The Ottawa Review of Books' Menaka Raman-Wilms speaks with Toronto journalist Tanya Talaga about the journey behind her book Seven Fallen Feathers. ORB reviewed Seven Fallen Feathers in its October 2017 issue.
MRW: Tanya, can you share with us what spurred you to write Seven Fallen Feathers?
TT: It goes back to 2011 when I went up north to Thunder Bay to interview the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Stan Beardy. I went to interview him about the federal election, to ask why Indigenous people weren’t voting, but he just kept looking at me and saying, why aren’t you doing a story on Jordan Wabasse? And this went on for about ten minutes, until I finally stopped myself, and said okay, he’s really trying to tell you something. You’re not going to get what you came here for, so just stop and listen.
We went on a drive to the Kaministiquia River, and when we got there we were right beneath Mount McKay, which is a spiritual centre for Fort William First Nation, my grandmother’s reserve. And he said, this is where we think Jordan was last seen, we think he was chased into the water. I just felt sick.
Five of the seven students died in the water in and around Thunder Bay, underneath Mount McKay. And it was at that point that I felt it, that I knew this was far more than a news story.
MRW: Was writing this book different than the writing process you usually go through as a journalist?
TT: As a writing exercise, it was totally different than anything I’d ever known before. I was used to doing stories or features – I write mostly long-term projects at this point – so I’m used to writing long, but not this long. My editor kept saying to me, get expansive, just write everything, because you don’t have to worry about things fitting into a small feature. And that was really freeing, but it was also difficult. As a journalist, you’re used to doing two sides of a story, but when you write a non-fiction book, you often choose a certain side. It’s different. It’s incredibly creative, and incredibly hard work because there’s so much research that goes into the writing. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
MRW: This book is a highly emotional experience: as writers we sometimes feel we have to separate our feelings in order to focus on a story, but I’m wondering, in this case, if the emotions were really a driving factor behind the book?
TT: I think so. I think that if I didn’t feel such an attachment to this story, to the seven, the book would have been different. Perhaps it wouldn’t have touched people as much. The stories touched me so much, and I really tried to convey what I saw and what I felt surrounding the seven, surrounding Thunder Bay, as well as the effect of Canada’s colonial history, the residential school experience, my mother’s family, all of it. It all wraps together; that’s how I see this story.
And I think what’s happening in Thunder Bay is a mirror of what else is happening across Canada.
So many factors that were part of these stories are seen throughout the country: the Sixties Scoop, the residential school experience, the intergenerational trauma, the broken treaties, broken promises and broken faith. All of that happens right across Canada.
MRW: Do you think your background allowed you to write this book in a way that other people might not be able to, that it gave you a certain contextual understanding of things? And do you think this book would have been perceived differently if it was written by someone of non-Indigenous background?
TT: I think there is a greater understanding, only from knowing what it’s like to come from a family that has been touched by these things. My great-grandmother was a residential school survivor, and she raised my mother. I think anyone who’s got Indigenous background has been touched by the residential school system, has been touched by the Sixties Scoop and child welfare, and your family’s maybe been touched by addiction as well. All of these things give us a greater sense of understanding and empathy, perhaps.
I’m always thinking that Canadians know more than they do: it’s amazing to me, even in 2017, how what happened here just really hasn’t sunk in with a lot of people.
Now to answer the second part of that question: I’m not sure. I think yes. I think with someone Indigenous, people might say, okay, she knows what it’s like. So in that way, maybe it’s more accepted.
MRW: I’d like to go back to something you just said there, that you always think Canadians know more than they do.
TT: I always did. I thought that everybody just knew about this, and this is how it was. I didn’t really realize that people didn’t understand. I remember being in the newsroom when people were upset about the housing conditions in Attawapiskat, and I remembered seeing some of the pictures and thinking, I know so many places in Northern Ontario that look just like that. So it was interesting for me to realize that not everybody knows about this.
MRW: Do you have any specific wish for the impact your book has?
TT: I really hope the book honours the families and honours the seven students. I hope that people see that they had beautiful lives, that they were loved by their families and they were loved by their communities. The loss of each of them is a complete and utter tragedy. I also hope that the book puts into context how we got here, the time and place of where our country is at now, and that it gives everyone a greater understanding of what needs to change.
MRW: Are there any other writers or books that deal with these issues that you’d recommend?
TT: When I wrote Seven Fallen Feathers, I had Thomas King’s Massey Lecture Series, The Truth About Stories, with me. I’ve read it so many times. And I also looked to The Inconvenient Indian for his style, to see how he explains things. I think that book should be read by everybody. Also Lee Maracle, as well as Tomson Highway – Kiss of the Fur Queen is one of my favourite books.