Q&A with Darrel J. McLeod

September 22, 2018 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

Darrel J. McLeod is the author of Mamaskatch. A Cree Coming of Age. It has been described as “A heartbreakingly candid memoir of A Cree boy’s resilience and grace in the face of chaos and inter-generational tragedy.” Mamaskatch is a Cree word used as a response to dreams shared. This is Darrel’s debut and his memoir brings to Canada a stunning new voice.

Interview by Jennifer Manuel

Jennifer Manuel: Ben Yagoda said that in regards to the idea of writers finding their voice, “it’s an odd use of the common metaphor—a speaking voice is there for us all along and doesn’t require a search party—but it’s undoubtedly accurate.” You spent six years working on this memoir, it’s your first book, and it seems so fitting that, as you worked on the manuscript, you were also developing your voice as a jazz singer. How would you describe your search for your voice—intimate and magical—in this book?

Darrel J. McLeod: That’s a fascinating question Jen, and one I hadn’t really considered. My mother had an amazing voice – a lovely alto when singing, a full lyrical voice for storytelling, and a convincing authoritative voice for scolding and cajoling. My most precious memories are of Mother chording on the guitar and singing to us kids in Cree or English. She told me stories in the wee hours when we were both in another zone – her, drunk from alcohol, and me dazed from sleep deprivation.

But Mother lost her voice in her late thirties. As a result, I grew up very cognizant of my voice, that it was a gift – one that shouldn’t take for granted or abuse. Instinctively, I knew I should develop and nurture it, use it to sing and tell stories. School teachers and excellent private instructors helped me to do this over the years – I didn’t do it on my own.

Finding and developing my written voice followed a similar trajectory. In grade school the teachers would often ask me to read aloud the simple pieces I had written in response to their prompts, and my writing didn’t seem to leave anyone indifferent.

I always knew I’d perform as a singer, and in my third year of university, in a Canadian lit course I took as an elective, I knew I’d be a writer. The day I began to read The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence, I knew I wanted to write like her – to tell my story directly or indirectly somehow, but I had to get it out there. Years later, when I read Half-Breedby Maria Campbell andIn Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton, I became even more determined.

JM: You take some risks in this book, narratively speaking, that really pay off. In “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” you tell a part of your mother’s past in residential school which, since you weren’t there at the time, paints a grey area between non-fiction and fiction. How did you navigate this grey area?

DJM: I concluded the story “Hail Mary Full of Grace” at a week-long workshop with Shaena Lambert in the summer of 2014 – you were there Jen, and you were so incredibly helpful. I was thrilled with the final version of the story, and submitted it to Douglas Glover for publication in Numéro Cinq. After helping me to find a better ending, he published it, but I knew I wanted to include it in my memoir as well. I wasn’t sure if this would be ethical or fair, because it wasn’t my story per se, so I consulted a couple of academic friends who have studied the effects of genocide and the concept of genetic memory. They shared an article by Tori Rodriguez in Scientific American. This piece led me to believe that my ancestors’ experiences have affected the composition of my DNA, determining the person I would become. My mother’s story is an integral part of my story.

“A person’s experience as a child or teenager can have a profound impact on their future children’s lives, new work is showing. Rachel Yehuda, a researcher in the growing field of epigenetics and the intergenerational effects of trauma, and her colleagues have long studied mass trauma survivors and their offspring. Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.”

JM: You are a writer who is often expressing publicly your deep appreciation for the writing mentors in your life. What does the writing community mean to you, particularly in terms your development over the past six years?

DJM: Simply put – developing my skills as a writer has brought a new family into my life. The relationship is that intimate and full. Writers are a certain breed, which I won’t even attempt to describe here, because and I wouldn’t do it justice in just a few words, and I’m still early into my writing career. I know that Mamaskatchwouldn’t be the book that it is without the mentorship of Betsy Warland and Shaena Lambert, and the wonderful collaboration I had with you Jen. In addition to Betsy and Shaena’s incredible input, you simply gave me permission to do things that I really really wanted to do, but hadn’t seen done anywhere in modern literature. Like shifting PoV in rapid succession between fleeting characters, and having the Three Sisters Mountains as characters. They say it takes a community to raise a child, and I would say something similar applies to grooming a successful writer. Each year my writing family expands.

JM: One of the many things that must be daunting about publishing a memoir is your accountability to those real people depicted in the book. However, after mentioning that most of your family members in this book have passed away, you claimed that this in fact brings an additional accountability—to the spirit world. How do you honour this accountability? Does your Mosom, your great-grandfather and spiritual guide, play a role in this?

DJM: Three of my seven siblings are still alive – my three younger sisters. Fortunately, so are many of my cousins, some of whom appear as characters in my memoir. I have begun to hear from cousins who are reading Mamaskatch, and the feedback is rich – they seem incredibly grateful that I have documented some aspects of our family’s transition. Within just two or three generations, we went from living a traditional Cree lifestyle (off of the land) and speaking our language fluently, to being meshed, by force, into society, forcefully deprived of our language and much of our culture.

At one point when I was revising an early version of Mamaskatch, with Shaena Lambert’s guidance, she said to me, “Darrel, you’ve conjured all of your loved ones who are gone, and brought them together in one place,” and while I didn’t deliberately set out to do this, it’s true, Mamaskatchtruly does accomplish this, at least for me  – the title is so apt. And, while I’ve exposed the weaknesses and short-comings of a few family members and friends, what many would call “sins” of my family, I’ve revealed my own flaws and mistakes even more. I confessed to the world, and in doing so, sought absolution. I hope that the overarching message that comes across in Mamaskatchis one of compassion, hope, healing and reconciliation. I’m fiercely proud of every one of my family members and how they struggle(d) to survive.

As for my great-grandfather, Joseph Powder, he was our saviour, literally and figuratively. He lived until I was eight or nine years old. He was a spiritual presence then, and still is. He guides me in almost everything I do, and lives on through me. He is a wise, gentle, caring, and forgiving spirit.