Stories told and heard : Joseph Kakwinokanasum reflects on Indigenous ghost stories

“It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s a future for us if we play our cards right,” says Joseph Kakwinokanasum, Vancouver Public Library’s (VPL) 2024 Indigenous Storyteller in Residence, about the message behind his writings. In addition to working on a new horror fantasy novel inspired by Indigenous ghost stories, Kakwinokanasum’s residency at VPL, from now until May 25, will also host adult and children programming to celebrate libraries’ integral role in building communities.

“Libraries have been around for thousands of years – they are the mark of any successful civilization,” he says, hoping to attract more people to the library through speaking engagements focused on the writing process and storytelling consultancies.

Inaugurated in 2008, this VPL residency program not only emphasizes storytelling as an indispensable medium for learning about Indigenous cultures, but also aims to facilitate intercultural exchange. Kakwinokanasum, who is part of the James Smith Cree Nation and whose mother is a residential day school survivor, first encountered the power of storytelling as a child, sitting at the kitchen table with his elders.

The intimacies of memoir writing

“[My uncle or my aunties] would hit that punchline, and it would just make everybody laugh,” he recalls. “And I thought, wow, that is such an amazing power, an amazing talent to be able to pull people in [and] captivate them.”

Even though Kakwinokanasum’s elders were sharing stories in Cree, a language that he didn’t understand, he credits these shared experiences of storytelling for sparking his interest in writing. He then started vigorously reading and felt drawn to the efficiency and accessibility of the short story genre, particularly after his sister gave him Stephen King’s collection of short stories, Night Shift.

2024 VPL Indigenous Storyteller in Residence, Joseph Kakwinokanasum. | Photo by Jeff Vinnick, courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library.

“As years went on, I felt I had to take myself seriously, I really do want to write, and I like the practice,” says Kakwinokanasum.

Having relatives who survived residential schools, his path to writing involved working through this intergenerational trauma caused by the Indian Act. This process involved twenty-years of journaling, which culminated into a memoir submitted to Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio and eventually to his publisher.

“I didn’t move forward, I moved sideways,” he says, while noting the emotionally draining nature of writing about one’s life. “[My editor] asked me, are you ready to write this, are you ready to put this out there, are you wanting a break from memoir?”

Remaking in fiction

Choosing to take that break from memoir writing, Kakwinokanasum turned to crafting fiction based on his childhood experiences growing up in poverty and his mother’s struggles with alcoholism. Well-known for his first novel, My Indian Summer, which won the 2023-2024 First Nations Communities READ Award, Award, he is now working on a second book inspired by the Cree ghost stories of his childhood, including that of the cannibalistic wīhtikow.

“The way my mother told this story was just so creepy, so scary,” he says. “That is what she said is the wīhtikow – people who resort to cannibalism become unhuman.”

Besides the wīhtikow, Kakwinokanasum has also been inspired by stories of the sasquatch and the Northern Lights. Taking up the Indigenous worldview that there are multiverses, he is currently building out the different worlds that these creatures inhabit. His interest in these stories, particularly that of the wīhtikow, lies in their realism.

“One thing that bothers me about the way the world is going, especially now, is all this greed you see,” says Kakwinokanasum. “Nobody wants to share, and that’s my idea of a wīhtikow, anybody in a place of power who is rich and unwilling to bring people up.”

In considering cannibalism, Kakwinokanasum also draws on historical events, such as the Andes plane crash, to reflect on the human condition and need for survival. As for what he hopes readers will take away from his works, he wishes for more empathy.

“Humanity wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have people who sacrificed,” says Kakwinokanasum. “When you get right into the minutiae of the messages, it’s ‘be good to each other, be kind.’”

The VPL will be hosting a free public event where attendees can learn more about Kakwinokanasum and My Indian Summer. The event takes place on March 7 at the VPL Central Branch.

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