Books by northern writers make literary mark

🕔Sep 22, 2005
by Heather Ramsay

Writers often retreat to isolated places to spark their creativity, but what if they already live there?

The literary lights of the city used to draw burgeoning small-town authors hoping to succeed in the trade. But more and more, initiatives in the hinterland are helping ensure writers, and readers, get some northern exposure at home.

Prince George seems to cast the biggest beam in the literary north with numerous writers’ groups, events and workshops for wordsmiths to attend.

Rob Budde not only teaches creative writing at the University of Northern BC and offers a survey course on northern writers, but he also organizes a reading series bringing in writers from across Canada. He likes to ensure someone local gets exposure at the same time, so when the likes of George Bowering, poet laureate of Canada comes to town, Budde has someone from Prince Rupert, Vanderhoof or Prince George share the stage.

Budde says there is a strong literary subculture in the city, with writers meeting on Friday afternoons at the BX Pub or gathering for readings at Café Voltaire, Mosquito Books or Arts Space.

Renowned Prince George-based poets, like Barry McKinnon and Ken Belford, have cultivated the art of trading chapbooks—short pieces of writing, artistically printed and often freely distributed.

The Terrace Writing Group helps keep creative people connected farther west. They meet on the last Tuesday of every month at Cafenara, and member Ev Bishop says there is a hard-core group of five or six, but they’ve had up to 16 at a time.

The group is fairly informal, says Bishop, with participation from a wide range of fiction writers, poets, journalists, and even those who aren’t interested in being published at all. This suits Bishop fine.

“The danger with writing is you can spend all your time talking about it and not actually getting the work done.”

Budde says that writers often take themselves to remote places, because it gives them the time and space to write, plus it adds an artistic flair to their work. McKinnon, who recently won the BP Nichol Chapbook Award, bought a house in Tumbler Ridge to use as a writers’ retreat.

“Any writer has to balance being part of a busy community and finding the time to write.”

Sheila Peters, a writer based in Smithers, says that while there are many ways for musicians to connect together in her region, there are not as many for writers.

“Writing is a solitary pastime,” she admits.

Some may take this to the farthest extreme and decide to publish on their own. Jean Christian did.

Christian’s book Cycles of Wisdom: Teachings for an Awakening Humanity was conceived, written and printed in the Bulkley Valley. She says the expertise is here and recommends self-publishing as an option for those who may not have success on the traditional publishing path.

The proximity of two publishers definitely helps keep northern writers in the public eye. In 1991 Cynthia Wilson and her husband took a chance and bought Caitlin Press, a “Vancouverite,” and brought it to Prince George. Since then, they have published more than 60 books by northerners about the North.

“There was so much history and it was getting ignored. I wanted to document that and get it out,” Cynthia says.

The press specializes in local history, but they also publish one literary offering a year. The latest work by “the people’s poet,” Jacqueline Baldwin, came out last year.

Smithers-based Creekstone Press is another small literary press. Lynn Shervill, one of the proprietors, says their initial idea when they started up in 1998, was to publish an anthology showcasing writers and photographers from the Skeena watershed.

It took them two years to gather stories, poems and photos from more than 30 northern artists and amassing them into a highly designed production, In October of 2000, Creekstones: Words & Images was finally put out, but Creekstone managed to publish two other books in the meantime. Since then, they have published poetry, non-fiction and other unique genres, such as a script, a memoir and their latest book, a collection of Gitxsan myths.

First-time author M. Jane Smith felt conflicted about taking something from her oral culture and putting it into text. But the elders encouraged her, saying the stories need to be written down and treasured like a chief’s regalia. Returning the Feathers: Five Gitxsan Stories is a reflection of Smith’s respect for her traditions.

She spent her childhood listening to the stories of her people, especially during the summer at her family’s fish camp on the Skeena River. The tales she heard became her constant companions.

During the day her grandmother would share the antics of the raven trickster or Nax Nox, and when Smith’s uncles, father and grandfather came back in the evening, she would be the one to do the telling.

“That is when the confidence was instilled in me,” she says today.

Artist Ken Mowatt, the son of Smith’s mentor, Sophia Mowatt, illustrates her book with striking graphic images. Smith hopes the stories will inspire children about their culture and to take up storytelling.

Sometimes the isolation of the North is not only what inspires writers to practice their craft, but it is also the topic of their writing.

Sarah De Leeuw is a first-time author who spent much of her life in towns like Port Clements, Greenville, Fraser Lake and Kitwanga. But once she left the North, she realized no one knew the places she came from; her childhood homes weren’t even found on most maps.

Unmarked: Landscapes along Highway 16 (NeWest Press), a book of poetic essays, is her attempt to highlight the resilient landscapes and powerful people in this “nowhereness.”

Some more great picks from 2004:

Bijaboji, Betty Carey: Harbour Publishing

In any era, the journey chronicled in this book would be a feat of absolute daring. But in the conservative 1930s, a 22-year-old woman travelling solo by dug-out canoe was unimaginable.

From Puget Sound to Alaska, Betty Carey (nee Lowman) crossed some of the world’s most treacherous waters, faced storms and lost all her possessions when her boat overturned in the Douglas Channel. She also encountered the generous and rugged individuals who made their home in the beautiful, yet isolated places along the coast. This tale of pure adventure was finally written down 67 years later. Those who don’t know Carey, who now lives in Sandspit, will soon get to know this strong, funny independent woman who has an abiding love of the B.C. Coast.

Wires in the Wilderness: The story of the Yukon Telegraph, Bill Miller: Heritage House

Now retired in Atlin, Bill Miller became curious about the old Yukon telegraph line when he found remnants of it near his home. This discovery led him on an odyssey to find out more about the close to 2,900-kilometre line built 100 years ago up the spine of the province, to connect the gold fields of the North with the rest of Canada.

He set out to walk as much of the line as he could and document the fascinating tale of politics and hard-working people that made this wire in the wilderness a reality.

Exploring Prince George: A Guide to North Central B.C. Outdoors, by Mike Nash: Rocky Mountain Books

If anyone has been lead to believe there is nothing to do in Prince George, backcountry enthusiast Mike Nash is now on record to discourage that opinion. His new book is a comprehensive guide to exploring the recreation opportunities inside the city and in the surrounding wilderness of north central B.C.

Since his first visit from Ontario in 1976, the scenic backdrop of escarpments, trees and green spaces in Prince George has captivated Nash. Whether he is recommending a seven-day backcountry trek through the McGregor mountains, or a day participating in the Christmas Bird Count, Nash’s knowledge, passion and respect for the outdoors shines through.

Miss Smithers, Susan Juby: Harper Collins Publishers

Susan Juby, a rising star in the world of junior “chick-lit,” grew up in Smithers and went on to get a three-book contract for stories about her popular teen character, Alice McLeod.

In Juby’s first book, the young Alice, who was raised to believe she was a hobbit, was home-schooled by hippie parents after a humiliating attempt to enter Grade 1. She has since entered the realm of the normal and gone to on to public school and the local beauty pageant.

Recognizable people and places in the wild and wacky world of Alice are surely pure coincidence.

Plants of Haida Gwaii, by Nancy Turner: Sono Nis Press

Thirty years in the making, this book offers stunning photos and intriguing first-person accounts of how over 150 local plant species are used by the Haida. Ethnobotonist and University of Victoria professor Nancy Turner found herself on the islands as a young grad student in the 1970s and met people eager to share their knowledge and demonstrate their plant-collecting practices.

Life took her on different paths and when she finally reconnected with the Haida, the impetus to create the book began. The final product was written with the co-operation and collaboration of the Haida Nation.