canada Reads shortlist.

Herizons interviewed Cherie Dimaline about her writing, her opinions of technology, consumer capitalism and its destructive impact on the earth, and where hope lies.

HERIZONS: You’ve spoken of “chasing words” all your life, until “they could be corralled into books.” Could you tell us about your writing process chasing these wild, spirited words?

CHERIE DIMALINE: It always seems to me that I am running after a story, that I cannot possibly type fast enough or craft well enough to get it all down. It’s exhausting but I am so lucky to be in the race at all.

Both my mother’s parents were Métis with familial ties through the Georgian Bay heading all the way back to the Red River and early Anishnaabe communities in the northern United States. I was raised, in part, by my maternal grandmother. She raised me with story—those that had to be remembered as maps and teachings, and those that were more playful, although they had their own lessons, too. Everything was a story and story was magic. I cannot imagine a better way to live, truly.

I spend a lot of time writing scraps on receipts, on napkins, on the backs of handouts at meetings, on my arms … anywhere I can. The work of a full manuscript comes like this—at first in pieces that I overhear, or images that flicker by. And then, eventually, I have a story, and I sit down at the computer to make it into a book, and then the chase begins. Because it’s difficult to keep up, I end up rewriting and rewriting, trying to capture the real essence as it appeared and not the clumsy way in which I put it down. That’s the real work of writing—rewriting. That’s where the craft is.

What was your path to publishing?

CHERIE DIMALINE: The day that I realized books were a way to hold a story in a single vessel and to have it whenever you want—that day changed everything. I knew I wanted to be a writer before I could physically write.

And then life happened. I had my first son at 17, left school and began to work. Sadly, I listened to the loud majority who spoke about the futility of a literary career, that it was a one-in-a-million chance of being successful, that you needed an MFA and the right connections. So, I did what I could to stay close to the Indigenous community in my work—writing for Native newspapers, starting magazines, running community centres, and just kept my dream small enough to fit between my ribs so I could carry it everywhere.

The year my grandmother was dying, I knew I had to get a book out because I promised her that I would. So, I sat down over one week and wrote out the connected stories that make up my first book, Red Rooms. I sent it to a publisher who had put out some books I really liked, the Indigenous House of Theytus Books. And within a week they got back to me with a quick acceptance email. I got to tell my grandma that the day before she passed on.

By that time, I was 30—almost 26 years after I decided to be a writer. That’s a long time to hold on to something and an even longer time to believe it wasn’t possible. After that, I made my way into everything and everywhere—whether people wanted me or not! I volunteered at literary events, I submitted to everything, I paid my own way to festivals and grovelled to be let on stage. I wrote for free, I spoke to strangers I admired—difficult since I have severe anxiety—and kept writing. There were a lot of rejections, and I couldn’t get an agent to return my call.

Two more books came out, from Indigenous publishers who appreciated the style and narrative of my work (very Métis—lots of circling, lots of humour) and they did okay. I was happy because those books made their way into Indigenous communities and served as texts for bridging programs for Native women returning to university and as part of family wellness projects.

The Marrow Thieves began as a short story. Could you elaborate on your choice to write it as a YA novel?

CHERIE DIMALINE: The Marrow Thieves is the first short story that I wrote that would not go the hell away, that demanded it become a novel. I love short stories—love them. Lydia Davis is a personal hero for her succinct, nluxurious short work. I know now it’s because the idea was too big to leave behind and, most importantly, because it came to me in the voice of this young man, Frenchie. He had so much more to say.

When it came time to decide how it would be classified, I asked the publisher that it be YA, simply because I really, really wanted it to have a chance at getting into schools. I thought, perhaps arrogantly, that if Indigenous kids had this book, they would feel proud and less alone, and that if Canadian kids had it, they would have the chance to learn and live and love with us—in our ways.

“I volunteered at literary events, I submitted to everything, I paid my own way to festivals and grovelled to be let on stage—and kept writing.” —cherie dimaline

One of the characters is named Minerva—the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. The name Miigwans translates to “feather.” How did these characters and their names come to you?

CHERIE DIMALINE: The eagle is the creature that flies the highest and therefore is the closest to the creator and an eagle feather is the highest honour you can be gifted. Miigwans was named so to show his position in the group, to have him be named after such a gift because he carries the greatest gift for the group—story.

Minerva is absolutely named for her role as well—she is the one who has the ultimate answer. My favourite thing about these characters is that there is no effort or training in their victory—it is simply being who they are and representing the people they come from—a refusal to put down their context in order to pick up an outside one. That is what makes them heroes. And Frenchie, like most of the kids, has a nickname because so many of us did in the community. Slopper is the actual nickname of one of my best friend’s cousins—classic rez name! I wanted him to be more approachable, more grassroots, so readers had an entry point.

In this novel, the body is a repository of knowledge, of memory, of dreams and of magic. Loss is located in the body, blood holds memories of past skills and dreams have a physical source in bone marrow.

CHERIE DIMALINE: I am in love with the idea of memory and experience being held like beads on a string. It’s something I imagined when I was very young, that stories were just one way of weaving, of creating jewelry that kept us warm and made us beautiful. I also noticed that when people hear news, or learn something, that they react physically—they clutch at their chest or hold their own hand or rock on their feet.

There is something so immensely tactile about emotion and something so generous and terrible about the spaces where we keep them. Sometimes I feel like I could tell a story by reading the braille bumps on my own spine. And when I am grieving, there is a discreet pull behind my knees. It’s such a beautiful ache that demands I keep moving to shake it off.

There’s a keen sense of urgency about this story. It emphasizes not just that the future isn’t far away—the global climate catastrophe arrives within our lifetimes—but also that the past isn’t long ago. Here, residential schools are all-too-easily resurrected as holding camps for the Indigenous.

CHERIE DIMALINE: I was worried that I would stress out the youth with the timeline, but so far, they’ve taken it all in stride. Kind of like, “Yeah, thanks for the inheritance. But also, we’ve got this.”

I love that these same kids—growing up with all the stories and in diverse spaces that allow such a wealth of knowledge systems from all parts of the globe— are the ones who are taking over. They feel like they can change things. And I believe them.

Pitifully little information is made available to newcomers to Canada about Indigenous history. Unless there’s a deliberate attempt to learn (and unlearn), it’s all too easy for new immigrants (even those from former colonies) to adopt the stances of settler colonialism.

CHERIE DIMALINE: This is one of my biggest disappointments in current policy and protocol: How the fuck do we not give our new family members the truth? How do we invite them into the house and then keep them on one floor—no peeking in the basement—no going upstairs. How are they going to feel truly at home? How are they going to build the additions that are necessary, with their own plans and architecture and tools, if we refuse them the full breadth of the space? I think we need to find ways to circumvent the Canadian structure and become kin—immigrants and First Nations. We need to find each other.

The novel shows that redemption and hope lie in Indigenous knowledge, in love, and in honouring the wisdom of elders. What would you say to those who place their faith in technology as the answer to societal problems?

CHERIE DIMALINE: Technology is useful and exciting in that it is the expression of need and imagination of the people during a current epoch. But technology cannot give us any answer that has not been fed into it. For this land, we need to turn to the Indigenous knowledge systems of this land. We exist under a foreign-born government with foreign systems that are not suitable for this place.

But we are privileged enough to exist in a time and place where Indigenous science, psychology, astronomy, language, ceremony, medicine, are all in existence and thriving—both in our generous Elders and our brilliant youth.

We must turn to the teachings and teachers who carry the ways in which we can live in balance. It means infusing our lives—even our technology—with the guidance and lessons gathered and handed down. We have already survived an apocalypse in this way. Who would you want on your team?

The novel stands as an indictment of consumer capitalism, which reaches its logical end in processing and consuming the culture, and then the very bodies of Indigenous people. Can there be true reconciliation between a history of such deep betrayal and trauma, and an economic system based on satisfying every material desire, no matter the cost?

CHERIE DIMALINE: Reconciliation is about real change based on lessons learned. We keep moving forward and Canada stays still. There will be no reconciliation, not in this generation. But I have tremendous hope for the next generation. The youth raised in a global society with teachings and wisdom from all over the world—these kids who live with story and yes, with technology that can bring them into other communities and homes—these leaders will understand within a broader context that includes and, in some cases, is centred around, Indigenous knowledge—they will bring true reconciliation.

One of my favourite parts of the book is about this, and I say it with humility, but hope that a small piece of it is true: “Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to see it.”

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