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Cree novelist speaks at Algonquin

By: Tara Goodfellow

He began by asking how far he could go with his jokes, before diving into a much hilarious, yet informative speech, at the Mamidosewin Centre, Thursday, Oct. 12.

Well-known Cree-Canadian playwright, novelist, and pianist/songwriter, Tomson Highway, came to Algonquin to talk about what makes him the performer and writer he is today.

Known for his plays and his bestselling novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, Highway had his audience captured by his quick wit and good spirit. The man was at ease with the crowd as he started off with his background, and personal experiences with what it is to be a writer.

Kiss of the Fur Queen, a story about a champion dog-sled racer and his sons; one a pianist, the other a dancer. It focuses on their journey from northern Manitoba to a residential school and then their adventures to Winnipeg. The novel, described as “heartbreaking” and “beautiful” takes readers along with the brother’s sibling rivalry and love, as well as their re-education and religious transitions, particularly in the residential school. The book was a finalist for the 1998 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

Having grown up in Northern Manitoba, he had what he refers to as the “privilege” of being able to speak multiple languages, at an early age. His first language was Cree, his mother’s language, and the other language being Dene, was the language of the people they frequently hunted with, who lived in the neighbouring ‘nation,’ they passed through. Dene, Highway explained, is a language that is not an Algonquin language as the Dene are from the Northwest Territories, and is very unlike the Cree language.

Having gone to a boarding school with his brother at 10 years old, he learned French as his third language.
“By the time we were 10 we were trilingual. We spoke three languages. Who has that privilege here in Canada?” Highway asked the audience. He now speaks five: Cree, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.

Highway believes that learning languages greatly helps writers as different languages can use a different way of expression.

“There are things you can say in Cree that you cannot say in English,” Highway said. “The letter ‘v’ doesn’t exist in the Cree language, either, so I still have trouble with the ‘v’ to this day.

“It’s always just a matter of listening and respecting them,” Highway said when it comes to learning different languages. “The French have a reputation as being snobbish when it’s not snobbish; they’re just tired of having the English language shoved down their throats.”

He suggests if you try to absorb the language, and is open to learning; it will really help to learn the language better because you learn languages by listening to them. If you can listen, the country you’re visiting opens up in front of you in a way it doesn’t if you only listen to your own language.

Since he travels abroad, he makes a point of learning different languages and has become fluent in several over the years. Learning different languages at such a young age, has led his brain to act like a sponge to new languages.
“I learn them quickly, but I make a point of learning the basics; please, thank you, a coffee please,” said Highway.

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