A Renaissance of Aboriginal Literature

Richard Van Camp wrote his first book at age 19 - photo courtesy of Richard Van Camp
Richard Van Camp wrote his first book at age 19 – photo courtesy of Richard Van Camp

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 12 | Dec. 1, 2005

Prof sees more fearless voices emerging

By Lorraine Chan (with files from Alexandra Chu)

Aboriginal literature is undergoing a renaissance in Canada, says UBC creative writing instructor Richard Van Camp.

The published Dogrib author says early trailblazers like Thomson Highway, Jeannette Armstrong and Lee Maracle are only getting better while younger writers swelling their ranks are infusing healing, humour and sensuality into Aboriginal narratives.

“I’m seeing more fearless voices,” says Van Camp, “people who aren’t scared to take on their leadership, to question the teachings of their elders or the customs of their people. At the same time, I’m reading new voices out there who are really researching their cultures and trying to find their way to celebrate their traditions in two worlds.”

Van Camp is in a unique position to steward new talent. Since 2001, he has been leading weekly workshops at UBC’s First Nations House of Learning for Aboriginal second-and third-year students. He also teaches a storytelling and writing workshop for 15-to 29-year-olds on the Musqueam Indian Reserve in south Vancouver.

Van Camp is supporting his students through a journey he himself took at the age of 19. As a member of the Dogrib Nation growing up in the Northwest Territories, Van Camp felt compelled to write a book he wanted to read and one that showed his life and the life of his peers.

Five years later in 1996, Douglas and McIntyre published Van Camp’s first novel, The Lesser Blessed. The powerful coming-of-age story follows a Dogrib Indian growing up in the small northern town of Fort Simmer. Van Camp captures the tragedy and hope facing youth and families in northern Native communities.

In the year following the novel’s publication, Van Camp was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award, which recognized a Canadian author under 30 deemed to show most promise in literary fiction. The Lesser Blessed was also translated into French and then into German, which garnered the 2001 Jugendliteraturpreis, the country’s highest award for a translation.

“When my novel came out, I didn’t know that I was going to be the first published Dogrib author,” says Van Camp. “Since then — and for the first time — we’re able to publish our novels, our way. Our poetry, our way. Our graphic novels, our way, and we have Aboriginal publishers now who will gladly publish us.”

He says there are about six Aboriginal publishers, which include Pemmican Press, Theytis Books and Kegedonce Press. “They can publish what speaks to them. Before, we only had mainstream publishers who would say there’s no market for this.”

At present, there are about 30 established Aboriginal writers in Canada, among them Ruby Slipperjack, Alootook Ippelie, Joseph Dandurand, Drew Hayden Taylor, Garry Gottfriedson, Eden Robinson and Chris Bose.

Van Camp points to several factors why Aboriginal literature is thriving. “We’re the second generation writing in English. We’re also the second generation free from residential schools.”

“Technology has helped as well.” Van Camp says with the Internet and booksellers like Amazon or Goodminds.com, Aboriginal writers have been able to access domestic and international audiences.

In 2002, Van Camp published a collection of short stories, Angel Wing Splash Pattern, with Kegedonce Press. Recently translated into German, Angel Wing Splash Pattern explores Northern Indian life with themes of redemption, family, hope, and devotion.

Van Camp has also written two children’s books, both illustrated by Cree artist George Littlechild. With Children’s Book Press, he published A Man Called Raven in 1997 and What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? in 1998.

Van Camp Creates Storytelling Community Among Students

Van Camp’s former student Nicola Campbell has just published her first children’s book, Shi-shi-etko. Her free-verse picture book tells the story of a little girl preparing to leave her family and community to attend Indian residential school.

Campbell praises Van Camp as “a great storyteller” with “an awesome sense of humour.”

“He knows how to create a community atmosphere in the classroom.”

Campbell says the course allows Aboriginal students to discuss and write about matters close to the bone and trust that others know where they’re coming from.

“The advantage of working within an Aboriginal creative writing class was the familiarity with the sense of humour, communication styles and cultural context.”

Her classmates were not all creative writing majors, and in fact, came from numerous faculties. Campbell says a cornerstone of Van Camp’s class is to honour each person’s voice.

“He’s incredibly inspiring. He makes sure that everyone of the students knows that their writing is important and is worth publishing.”