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Books Cherie Dimaline: ‘My community is where my stories come from and it’s also where my responsibilities lie’

Cherie Dimaline

Valentina Harper

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis writer whose books include Red Rooms, A Gentle Habit and The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy. In 2014, she was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts and was the first Indigenous writer-in-residence for the Toronto Public Library. Her young-adult novel The Marrow Thieves, set in a world where Indigenous people are hunted for their bone marrow, which the rest of the population hopes will allow them to regain their ability to dream, was recently published by Dancing Cat Books.

Why did you write your new book?

It's human nature to avoid things that bring pain or discomfort. Self-help gurus have made fortunes manipulating this avoidance response. I wanted to write a story that talked about commodification of culture, the ache of Indigenous survival, the reality of attempted Indigenous genocide. But I wanted to do so in a way that didn't begin with readers folding up on themselves to avoid the discomfort. The Marrow Thieves is a kind of Trojan horse. Readers care about the characters and get involved in the story before they realize what's being talked about is residential schools, albeit set in a dystopian future.

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Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?

Oh man, imagine an Indigenous woman with the ability of time-travel? Hope you all like pemmican and social justice!

What scares you as a writer?

Being an Indigenous writer has a whole other level of responsibility. I often find myself being asked to answer questions on politics and history and policy and every other tricky topic that politicians employ teams to answer. My community is where my stories come from and it's also where my responsibilities lie. I never want to diminish their pride or their trust in me. I think of that every time I speak, more so even when I write. But generally mediocrity scares me. I would rather succeed fantastically or fail catastrophically then maintain a mediocre line. Otherwise, what would I write about next time?

Which books have you reread most in your life?

Anything by Charles Bukowski. I know that's not the most feminist-friendly response, but there is something about the extraordinary in the ordinary that his work embodies. It makes me look down alleyways in Detroit, and drink in dive bars in New Orleans and question the man who works in the shoe repair store in the east end of my city.

What's your favourite bookstore in the world?

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Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto. And I don't say that lightly, considering I travel a lot and seek out booksellers everywhere I go. But Glad Day is a community hub. When it was on Yonge Street, before the move to Church, we would hang out on the fire escape smoking menthols (remember those?) and talk literature and drag-queen gossip. It's where I first heard Thomas King read and where I rediscovered the smell of old paper after working too long in front of screens. Now, it's a café and a bar and a venue and above all, a kick-ass bookstore.

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

Anything by Anaïs Nin. She's overwrought and juvenile at times, and self-absorbed and overly dependent, but there is something about her understanding that nothing really happens, that nothing is ever experienced until it's written down that makes her work so urgent and lush. I bought the first volume of her diary when I was 22 in Amsterdam and thought I was the coolest girl in the world. How's that for juvenile and overwrought?

What's the best sentence you've ever written?

"He held his hands out, palms turning upwards in a slow ballet of bone, marrow intact after all this time, under the crowded sky, against the broken ground." This is a sentence from The Marrow Thieves, where the ability to dream is housed in the marrow of our bones. It's one of those lines that you write and then later on you reread it and think, "Who wrote that?" It was the best I could do to explain the way we persist and thrive as Indigenous people, in spite of, or because of, it all.

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