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Indigenous writers experiencing a shift with the publishing industry

Wayne Arthurson is writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta until May 31, 2024.

“Just find your own path for writing and do it your own way and if that works for you, then that works for you.” —author Wayne Arthurson
 
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Windspeaker.com
| October 19th, 2023 

The writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta believes the publishing industry is changing for Indigenous writers.

“I think it's growing,” said Wayne Arthurson, who is of Cree and French-Canadian descent.

“It used to be, maybe even 10 years ago, they have the one or two big name Indigenous writers … and a lot of publishers didn't look outside that… But now I think it's much more open because there's a lot of Indigenous writers who are having books out there that are successful.”

Arthurson has been writing for more than 30 years. Final Season, his first of eight novels, was published in 2002, and he’s had five non-fiction books published since 2012.  He’s written more than 200 articles for magazines and newspapers.

About a year-and-a-half ago, he became a literary agent with The Rights Factory. One of his focuses is to represent Indigenous writers.

Arthurson points to the lack of both Indigenous agents and Indigenous editors in the book business.

“It's hard for Indigenous writers to get someone who sort of understands some aspects of being Indigenous.  No one understands all of it because we're all different, but there's some (shared) aspects about it,” said Arthurson.

He presently represents a few Indigenous writers, including one for which he has “a deal.”  He is hopeful about landing more deals in the future.

Arthurson also points out that Indigenous writers are being accepted in a variety of different genres.  There’s been acclaimed Indigenous writers in horror, science fiction, young adult and children’s fiction.

Arthurson himself has won awards for his crime writing, with his novel Fall from Grace winning the 2012 Alberta Readers' Choice Award and his novella The Red Chesterfield winning the 2020 Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence.

See our article about Fall from Grace here.

He also notes that more Indigenous writers are being sought to sit on juries to award prizes and grants for Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers.

Indigenous writers are also becoming more popular as writers-in-residence. In 2016, Arthurson held the position with the Edmonton Public Library. This year, the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Writers Program sees Francine Cunningham, a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in northern Alberta, as writer-in-residence.

Arthurson hopes that both budding Indigenous writers and more seasoned ones will see his longevity in the industry as a sign of what they, too, can accomplish or at least understand that they, too, can have a book published.

Who knows, he says, he may even get introduced to his next writer to represent in the next six months or so. As writer-in-residence he only reads and critiques 10 to 15 pages from a manuscript, he points out.

“I'm not seeing a whole chunk of their work because of my time. I can't read a whole novel…but there's always that possibility if later on when I'm no longer the writer-in-residence and someone's work has attracted my attention, I could ask to see more. There's always that potential of that coming,” he said.

He admits he’s seen some promising work already, having started his position Sept. 1.

As for providing input on the brief number of pages he does read, Arthurson says being Indigenous and “becoming more open to my Indigenous background” does in some ways inform his responses.

“I think I probably would pick out maybe certain things that may be connected to Indigenous storytelling, but…just from my point of view as a writer for the past 30 years, I pick things out that they may not see and that happens with all writers. You work on something for such a long time, sometimes they're blind to things in the text…and then someone with fresh eyes comes in and says, ‘Oh, did you notice this? Or did you notice that?’” he said.

But one thing Arthurson is clear on is that he never tells a writer what to do or how to write. He shares with them what his experience has taught him.

He calls his approach “wholistic in a way because there's many ways of being a writer I've discovered. It's not just the one way or one style or one way of looking at it. There's so many different ways of being a writer, regardless of your background or where you come from.”

He says the best advice he ever received was to write about characters or situations you care about instead of writing about something you know.

“You feel more invested in it and then you should care about the story. Then you'll enjoy writing it better and then you also move out from writing only just what you know and trying to learn more about the world and find other ways of telling a story,” he said.

One piece of advice he doesn’t subscribe to is that writers need to write every day or hit a per day word quota and if they don’t do that then they aren’t really writers.

“You just find your own path for writing and do it your own way and if that works for you, then that works for you,” said Arthurson. “There are times when I do (write every day). There's times when I don't. I just find my own way.”

But whatever way a writer embraces the work, Arthurson says writing is hard to do. There’s always the challenge of finding a different or new way to tell a story. Or having a debut novel under sell, so getting that second novel picked up by a publisher becomes a challenge.

“I enjoy writing, but it's still hard work. It doesn't get easier as it goes along,” he said.

Being a writer-in-residence provides Arthurson with paid time to focus on his own writing. He’s presently doing the edits on the final draft of a novel and, when that’s done, he’ll be restarting another novel that he’s about half-way through.

Arthurson will be at the University of Alberta until May 31, 2024. He invites Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers to contact him at arthurso@ualberta.ca. He also invites writing groups to reach out.

Windspeaker is owned and operated by the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, an independent, not-for-profit communications organization.

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