Photo: John Paille
MUSKRAT Staff Writer, Jamaias DaCosta speaks with Waubgeshig Rice about his latest novel: Legacy.
Journalist and writer, Waubgeshig Rice is a storyteller with a flare for poetic conflict and intimately familiar characters. Rice made his debut in short fiction a couple of years ago with Midnight Sweatlodge—a book of short stories about the struggles of Rez life and the healing that can be found within the Sweatlodge of the Midewiwin Society.* Rice has returned to the literary stage with Legacy, a novel chronicling the lives of the Gibson siblings. Legacy is a glimpse into heartache and survival due to inter-generational legacies of disconnection from cultural traditions.
WR: I didn’t really attempt to write a catch-all book dealing with all the issues Indigenous people are facing today, but I wanted to reflect on how so many of these things define us in the larger picture of these settled societies here on Turtle Island. I wanted to offer a glimpse into what the situation on the Rez can be, and what the situation can be like for someone who is in the city, coming from the Rez. I also wanted to look at what some of the context is behind the stereotypes that the characters in the book are faced with frequently.
MM: In Legacy, the story reveals itself through the experiences of each of the Gibson siblings as they deal with life-altering loss and pain. Each of the five siblings—Edgar, Eva, Stanley, Norm, and Maria—struggle in their own way to cope. The legacy emerges through various themes of addiction, traditional culture, healing, responsibility and relationships, and ultimately, survival.
WR: The main legacy I wanted to focus on was the legacy of tragedy. The negative things that we can’t really control, but that can define us. With [the Gibson family] there are things that led them to that place beyond their control, and it’s up to each of those characters to really try to redefine their legacy.
If you talk to different Indigenous people across the continent [most have experience with] a lot of the themes that you mentioned, like violence against women, residential schools, the disconnect from culture, the need to move from the Rez to the city. I didn’t want to write a catch-all book about what the modern Indigenous struggle is, but I did want to offer a glimpse into what some of the challenges that Indigenous families face, more so than any other family in modern Canada.
MM: One prominent theme in Legacy is alcoholism and the ways it impacts the Gibson siblings and their personal legacies.
WR: I thought up the story and I ended up writing it all the way through, but when I went back I noticed that alcohol is a pretty prevalent character in each of their lives. You run the risk, I guess, of fueling certain stereotypes when you portray a modern family with alcohol so very present in their experiences. Alcohol was always present in my upbringing, not necessarily within my family, but my peers’ families, from the moment I was a kid up until adulthood, alcohol was always there. People use alcohol for different reasons, and when you’re a Native person and alcohol is in your life, it’s a much more intense spotlight turned on you. If you’re a young professional in the city, a lot of times if someone sees you at the bar and they recognize you as a Native person, the stereotypes instantly come into play. I think that’s something we’re all challenged with, and have to deal with, and that is part of the legacy of alcohol in our lives.
MM: Perhaps the most important themes in Legacy are cultural resurgence and healing. The Gibson siblings have an Aunt Kathy who plays a significant role in passing on traditional teachings that help the youngest Maria. And Norm, who battles serious addiction and depression issues, later finds himself in a place of healing thanks to Anishinaabe tradition.
WR: I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by really strong and knowledgeable women throughout my life. It was partially based on my grandmothers’ and some of my aunts’ influences. They would take me and my cousins out into the bush and teach us about the medicines when we were younger.
With Maria [when] she’s ready to move beyond some of the pain, at that point the medicines come in. It really helps define her as an Anishinaabe woman, and opens her eyes to that traditional purpose that her aunts had, and her grandmothers and everybody before them. I wanted to convey the fact that this ancient knowledge, although it’s been really brutalized because of residential schools and other assimilative practices, that people still managed to hang onto them. Even when Maria thinks she’s basically lost it all, she doesn’t have any hope left, her aunt comes back with some more of that traditional wisdom and it really helps bring her out of that hole. I think that it’s really possible for young people today, you really see their eyes open up and you see them flourish even if they’re just coming to sit at the drum, or smudging for the first time. I wanted to show how powerful it can be to go to those teachings, and have someone there to guide you to them.
It comes up later again with Edgar and Norm in the sweat. For me, personally, the Sweatlodge was a pretty important part of my upbringing, and my community too. When you’re talking about ceremony, you sort of run the risk of exposing too much. With Midnight Sweatlodge I was very conscious of that, and I made sure that I only wrote about the basics, things that people would already know or what was out in the public realm. In Legacy, I wanted to make it more of a personal experience for those characters, and what healing meant for Norm, especially. When I was younger and I’d go into Sweatlodge in my community, I’d see guys like Norm come in and talk about struggles with alcohol, addiction and that they’d found a way out of it because of the sweat. I wanted to write about that as homage to some of the people in my community who were really helped to come out of those dark places.
* Midewiwin is an Anishinabek spiritual society