Writer draws from damaged childhood for first novel

Photos by Dan Toulgoet

Joseph Kakwinokanasum has worked his share of “joe jobs,” as he calls them. He’s been a bicycle courier, a library assistant, a truck driver, a construction worker, a ditch digger, a prison cook. Now in his fifties, the graduate of the Writer’s Studio creative writing program at SFU is officially an author. His first novel, My Indian Summer, will be published by Tidewater Press in fall 2022.

Joseph says he’d wanted to be a writer since he first read Stephen King at the age of nine. “It was always something I wanted to do,” he says. “It never left me.”

But life was to throw almost insurmountable hurdles along Joseph’s path to becoming a writer. Of Cree and Austrian descent, Joseph grew up in a small northern B.C. community as one of seven children raised by a single mother. Living in hunger and poverty, beaten by his mother during alcohol-fuelled rages, bullied for being neither fully white nor fully Indigenous, Joseph’s childhood was the stuff of nightmares.  

“Life was a war,” he says simply. “By the time I was in kindergarten, I knew the world was a cruel place.” But now, he adds with a laugh, he’s taking the horrendous pile of manure that was his early life and using it to grow roses. In fact, My Indian Summer is loosely based on an alarming incident from when he was 10 years old.

In many ways, Joseph explains, he found his way to writing through therapy. For years, he used journaling to work through his pain, anger and depression.

“Part of my anger was that I wasn’t following my dreams,” he says. “When I turned 40, I really started examining my life and making real breakthroughs in therapy. I decided I would finally take my writing seriously.”

So, Joseph left his job and lived off his savings for two years: “I sold everything. All I owned was a station wagon, pens and paper and some clothes in storage. I had a lot of personal freedom, so I thought, now’s the time.”

Knowing he couldn’t do it alone, he began applying to the Writer’s Studio. “I could see no other way to get the experience I needed to write,” he explains. “I needed fresh eyes and I needed insight into what the writing community and the business was like.”

Although he was accepted each time he applied, he simply couldn’t afford the tuition. In the meantime, he built up a supportive community of his own that included his wife, his friends, and even his mother-in-law, who helped him to fundraise. Finally, in 2017, he’d scraped together enough to pay for his year at the Writer’s Studio.

“It was a lot of money to me at the time, but now I look back and it was worth every penny,” he says. “I would have paid more for that experience had I known what I would have gotten out of it.”

In the program, Joseph found himself “blown away” by the calibre of the mentors and students and energized by their support and feedback.

“It was a taxing program, a lot of work, but I enjoyed every bit of it,” he recalls. “I was up early, I was up late. I just loved it, and I was having the time of my life.”

Joseph recalls the rush of pride and adrenaline he felt after completing the program in 2018 and being handed his certificate.

“You know how Hemingway says you have to leave the tank half empty?” he asks. “I left SFU with a full tank and a couple of jerrycans and a few tiny tanks in the back full of gas. I had plenty of gas to keep me going, and plenty of love and encouragement to keep me writing, to keep me believing in myself.”

Sure enough, Joseph is still going strong. He’s now seeing his stories and essays published in both books and magazines. In 2020, he was shortlisted for CBC’s Non-Fiction Prize. Earlier this year, he was chosen for the Writers’ Trust of Canada Rising Stars program. He’s also begun working on future projects, including a fantasy-horror novel and a memoir. And the calls keep coming in.

“I’m not starving for work,” he says. “My main goal when I went to SFU was just to finally feel like if I could get through this, then I could call myself a real writer.

“Now, I’m right where I want to be.”

By Kim Mah