By Chris La Tray
I became aware of the work of Waubgeshig Rice, an Anishinaabe writer and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation in Canada, in January of 2019. His second novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was released in October of 2018 and had just popped up as an “advanced listening” audio book for free download—a bookseller perk—from libro.fm (the indie bookstore alternative to Audible). The jacket copy teaser, “As one society collapses, another is reborn,” featuring Native characters, immediately caught my attention. I grabbed the download.
As I started listening, the coldest February in recent memory fell on Western Montana. That, combined with the creeping doom of Rice’s story, made for a gloriously dark, chilling month. The book has been one of my go-to recommends ever since.
Crusted Snow is essentially a post-apocalyptic novel in the spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The story focuses on an Anishinaabe community in the far Canadian north, with fall settling in. The community begins to go dark. First satellite television shuts down, then cell phones. The power grid, provided by a hydro dam miles away, quits, and the community switches to auxiliary power from backup diesel generators. Days turn to weeks and no word reaches the community from the wider world; no one knows what has happened. The tribal council institutes both food and energy rationing, and people grow more and more surly. Rice uses tight, stripped-down prose to build the tension masterfully as stress grips the people of the reserve. Conflict builds between those people who still know traditional ways of hunting and self-sufficiency and those who have grown to rely entirely on services provided by governmental infrastructure. When strangers from the south arrive, things only get more chilling. It is a thrilling, and thought-provoking tale, told marvelously by an exciting new writer.
Waab Rice, in 1996, began a career in journalism as an exchange student in Germany, writing about his experiences as an Indigenous Canadian making his way in a foreign country. After graduating from Ryerson University, he’s worked in various news media, mostly for CBC News, since 2002. Rice received the Anishinabek Nation’s Debwewin Citation for excellence in First Nation Storytelling in 2014, and currently hosts Up North, CBC Radio’s afternoon show for northern Ontario. He published a collection of short stories called Midnight Sweatlodge which won an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2012. He followed that up in 2014 with a novel, Legacy, which was also published in France in 2017.
When the opportunity came to write for the Bee, Waubgeshig Rice was the first person I wanted to talk to. Rice was generous with his time in answering a few questions—while on vacation, no less!—to help me kick this thing off right.
Chris La Tray (CL): The context I experienced your book in, driving around in a particularly brutal winter, reflecting on what your characters had to endure, really made me consider for a long time afterward what it would be like to have to survive in that kind of situation. You handled it very well.
Waub Rice (WR): I appreciate hearing that, and I’m sorry to contribute to any unease that might have been bubbling up there. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
CL: Speaking of unease, do you hear that from a lot of your readers? For me, it made me reflect on how far we’ve fallen from any kind of self-sufficiency, in such a short time. Going from being animals ourselves who can survive on the land to becoming just these soft meat bags that, you know, lose power for 48 hours and we’re helpless.
WR: For sure, people bring that up pretty regularly, especially people from urban areas. They’ll say how they haven’t really considered how out of touch they are from being able to survive, or from any kind of land-based living. It’s been sort of a wake-up call for many people. How seriously they take it I think varies. That applies to me as well. When I was in the depths of putting this book together I was thinking a lot about what my plans were going to be moving forward in the event of having to live on the land without the benefit of modern luxuries, or modern technologies. But now that I’m not totally immersed in the headspace of that kind of thing anymore I find I’ve kind of pushed many of those ideas to the side. I’ll be reminded when people bring it up, and I’m like, “Holy shit, I haven’t even thought of it.” So yeah, it’s interesting to hear those reactions, but mostly because it shows that people were really dialed into the story, which is what I was hoping to accomplish in the first place.
CL: Your book is set entirely on a Native Reserve in Canada. I think many people here in the United States have an idea that Indigenous people in Canada are treated on a much more even keel with the colonial powers than they are here in the States, but that isn’t necessarily the case, is it?
WR: Yeah, I’d say that’s accurate. There are examples after examples that come up. Just recently, in fact, here in Canada, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released its final report, and, obviously, it highlighted an entire list of systemic issues that have contributed to the ongoing victimization of women and girls in this country. It even went as far as calling it a genocide. So that’s just one huge conversation happening in Canada right now anyway.
I’m not as familiar with the issues stateside maybe as I should be, but it does seem to me there are more conversations happening in the mainstream media here maybe than there are over there. But that could also just be that there is a greater concentration of Indigenous people in the overall population in Canada than there are in the United States. Even here, though, these conversations have only been happening over the last decade or so, in any meaningful kind of way. Canadians have been forced to acknowledge the true history of this land and it’s a hard protest for a lot of people. Some people are becoming aware of it for the first time and maybe are outraged about it, but then you have others who are outright deniers, or victim blamers, who aren’t prepared to accept things like this National Inquiry’s report. There are things that come up on an almost weekly basis these days that force Canadians to take a different look at their country through a new lens.
CL: A hot topic lately in certain parts of the literary world has been the idea of white people reviewing, or really evaluating in any way, the work of Indigenous people. It doesn’t even have to be Indigenous people, it could be the work of Black writers, Latin writers, anything. Do you have any feelings either way about that?
WR: That’s an interesting question that I really haven’t thought of. Immediately I relate it to my work in journalism, and my non-Indigenous colleagues in the industry reporting on Indigenous issues. It can happen and it should happen, because non-Indigenous people need to know about our issues, but there are some things that need to happen for it to be done effectively. What I mean from a journalistic perspective which maybe works the same in a literary situation is that because there is such a huge awareness gap of knowledge between non-Indigenous culture and Indigenous culture in North America, journalists will go into a community thinking they have the skills to cover it, or that they are entitled to cover it, and as such they’ll make mistakes and get the story wrong. The ego often bubbles up, and lack of empathy is often a byproduct of that. When journalists get things wrong these days, Indigenous people who are consuming mainstream media to a greater degree are more able to point out where journalists have got things wrong. The onus is now on the journalist to do that additional work to teach themselves the true history, the true context, of whatever they are covering. How to interact with an Indigenous community to ensure that other non-Indigenous people are getting an accurate portrayal of the truth about a particular issue.
I think that extra required effort toward understanding can relate to the literary world too. You can certainly review a book on its storytelling merit, or its literary merit, but if you don’t get the nuances of Indigenous life or Indigenous experiences, and either neglect to explore them or maybe cast them aside as irrelevant to your experience, then if people who do know—Indigenous readers, for example—who are coming to you for insight on this book, then they are going to see right through you too. It could be as simple as getting names wrong, or making assumptions about historical events that are incorrect, all of these things contribute to the credibility you have with the people you are writing for. It’s not just about who you should be speaking to, but who you should be speaking with.
So yeah, I think non-Indigenous reviewers can evaluate Indigenous work, but they have to do their homework too.