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Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves gains mass appeal

After becoming a hit in the United States, dystopian novel has earned Toronto-based Indigenous author the Kirkus Prize and Governor General's Award.

Cherie Dimaline won the Governor General’s young-adult literature award for her book The Marrow Thieves.

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Carlos Osorio / Torstar News Service

Cherie Dimaline won the Governor General’s young-adult literature award for her book The Marrow Thieves.

Cherie Dimaline giggles happily over the phone. “Did you not have champagne this morning at your office as well?” she jokes.

Dimaline had just won a Governor General’s Literary Award for her dystopian novel The Marrow Thieves and was celebrating at her publisher’s office. The next day she won the prestigious $50,000 US Kirkus Prize. She has also been nominated for a White Pine Award from the Ontario Library Association.

Clearly, her book has gained widespread appeal. It features a dystopian near-future where non-Indigenous people have lost their ability to dream, which has led to widespread madness. How to fix it? Eating the bone marrow of Indigenous peoples, who are unwillingly harvested for the cure in marrow-harvesting factories (not unlike residential schools).

Capping off a big week, the Toronto-based Dimaline took time out to answer a few questions about the book, awards, writing young-adult literature and the importance of Indigenous editors.

What kind of reception were you expecting for The Marrow Thieves and how does it differ from the reception you got?

I was expecting, (as with) my other stories, they were very well-received within the Indigenous community and they were very well-received in the academic community. And I sort of thought: OK, well, if Indigenous kids read this that’s absolutely the best possible outcome.

I certainly never expected the United States to have such a large interest in it. I remember being on the phone in the early days with the Kirkus Review; they were doing an interview. And when we were done at the end, the interviewer said, “Do you have any questions for me?” And I said, “I think it’s so strange you’re calling me from California (and that) people in the United States are thinking about this book. It’s so Canadian to me and it’s so Indigenous. There’s lots of concepts in it, even the terminology around First Nations, it’s just not American.”

And she said, “Well, you know your book is very dystopian.” “Yes.” “You know who our president is right now?” I said, “Right.” She said, “The end of the world is every day right now.” So this is probably why it’s happening.

What message do you want readers to take away from The Marrow Thieves? Is there a difference between what you want Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers to take away?

We have a suicide epidemic in our communities. I’ve done a lot of work in the past with Indigenous youth and one of the things I realize is that they didn’t look forward, they didn’t see themselves in any kind of a viable future. And I thought, what if they read this book where they literally see themselves in the future, and not just surviving but being the heroes and being the answer, then that’s it.

I think above all for me the book is really hopeful. Even in this horrible dystopian future, people are being hunted, there’s a terrible outcome; there’s still so much hope in that group of characters. They fall in love and they develop friendships, and they become family and they sing and they laugh. There’s a part early on in the book where Frenchie, the main character, says, “We are still kings among men,” and he’s walking through the forest on threadbare soles and raggedy clothes, but he’s still got that feeling of great importance, of being extraordinary.

What about non-Indigenous readers?

I really wanted them first of all to fall in love with the characters and then to walk beside them through hardships, through running away, through being hunted, through the idea of the residential schools, even in telling their back stories and where they’d been.

If these non-Indigenous youth can feel like they have kinship ties to our Indigenous communities ... these are our future leaders, so when they’re sitting at the negotiating table for the government or developing policies, or deciding whether or not to do business with First Nations communities, then maybe this will be one of the stories that influences their opinion of Indigenous people. And they’ll feel that this is the right thing to do, to have these conversations, to talk to us. We’re all in this together and I want them to feel that.

Why does the young adult audience in particular interest you?

I think with YA there’s no standing on a mountain somewhere and surveying the scene or the landscape below. Everything is immediate, passionate, it’s so full of emotion. I couldn’t think of a more passionate, energetic narrator than a teenage boy to take you through this because he would just say exactly what he’s feeling and he would react to what he’s feeling.

It’s horrifying and it’s hopeful, and to get both the horror and the hope and love across I needed that immediate nature of youth.

What is the biggest challenge facing Indigenous writers in Canada today?

I was just one of the first faculty at Humber College to do an editing Indigenous manuscripts program. I mean, there are a lot of issues, but I’m going to pick this one.

Indigenous stories are different. We’re generally raised in story. We have traditional stories that hold our teachings. A lot of our culture is held within our stories. And there’s different protocols and permissions that come with Indigenous stories. As an Indigenous writer I’m cognizant of when I speak I always say, “This is my opinion. I’m allowed to speak for my community because I have permission to speak on behalf of my community.” But that’s my specific community. There are hundreds of communities out there — different world view, different language, different ceremony — and I can’t be the pan-Indigenous spokesperson.

There’s so much conversation about appropriation and there was the whole Joseph Boyden thing and so (publishers and editors said), “Somebody please tell us, how do we get this right?”

So we pulled people together with Indigenous editors and writers and we talked about the issues: here’s what it means to have a community story; you can’t publish a traditional story that somebody outside of the community tells you, but here’s how you go and get those permissions. Really practical advice.... It’s about finding ways to work together.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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