Joseph Boyden on being selected winner of Canada Reads and memories of growing up in Toronto
By David Paterson
Boyden still has a fondness for his North York roots and visits his friends in his old neighbourhood often
When North York–raised author Joseph Boyden set out to write The Orenda, his aims were modest. In the novel, a fictionalized account of the arrival of Jesuit missionaries among the Huron Nation in the early 17th century, he wanted to tell a good story and maybe challenge a few perceptions about aboriginal societies.
Instead, at the start of March, he found himself talking live on CBC as the winner of the channel’s annual Canada Reads book contest. And he won it in a year when the competition was striving to crown the book most likely to “change our nation.”
Having won the Giller in 2008 for his second novel, Through Black Spruce, Boyden is no stranger to the winner’s podium, but being deemed to have written a book that could change Canada is a serious accolade by anyone’s standards.
It’s one that will also shoot expectations of the novel into the stratosphere for the hordes of readers who will now rush to buy it.
So it’s not surprising that Boyden seems intent on playing down that aspect of the win, questioning whether any novel can truly change a country and talking instead of his desire to spark a dialogue between what he terms the “three solitudes” in Canada: the Anglophones, the Francophones and the First Nations.
That’s not, however, to say that Boyden doesn’t have a passionate desire to see change in this country. With Anishinabe heritage, raised in an Irish Catholic household and educated at the Jesuit Brebeuf College School near Steeles and Bayview, Boyden is acutely aware of the divisions that still exist in Canada. Bridging the divide between First Nations and the rest of the country is, he believes, of huge importance to our future.
“It’s the most pressing issue our country is facing, and I think a lot of Canadians understand that,” he says. “They are often two very different cultures looking at each other and misunderstanding one another quite often. So in my book, I try to be a bridge between them and try to explain from one to the other through stories how we can better see eye to eye.”
In The Orenda, Boyden weaves a tale of Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebéuf (for whom Boyden’s high school was named), who comes to live among the Huron during a period of war with the Iroquois. Boyden uses a sophisticated multi-viewpoint narrative technique, which has been praised for its sensitivity and style.
But the work is not without critics. Hayden King, an assistant professor at Ryerson University who is Ojibwa and Pottawotami, penned a strongly worded piece for the CBC in which he called the book a “comforting narrative for Canadians” that prioritized the viewpoints of the colonizers. And during the televised Canada Reads debates, activist Stephen Lewis launched a stinging attack on Boyden’s portrayal of violence in the book, which contains numerous chilling descriptions of torture and bloodshed between the warring Iroquois and Huron as well as the French missionaries. Lewis charged that the blood-curdling scenes would turn off many Canadians.
Using excessive violence is an assertion Boyden scoffs at, pointing out that few raise eyebrows when TV shows like Game of Thrones portray violence in graphic detail. But, he is ultimately philosophical about criticism.
Says Boyden: “In some ways I’ve realized that writing a novel is a very interior and lonely process, but once you put it out into the world, people are going to have their say about it. It becomes bigger than just you. Everyone who reads it gets to own a piece of it or be invested in a piece of it.”
Boyden has now written three novels, and each sold well and won awards, which, he believes, shows there is a demand for good writing by and about North America’s Native peoples. While pointing out that there are many other aboriginal writers producing excellent works, he says, “I guess I am filling something of a void that Canadians want to know about and hear about.”
Boyden himself first became interested in his First Nations heritage during his troubled teenage years in North York, where he also first started to express himself through writing. One of eight siblings, Boyden’s childhood was a busy one.
Still, Boyden has a fondness for his North York roots and comes back often to visit friends. He recalls the Willowdale home where he was raised with his seven siblings and a small menagerie of animals in the backyard; going to Blessed Trinity Grade School where a young Jim Carrey asked for Boyden’s sister’s hand in marriage in Grade 4 (she turned him down); and being an altar boy at the nearby church where his family went to mass each and every morning.
But there was also heartbreak. His father, a decorated Second World War veteran, died when Boyden was eight years old, leaving his mother, Blanche, to raise his large family.
Boyden recalls his teenage years as “the best of times, the worst of times,” and they were a turbulent period in his life. Grappling with what he now realizes was depression, he acted out and frequently found himself in trouble. On his 16th birthday he attempted suicide by throwing himself in front of a car.
Boyden started writing as a teenager to give an outlet to his rage and anguish. In his final year of high school, he switched from the Jesuit-run Brebeuf to a now-closed alternative school near Sheppard and Yonge, which, he says, opened his eyes to the world. “It was probably the greatest thing that could have happened to me as a young, troubled teenager. I was surrounded by these other very different, very creative thinkers.” It propelled him to go to York University and take his writing seriously and, from there, to grad school in New Orleans where he met his wife, novelist Amanda Boyden.
Today, the couple share a home in a former corner grocery store in midtown New Orleans, about 10 minutes from the French Quarter, that is filled with nooks and crannies in which hole up and write.
Boyden fell in love with the Deep South as a youth, when his mother would drive the family down to Myrtle Beach for March break. When asked what he loves about the Deep South, Boyden picks the contrasts and complexity.
“Things don’t really make sense when you line them up together. You’ve got the incredible racism at times, but you also have the most caring, loving people. There’s poverty right beside riches. It’s really fascinating place,” he says.
For Boyden, it seems, there has to be two sides to every story.