While Joy Harjo has written memoirs, screenplays, and children’s books (as well as numerous musical works), she’s primarily known as a poet. She honed her poetic skills at Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop and is one of the most lauded Native American poets working today. Some of her best-known collections of poetry include In Mad Love and War, which won the American Book Award and the William Carlos Williams Award, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales. While Harjo’s work does address her native culture, she also explores her struggles as an individual and a woman, which makes her work accessible to readers from any background.
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. His first short story collection, Midnight Sweatlodge, was inspired by his experiences growing up in an Anishinaabe community, and won an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2012. His debut novel, Legacy, followed in 2014. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in October 2018. He currently works as the host of Up North, CBC Radio’s afternoon show for northern Ontario. In 2014, he received the Anishinabek Nation’s Debwewin Citation for excellence in First Nation Storytelling. Waubgeshig now splits his time between Sudbury and Wasauksing.
Richard Wagamese’s debut novel, The Keeper’n Me, was published in 1994 and won the Writer’s Guild of Alberta award for best novel. This marked the beginning of a prominent and prolific literary career. Wagamese went onto publish eight more novels, one collection of poetry and five works of non-fiction, including anthologies. His harrowing and darkly comic 2012 novel, Indian Horse, about a survivor of a residential school with an extraordinary gift for ice hockey, was a finalist on CBC’s Canada Reads, where it won the People’s Choice award. Indian Horse was adapted into a film in 2017 by writer Dennis Foon and producers Christine Haebler and Trish Dolman.
“People never ask me where I get the inspiration for my work and I really wish they would,” Wagamese said in a 2014 interview with the Globe and Mail. “The answer is long and complicated but shows my motivation to write and create stories. Simply and briefly put, I get my inspiration from the knowledge that there is someone out there in the world who is just like me — curious and desiring more and more knowledge of the world and her people. I write so that when they pick up one of my books there is an instantaneous connection, like we’re collaborating on the story.”
Critics and reviewers praise Thomas King’s funny and poignant portrayal of the challenges facing indigenous peoples in Canada in the past and today. His characters are strong in the face of oppression and prejudice, but they are also fallible in endearingly humorous ways.
In 2003 King, was the first Aboriginal in Canada to deliver the Massey Lectures. His presentation, titled The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, was later published by House of Anansi press. In 2012, King was awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012) won the 2014 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction as well as the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize. The book was later turned into a film in 2020 produced by the National film Board of Canada.
Toni Morrison is universally recognized as one of the greatest American writers in modern history. In 2016, Beloved, first published in 1987, was an international sensation and voted the best work of American fiction of the previous 25 years; it is not controversial to suggest that nothing has been published in the last five years to challenge its crown. Her work has influenced, changed, and inspired both readers—like Kamala Harris and Barack Obama—and writers—from Ocean Vuong to Keah Brown to Rich Benjamin. After Morrison’s death in 2019, the literary world overflowed with tributes of all kinds—visual, literary, and physical.
She was also a moral and intellectual giant, whose perspectives on language and writing and race were as important as her works themselves. “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties for menace and subjugation,” Morrison explained in her Nobel lecture. “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is
the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
Tanya Tagaq, the Juno-Award winning throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is also a must-read writer. Her debut novel, Split Tooth, was published in 2018 to critical acclaim. Based on Tagaq’s teenage journals—she was a survivor of the residential school system—and Inuit folklore, Split Tooth tells the story of an unnamed teenage girl in the 1970s who becomes pregnant in a tiny Nunavut town. The world of Inuit legends are seemingly as alive as the animals that roam around, as the book explores the pull between good and evil, human and animal, safety and danger, and love and hate.