TORONTO – Indigenous writers have long complained that their voices are stifled by a largely white publishing industry, but the author of an upcoming style guide hopes to change that.
Greg Younging says “Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and About Indigenous Peoples” can help non-Indigenous editors and publishers better understand the storytelling methods of Indigenous writers, who reject European and CanLit conventions.
“It’s almost the norm that Indigenous authors don’t have good experiences getting published and edited,” Younging says from Kelowna, B.C., where he’s a professor at the University of British Columbia.
“Canadian publishers have been trying to do the best job they can but a lot of them know that they’re not doing the best job that they can (and) don’t know what they should do, how they should edit, how they should get permission, how to contact Indigenous communities.”
The 100-page guide stresses the need to consult with Indigenous people when any story involves their community. It includes a primer on why traditional stories are important, explores ways to obtain permission to transcribe and publish traditional stories, and outlines how some tales might be bound by restrictions — some stories can only be told in certain seasons, by certain people or certain clans.
It also breaks down the protocols in meeting elders and offers pointers on spellings, community names and capitalization.
Younging says even the way a story unfolds is unique — while conventional poem and prose formats are largely European, Indigenous Peoples are more often inspired by the oral tradition.
“There’s a world of difference about how we express ourselves,” says Younging, who began building the guide in 1999 when he was managing editor at Theytus Books.
“You wouldn’t, say, have a protagonist and conflicts coming to a resolve at the end. Indigenous stories are often more open-ended and lead to further storytelling.
“There are examples I give in the style guide, like Lee Maracle’s book ‘Sundogs,’ which she says was written in an oral style, the way an elder talks. Very often when an elder is speaking, he or she may seem to stray off the storyline or the point that they’re making and then come back to it later.”
The 67-year-old Maracle says she still battles editors over what she considers an Indigenous approach to text.
When a non-Indigenous editor suggested changing the order of a paragraph in her latest book, the acclaimed poet, author and academic braced herself for a long conversation.
“I said, ‘That’s not the (sentence) that we would put there. We wouldn’t put that there. It’s a secondary thought. For you it’s primary because that’s how you are. But that’s not how we are,'” recounts Maracle, among the writers appearing at the International Festival of Authors, starting Thursday in Toronto.
“So we had a long conversation about it. But we have to have these long conversations in order for them to get what we’re doing.”
Canada’s publishing houses do seem eager to learn.
Metis writer Cherie Dimaline says she was amazed by how many people showed up for a weeklong Indigenous editing seminar at Toronto’s Humber College this past August. She says the annual workshop welcomed about 50 participants, about 10 of them Indigenous editors, with the rest drawn from Canada’s publishing community.
“The publishing industry is incredibly white. I remember being at the Writers’ Trust event last year, it was myself and my friend (and) we were the only people of colour, the only Indigenous people in the room — literally everyone else was white,” says Dimaline, one of the faculty at the Humber workshop, along with Younging.
“But what I noticed from being at Humber was there were conversations about that — they were talking to us and amongst themselves about: ‘How do we change this?’ ‘This is not OK.’ ‘We are fully self-aware now, we see the problem.'”
The University of Regina Press is among the publishing houses eager to learn, says editor Karen Clark.
“We’ve been told repeatedly that, ‘If it’s going to be about us, it’s with us,'” says Clark, who regularly handles Indigenous work, most of it non-fiction.
The small press began in 2013 with a mandate to support reconciliation.
As a result, Clark says they are sensitive to the way language can shape a point of view or distort a community’s experience. She points to antiquated references to Indigenous “myth” instead of “knowledge,” or a preference for the “Victory of Seven Oaks” instead of the “Battle of Seven Oaks.”
Younging says seemingly small edits can have big consequences, such as choosing whether or not to capitalize a term that some media outlets, including The Canadian Press, spell as two words and in lower case: long house. The expression refers to a revered political and spiritual institution for the Haudenosaunee people.
“You would always see House of Commons or Parliament capitalized, so what are you saying when you don’t capitalize Longhouse? That Indigenous people don’t have legitimate institutions of governance?” says Younging, whose guide will be published by Edmonton’s Brush Education.
Dimaline says editors and publishers who could be great allies can be rendered immobile by fear they might do or say something wrong. And who better to teach them than Indigenous people?
“I can’t think of a better people to be responsible for stories than Indigenous people,” she says.
“We are the people of story. It’s been a part of our communities and our culture since time immemorial. We have stories passed down, we memorize stories since youth, we have a real affinity for and expertise with stories.”