Storytelling, usually through the Oral Tradition, is a sacred and integral part of Indigenous cultures. It is a traditional method used to pass on cultural beliefs, values, customs, history, science and more from generation to generation, allowing communities to narrate their culture through their own words.
This National Indigenous History Month, the Toronto International Festival of Authors reached out to award-winning Indigenous author Drew Hayden Taylor to learn more about the storytelling tradition and its influence on modern Indigenous writing… Read on to find out what he has to say.
When did you realize you wanted to write and tell stories?
Life in my community was pretty boring as a child. We had three television stations that came in poorly, and there were only so many times you could climb a tree or go swimming. So I started to read. The more I read, the more I realized a writer has more control over the universe he creates than the universe he lives in. I liked that. I also liked the idea of sharing with the world the things that happened in my community. It was kind of the concept of fair trade, since I was hovering up all these stories that came from all parts of the world.
What aspects of being a writer appealed to you the most?
During the process, the creation. I like figuring out how things work, who does what and for what reason. It’s probably the possibilities much more than the reality of what I write that is the cool part. I love the anticipation of creating a universe, while the actual mundane task of writing that universe quickly loses its charm. And of course, those two words that all writers treasure above all else – “The End” – few things top that sense of victory.
And on a secondary note, I love the travelling and meeting people that comes with being an author.
Is there a specific audience you have in mind when you are writing?
No. I may write some jokes that might tickle an Indigenous sense of humour specifically, but then right behind it might be something unique to a non-Indigenous group of people. Being half-Native and half-white gives me that advantage.
Are there authors or mentors who have influenced your work as a writer?
Difficult to say as my career has been quite haphazard. I’ve never taken a writing course in my life. But with that said, it was Tomson Highway who introduced me to the sea of theatre, but it was Larry Lewis who taught me how to swim. Tom King has been a good friend and advisor over the years. On a more international, people-I’ve-never-met influences, always been a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (in particular his short stories), John Wyndham, Stephen King and the Richards (Wagamese and Van Camp).
How do you approach storytelling?
Everything I do is storytelling. I think of myself as a contemporary storyteller. This is the 21st century and in this day and age there are so many different ways to tell stories. We’ve gone from Oral, to literary, theatrical, radio, television, movies and more. Even video games today have lengthy, detailed narratives. I like to think I’ve gone from telling stories around the campfire to telling stories around the stage or screen.
Has your own culture and relationship to storytelling influenced your writing?
Traditionally, storytelling was a way of passing on lore, philosophy, history, science, etc. Little of that has changed. That is still the point of good storytelling. When I write something, I always try to include three things; I try to educate, entertain and elucidate. I owe that practice to my Elders. I also try to incorporate elements of my cultural background into what I write. Like Joseph Campbell tells us about legends, we have more in common than most think.
How do you translate the differences between oral storytelling and written storytelling in your writing?
Mine involve a printed alphabet. And except for theatre, less face to face interaction. And perhaps, a colonized language.
As an Indigenous author, what does “Modern Storytelling” mean to you?
It can mean a wider audience, exploring the many modern methods of delivery, and a chance for those not so familiar with the wonders of our stories and storytelling methods, the opportunity to come along on the journey.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning author, playwright, film maker and a self-described contemporary storyteller. Originally from the Curve Lake First Nations in Central Ontario, he has spent the last two decades travelling the world and writing about it from the Indigenous perspective.