A beautiful, honest and reflective voice was silenced this March but lives on through the amazing books published by Richard Wagamese. His writing reflects his struggles with loneliness, belonging, alcoholism and homelessness. I am sad that I will never get to meet this humble man who bravely shared his life and helped others through his prose. His books are Canadian treasures which should be celebrated by all Canadian’s.
for JOSHUA is a memoir written to teach his estranged son about his own troubled past, what he had learned and to guide him in the important tradition and The Medicine Wheel. It ends with a heartfelt letter to Joshua noting that he does not know if he will ever read it or if they will meet again but that the book belongs to him. It is painful at times, to understand how his life experiences led him to self-destructive choices and dysfunction, yet also influenced his impactful stories.
Wagamese describes his 4 day vision quest. As he sits in a circle, with only nature for company, he ponders his life through days, nights, rain and pests. He has no food, has only a limited amount of water and has a with a blanket for warmth and shelter. He ponders his past and describes his traumatic childhood when he was separated from his family, his siblings, his culture and land to live with a white family in Southern Ontario.
“Before long I settled into silence. I began to notice that silence wasn’t really silence at all. As I sat there looking around, observing, I could hear things I had never heard before, voices of the world that I’d been deaf to, noises and shifts of sound that filled all of the great space around me”.
He shared the hardships of homelessness dulled by alcoholism as he drank whatever he could get his hands on lapsing into unconsciousness to forget his pain and loneliness. Wagamese did not sugar coat his past, he admitted that he had a grade 9 education, that he had lived under bridges and openly shared that he was incarcerated for using a stolen credit card. He spent time at the Burtch Correctional Centre which was a detention centre just outside my own community. (Interesting to note, the Burtch lands have recently been remediated and returned to Six Nations).
He was brutally honest about how difficult it was to stop drinking and to accept himself as a drunk. He slowly came to understand the importance of the Ojibway culture and his connection to the land.
Despite his pain, substance abuse and hard living, he wrote beautiful stories. He would spend time in libraries, even when he was homeless, reading and listening to music. He sought out teachings to learn about his culture. He worked in radio and wrote novels.
“I would sneak off to the library and spend hours reading books. Reading always filled that emptiness for me and so I became voracious. I read history, geography, politics, architecture, astronomy, anthropology, sociology, fiction, poetry and books on art, film and music.”
It is sad that Canada has lost Richard Wagamese but his spirit lives on through his writing. I have read a few of his novels and his memoirs and each time learn more about his experience, Canada and myself. Our book club has decided to read books by this author for the month of July. We will all choose our own book and discuss a selection of his writing. Here are some suggestions: