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Coming-of-age story is part of a journey to understanding

Indigenous author Joseph Kakwinokanasum returns to South Surrey for book signing

If you’d told author Joseph Kakwinokanasum in 2014 – when he first moved to the White Rock-South Surrey area – that in less than a decade he’d be at Black Bond Books in Semiahmoo Centre, signing copies of a debut novel, he knows what his answer would have been.

“I would have said you were crazy,” he told Peace Arch News.

Yet that’s exactly where he’ll be and what he’ll be doing on June 3, from noon to 2 p.m., helping to mark Indigenous Month on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.

And he said he’ll be delighted to be back sharing his coming-of-age his first novel, My Indian Summer (Tidewater Press), with a community that nurtured and supported him through the first difficult steps of becoming a writer.

Although he and his wife moved to Sooke last year after some eight years on the Peninsula, he still counts it as a second home, where family and many friends live.

Among them are people like artists Elizabeth Hollick and Lynda Pearce, who had him read his work as part of their Shards and Gems show at the Landmark Pop-Uptown Gallery, and poet/novelist Heidi Greco who was also influential in allowing him to develop his literary voice through participation in Semiahmoo Arts’ former Zero To 360 works-in-progress reading series at Pelican Rouge Cafe.

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“I’m also really grateful to Black Bond Books for supporting me – events like this are what helps writers connect with their community,” he said.

His career as a writer, also fostered by his studies with SFU’s Writers’ Studio, has latterly achieved a momentum that would be hard to ignore.

A finalist for CBC’s 2020 Nonfiction Prize for his short story “Ray Says,” he was selected in 2022 by Darrel J. McLeod as one of The Writers Trust of Canada’s ‘Rising Stars’. His work has also appeared in The Humber Literary Review and Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing.

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But it’s only the latest chapter in a long and difficult life journey, he noted.

A member of the James Smith Cree Nation, Kakwinokanasum was born in northern Saskatchewan, one of seven children raised by a single mother, who took them to live in the small town of Pouce Coupe in the Peace River region of northern B.C. Many of his family were impacted by the Residential Schools system, he said – his mother was an alcoholic and he, himself, is a recovering heroin addict.

Inspired by his own “life experiences,” My Indian Summer is the story of a journey to understanding that some villains are also victims, and that while reconciliation may not always be possible, survival is.

It began as a memoir, but ended as a work of fiction, Kakwinokanasum admits, adding that using the relatable tropes of a coming-of-age story allowed him to tell a very layered story in a way that is enjoyable, but still relates a message “without hitting anybody over the head with a mallet.”

For Hunter Frank, the summer of ’79 begins with his mother returning home to her three “half-breeds” – but only to pick up her last two months’ welfare cheques, before leaving the two boys and one girl to fend for themselves in the northern B.C. town of Red Rock.

When his older sister and his brother manage to escape the town for other opportunities, Hunter is entirely on his own, except for the companionship of his two best friends and occasional care and advice from a trio of elders—his ‘kohkums’.

While it’s been a good summer for the young entrepreneur, the cash he hides in a purple Crown Royal bag inside his mattress still isn’t enough to fund his escape from town and the continuing influence of his ‘monstrous’ mother.

But when the Labour Day weekend arrives, so does a new friend – offering old wisdom and a business opportunity that might be just what a boy at the crossroads needs.

Inevitably the question arises of just how much of the novel is autobiographical, and Kakwinokanasum acknowledges it is based on people and situations he has known.

But the places he has taken those characters are the result of a fiction-creating process.

“I’m known for close-to-the-bone writing,” he said. “But the process of fictionalizing gave me a break – so I could get some emotional distance.”

It also, through adopting the limited-omniscient voice, allowed him to get inside the heads of the other characters in a way that would not have been possible in a memoir, he said.

The reaction he has received to My Indian Summer has been very gratifying, he said.

“Some people have told me that it’s like Huckleberry Finn – which I love – and others have said it should be in all Canadian schools.”

Kakwinokanasum – now busy with a new novel he describes as “an Indigenous-horror-fantasy” – said he’s happy if his work can contribute to some long-delayed discussions, as well as encourage other Indigenous writers to find their own voices.

“This book would not have happened if there was not an audience prepared to embrace Truth and Reconciliation,” he said. “It allowed me to finally become self-empowered.”

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