Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Joseph Boyden on Place and Landscape in His Writing - an AGO Lecture Preview

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Joseph Boyden

The name Joseph Boyden has become synonymous with Canadian literature — a curious turn of events given that Boyden writes about Canadian characters and landscapes while teaching for much of the year in New Orleans. Though Boyden returns to Canada, and particularly his beloved Northern Ontario, frequently, living part of his life south of the border seems to have bestowed a beneficial clarity. Boyden not only beautifully captures Canadian life and history in his best-selling, critically acclaimed novels (including last year's CBC Canada Reads winner, The Orenda), but speaks frequently in both fiction and non-fiction to essential issues of social justice related to Indigenous communities.

In that vein, the AGO approached him to speak about the concept and creation of place in his writing, inspired by their current Picturing the Americas exhibit, which features influential landscape pieces, including works by Georgia O'Keefe, Lawren S. Harris and Félix Émile Taunay, amongst many others. Yale University Press has published a complementary catalogue of the same title, which takes in a wider set of viewpoints of the same landscapes, including works by acclaimed Indigenous artists.

To celebrate the upcoming lecture, Open Book spoke with Mr. Boyden about the idea of place and landscape and how it impacts his writing process. He tells us about how his characters are connected to the land, the many ways to get injured in the wilderness and the differences between an Indigenous and a newcomer's approach to landscape art.

The sold out lecture, Joseph Boyden: My Americas, will take place this Wednesday, July 29 at the AGO in Toronto (317 Dundas Street West) at 7:00p.m.

Grace O'Connell for Open Book:

How did the Picturing the Americas exhibition inspire you to speak about the importance of place in your own writing?

Joseph Boyden:

I was asked if I wanted to come up to the art gallery to give a talk and I said, "I love the art gallery. What is the talk about, what are the general parameters?" And they sent me this beautiful book just recently of the exhibition they're doing. I'm stunned by it — it's a big project, covering all of North America from Tierra del Fuego to the Americas in one book, one exhibition. It's really stunningly done and I thought, this will be great. And it will be a chance for me to speak about landscape from my own point of view, both in my fiction and in my non-fiction, and in my real life, and what I do, especially with Aboriginal youth up in the north of Canada.


I wanted to talk to you about the way you craft place in your writing. For you, what comes first — it is character or place? Are they built concurrently or does one grow out of the other for you?


Well, for me, I realise that my characters are part of the land and the land is part of my characters. You know, I didn't consciously realise that at first. Since my very first forays into writing, my short stories, it was always about characters in the landscape and how the character reacts and lives within the landscape and the land shapes that character. So the two are really inseparable. When I look back, in my novels that's very clear. Xavier and Elijah in Three Day Road are part of the land and it's a part of them. When they're taken away to Europe, to the War and they witness that devastation of the landscape, it devastates them too. That destruction of landscape begins to destroy them, especially Elijah. So yes, the two are very much inseparable for me.


And it's beautifully done. That brings me to another aspect of your writing — not just the beauty of the landscape, but also the violence. Do you find place to be a good entry place to discuss violence?


Yes, I'd never thought of it that way, but I realise we love to romanticize the ide of nature and the wilderness. But as Will Bird says in the very opening pages of Through Black Spruce, Mother Nature is one angry slut, she's happy to take you, for everything you've done to her, she's more than willing to take your life. It's true in real life — I've spent a lot of time in Northern Ontario, a pretty isolated place, and you realise very quickly, Man, if you get hurt out here — and there are many ways to get hurt up there if you're not careful, if you you’re your canoe, if you accidentally cut yourself, there are many, many ways to get hurt in the bush — you have to be very much aware of that at all times. And at the same time, wilderness is what brings me the greatest comfort. So it's a fascinating duality in the natural world. You need to be very careful, but it's also the most calming and beautiful thing. But I never try to romanticse it. I don't think I do in my real or in my fiction.


I'm sure you get this question a lot, but you've written so evocatively about Canada while living part of the time in the States. Does being outside of Canada help you write about it? Is it a way of coming home?


It is a question that people ask a lot but I understand why. I'm very much not an ex-patriate Canadian. I spend part of my life in New Orleans, which is not really part of America either — I call it its own Banana Republic, anyone whose been to this part of the country will understand. I'm from a very large family, I'm one of eleven children, and I love them all very dearly. It's a big, loud, noisy, great family that we have, I love to go home and fill up the well and then come back south and write about it. That physical distance lends itself to a psychic distance that is in some ways good for me — to be able to pull back and objectively look at where I'm from and the world I come from. And now in the twenty-first century, where everything is immediate and at your fingertips, it's almost like being at home sometimes, when I'm following on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. It makes it all very immediate for you. And I get home a lot. I think I've spent more time in Canada since The Orenda came out than in New Orleans, literally.


Have you had a chance to look at some of the pieces in the catalogue for Picturing the Americas?


I've been looking through it and it's brilliant. One of the things that strikes me immediately is the different perspectives — how you see the world, and your lens through which you see the world. The Indigenous art is so much a part of the land, whereas often the Western and European artists look at land in a very different land. They're painting almost from a distance, an arms-length distance. Whereas the Indigenous art, whether it is paintings on drums or the clothing, it's a part of what you wear, of who you are. I'm going to pour over that book, but that is what struck me immediately. It's an amazing book.


Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario from June 20, 2015 to September 20, 2015.

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