In this 2014 interview, Lee Maracle talks about her novel Celia’s Song, which is a nominee for the Neustadt International Prize.
The Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle is a teacher, a lifelong activist and an expert on First Nations culture and history, all of which has informed her celebrated writing career. She published her first book in 1975, the autobiographical novel Bobbie Lee Indian Rebel, and it was among the first Indigenous novels published in Canada.
Since then Maracle has written many more award-winning and critically acclaimed books in almost every genre. Her novel Celia’s Song is a nominee for the 2020 Neustadt International Prize. This prestigious award, often referred to as the American Nobel, is given every two years to a poet, novelist or playwright in recognition of their body of work and comes with a purse of $50,000 (U.S.).
Retelling the sea serpent story
“One of my ancestors, Chief Joseph Capilano and Mary Agnes, the princess of peace, worked with Pauline Johnson, who’s a poet of Mohawk and British descent. In the 1900s, they put a collection of stories together called, Legends of Vancouver. He told the sea serpent story as though it were happening right there and I decided that’s what I wanted to do too. But I wanted to do mine from a very different perspective and I knew it would take a long time to figure out how I was going to do that.
“[The sea serpent story begins with] a catastrophe. There was this tremendous flood that came across the prairie when the glaciers melted really quickly and then volcanoes went off and earthquakes occurred. There was a flood that killed almost all of us on the west coast. Those two floods together became this natural catastrophe and people became desperate. A lot of internalized violence developed along the west coast, right from Alaska down to California.
“Fighting ensued and people say this serpent with two heads came into the villages and terrorized them. The serpent swallowed everybody’s conscience and that’s how we develop split minds. I decided to use it as the backdrop to deal with some of the internal unseen violence in our community toward women and children.”
The groundbreaking Indigenous writer on why Anna Karenina is her favourite character in fiction, her idea of perfect happiness and more. 5:28
The beautiful lie
“I lied to my granddad one day and he stared at me for a long time. My granddad had this emotional face and you could see every emotion he was going through as he was looking at me, but there was also something in him that was studying me very carefully.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, I want to die because I just lied to my granddad and he deserved better.’ But then at the end he said, ‘That’s a good story. Now I’m going to tell you another one.’ And so he did and then he says, ‘Now tell it back to me different, but the same.’
I wanted to write those stories. I really did.– Lee Maracle
“He got me to make up all these stories based on original stories of ours over the course of a summer. At the end of it he says, ‘You know, white people pay a lot of money for you to lie like that.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He says, ‘Yeah, but you gotta learn to write. I’m happy with that, but don’t you ever lie to me again.’ It made a difference between a beautiful lie, which is a story, and lying to hornswoggle someone. I wanted to write those stories. I really did. I wanted to be able to put books together.”
Lee Maracle’s legacy
“We have a saying: ‘Words have power. They have impact. Breath is wind, wind is voice and voice is power.’ [Writing] made me a very powerful person in myself, inside myself. But it also influenced a new direction for Canada. I’m not the only one, though. Native writers generally have influenced Canadians to start building the bridge toward us and some of the new Canadian attitude is to make sure the street crosses both ways, instead of constantly pillaging Native lands and Native territory and not giving something back and seeing us as parasites.
We lost a continent and we’re still subsidizing Canada with the wealth from that continent.– Lee Maracle
“We lost a continent and we’re still subsidizing Canada with the wealth from that continent. Laws made not by us have prohibited us from being part of that in any way shape or form. But I think things are changing now because there’s people saying, ‘It’s a colonial country and we’re settlers and we have to rearrange things. We have to get a sharing arrangement.’ I think that’s a very powerful influence I’ve had on this country.”
With a career spanning four decades, Lee Maracle is one of the most prolific and respected Indigenous writers in Canada. But when she began her writing career in the 1970s, her voice and her stories were not recognized in the CanLit scene. 9:16
Lee Maracle’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.