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Article SPRING 2008

Interview with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
of Kegedonce Press

by Celu Amberstone

C: Well, I guess the best place to begin is for you to tell me a little about yourself.

K: Well, I like long walks on the beach. (Laugh.) Iím Anishnaabe from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation. Iím a writer and publisher, and I also do spoken-word poetry.

C: What inspired you to create a First Nations publishing House? Did you feel there was a need for a publisher that would focus exclusively on First Nations people and culture?

K: The short answer to that last question is, yes. What inspired me Ö well, the work I often do to pay the bills is communications consultingóand Iíve been doing that for quite a while. Through my work I was already learning quite a lot about the publishing process, before I started Kegedonce. Then in 1993, while still in university I got the job as coordinator for an International Indigenous Arts Conference, ďBeyond Survival: The Waking Dreamer Ends the SilenceĒ held at the Museum of Civilization.

I thought it was a great opportunity for all artists and, being a writer myself, I put together a little book of my own poetry that I could show to our visitors. I was a member of a writersí group in Ottawa at the time. So I applied for a grant through the city to publish my poems. When I got it, I felt fantasticólike Iíd won the lottery. And because of my writersí group, I thought about ways that I could share this good fortune with themóand maybe others. So, very idealistically, I decided to create an imprint to produce my book. And when enough copies of my book sold and made some money, Iíd publish someone elseís workóand so on. 

Well, that was very naive, because it took a long time to sell enough copies of my book to do anything. When you only have one book and try to hock it anywhere you can, it takes a lot of time and energy. But it put me on the path regardless. It took me five years before I could publish anyone else, but I did and thatís how things got started.

Of course there is also Theytus Books in BC publishing Aboriginal books, but Kegedonce has a different approach and mandate than Theytus. I think there is a need for both of us.

C: My next question has to be, how do you think they are different? What is Kegedonceís mandate?

K: Kegedonce operates differently. Theytus is associated with the EníOwkin Centre. It has a board of directors and a creative writing program associated with it. For better or worse, they are more structured than Kegedonce. At Kegedonce we stay small and have more leeway in what we do. We also can choose what risks we want to take. And I think at this point in the development of First Nationsí literature it is necessary to take some risks.

For example, we continue to publish a lot of poetry, even though the majority of Canadian publishers are moving away from including poetry on their lists. And though publishing poetry isnít very lucrative we continue to accept it, because itís been my observation that many First Nations writers begin their careers by writing poetry. If these writers arenít nurtured at that point, there is a good possibility we will lose them. They may never make the transition into fiction or play writing or whatever. When I first envisioned Kegedonce, nurturing beginning writers was what I wanted to do.

C: I think thatís a fascinating observation about the poetryóand one that Iíd never thought about. But it makes sense, because poetry is the closest thing to the old oral story-telling traditions among first Nations people in modern literature.

K: Yes, it is interesting, but Iím not sure if it is the same for Aboriginal Peoples and publishers Stateside. There isnít anything wrong with poetry, and no reason why it couldnít be financially viable. I believe it just isnít getting the support it should. The rise of hip-hop and spoken-word events tells me that the public really is interested in certain kinds of poetry. Itís just that in book form poetry isnít being promoted properly. I canít imagine a society without poetry.

C: This next question is a bit out of order, and not on my original list, but before I forget let me ask you, Richard Van Camp, one of your authors, stated that there doesnít seem to be much communication between the borders when it comes to First Nations authors and promoting and reading each otherís work. They donít always know about our big names and we donít know about theirs. Is that your observation as well? 

K: I think thatís partially true. Native people in the States are less likely to know about Canadian authors, than we are about them. I think there was a time when there was an effort to build those alliances, but to be honest, I didnít find the efforts all that successful. Efforts like Returning The Gift and WordCraft Native Writers Circle were so dominated by authors in the States that they didnít become the inclusive experience they should have been. I think itís only gotten worse since the late eighties, early nineties, and I donít really know what can be done to change that at this point.

There isnít a First Nations writers network in Canada. The nature of writing is that itís a solitary occupation and just building linkages with the writers who live around you can often be a challenge, so it isnít surprising that ties across national borders often fail.

C: What about connections with Aboriginal writers in other Commonwealth Nations like Australia and New Zealand? A Vancouver agent I know claims she is able to market Canadian authors in other parts of the Commonwealth and the UK far easier than she can in the States. Have you had similar experiences with Kegedonce books? 

K: Yes, I can certainly agree with that. I have been working for since 1991 to create networks and alliances of Aboriginal writers and artists, especially between Aotearoa (AKA New Zealand) and Australia since the early nineties. I think there is more of a connection perhaps, because we were colonized by the same people, using the same tactics. We have more shared experiences, I think, than we do with Native writers in the US. Itís sort of bizarre. Being Anishnabee there are bands of my people on both sides of the international border, but our history is quite different. We are impacted by the colonizing peoples that surround us. So, I do believe very strongly in building those alliances with Indigenous peoples colonized by the British. They make sense. 

C: I know Kegedonce has published Fantasy author Daniel Heath Justice and a couple other authors who include magical elements in their stories. Are you interested in publishing more genre fiction?

K: Yeah. We are. But along with saying that, there are some problems. First of all, we have to get the manuscriptsóand they have to be of publishable quality. Next of course is marketing. We take the approach that we arenít afraid to take on those challenges. Weíve done so with Danielís books, but it is difficult. I think Danielís trilogy is brilliant, rich and multi-layered, but it hasnít hit the market the way we wanted it to.

C: Do you think there is a resistance to First Nations fantasy by the reading public?

K: Iím not sure what the problem is. Kegedonce does try to push at the boundaries of the expectations of First Nations Literature. We are willing to do that, because we believe itís important, but the downside is, that people donít always know how to respond to our books. The reason being, they donít know how to categorize them. Booksellers donít know where to put these books in their stores for example. I think Danielís trilogy deserves a larger audience and weíve been trying, in various ways to get it, but itís been very difficult. Itís a complex issue.

Not to say that Daniel doesnít have a following, because he does. His books are interesting and innovative and maybe a bit subversive to the normal genreóor what I know of it. If more people were to locate the trilogy and read it, Iím sure they would be hooked.

C: Is there anything you are looking for, not looking for in a manuscript? And does Kegedonce accept manuscripts from non--First Nations authors?

K Ultimately what it comes down to is that we are looking for any well-written manuscript by a First Nations author. The genre doesnít matter, but as I said before, we do have an interest in pushing at the boundaries of what peoplesí pre-conceived notions may be about First Nations literature. So works that do thatólike Danielísóimmediately get my attention. 

In terms of publishing non-Native authors: No that isnít in our mandate. We believe there are many other publishers those writers can access. We occasionally get submissions from non-Native people whose stories deal with an aspect of Native culture or have Native characters, but we have to turn them down.

C: Do you worry about ghettoizing Native writers with such a policy? 

K: Not so much. I understand that issue, but really we publish writers who may not have other opportunities. And I donít expect our authors to publish with us exclusively if they have the chance to publish with a larger house. We would like to have our authors stay with us, and we are glad to help them at various stages of their careers, not just in the beginning, but at all stages. For example, if a more well-known author has a book of poetry they are unable to get accepted elsewhere, we would definitely consider it.

C: I know you are a small press; how many books a year does Kegedonce publish?

K: Yes, we are small; there is only Renee Abram and me. For various reasons, we publish only two to three books a year.

C: Do you sign a formal contract and give out royalties?

K: We do use a formal contract. Every contract is negotiated and different. We certainly do give royalties Ė and at competitive rates.

C: What about the marketing of your books? How does Kegedonce market the finished product?

K: Iím not the best one to ask about that. Renee handles more of that side of the business than I do. I work more with our writers and the designers. But I also use a lot of my personal contacts to make them aware of our books and whatís new that is coming out. We are a part of the Literary Press Group, for one thing. And we also work with a marketing consultant and publicist. This consultant has been working with us in various aspects of our publishing program, marketing, promotions, stuff like that. We try everything.

C: What role are Kegedonce authors expected to take in the marketing process?

K: Basically, when we decide to publish someone we see it as establishing a relationship and we talk to them about that. We will publish their book and do the best we can, but we also expect them to get out there and arrange readings and do whatever they can to promote their work as well.

C: Do you have guidelines for them to follow?

K: No, not so much guidelines. We just talk to them. We give them ideas of things to do. And sometimes they come up with ideas of their own, some good, some not so good, and we let them know our opinions. Itís a collaborative effort. We have common goals and we work together to pursue them. 

C: Do you post any of your books on line?

K: We put portions of our books on the website. As to whole books Ö Iím not inherently opposed to it, but I am wary of it. As a writer myself I worry about copyright and how people access materials. Posting an entire book might be something we would be willing to explore, if one of our authors was interested in doing it.

C: Do you have any thoughts about why so many young people arenít reading these days? Do you think the multi-media approach you spoke of earlier is the way to capture their interest and pass on some of the culture?

K: Yes, as an artist, I do believe that in order to reach at least part of my audienceóFirst Nations peoplesóI have to look at other ways of presenting my work. The reality is that a large percentage of people reading our books arenít First Nations people. I realized that a long time ago; I understand literacy issues in our communities. Iíve worked with the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition. Those experiences got me interested in performance-poetry and other multi-media projects. More and more my own work has been moving in that direction, partially to reach audiences that might not pick up a book and be close to my work. 

But it also pushes my own boundaries and gives me an opportunity to work collaboratively with other artists. Working on a manuscript is a very isolating experience on the other hand. But in terms of First Nations youth, we have to be aware of the reality our young people face. Movies, video games TV, all take up their time and energy. And if you arenít exposed to literature in the home or at school, you arenít going to come to reading easily. Even the larger society that surrounds us isnít very literary these days.

Iíve been very interested and searching for years for graphic novels to publish, because I think they would attract people who donít normally read. Itís my hope that these books can act as a gateway to other forms of literature. We are also interested in audio books as well.

C: Where is Kegedonce going in the future?

K: Well, weíre really concentrating, in these uncertain times, on doing what we like to do. We would like to increase the number of books we publish each year. We would like to do more to support and promote our writersóthough I think we already do as much as most publishers. We want to continue to grow the company, but we are also realistic on how that might happen. We want to become financially stableówhich is a challenge these days.

The Canadian publishing industry is, and has been facing a lot of challenges that most people arenít aware of. General Distribution went bankrupt and that has had a ripple effect that we are still feeling years later. It had a huge impact. And now publishers only want to publish what is safe, to make sure they are making money and are able to continue to operate. Everyone wants to publish the next big thingóbut they also want to do it without taking any risks. To me this is the opposite of what should happen. You donít create excitement in books if everybody is publishing the same thing.

C: Thanks very much for doing this for me, Kateri.

K: It was my pleasure to do it.

 



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Posted May 25, 2008