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Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden’s fiction matter

I learned the word "girmitya" from Sea of Poppies, the first novel in Amitav Ghosh's fantastic trilogy about the Opium Wars. As the enslavement of Africans slowly ended, Britain turned to workers from Asia, and girmityas were Indians who pledged away years of indentured labour in the 1800s for the hope of a better life across a mysterious ocean.

I read the book, which came out in 2008, for its intricate plot and joyful lyricism, but also to learn: My ancestors were indentured labourers, and I don't know much about them. I imagined Deeti, a widow who refuses to immolate herself and sneaks onto a ship, as my great-great-great-possibly-one-more-or-less-great-grandmother. The word "girmitya" was new and exciting to me, potentially holding answers to the question of myself.

One problem though: Girmityas were labourers who went to Fiji and Mauritius. My ancestors went to Trinidad. Were there similarities in those journeys? Probably. But even so, Ghosh writes fiction, not fact. His stories are well researched and built on a basic frame of truth, but are ultimately imaginary.

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Historical fiction is, on the whole, more enjoyable than even the most energetic academic history tome, and it's certainly hard not to blur the intellectual lines between them. It's hard to absorb that Deeti, so vibrantly drawn, was not a real person, not to layer her personality traits onto the low-res black-and-white images of early-20th-century Trinidadian child brides that I recently stumbled across online.

Those girls will never have their stories told, and the holes in my history might never be filled. Both of those are difficult to accept. It's also difficult to accept that, as the kids say on the Internet, yet another one of my favs is problematic.

Here, I speak of Joseph Boyden, the decorated novelist whose work takes place in indigenous communities in Canada and whose biological and cultural connections to those communities have come under serious scrutiny of late.

I only began reading Boyden's work this year: I started with Through Black Spruce, then devoured both The Orenda and Wenjack. I found his characters intense, three-dimensional and believable, his plotlines illuminating places and people that I'd like to know more about.

And so, like too many readers, I let Boyden's work fill the gaps in my knowledge of indigenous history and life. I didn't do the work to compare facts to fiction. As an adult and a Canadian, that was a mistake.

It's tricky to say whether, as a reader, I had a responsibility to know about Boyden himself: that he's been criticized for stereotyping and inaccuracy in his depictions of indigenous people before, and that questions about his ancestry have swirled for years, too. But as journalist, I definitely wish I had.

Just two months ago, I interviewed Boyden about Wenjack, a novella about Chanie Wenjack, a young Ojibwa boy who froze to death escaping residential school. This was before Boyden orchestrated an open letter in support of disgraced former UBC professor Steven Galloway and before these questions about his ancestry became mainstream.

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Boyden told me that he and other art-world luminaries, including Gord Downie, had decided to do simultaneous projects about Chanie's death. I was pleased to have a chance to discuss the book with its creator and to, in a small way, help make this tragic story part of the known history of Canada.

It's not my place to say whether Boyden is "truly" indigenous, although I will note that historical research is a large part of his work. But there are questions I would have asked differently, if I had known many indigenous people had resisted Boyden's appointment as their spokesperson. A simple one would have been what he has done, and is doing, to help emerging indigenous writers get their voices heard.

All stars hog the limelight, and that's always annoying. But if Boyden is not an indigenous writer, the problem is much deeper: his accepting of speaking gigs, prize money and other financial rewards meant for indigenous creators blurs the line between "cultural appropriation" and stealing.

This is important because, for indigenous communities, every bit of attention and every dollar counts. The weekend after I spoke to Boyden, he and others were feted at an ImagineNATIVE launch for their various Chanie Wenjack-related projects.

Chanie's sister, Pearl Achneepineskum, travelled to Toronto to be there. She lives in Marten Falls First Nation, on the Albany River in Northern Ontario, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 2005. The temperature there as I write this is minus-16 C, and she is using an outhouse.

That's fact, not fiction. It's not a story, it's the truth, the daily reality of a real person's life. All of us, including Boyden, must respect the difference.

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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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