Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA

Richard Wagamese: A Quality of Light

Episode Summary

This recording, made in Toronto in 1996, was the first public reading Richard Wagamese ever did. Done on the publication of his 2nd novel, A Quality of Light, Wagamese references in his opening comments the struggles he faced as an Indigenous artist in a world often hostile to these voices. From his early life and early displacement as a boy to his early writing career at the Calgary Herald, among other publications, Wagamese's journey eventually led him to become one of Canada’s most popular and beloved Indigenous writers. This reading from his 1997 novel presents a moving and painful story that demonstrates the vital force that friendship and compassion have on the very arc of a life lived. Wagamese’s reading was recorded as part of Toronto’s International Readings at Harbourfront Series (now called TIFA) and is used with the kind permission of the Estate of Richard Wagamese. A Quality of Light was published by Doubleday Canada in 1997. This episode content is also made possible with the permission of Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Episode Notes

Works by Richard Wagamese

A Quality of Light (ebook)

One Drum: Stories and Ceremonies for a Planet (all formats)

One Drum: Stories and Ceremonies for a Planet (audiobook)

Starlight (ebook)

Indian Horse

Other Related Books or Materials

Honouring Richard Wagamese (link opens a 2017 article from Indian Horse)

Richard Wagamese’s final novel ‘a captivating and ultimately uplifting read.’ (link opens a 2018 article from Toronto Star)

Richard Wagamese, Whose Writing Explored his Ojibwe Heritage, Dies at 61 (link opens a 2017 New York Times obituary)

Three ‘Meditations' from Richard Wagamese (link opens a 2016 article from The Tyee)


About the Host

Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.

Music is by Yuka


From the Archives

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.

Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.

Episode Transcription

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA
Season 1, Episode 19
Richard Wagamese: A Quality of Light


RANDY: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 years of TIFA produced by the Toronto Public Library. I'm Randy Boyagoda. In this episode, Richard Wagamese tell us about how a difficult personal life led to a writing life full of gift and honour.  

RICHARD WAGAMESE: Baseball had become more than a game and more than a ritual... More than a trial, excuse me, because we had come to love it. It had become a part of who we were, part of our smell, our laughter, how we looked at things, the way we felt when we held it, and something that always made us bigger somehow. 'Inventing baseball,' he had said. I guess all of us invent the things we love, losing ourselves so completely in the nuance and gesture of things and people, that it's like they never existed before, like we never existed before, almost as if they had slid from an ether, whole and complete, like they entered the world and walked straight towards us, embraced us and folded us, gave us breath.

RANDY: Partway through this moving, plainspoken reading and set of reflections by the late Richard Wagamese, he observes “We all have our wounded knees.” Later, he proposes that “healing is understanding.” There’s a lot of ground that opens up, historically, psychologically, and culturally, within, and between, these two statements. The observation is a pointed act of transcontinental identification, relating the 1890 massacre of hundreds of people from the Lakota Indian tribe, in South Dakota, to other significant and tragic events in the lives of North America’s Indigenous peoples, in places like Saskatchewan, and Colorado, and Ontario. The proposal, about healing through understanding, could be applied to each and all of these historical events, the wounds of which remain sensitive and active to this day and demand a great deal of very difficult understanding. But the more immediate and, in some ways, even more difficult context for such a proposal to take effect is Wagamese’s own life. At a very young age, growing up in northern Ontario in the late 1950s, he was, along with his siblings, effectively abandoned by his parents, themselves overwhelmed by struggles related to residential school experiences and substance abuse. Thereafter, he was adopted by a white Presbyterian family in St. Catherine’s, where he struggled with the domestically-pressured demands of cultural assimilation. By his late teens, having left behind his adoptive home and the name that came with it — if never forgetting the kindnesses that happened to him during that period, including an eighth grade teacher that Wagamese acknowledges from the podium during this reading you're about to hear — he had dropped out of high school and was on his own. He would spend years living on the streets, in backyards, in jails, and even in a nativity scene. Eventually, he found a very different kind of home – a public library, where he began to read Faulkner and others. Here was a more durable kind of refuge that in turn prepared him for life as a writer — as a columnist, spiritual author, essayist, memoirist, and novelist. It’s no great surprise, then, that, as he explained in an interview, his Objiwe elders once told him he had “stories curled in his fingers.” Indeed, you’ll sense, in a moment, how his personal life, and his imaginative life, come together in works like A Quality of Light, the novel he’s reading from in this episode. The strength of his personal endurance and of his literary writing about baseball and much else led him to moments such as the one you’re about to hear about — his first public reading, in Toronto in 1996, at an international writers’ festival. There’s no cheap Hemingway swagger in Wagamese’s aside that he recognizes the streets around the festival venue from a very different and earlier time in his life, one in which he wasn’t exactly spending time reading from prize-winning and popular fiction. Instead, this candid, confident, un-romanticizing acknowledgement suggests that he regards his life, however personally difficult and historically impacted, as one that he’d led in search of healing through understanding, as one that was full of gift and honour.


Richard Wagamese (RW): There's an old joke in aboriginal territory where you get in a position like this and you go, "Now I know how the deers feel."


RW: Basically, that's how I feel. It's really good to be here. I was looking through the list of authors who have read from this podium before, and I thought, "What an honour it is to be included in that list now." And there's a couple of words in Aboriginal country that we use with very, very much care and consideration. One of them is "gift," and the other one is "honor." And having this opportunity is each of those. It's a gift and an honour to be here. A gift, because I consider it an extension of my creator's gift to me as a storyteller, to put words in paper and to have people sharing them, and I consider it an honour to be asked to come and share that out loud. It's also an honour for me tonight because 20 years ago, Greg was talking about what this area used to be, and it used to be a refuge of sorts for me, because me and my wino buddies in Toronto, at that time, used to come down around here and share a quick bottle on the K side, and then head back uptown to cause trouble. So it's refreshing to be here in a whole different context.


RW: The other thing is that there's a gentleman in the crowd tonight who is a real reason why all of this is possible for me, and I'm taking a little bit of time because this work is a gift. And one of the ways that we honour that gift is by recognizing where it came from. And when I was eight years old... In grade eight, I mean, I was about 13 years old, my life wasn't a real happy territory to inhabit, and I was very fortunate at that time to be able to write things that kept me sane. And I was given a school assignment in grade eight, and I wrote a story about a guy who takes a plane out and flies it around the earth and then crashes headlong into it. One of those typical cheery childhood stories. And I submitted it for my mark, and I got it back, and the teacher at that time, took the time and effort to write in longhand on the back, some comments about how I'd captured the spirit of that occasion and how he could sense the freedom that I felt. And then he compared it to one of his favourite poems called Flight. And he also took the further time to write, longhand, that poem in red ink, and then he signed it and said, "Keep on writing." and he signed his name to it.

RW: And at that time in my life, it was the first time that I'd ever gotten a positive affirmation about anything, and I never forgot that, and I never forgot how good it made me feel to know that somebody had recognized the words that I put on paper. And when I made a decision later in life to actually try and do that as an occupation, I never forgot the words that that teacher in grade eight wrote on that paper, and it's stuck with me all these years. And he's here tonight, and that's another big part of the gift, and I'd just like to recognize my grade eight teacher, Mr. Leo Rosoma, who's here.


RW: And now I'd like to read from A Quality of Light, and it's a book about friendship. It's a book about spirituality and it's a book about two people who come together as boys and learn through a course of a lifetime, what friendship means, what identity means, what spirituality means. So I'd like to read something from the prologue first, and this is to introduce you to the character of Joshua Kane, and how he was when the story starts. "It was my father who brought me the spirit of the land. He'd sink his furrowed fingers deep into it, roll its grit and promise around his palms, smell it, and then rub it over the chest of his overalls, like he wanted it to seep through into his heart. It did, and it seeped into mine too. Very early, some spring and summer mornings, we'd pile sleepily into our fishing gear, and head off in the old, brown Dodge towards the distant Hockley Valley, whose small and ragged creeks were home to the most stubborn wiley and tasty trout in God's universe. I'd lay with my head in his lap listening to the high pitched whine of the tires in counterpoint to his soft humming of some Negro spiritual. He loved those songs.

RW: I can't begin to count the number of miles I traveled that way, swept up in the romance of motion and the frail pitch and sway of a hummed Kumbaya or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The miles would pass quickly, and we'd arrive in the valley about the same time as the sun, quiet, whole, and shining. He'd lean against the hood of that old Dodge, head thrown back, eyes closed, slow, deep breaths melding with the morning mist, and then from his throat, a single exhaled note that would shimmer across the silence of those mornings. 'Yes,' that note would say, 'Yes. Yes. Yes.' He never had to explain it, somehow I just knew. As I stood there in the pure openness of my boyhood, my father's whispered note of earnest praise became the slender flicker of a tiny candle flame of faith I would nurture all my life. 'Yes, yes.' That's all he ever had to say to teach me. As that note became absorbed in all that surrounded us those mornings and absorbed by something warm and pliant inside ourselves, I knew that my father was telling me with that single note that the Spirit of the Lord still moved across the land, and as long as we were there in openness, trust, and belief, that the Spirit was moving across and through and over and under every part of ourselves too. 'Yes. Yes.'

RW: He'd smile at me, then rough up my hair and hug me, and we would walk together in silence towards the creek, striding confidently, carefully until our approach itself became another form of praise. He taught me to approach the land like a hymn, reverently, joyfully, and gratefully. So on those farm mornings, we'd stand together on the porch after breakfast and my father would gaze across those acres before we headed for the barn. He'd breathe deeply as though sponging up those pale morning ambers, greys, browns, and blues that surrounded us, sealing them forever in a private chamber of his being. Then he'd look at me with eyes shining, and I knew he'd just been to the valley again. Those were the mornings of my boyhood.

RW: It never mattered to me then that I was physically different from the people I called my parents, what mattered to me then was that I felt like a Kane. Ezra and Martha Kane were my parents. And when I was 10, my world was shielded, wrapped and protected by the overwhelming love and sense of belonging they planted in me. There were no Indians and there were no white men, it was only life, it was only Joshua Kane, and there was only 320 acres of farm land in Southwestern Ontario. There was only faith, and there was only devotion. There was only the motions of that soft, warm and pliant something inside of me that whispered a long exhaled note of praise into the very heart of those mornings. 'Yes, yes, yes.'

RW: And that's Joshua Kane. A native boy who was adopted at birth by a non-native couple who lived on a farm in Southwestern Ontario. He knows that he's from an aboriginal background but he's so happy and secure that it doesn't really matter to him that he investigate it. And he meets a friend of his named Johnny Gabehart, who wants more than anything to be an Indian because his life, as you'll hear, wasn't a whole lot of fun. This is Johnny Gabehart. You know the old joke about men crying when we come out of the vagina, and then 16 years, crying because we wanted back into it? Well, I cried because I wanted back in right away. My ma said I cried all the time, and I believe it's because I really didn't wanna be here. Not with them anyway. You only ever saw their public faces, the eerie little social minuet they performed for propriety's sake. Her all caked in the ghoulish makeup she used to hide the bruises, and him sober out of the fear of being found out, all cranked on the morphine he scored from an old army buddy. He said it was for treatment of the wound.

RW: What a joke. No one ever saw the wound. Well, I didn't. But he talked about it all the time. He'd be drunk and stupid, telling tales about the virgins in Pusan, or some place, or the fist fight in camp, the night before the assault on Hill 68, and he'd get all teary saying it would have all been different except for the wound. He'd have been a hero except for the wound. He'd have held a civilian job except for the wound. He needed a drink or needed a shot of morphine because of the pain of the wound. After he died, I learnt the wound was caused by his being drummed out of the Army for drunkenness, and that he had never been to Korea at all. He was a desk jockey who filed the papers that sent guys there and shipped them back, that's how he knew all the names of places in battles, he typed them all the time. He couldn't stand being a soldier without a war, so he made our lives one. Nice, huh? I was never a son, I was a prisoner of war.

RW: So needless to say, I was glad to get out of Toronto, not that coming to a place called Mildmay was my idea of a good move, but any place was going to be better than those sorry streets. And actually, it's not the streets themselves that I hated, it was the me that walked them, and my life. I lived all my life learning how to shift gears. I'd be coming home from the school or the library, where I did my living, and I'd be feeling pretty good. I just spent a few quality hours in a book, and I'd be on fire with new ideas, information, or some story. I'd feel like a real kid motoring in the passing lane of life. Then I'd get to the door of wherever it was we were living at the time. My hand would pause just as it was about to grab the doorknob like reaching for a stick shift. I'd scrunch up my eyes and heave a deep breath before I opened that door, downshifting into neutral 'cause I never knew whether I'd have to make a sudden getaway or if I could park in idle for a while. He'd either be passed out, drunk and slobbering, drunk and ranting, slapping my mother, drunk and crying, hungover and sick, or even on occasion, sickeningly lovey-dovey and wanting to hug me with his drinker's breath and tobacco stench. Wonderful.

RW: So I guess, part of me held out hope that a new town could change things, change him, change us. And my mother, well, they say that love is blind, but in her case, it was totally insensate. Her idea of protecting me was to tell me not to disturb him. Great. He's got a chokehold on me, feet off the floor, and she's telling me not to disturb him. He's passed out in a puddle of puke on the kitchen floor and it's, 'Don't disturb him.' She's got another ice bag on her face and, 'Don't disturb him.' She was in love with his necessary fiction, the soldier he created for the world because he couldn't tell them what a loser the real one was. Or maybe in their first days he showed her a side of himself that I never saw, something that swam under all the bullshit, drunkenness and... That she alone could see. And maybe she held on because she thought it would break the surface one of those days, and he'd be the man she really needed. But I wish just once, just once, she'd have stuck up for me the way she stuck up for him. I could never understand how you could love someone you always had to lie for. And me? Hell, I would have even settled for that. Yeah, I couldn't wait to get out of Toronto."

RW: So they become friends, these two vastly different human beings and they go through the process of trying to find out how to become Indians. And to do that they use the game of baseball. Baseball is all about making it home, and so was friendship. And they find out through the process of finding that game that they invented, and this is a description of how Joshua Kane felt about the invention of baseball. “Baseball had become more than a game and more than a ritual... More than a trial, excuse me, because we had come to love it. It had become a part of who we were, part of our smell, our laughter, how we looked at things, the way we felt when we held it, and something that always made us bigger somehow. 'Inventing baseball,' he had said. I guess all of us invent the things we love, losing ourselves so completely in the nuance and gesture of things and people, that it's like they never existed before, like we never existed before, almost as if they had slid from an ether, whole and complete, like they entered the world and walked straight towards us, embraced us and folded us, gave us breath.

RW: That's what invention is, I guess. The discovery at the end that it's ourselves we've created, love too. We become more through love and invention. Johnny and I invented baseball behind an equipment shed, and we grew to love it just as we grew to love each other. Every running catch, every pinpoint throw, every scooped grounder became another entrance we made together. Each day we saw and felt and experienced the game more and more, and along the way, we saw and felt and experienced each other more, too. And they go on to explore and experience each other in lots of different contexts, and they both have to discover what the essential nature of identity and belonging and salvation really are. And for Joshua, it becomes the church, and later on, it becomes a total immersion into the history of North America, the ceremonies and rituals of Aboriginal people, the teachings of elders, and a real solid connection with the heartbeat of creation. And in order to get there, he has to go through and cancel a lot of the mythologies that the settlement and history of North America, since 1492, are built upon."

RW: And he has to find out what the word "redemption" means, and he finds it. And I'd like to read a passage about where he finds that. He goes to a sweat lodge ceremony with his parents and with the pastor of his church. After he reads a book called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which tells a graphic story about what happened to aboriginal people. And he finds a lot of anger there, he finds a lot of hurt, and he has to do something with it, so he goes to a sweat lodge to heal. And he says later on in the book, "Our hurt and our anger had sprung from the realization that history had duped us, and through its deliberate obfuscation, had made us complicitors by our mute acceptance of it. We, like most people, had been innocent victims of a parade of misinformation that had started with the first scrunch of sand beneath the booted foot in the land of the Tanos. Our resentment was fuelled by the awareness that the land we loved so deeply, the 320 acres we had come to refer to as our hereditary farm, had never been ours to claim. The Thieves Road that had begun in the 1400s had wended its way even to the heart of our cherished farm land. To deny that one salient fact was to shrug off history, to tacitly endorse its layered lie.

RW: Our profound sorrow was driven by the recognition that we could not re-order history, for the remainder of our lives, we would have to struggle to pacify ourselves with the desire to avoid recreating its vices in our own worlds. We claimed all of this for ourselves within the skin of that sweat lodge, claimed it, owned it, and let it go. And that perhaps is why I've never questioned Pastor Chuck's or my parents' quiet readiness for the ritual, because I believe all spiritual warriors carry within themselves an ecumenic compass. It's lodged in the most private chambers of the heart, it's pointer, tremulous, sensitive to the pull of unseen redemptions.

RW: My redemption began on December 29th, 1890, when the 7th US cavalry, in an act of retribution for the debacle of Little Big Horn, murdered 200 native men, women, and children on the frozen banks of a creek called Wounded Knee. With the Gatling gun sweeping the writhing bodies, echos embedding themselves like bullets in the trunks of the trees, and cordite burning the nostrils of the soldiers, the blood of a people seep through the ice and snow, sealing itself forever in the articulate bosom of the earth. This land is a palimpsest, but it requires the eyes and ears of the enlightened to hear its songs and see its scars, for the earth holds its dead in its arms forever and the songs of the people are born on the sibilant voices of creek and river, the whisper of the grasses, the conversation of wind and leaf and tree, the stoic reticence of rocks.

RW: As I read the story of that slaughter when I was 18 and felt wrath and fury kindling inside me and then tempered those flames with the spiritual qualities of the sweat lodge and the faith of my raising, I realized that a part of me had died, and a part of me was born that frigid winter morning. I realized that history when you know it, can either include you in the massacre or empower you to survival. My innocence vaporized like small talk and was replaced by the harder rhetoric of maturity. That's what died on that frozen creek that morning of 1890, a people's innocence and mine. Part of my heart is buried at Wounded Knee. Fragments of it are buried wherever the people were murdered in murders 100 nefarious ways, in the name of a conquest, euphemized as settlement. Places called Batosh, Sand Creek, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Hochelaga. We all have our Wounded Knees. That was the seed of my redemption.

RW: The knowledge that our hearts reside in places where slivers of our innocence are buried. Emerging from the sweat lodge, I knew that when my body has returned to the arms of the Earth, you will bury my heart at Wounded Knee, you will inter it on the shore of Georgian Bay, lay it to rest in the middle of 320 acres of farmland, consign it to the dust of anonymous battlefields and entomb it beneath the granite cenotaph that stands in the middle of the Hockley Valley, inscribed and elegized with the swirl and swaggle of letters formed by heart and hand everywhere I lived and everywhere I died. I discovered healing that spring. Healing is understanding. And I knew two things were absolutely certain after the experience of the sweat lodge. I knew that the problems of the world, both worlds, were spiritual as opposed to political, and that a lasting resolution needed to come from spiritual ways and means. And I knew that I needed to continue on the path I had been directed in in order to effect in some small way a migration to spiritual resolution. There would always be someone, Indian or not, taking the same painful path to their own redemption, kneeling at their own cenotaphs, harbouring their own confusions." Thank you.



RANDY: Richard Wagamese was born to Marjorie Wagamese and Stanley Raven, members of the Wagaseemoong Independent Nations, in Minaki, Ontario, in 1955. After a very difficult early childhood, he was adopted by a family in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. By the early 1970s, he was living on his own in Toronto and elsewhere, in a series of precarious situations. Eventually, he began pursuing a career in writing, initially as a journalist and eventually as a writer of literary fiction and non-fiction. His columns and books were awarded many prizes, including a National Newspaper Award and Canadian Authors Association Award, while his 2012 novel Indian Horse was named the People’s Choice winner in the 2013 edition of CBC Canada Reads. Three times married, engaged to Yvette Lehmann and father to two sons, Richard Wagamese died in 2017, in Kamloops, British Columbia.

RANDY: The audio recording of Richard Wagamese, recorded on stage in 1996, is used with the permission of the Estate of Richard Wagamese and the Toronto International Festival of Authors. And, as always, thanks to TIFA, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for allowing us access to their archives. Find out more at FestivalOfAuthors.ca


Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick. This episode was produced by Gregory McCormick and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou and Michelle De Marco, and marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.

For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit writersoffthepage.ca where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections. For all of Toronto Public Library's podcasts series, check out tpl.ca/podcasts.

Music is by YUKA.

I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode of Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.