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Joseph Boyden. A Critical Interview

Elisabeth Bouzonviller et Anne Garrait-Bourrier
p. 131-144


Cet entretien a été mené par Anne Garrait-Bourrier, de l’université Clermont-Auvergne et Elisabeth Bouzonviller, professeure de littérature américaine à l’université Jean Monnet.

Cet article propose l’entretien original avec l’écrivain canadien Joseph Boyden enregistré le 12 décembre 2014 à l’université Blaise Pascal de Clermont-Ferrand. Joseph Boyden effectuait alors un tour d’Europe de 18 mois pour la promotion de son roman intitulé The Orenda. La partie française de cette longue tournée fut organisée par Albin Michel, son éditeur français, et plus particulièrement par Francis Geffard, l’éditeur de la collection Terre d’Amérique, qui a découvert Boyden et l’a imposé en France. Boyden le remercie d’ailleurs chaleureusement dans l’édition Penguin de son premier roman. Les questions posées à Boyden portent essentiellement sur The Orenda. Ainsi, nous présentons d’abord l’auteur et son travail afin de contextualiser son roman et de le replacer dans le contexte littéraire américain actuel.

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Novelist Joseph Boyden was born in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale in 1966. A Canadian of Irish, Scottish, and Ojibwe roots, he has acquired dual citizenship due to the fact that, since 1993, he has been living in New Orleans, Louisiana, with his American wife, Amanda, also a novelist herself. On the faculty of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, he has taught at New Orleans University and thus shares his time between New Orleans and Northern Ontario. He belongs to a large family of eleven, whose father was born in 1893 and was highly decorated as a medical officer during World War II. This early lost father seems to have induced in Boyden a strong sense of the importance of history, which is essential in his writing, although it is his mother’s Ojibwe roots which are more specifically at the core of his fiction. Like many urban Indians of her generation, she used to hide her native origins, although her children enjoyed summer vacations on the surrounding reservations, but, as adults, they rediscovered these roots and, one of Boyden’s sisters even became a respected native elder in Northern Ontario. Most of his novels’ main characters are Cree, a cousin tribe of the Ojibwe whom Boyden came to know better during his early teaching years at Northern College in Moosonee, in the isolated region of James Bay. Boyden has already been granted several literary prizes in Canada, thus offering a new facet to this national culture described as divided between French and English in Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel Two Solitudes. Moving away from this binary perception, Boyden insists on four pillars as the foundation of Canadian culture, with not only the French and English but also the First Nation and Contemporary immigrant ones. In that respect, it is significant that one of his two non-fiction books should be devoted to the presentation of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the two Métis leaders who strove in vain to found a Métis nation in the Canadian prairies in the second half of the nineteenth century. Dear to many Ojibwe, Riel is also regularly mentioned with pride in Louise Erdrich’s fiction, thus testifying to common concerns for these two novelists for whom the Canadian-U.S. border seems to be a mere arbitrary sign of colonial power forced on people who used to belong to the same tribe and shared the same cultural references.

1After a collection of short stories – Born with a Tooth, 2001– Boyden published three novels, playing each time with the contrasted voices of several homodiegetic narrators but focusing on a single family, the Bird clan, despite narrated time differences. Three Day Road, 2005, relates the experience of two Cree friends during World War I in France and the return of only one of them, thus giving voice alternately to the wounded survivor and to his old aunt taking him back home up North. In Through Black Spruce, published in 2008, the narration oscillates again between genders and generations with a Cree uncle and his niece, the grand-daughter of the previous veteran narrator, and offers the story of the older man rooted in Northern Ontario and the one of Annie’s search for her lost sister in the glamorous and deceptive world of high fashion in New York. As for The Orenda, 2013, it goes back in time again and follows the intertwined fates of three 17th century homodiegetic narrators: Christophe, the Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a teenage girl of the Haudenosaunee nation (original name for the Iroquois) who was kidnapped by the Wendats (the vernacular name for the Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning the deaths of his wife and two daughters by the Iroquois and seeking revenge. It was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013 (and translated into French by Michel Lederer in 2014 in the Albin Michel famous collection Terre d’Amérique) The history is a complex one, but the novel’s plot is relatively simple: three characters master narration successively; the novel is set in the early 17th century and it unfolds chronologically. The use of a tri vocal narrative is a way to examine what the three characters learn – or do not learn – about themselves and about other people. The reader keeps going from “them” to “us” in a to and fro movement of absence of mutual understanding. Snow Falls acknowledges the absurdity of this mutual lack of understanding and of fratricidal Indian wars, when she says that the Iroquois and the Huron speak similar tongues and grow the same food, hunt the same game and yet are enemies.

2As explained by Boyden in the here-published interview, the “orenda” is the life force that, according to the Natives (and to Bird more precisely, who explains this notion to Christophe), belongs not just to humans but to every natural element. This life force makes the world unified and the beings share the same essence, “or solar spirit” (see Interview). This essence is sheer beauty. It is also horror and violence. Horror in The Orenda is a key feature; nearly a character per se. It is magnified and made omnipresent, even more sublime as it is perpetrated by people the reader can feel close to and identify with, as they are human beings feeling commonly-shared emotions. Bird, for instance, is a father in grief, a mourning widower who wants to preserve peace until it no longer is possible, and when this time comes he does his share of absolutely barbarous acts, slitting throats and crushing skulls. Other acts of ritualized torture are of an indescribable cruelty and yet they are not once contested as they belong to tradition. That perception of a violence which is inherently human makes this novel at the same time historical, and terribly modern.

3Boyden suggests that his characters’ world is not really all that different from ours. Ambiguity and triviality are also part of Boyden’s depiction of humanity and Christophe, who judges the Hurons’ way of life as morally unacceptable, has to acknowledge that the Inquisition also played its own part in human violence; on the other hand, he is suspiciously fascinated by Bird and by Snow Falls’s beauty. The Orenda came almost a year after the social and environmental Idle No More movement drew Canadians’ attention to the fact that, while the Canadian land is shared with its original dwellers, Canada just like the United States of America has a long and shameful history of despoiling and despising them. As many other Native North American writers usually do (see N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn, or The Ancient Child) Boyden obsessively returns to Ojibwe origins and to the collective voice of Native people, framing for instance each of the novel’s three parts with short laments for a time when the Natives still had the “orenda” and when this land was theirs.

4The novel is thus to be considered as the accurate and precise testimony of the moment when the Christian and the Native cultures clashed to the point of no return, and an attempt at reconciling the past and present of the Canadian main paradoxes.

The interview

5Anne Garrait-Bourrier (AGB): The first question is about your latest novel and its title The Orenda (as you know it was translated in French with a metaphor « Dans le grand cercle du monde ») but can you tell us more about the “orenda,” this life force?

6Joseph Boyden (JB): “Orenda” is an Iroquois word, Huron and Iroquois…the Huron are known as the Wendat and the Iroquois call themselves Haudenosaunee…these people that’s what they call themselves. But the “orenda” is a shared belief or a belief system I guess you would say…that in Christianity all humans have a soul and a spirit…and that’s basically what the “orenda” is as well except that the Native people believe that not just humans have a life force or a solar spirit but everything in the physical world does whether it is an animal, or a tree, or a body of water, or a rock turned out of the ground...everything has its own life force and fits into the bigger picture. Humans are just one part of this life force, and we are not top of the food chain we are just one chain in a big link.

7AGB: How does this relate to your novel?

8JB: Well it’s the title of the novel for you know that’s the place where the two cultures clash the European Christian culture and the Native culture… there is a character named Christophe in the novel, he is a clergyman; and he wants to connect with these Huron people that he is living with so they talk, and one day Bird, the other guy, brings up this…talks about the “orenda” and Christophe is very excited about that and then Bird explains that everything in nature has an “orenda” and that’s when Christophe says “no, that can’t be true, only humans can have a soul” and that’s an iconic clash point, thematically.

9AGB: And culturally.

10JB: Yes.

11AGB: Some journalists have remarked that your novel was actually to be read in the light of the Idle No More Movement. In France we do not know much about this political movement? Can you tell us more about it and about your personal connections to it?

12JB: Idle No More… it’s a North American widening and worldwide indigenous movement that started a couple of years ago in Canada. Our current federal government guided a lot of environmental laws that protect the environment, and first nations and Native people’s abilities to utilize that environment and so the people started together through social media to begin and creating a political movement, a social and political movement among many young people, Native young people across North America which is really exciting.

13AGB: It is mostly female, a feminist movement?

14JB: No… though it is four women who started it, four native Canadian women, but yeah it is not particularly feminist I don’t think… it is more of an environmental and social movement…

15AGB: Your novel is set in the 17th century but one has a feeling when we read it that it deals with very modern themes: vengeance, violence, racism. Can it be also considered as a parable about humanity and about the incapacity of man to evolve?

16JB: Yeah… Well… I am not the one that writes a novel and says “this is what it’s about”… I want it to be more open and I want the reader to make that decision… but certainly when I was writing this novel I began to realize that even though it’s historical it was dealing with a lot of contemporary issues… whether it is immigration, how we treat each other during times of war… economics… all this is in the novel and I realized too that looking back at historical moments that I have really enjoyed, that they all have a contemporary message or two or three… and so that kind of naturally came out in the writing of The Orenda.

17AGB: Your project was originally announced as a trilogy, do you plan to broaden your writing project; and if so, would it be more historical or more related to the present time?

18JB: Originally it was going to be a trilogy then I realized it was going to be a quintet, it’s going to be a five-novel cycle… Some of them historical, some of them contemporary… It is going to be 500 hundred years of the imagined family…the Bird family’s history.

19AGB: Can you tell us more about your next novel….or is it not too soon?

20JB: It s going be a companion to The Orenda and its going to deal with both historical and contemporary… in the same book…

21AGB: Great… like a fusion... You seem to be quite a cheerful man writing about very serious subjects. Is it what Louise Erdrich calls “survival humour”?

22JB: Yes Louise is a good friend actually… and I think so you… you know I don’t have much to complain about… I am very lucky person with a very good writing carrier… and a lovely wife and home in New Orleans and so… but certainly when I look at many of my friends and many of the Native people, are not necessarily as lucky and in some ways I want to speak for them as well.

23AGB: Are you a spokesman?

24JB: Sometimes… only one of many though…

25AGB: Talking about spokesmen, you live in Louisiana as you’ve just said, do you feel close to main Native American figures from the USA like N.S. Momaday, James Welch, Louise Erdrich, and among the younger generation, Sherman Alexis? Do you work with them?

26JB: James Welch has sadly passed away but I am friend with his wife Louise and I know Scott Momaday in Sante Fe cause I do some teaching there, Sherman is a dear friend and Louise is a dear friend, you know in the Native writing it is not a huge community so we all get to know each other to some degree… and certainly we all try to support one another… they are all mentors to me… you know they all have big careers and when my first book came out then Louise for example supported it and so did Sherman… I feel very lucky to have to consider them friends…

A short critical comment

27The first important new element brought about by this interview is the change in the literary project initially conceived by Boyden as a trilogy. The announcement is here made that at least two other novels will come to make the saga of the Bird family complete. This is an important piece of information as it underlines Boyden’s writing strategy, which is clearly built around the notion of a historical continuum inscribed in the present time and mainly guided by his desire to “tell a Native story” and to share the destiny of his main recurrent character, Bird, who, to some extent, is a metonymy for the history of the native communities in Canada.

The other interesting dimension of this interview is the referring to the political involvement of the author in the social organization called Idle No More. The Idle No More movement began in 2013 as a social media call to action by four native women in Saskatchewan. It has grown into an international social movement organizing protests, hunger strikes and blockades. It mainly asks for radical changes in the Canadian Fisheries Act as well as in the Navigable Waters Protection Act, laws related to the management of the land and waters and thus to what Natives consider sacred ; whereas Canadian and more generally North American politicians treat these matters at a purely economic level. The main claim of the Idle No More movement is, as it is stated on their Facebook page, to "stop the Harper government from passing more laws and legislation that will further erode treaty and indigenous rights and the rights of all Canadians." Boyden is a member of this group and he devotes himself to this new “technological” campaign raised in order to entail a public environmentalist awareness.

28Eventually, this interview enhances the very notion of pan-Indianism as it insists on the intimacy of the links existing between Boyden and the major Native North American. Boyden has been living in the USA for years (in New Orleans) but the notion of lineage is way deeper than a mere question of territory. In the interview Boyden acknowledges his kinship with at least three major Native North American writers, Louise Erdrich, Scott Momaday and Sherman Alexie. Let us see the main literary strategies or visions that Boyden actually shares with each of them.

29Sherman Alexie is Boyden’s exact same age. They are 52 and clearly share the same vision of a disillusioned generation of Native writers, who know that literature will not change the actual reality of the Native populations in North America (which was a hopeful belief in the 1960s, when Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction for House made of Dawn) and who try more active and radical ways of expressing their desire for change. This turn in the perception of literature as needing some other media to convey its message, is palpable through their use of modern visual media, like cinema for Alexie or political commitment through social media for Boyden ; both also claim for a stronger anchorage of literature into realism. Alexie was often blamed for his cynicism and absence of concessions towards his fellow Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indians and Boyden criticized – by some Native intellectuals too – for his violent depiction of the Native war rituals and ways of life. Both refuse to hide behind traditions even if their respect for them and for Native story-telling cannot be contested. Alexie epitomizes this new glance of Indianism in the XXI century through this statement: “I think it’s a kind of fundamentalism about Indian identity, and what “Indian” can be and mean, that damages Indians” [“Humor is My Green Card: a conversation with Sherman Alexie”, in Nelson, 2010]. The other common point shared by both writers is their awkward relation to the idea of being spokesmen. Both insist on their lucky position as successful Native people, not sharing the daily plight of their communities (see Boyden’s interview above). Alexie enhances this same ambiguity in his interview with Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez: “Most of us [Indian writers] are outcasts, we don’t really fit within the Indian community, so we write to try to fit in and sound Indian. So that’s ironic that we become spokespeople for Indian country, that we are supposed to be representatives of our tribes” [54-59].

30Boyden and Alexie thus represent a new generation, more irreverent and sardonic, but also no doubt more rebellious than their writerly and spiritualistic elders, among which one finds Momaday.

31In War Dances, published by Alexie in 2009, a juxtaposition of scenes stages the narrator’s father’s decline and the narrator’s own loss of hearing, two metaphors for the dramatic loss of transmission between generations. As in Boyden’s The Orenda, the idea of a decline of the stereotypical “Indians” because of a complete lack of mutual “hearing” – though it is presented with more abruptness – is very present. It can also be perceived as a reflection about the loss of a father figure in the Native writers’ community. Boyden evokes with sorrow the death of James Welch and the image of Momaday is faintly mentioned as if it were getting blurred.

32Yet Momaday created the very concept of “defensive humour” that Louise Erdrich and many other young Indian writers would adapt to their own visions of ethnicity and literature. He keeps telling this personal story of intertribal “defensive” and self-derisive humour, quoting his mother who used to tell him when he was a little boy: “Behave yourself! You eat like an Osage!,” the Osage being the historical enemies of the Kiowa since the 1833 Cutthroat Gap Massacre. Erdrich calls this “survival humor” (Moyers) and regrets that such an aspect of Native life and literature should often remain unknown to non-Natives who stick to a stereotyped vision of Indians. Boyden acknowledges the importance of such a feature, which is sometimes part of his narratives, but even more of his way of describing his life and work during public or university events. For example, evoking his Ojibwe name meaning “Shining Bridge,” he mocks his initial disappointment at not having been named something more valorous like “Screaming Eagle” but eventually admits it reflects his role as a spokesperson of his culture perfectly.

33The first edition of Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife was articulated on an Ojibwe word pronounced in the first chapter by an old woman murdered by an American soldier, “Daashkikaa” meaning “cracked apart,” but thirteen years later, in the much revised edition of the novel, this word was replaced by another, more optimistic term, “Gaagigenagweyaabiikwe” meaning “Everlasting Rainbow. The footbridge that connects us with the other world”, and which is given as a name to Deanna, one of the young Ojibwe urban girls from the latest generation of the story [263]. As in Boyden’s name, the term “bridge” harbors here hopes of connection and understanding and suggests new generations of mixed-blood who will embrace both cultures and favor integration within modernity, thus following a “survivance” pattern, as Vizenor puts it [2011, 69].

34Boyden, Erdrich, Vizenor, all of them have Ojibwe roots and a long history of mixed-blood families, the latter novelist even asserts: “[…] crossbloods are a postmodern tribal bloodline” [1990, VII]. Whether they are Canadian or American, these authors’ roots are to be found among those Algonquians who had been living in the Great Lakes region before Europeans arrived. They called themselves Anishinaabeg but the colonists started to call them Chippewa, for those South of Lake Superior, and Ojibwa, for the northern branches, the French fur traders even called them the Saulteurs. In Erdrich’s The Master Butchers Singing Club, Cyprian declares: « I’m Chippewa. Ojibwe. The word my grandpa used was Anishinaabeg—the humans. Same thing » [77]. In her fiction, Erdrich has progressively moved from the use of the term Chippewa, to Ojibwe and eventually Anishinaabeg, which is a political choice in favor of the original Native appellation, as opposed to the Chippewa term used officially by the American government. We also find this tendency to go back to the truth of vernacular language in Boyden’s interview, when he insists on the original names of the Iroquois and the Hurons. Whereas Erdrich’s Native characters are exclusively Ojibwe and are located in an imaginary reservation resembling the one of Turtle Mountain where she is enrolled, Boyden seems to have made another choice by evoking the cousin tribe of the Cree who live in the isolated area of James Bay, which he discovered in his 20s and whose natural beauty impressed him tremendously. Despite this difference, both novelists definitely follow similar patterns in their insistence on family life and in their postmodern use of multiple narrators and focalization.

35Questioned about tribal stories around the world, Arnold Krupat designates family relations as the pattern present in all of them [222-223] and concludes: « To live is to live familially, tribally » [230]. Kenneth Lincoln’s idea about Indian culture echoes this idea when he says: « To Indians tribe means family, not just bloodlines but extended family, clan, community, ceremonial exchanges with nature, and an animate regard for all creation as sensible and powerful. » [8] While Erdrich claims to be “working on one big continuous novel” (Halliday), which has induced editors to insert genealogical trees to help puzzled readers find their way within her complicated postmodern Native saga, younger Boyden seems to be launched on the same way with his Bird clan and his trilogy recently turning into a quintet. Moreover, both delight in the use of multiple voices thanks to homodiegetic narrators reflecting the oral and Native art of story-telling, thus confirming what Marc Chénetier said in 1989:

  • 1 The translation in English is ours.
    Entendre N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn) lire ses récits (...)

Listening to N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn), reading his kiowa stories, reading Love Medecine or Tonia Cade Bambara’s works, reverts to understand the collective weight of the voice which constitutes the main axis of fictional gathering on identities jeopardized by history. In tales or in the blues, the individual voice is the messenger of a tradition which remains out of reach [347-348]1.

36Thus, what Connie A. Jacobs concludes about Erdrich could very well apply to Boyden’s fiction and herald many more novels to read: « A communal voice is a true polyphony, and there is no one point of view just as there is no final version of a story » [41].

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Joseph Boyden


Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2005.

Boyden, Joseph. Through Black Spruce. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.

Boyden, Joseph. The Orenda. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2013.

Short stories

Boyden, Joseph. Born with a Tooth. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2001.


Boyden Joseph. From Mushkegowuk to New Orleans: A Mixed Blood Highway. Edmonton: NeWest, 2008.

Boyden Joseph. Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. Toronto: Penguin, 2010.

Sherman Alexie


Alexie Sherman. War Dances. New York: Grove Press, 2009.


Alexie Sherman. Smoke Signals. New York: Hyperion Books, 1998.

Selected Criticism

Ramirez de Brill, Berry Susan. Contemporary American Indian Literatures & the Oral Tradition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.

Selected Interviews

Nelson, B. Josuah. “Humor is My Green Card: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie,” July 2010, World Literature Today. <>

Ramirez de Brill, Berry Susan. “Fancy Dancer: A Profile of Sherman Alexie”, in Poets and Writers Magazine, January/February 1999.

N. Scott Momaday


Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper & Row, 1968 (ed. in the United Kingdom by Victor Gollancz, 1969).

Momaday, N. Scott. The Names: A Memoir. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Critical writings

Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of House Made of Dawn. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Schubnell, Mathias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Louise Erdrich


Erdrich Louise. The Antelope Wife. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999 [1998].

Erdrich Louise. The Antelope Wife. New York: Harper Collins, New and Revised Edition, 2012.

Erdrich Louise. The Master Butchers Singing Club. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004 [2003].

General Critical References

Chenetier Marc. Au-delà du soupçon. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1989.

Halliday, Lisa, The Art of Fiction, No. 208.
<> [last accessed on April 23, 2012].

Jacobs, Connie A. The Novels of Louise Erdrich: Stories of her People. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Krupat, Arnold. The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Moyer, Bill. Bill Moyers Journal, April 9, 2010.
<> [last accessed on March 5, 2012].

Vizenor, Gerald. Crossbloods. Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports (1976). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Vizenor, Gerald. “Native American Indian Literature: Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance,” in A. Robert Lee, Native American Writing (4 vol.). London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

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1 The translation in English is ours.
Entendre N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn) lire ses récits kiowas, lire ‘Love Medicine’ ou les œuvres de Toni Cade Bambara, c’est prendre la mesure des prégnances collectives de la voix, comprendre qu’elle est l’axe principal de rassemblement fictionnel d’identités mises à mal par l’histoire. Dans la légende ou le blues, la voix individuelle est porteuse d’une tradition qui la dépasse.

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Elisabeth Bouzonviller et Anne Garrait-Bourrier, « Joseph Boyden. A Critical Interview »Babel, 44 | 2021, 131-144.

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Elisabeth Bouzonviller et Anne Garrait-Bourrier, « Joseph Boyden. A Critical Interview »Babel [En ligne], 44 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2022, consulté le 30 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Elisabeth Bouzonviller

Université de Saint-Étienne

Anne Garrait-Bourrier

Université Clermont-Auvergne

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