Celebrating the power of story: Indigenous Writers Day at U of T

Mark your calendars for June 12, 2023, as the inaugural Indigenous Writers Day is set to take place at the University of Toronto.

Mi’kmaq writer Amanda Peters, author of The Berry Pickers, will lead a workshop for students at the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) and participate in a public reading, interview and book signing at Innis Town Hall from 6:30 pm. We spoke to both Peters and Dale Turner, the visionary behind Indigenous Writers Day. Turner is the director of the Indigenous Research Network and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science.

Turner joined the JHI during 2022-23 as the Distinguished Indigenous Faculty Research Fellow, focusing his time on writing a novel that draws from Indigenous Studies, political science, and postcolonial theory. The inspiration for Indigenous Writers Day came to him as he immersed himself in writing his novel. “I’ve been reading more fiction than I normally do and realized that there are a growing number of Indigenous writers who are making inroads into many different genres in contemporary literature. Let’s celebrate and honour that.”

Headshot of Dale Turner
Dale Turner of the Department of Political Science joined the JHI in 2022-23 as the Distinguished Indigenous Faculty Research Fellow.

“I would like to showcase the increasing number of incredibly talented Indigenous writers in Canada. When I thought of who to invite, 15-20 Indigenous writers came to mind right away, and each would bring their distinctive writing style and personality to campus. Then I thought, why not create a yearly event to celebrate Indigenous writing in Canada?” Turner hopes to expand the involvement by others at the U of T so that we can “do justice to the diversity of Indigenous voices in contemporary Indigenous literary culture.”

The goal of the first Indigenous Writers Day is to celebrate Peters and her remarkable debut novel, The Berry Pickers. Turner describes Peters as having “a full career working for her people, who has now woven her life experience to create The Berry Pickers.” Students are invited to participate in a workshop at the Jackman Humanities Institute led by Peters, who’ll discuss how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous found forms can be used to tell difficult stories and explore how Indigenous writers and storytellers are resisting the colonization of story. Turner continues, “Amanda Peters is a fabulous role model, especially for young Indigenous people, and I hope the workshop inspires them to pursue their own interests.”

Looking toward the future, Turner hopes that Indigenous Writers Day evolves into a campus-wide celebration at the U of T. By expanding the scope of the event, multiple panels and workshops can be organized to highlight different genres within Indigenous literature. He plans to focus on young people's literature, nurturing the literary talents of the next generation of Indigenous writers. This vision ensures that future iterations of Indigenous Writers Day will embrace a wider range of literary interests within Indigenous literature, truly capturing the richness and diversity of Indigenous storytelling.

In The Berry Pickers, Amanda Peters captures the essence of familial love and memories, as well as the profound anguish of individual loss. Peters introduces us to beautifully crafted, unforgettable characters while exploring the devastating consequences of a child's disappearance. The Berry Pickers weaves a multi-layered narrative that both exposes the irrevocable harm that reverberates through the lives of both the victims and the culprits and illustrates the power of love and redemption. Praise from acclaimed authors like Cherie Dimaline, Michelle Good, and Katherena Vermette solidify Peters' position as a rising talent in Canadian literature. The Berry Pickers is a poignant and powerful novel that leaves a lasting impression.

Peters’ writing is deeply influenced by her background and heritage. Growing up in the Annapolis Valley area of Nova Scotia, her Mi’kmaq/settler heritage shaped her perspective from an early age. Inspired by her mother's love for reading and by listening to her father’s stories, Peters developed a passion for storytelling. She has  completed the Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and an MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Recently, Peters discussed her writing process, the evolution of her career, and her ability to seamlessly blend multiple narratives in The Berry Pickers. She also shared her approach to crafting authentic characters and settings, addressing challenging topics, and her upcoming workshop on resisting the colonization of story.

Can you share a little bit about your writing process?

I have always had a very busy full-time job while writing, doing my Certificate and my MFA so I find it hard to write in short time slots. I like to take a Saturday and / or Sunday and write from early morning until I either “lose the plot” or get tired. I like to write for hours at a time, in long bursts.

How has your writing process evolved over the course of your career, and what have you learned about yourself as a writer through this process?

I used to hate revision and now I love it. Also, don’t try so hard. I used to think I had to write a certain way (super literary, I guess) but when I just let myself write freely without trying to compare myself to others, I found how I was meant to write. There is always room for improvement, but I am more confident in what I write now.

Your book spans multiple time periods and voices but blends them effortlessly. How did you approach the structure of the book? Did you write the story linearly or did you work in sections and then combine them?

When I started writing it, it was only from the perspective of Joe, but Norma wanted her story to be told as well. When I started writing the dual narrative, I had a hard time and had to consider how it was going to work. I was finding it difficult to keep the voices separate and distinct, so I ended up writing Joe’s chapters and then Norma’s chapters, then putting them together. It helped me ensure that they each had their own voices.

How do you approach the task of crafting characters, settings, and narratives that are engaging and authentic?

This was easy for this story since my father’s family used to pick blueberries in Maine in the 1960s and 1970s. In the summer of 2017, my father and I took a road trip to Maine, and he showed me the fields and told me many stories. While The Berry Pickers is fiction, it was inspired by those stories. I think this added a sense of authenticity.

The Berry Pickers deals with some difficult and emotional subject matter, including the distress associated with a missing loved one and family conflict, as well as issues of colonization and the lasting impacts of historical trauma. How did you approach writing about these topics, and were there any scenes or moments in the book that were particularly challenging to write?

There were some scenes that were emotionally draining. I would write the scene and then put it away for a while until I was ready to return to it. In particular, the pregnancy loss was a difficult scene to write and since I have never experienced that myself, I spent days reading firsthand stories online and I took my time. I wanted to respect those who had this experience who may someday read it. And I wanted it to be authentic.

On June 12, you’ll be leading a workshop at the Jackman Humanities Institute for students exploring how Indigenous writers and storytellers are resisting the colonization of story and how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous found forms can be used to tell difficult stories. Can you explain what found forms are?

Found forms are when you use an unconventional structure that is already in existence to tell a different story. For example, using a recipe to tell a story or a grocery list or a wine tasting sheet (I used this to write a short essay once). I will be providing examples for the students. I had a mentor once say something to the effect that we can use found form to tell sometimes difficult stories. The form provides a hard shell for the soft underbelly of difficult stories. It isn’t necessarily specific to Indigenous cultures but I would like to explore this with the students.

What advice would you give to other writers who are looking to share their own stories and perspectives through their work, particularly Indigenous writers?

I was very nervous about telling the stories that I now tell. Being mixed race and not raised on the reserve and not speaking my language, I thought I didn’t have the right to tell Indigenous stories. My writing was dull and without heart. When I was at a workshop and asked to write a piece of historical fiction, I wrote my first “Indigenous story”, and I was proud of it. It went on to be shortlisted for an Indigenous Voices Award. Then I started writing what I wanted to write, and the characters came alive, the stories were less dull. A friend told me that my writing was “my ceremony” and how I connected to my Indigenous self, and I have been finding my voice since and will continue to explore that as I write.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I’m really looking forward to Michelle Good’s essay collection Truth Telling.

Indigenous Writers Day at U of T

Don't miss Amanda Peters in person, reading from The Berry Pickers, participating in an interview with Riley Yesno, and answering questions from the audience. She'll also participate in a book signing after the reading. The JHI is also giving away two copies of The Berry Pickers! Winners will be chosen at random and notified by the time indicated on the entry form. Deadline to enter is June 9 at 4 pm ET. One entry per person.

Indigenous Writers Day with Amanda Peters
Monday, June 12, 2023 | 6:30 - 8:30 pm
Innis Town Hall, Innis College
2 Sussex Ave, Toronto, ON M5S 1J5