Richard Wagamese and his Ragged Company come to York

On Jan. 5, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented Aboriginal Canadian writer Richard Wagamese reading from his book Ragged Company. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

It was about being seen, visible, real. It was about the great fact that some of us get to realize: that home is not about a place, not about a building, not about a geography or even a time; home is belonging in someone else’s heart. Just the way you are. Warts and all.

from Ragged Company
by Richard Wagamese

As Richard Wagamese sat in York Lanes watching the daily bustle of students and faculty, he marvelled at the many stories that were unfolding before him. “Each and every one of us, regardless of background, have within us a narrative tradition we can access. The power of narrative is to connect us to each other. It’s the glue. We’re one spirit, one soul,” he said.

Left: Richard Wagamese

Wagamese recently shared this and other storytelling insights with the Canadian Writers in Person series.

While many often ignore the stories of those around us, Wagamese is particularly interested in those who are generally unseen and unheard: the homeless. In his latest novel, Ragged Company, he explores what happens when four homeless people win the lottery. As they wrestle with their sudden liberation from the streets, they find a place of belonging, not in their newfound riches, but in each other. 

Theirs is a world not unfamiliar to Wagamese, who spent some time struggling with alcoholism while living on the streets. “When I was a younger man, I had no narrative other than the one I created to survive,” he said. “I had to get to the point where I didn’t want to hurt or cause any more hurt, to see my life as other than misery and bleakness.” Though Wagamese didn’t win the lottery, he found an even richer experience when he found his way home to his Ojibwa heritage.

With the guidance of his elders, Wagamese discovered his calling as a storyteller. “They brought me into the circle and they showed me. They saw in me what I didn’t. They told me the roots, rules and framework to tell stories,” said Wagamese, who learned the value of story for story’s sake, to write not for the self but to affect change in others. One elder demonstrated by throwing a pebble into the river. As they watched the widening ripples reach the shore, she said: “That’s how you change the world, the smallest circle first.”

Following that principle, Wagamese changes the world in small ways outside his writing life. Though they can’t completely fix the homelessness problem, he and his wife run a rooming house near Kamloops that accommodates 13 formerly homeless people. “Amazing things can happen,” he said.

Wagamese describes himself as a working writer, who works one day at a time to bring to life the things that move and inspire him. A vital part of this process is oral, in which he often tells the story to himself several times before committing it to paper. “I walk around for months with my dog before I sit down to write it. I know it works because I didn’t bore myself or fall asleep by a tree,” he said.

After remarking on the fact that he had not won any significant literary prizes, Wagamese read from a letter he had received. Jeanet Sybenga, former director of the Indian Family Centre in Winnipeg, had been fighting breast cancer and was a fan of his novels. A friend gave her Ragged Company to read while she was in the hospital, but as her health worsened, she didn’t have the energy to finish. A relative read it to her, bringing smiles to her face before she finally succumbed to her illness. Holding up the letter, Wagamese said, “Keep your Giller Prize, keep all of that. Give me more of these.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Tonight, at 7pm in 206 Accolade West Building, award-winning author Lawrence Hill will read from his novel The Book of Negroes.