Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA

Lee Maracle: The Raven

Episode Summary

Recorded in Toronto in 1991, Lee Maracle, one of Canada’s most important and celebrated writers - of the Sto:lo Nation in Salish Territory (also called British Columbia) - gives a glimpse into the ways traumatic histories continue to haunt families, communities, individuals. In her distinctive voice which calls on and to the Raven again and again, we hear that passion and fire that Maracle is so famous for bringing to her readings, her activism and her art. A true performance by a truly great artist. This audio was recorded as part of Toronto’s International Readings at Harbourfront Series (now called TIFA) and is used with the kind permission of Lee Maracle and the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Episode Notes

Note: given the current temporary closure of TPL due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made our best efforts to offer suggestions below for materials which are part our online collections (indicated) and available at home to anyone with a current Toronto Library card. 

Read: Why are wait times on ebooks or audiobooks sometimes so long?


Books by Lee Maracle

Memory Serves (ebook)

My Conversations with Canadians (ebook)

Celia’s Song (ebook)

Hope Matters (ebook)

Other Related Books or Materials

‘We Have the Same Language, But Definitely Different Rules’: An Interview with Lee Maracle (link opens a Hazlitt article)

High-schooler Catricia Hiebert reads the poem “War” by Lee Maracle for Les Voix des poésie competition (link opens a Youtube video)

Activist Lee Maracle On Why Every Question Is Worth Answering (Even If It's Racist) (link opens a Chatelaine article)

Lee Maracle Reflects on her Legacy as One of Canada's Most Influential Indigenous Writers  (link opens a CBC site)

About the Host

Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.

Music is by Yuka


From the Archives

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.

Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.

Episode Transcription

Writers Off the Page: S1E16

Lee Maracle: The Raven



RANDY: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, produced by the Toronto Public Library. I'm Randy Boyagoda. In this episode, Lee Maracle tells stories that come from deep and true places in her person and her people.

Lee Maracle: Maybe this time, we won't recover. Momma, you can see I'm in the thick of a major pout. "When you fall down girl, get up." I can hear you say that. Just get up. Like getting up and laughing in the face of absolute catastrophe is so damned easy. Like having holes in the walls that let winter's bitter howl through, is just a happy piece of luck. You laughed all the way to the end, momma. Everyone talks about how plucky you were, laughing to the end like you did. Laughed yourself out of motherhood, momma. Laughed me into a box I can't climb out of.

RANDY: You’ve probably heard of that podcast that started a while ago that features people reading bedtime stories. The idea is to settle in, close your eyes, and fall asleep to a soothing voice telling you a comforting, pleasing tale. Children are desperate to be treated as adults until they become adults desperate to be treated like children, I guess. Anyway, I don’t imagine the formidable Lee Maracle will be invited to join this podcast anytime soon, and I’m fairly certain she’d be okay with that. For decades now, Maracle’s efforts as one of Canada’s leading indigenous writers, thinkers, and activists has been to get the people around her to wake up. In all the many genres she works in, she wants us to wake up to the situations of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and especially the situations of Indigenous women – whether old or young, urban or small town or rural, from past or from the present. In books like her incendiary 1975 book, an autobiographical novel called Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, and in public events like her jumping on stage at a literary festival in 1988 to make a first-person case for Indigenous recognition and intellectual-cultural engagement after she was not invited officially to that festival, Maracle has been a demanding, fierce, and inexhaustible artist-advocate. And as you’ll realize in how she frames the story she tells in this episode, particularly in regards to the health situation of her mother at the time, that work can have a deeply-felt and active personal source of meaning. That source comes through in Maracle’s tone, and in the texture of the story itself, which is about Indigenous experience and its double importance. It matters in and of itself to Indigenous peoples, and needs to be claimed and valued on those terms for that reason, no matter how difficult the matter — and here, listen especially for what Maracle has to say about suicide. The second importance extends beyond Indigenous peoples, to the people and nation-state of Canada. What does it mean, in storytelling as much as public life, for us to recognize, and reckon with, Maracle’s proposal that, as she puts it, “You need me, Canada, to be you.” There’s loaded ambiguities and implications about the potential of solidarity in difference, in those seven words, and in how Maracle tests, explores, and enacts the underlying ideas in the material she reads. Crucial to that work is the figure of the raven, a trickster figure, who isn’t merely referenced in Maracle’s telling but is an active and intervening presence whose very existence, never mind sharp words and also — also, sharp sounds, as you’ll see — are part of how Lee Maracle wakes us up and makes sure we stay awake.



Lee Maracle (LM): It's a long way from the [inaudible] fishing ghetto, where this little wharf rat watched native kids and Japanese kids fight each other, and dreamed of something different. It's good to be here. I wanna tell a little story about Rick Shiomi, who I've known for some time. It's probably the only light thing I'll say today. We knew a lot of Ricks in those days [chuckle] from different nationalities. There was Black Rick, Indian Rick, and Minamata Rick. I don't wanna tell you why we called him Minamata Rick. The Reed Paper Company, which is responsible for the mercury poisoning of the English Wabigoon River system was staging an environmental art show. All of the native people and the small Japanese groups across the country banded together and tried to stop the show.

LM: And we actually did knock two days of it out of Vancouver's life. At that time, and so long ago that Katari Taiko was a woman in a dream, and my writing was a dream too. [chuckle] I'm gonna bring you Raven and a story about my mother, if I can. If I can't, well, I'll stop reading it. Then you'll have to see it in published form. My mother's very ill right now. Raven was done when she wasn't ill though. She was, about three months ago, she has just been struck with cancer. But I also wanna do it for Noreen Laka Joe, who's actually the woman in the story, whose daughter tells the story. Noreen did not have a daughter, but I imagine what her daughter would have been like had she been my mother's age, and had a whole pile of kids.

LM: “Raven, silly old Crow. What you doing two steppin' and cackling at my window? "Kraa." They all believe those old crack cords, they think they make sense, you know, the old ones, Will, aunt Mary, grandma, even mom, she used to believe it. They all read profundity between your crack cords, raven's magic. "She brought us here," they say. It must have been some joke, hey Crow? "Kraa, kraa." Bet you think it's just damn funny, all those wise old sages uttering insightful stories that they attribute to you? But the biggest joke of all, Crow, is that they believed you could reach into your endless bag of tricks and transform the world, ha. "Ha."

LM: "Don't get cute with me, Crow." Where have you been? Oh, hell, what am I saying? I don't buy it, Crow, all this Raven trickster transformer stuff. I argue with them, you know. The old people, I mean, "If Crow is so magical, and we've been so good to her, how come she didn't do anything in the dark days when momma... " Momma, I miss you momma. I have no idea why she plagues me now, her memory. I mean, it's been years, 37 years. God, I'm over 40, and I still feel like a goddamn orphan.

LM: Well, it isn't really that simple. You see, I have this image of her, svelte, not so young, black eyes a twinkle. Hair, wavy, all wild, standing up, sticking out, double crown and all, lips pulled back into a perpetual grin. I can see her laugh, head tossed back, her whole body shaking with the effort and her mouth wide open shoving laughter at the air, letting the joy of it carry her body on a shaken journey like the whole world was so blessed and marvelous. And then I see the rest of the room she's standing in.

LM: Seven kids, all lined up for a bath in an old galvanized tub. Two canning kettles sit on the old McClary wood stove, firing up two more tubs of hot water. The walls behind her are unadorned, no pictures of any of us hanging on them. Well, they were only half there, them walls, anyway. I know I didn't know that then. I didn't know anything then, but I still see that old kitchen, Crow. I know now, we lived poorer than our church's rats.

LM: There's no mice in a waterfront church, you know? Just rats. Sewer rats, Raven. You know what it was like, why didn't you do something then? The walls, Raven. Shiplap on the outside, and nothing to line the inside, and the wind howling through the crevices. No wood sometimes for the stove. Where was your magic? Take off then, see if I care. You've been taking off on us for 100 years now. You left our grannies to live, rather die, through seven epidemics.

LM: And now, we face the meanest one of all, suicide. Maybe this time, we won't recover. Momma, you can see I'm in the thick of a major pout. "When you fall down girl, get up." I can hear you say that. Just get up. Like getting up and laughing in the face of absolute catastrophe is so damned easy. Like having holes in the walls that let winter's bitter howl through, is just a happy piece of luck. You laughed all the way to the end, momma. Everyone talks about how plucky you were, laughing to the end like you did. Laughed yourself out of motherhood, momma. Laughed me into a box I can't climb out of.

LM: Did you know what they did to us? To us? To me? They herded the lot of us into a big room. They had folks come look at us. All white and prissy, some of them. Others all pasty. All of them well dressed and tight faced, like they'd never ever laughed once in their life. One at a time, they'd cut one of us loose from the herd, the weakest and the smallest went first. Me, I was third. They shipped us off, here and there, all over. I never saw most of them again.

LM: "You have your nerve coming back, girl." Where is Tom, Raven? Big Tom. Manly Tom. Chugging water up the hill for momma, heaving one side of the canning kettle of boiling water while momma heaved the other. He was always there tending to us when momma was down below pounding crabs. He helped sister Sarah cook dinner while momma took her crabs to town to be sold. Where? Oh, yeah, I remember. Tommy put up a fight. He clung to baby Mary like he'd die for her.

LM: He bit that woman and kicked her, and held on the baby, but they got him, too. Damn needle dropped him like magic. Is that it, Raven? Their magic is too big for you? Too full of unfair advantages? Tommy, I see you slumping to the floor, eyes closed, tears still streaming from them, shoulders still pounding out a steady stream of sobs, and all them people just looking at us, blank and cold. Yeah, that was the scariest part, blank and cold. I sank down in the corner of the room, an invisible hand closed on my throat. I tried to scream, "Wake up, Tommy, wake up." But, nothing came out.

LM: I still have that scream locked up in my throat, after all these years. "Ugh I can't. I can't scream. Tommy lay so still, I thought they killed him. Then this lady holds out a glass of milk and cookies and smiles at me, her lips thin and pinched, her eyes all flat, blue coloured. I thought she was some wicked witch, fattening me up for the kill. Milk and cookies? My brother's laying in the middle of the floor, all dead still, and she hands me milk and cookies like everything's fine.

LM: And the hands, pink and corpulent, open up and reach for me. Okay, I bit him. Now that you mention it, it was kind of funny. I sunk my teeth into his left hand and hunkered down on it. Well, maybe barrelled down on it. They all grabbed his hand and tried to pull it out of my mouth. I could taste his blood. It made me wretch. It had an unnatural taste and smell to it, but I kept hanging on, I couldn't let go. It was as if letting go would be the end of me. Nah, it wasn't that.

LM: Raven, I hoped they would end it all for me. Catapult me to the same place momma and Tommy were. I hung on so they would. To a place where everyone just laughs at catastrophe. A place where there aren't rules that say poor motherless children can't just buckle down and be cared for by a village of miscellaneous aunts and uncles who take turns checking us, watching us, making sure everything is alright. But who would never, never dream of sending us away. A place where not having the proper shoes, shorts or socks, didn't matter. A place full of different magic. What's that, Crow? Raven magic? Oh sure, why not.

LM: Or we can just troop the whole dead lot of us to your place, hey raven? We can all look down and just laugh at our relative sitting in the dark twice a year, with no hydro, partying up a million laughs 'cause we ran out of food before the next bit of money came in. And if that don't cheer the Jesus out of us, we can ride the wind to all the places where Indian protesters are arrested, and howl around about that for a while.

LM: Oh, better yet, why don't we take a whole dead kit and caboodle of us, just saunter to their graveyards for an old time game of lacrosse? You know, thousands of us whacking gum pitch balls over top those fancy headstones? "Ugh." Yeah, I know. Pathetic isn't it? Most of our dead are children, babies, couldn't play lacrosse if we wanted to do. I suppose momma was the first dead 40-year-old our village ever had. Aunty Mary says, she is the only one died of the flu, who wasn't a baby or an old man or woman. Things are changing now though, raven. Plenty of 20 to 40-year-olds packing it in all over the place, calling it suicide. We're pulling our own plug. This here straight razor is all it take. One cut, good and deep. With a little luck, no one will find me. I mean my husband left long ago, and yesterday, they came for the kids.

LM: Now, this year, the bottle is empty. Hydro shut the lights off. I got no money and no prospects. Hmmm Hmmmm. What's that? Bit his hand? So? Tommy kicked 'til he was unconscious? So? Stop that singing. Who's singing? Get back Raven. Go away. No. I lost that fight. I can't do it anymore, I lost. Stop that damn singing. Don't cry, I bit his hand. I did what I could, child. I tried." But I was only four. You rest your case. What does that mean, you rest your case? Raven, don't you dare desert me now. Come back. Shit, damn crow. Silly old crow.

LM: Oh, I must be really losing it, listening to an old black bird cackling nonsense. Rest my case, like hell. I fought back, but I was four. Now I'm 41. I didn't know you can't win then, but me, I know now. "Tommy, why did you go on fighting, like it was so much fun?" It had been years since I've seen you. You look so good, all brassy black-haired and square-shouldered, lips pulled back in that big grin, then your head went back. I knew what was coming. I wasn't quick enough to pull my hat over my ears, and cover up the sound before momma's laugh was shoved across the room by your throat. Tommy, what was it you said? "Keeps me from crying."

LM: Laughing keeps you from crying? Or is it fighting back that keeps you from crying? Raven is that it? Is that why momma's smile never dances on my face 'cause I keep crying, because I gave up long ago in that little room? Momma, when I look in the mirror I see the lines of your face carved into mine. But my lips are pinched, so tight like I've never smiled. Matter of fact, it's been a long time since I have smiled. "Just get up, just get up." Jesus, momma, I have to find new weapons, this old bottle and razor aren't any good for fighting back. My babies, where are they? Oh yeah, they took them. I have to get them back. Momma, Tommy, Raven, I can't do this by myself, come with me. "What's that song?"



RANDY: Lee Maracle was born in Vancouver in 1950 and grew up in a poor neighbourhood on the city’s North Shore. A member of the Sto:Lo Nation, she was born to a Metis mother and Salish father, and began publishing her work in the early 1970s, making her one of the first Indigenous writers to do so in Canada. During this same period, she became involved with Indigenous activism as a member of the Red Power movement. Thereafter, as her writing and public work advanced, she was one of the founders of the En’owkin International School of Writing, and has received many awards and recognitions, including being named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2018. She teaches at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies and in 2019 published Hope Matters, a collection of poetry she co-authored with her daughters Columpa Bobb and Tania Carter.

Thanks to Lee Maracle for allowing us permission to use the audio for this episode. And, as always, thanks to TIFA, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for allowing us access to their archives. Find out more at FestivalOfAuthors.ca.

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick. This episode was produced by Gregory McCormick and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou and Michelle De Marco, and marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.

For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit tpl.ca/podcasts where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections. 

Music is by YUKA.

I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode ofWriters Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.