‘Protect your voice’- An Interview with Carleigh Baker, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Nominee

Carleigh Baker is a Cree-Metis/ Icelandic writer who lives as a guest on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Essays, PRISM International, Matrix, and The Journey Prize Anthology. She also writes reviews for the Globe and Mail, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Malahat Review. Baker is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia, and the Vancouver editor at Joyland Magazine. Her debut story collection, Bad Endings (Anvil, 2017) won the 2017 City of Vancouver Book Award, and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award.

Tell us about Bad Endings.

Bad Endings is a short story collection about apocalyptic relationships, bad decisions and transgressions, but it’s also about resilience. It draws heavily from my own bad decisions. I’ve made a lot of them! It took seven years to write the book, and I attended several schools while working on it, including Douglas College, The Writer’s Studio at SFU, and UBC. Many of the stories were published in literary journals before the book came out. subTerrain, Matrix, Room Magazine, and Joyland were all very supportive of my fiction!

What is most important to you when you write?

I don’t have any fancy rituals or anything like that. What’s most important to me is the luxury to neglect everything else in my life for a little while. For people to lower their expectations of me and give me some space, so I can get to work. I’m not very good at stuffing in writing time between the cracks of everyday life. I need a significant amount of time to myself. In my pyjamas. Eating chocolate.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

My thesis, natch. I’m also a member of the Indigenous Collective here at UBC. We produce Unceded Airwaves–a weekly radio show on CITR. Our goal is to elevate diverse voices and create space for conversation about topics of relevance to Indigenous peoples.

You are currently on the MFA Program here at UBC. How has this influenced your work?

It’s nice to have so much support around me while I’m writing. I’m very thankful to the profs who are working long hours and still make time for me and my random questions about writing. Working as a TA has been influential as well–helping other writers with their work definitely makes me a better writer, and a better communicator in general. It also gives me hope for the future.

The biggest influence on me so far has probably been from the First Nations/ Indigenous Studies department. Dr David Gaertner and Dr. Daniel Heath Justice have been very generous with their time, and they’ve taught me a lot about community, building relationships, and my responsibilities as an Indigenous writer. These lessons will all be in my thesis project.

You run a group focus on indigenous writers here at UBC. Would you like to tell us about that and why it is important?

I coordinate a weekly Indigenous lit reading group on Thursdays from 3-4PM. I get a lot of help from other students with this, including Jessica Johns, Meagan Black, and Selina Boan. Thanks, guys! Everyone is welcome to come by, we just hang out and read poetry and prose written by Indigenous authors. We’ve read work by Chelsea Vowel, Leanne Simpson, Marie Annharte Baker, Louise Bernice Halfe, and even Louis Riel. People can ask questions, or discuss what we’ve read, or just listen in. It’s very relaxing to read out loud with other people. It’s often my fave part of the week.

There’s more to it than just reading, of course. I’ve been working to bring issues of Indigenous representation into regular conversation here in the creative writing department. I think students are hungry to learn more about issues like cultural appropriation, writing marginalized characters, and elevating Indigenous writers. Huge thanks to Linda Svendsen and John Vigna for their support with this, and to everyone who shows up every week to lend their voices.

Our twitter handle is @readindigenous

Lastly, what advice would you give your fellow students and emerging writers?

Learn the rules and listen very carefully to all the advice you get, but always trust your instincts when it comes down to the final draft. Protect your voice, it’s the most precious thing we have. And eat as much chocolate as you need to get the job done.