What do you do when a friend is attacked? You jump in and try to help. Easy, right? Maybe not so easy when it is a verbal attack that becomes louder and louder each day with the voices of many who might have been considered friends of the person being attacked. The situation becomes more confusing when it is completely unclear as to whether or not there is any reason for the attack in the first place.
You have probably already guessed what I am talking about. Joseph Boyden and the controversy about his ethnic heritage. Does he, or does he not, have any Native blood? I find it difficult to understand why it seems to matter so much to those who feel they must publically voice their opinion.
We all grow up with family stories – ancestors who came over on the Mayflower – ancestors who may or may not have been known for heroism or cowardice. Every family has their share – but no one asks us to prove it.
Joseph Boyden grew up with the knowledge that he had some Native ancestry. This became more and more important to him and he explored that heritage. He created Native characters in his novels – his works of fiction. His novels became bestsellers around the world. They were embraced by all readers – Native and Non-Native alike. They are great novels – no matter where this all ends – he is a brilliant writer. Maybe our best.
Joseph Boyden came to Parry Sound to launch Three Day Road in the spring of 2005. He was attractive and articulate, he charmed us all and his first novel was fantastically good. He deserved every bit of the praise he received. His career took off. When The Orenda was published Joseph again found support within the Native community and around the world. I felt that he wrote the most unbiased book possible about that time, and again a great novel. And, we must remember that these books are novels – fiction. They may be based on history but they are not non-fiction.
It appeared for the past 12 years that Joseph Boyden was not only accepted, but also celebrated, by the Native community. But, suddenly that has changed. I have attempted to understand why but I cannot. And, I understand why I cannot. I am not Native. But, I do accept the right of all people to hold their own beliefs – as long as no one else is being harmed. For me it is that simple. Can’t we all understand and identify with, and empathize with, the experiences of others.
Joseph Boyden is, perhaps, simply the victim of those who are jealous of his success, and they have attempted to discredit what he believes to be a part of his ethnic heritage. The more successful Joseph Boyden became the more he was celebrated. The more everyone has wanted his participation and involvement in their own particular projects – and he has given, and given, and given. He has been generous and gracious, and kind. Which makes this all so much nastier than it might be otherwise.
I realize I may be making matters worse for Joseph, and perhaps for myself, by writing this. But, it seems to me that it is just what many others should be doing. Where are Joseph Boyden’s celebrated friends in the literary and publishing community? I am surprised that there is no voice of unconditional support.
I have not spoken with Joseph about all of this, but I have certainly thought about him and his family. I am also aware that I may have used incorrect terminology, and if so I sincerely apologize. I have no wish to offend anyone. I am not sure if writing this is useful in any way – but I don’t feel that I should keep silent.
A new year begins – maybe we should all think about kindness and inclusion – about finding a way to achieve our aims in this life without harming others.
Happy New Year – to all.
Parry Sound Books