Correction: Francine Cunningham is the Canadian Writer-in-Residence.
Francine Cunningham is the living embodiment of multi-faceted. The current Canadian Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary writes poetry, short fiction, novels for adults, young adults and children, non-fiction, and has television writing credits. She is also a visual artist.
So it’s no surprise that the Cree-Métis woman encourages writers to be multi-faceted. Don’t get stuck in a single genre, she says. Be able to move from the poetry that you’re having difficulty finishing to the novel or the screenplay you have already started.
“It allows you to finish more projects you have on the go in as many different genres, which sounds counterproductive, but for me it really works and it keeps every day exciting and fresh,” said Cunningham.
It’s an approach that has seen Cunningham published successfully for the past 10 to 15 years in a variety of genres.
Her debut book of poems On/Me was nominated for the BC and Yukon Book Prize, the Indigenous Voices Award, and the Vancouver Book Award. Her debut book of short stories God Isn't Here Today recently won the ReLit Award and was also longlisted for the inaugural Carol Shields Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the Indigenous Voices Award. Her television writing has made her a recipient of the Telus StoryHive grant. Her first children’s book What if bedtime didn’t exist will be out in March 2024.
She says she tries to approach her writing through an Indigenous lens, in that “I really believe that words have a lot of power. Writing, for me, is not just tied to commercialism, having to sell it. It means something a lot more.”
It is with this point-of-view she approaches her work with other writers, whether they are the students she has interacted with over the years on northern reserves or in Indigenous urban settings, or the people who have submitted their manuscripts for her to read in the past two months as writer-in-residence.
“That's something that I talk to my students about, and I try and get them to understand the deeper reasons that they're writing and why their words are important and why they need to put them out there,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham cites the late Indigenous writer Lee Maracle as giving her the best advice she ever received as a writer. Maracle told her to approach her career as “one hand up and one hand down. So, as you're moving up the ladder of success to always have one hand down, so you're always bringing up the next generation behind you.”
Cunningham’s position at the University of Calgary, which runs from September to June 2024, is providing her with a unique opportunity to view the city where she was born and lives in “an artistic way” and reach people she doesn’t normally reach.
“This has been fun just to connect with the general public at large. And I've been doing a lot of manuscript consultations, getting to read people's work. I've been doing (university) classroom visits and going to different events around the city,” she said.
Cunningham is hoping Indigenous writers will take advantage of having an Indigenous writer-in-residence. In fact, one of her initiatives in her position has been to start a virtual Indigenous writers’ circle across Canada. The group meets every two weeks on Zoom.
“I really wanted to create a very safe space for our words and our writing where we didn't need to explain, where we could just show our work. We started and it is amazing. It's very special. We’re going to be doing this till the end of the year and then hopefully we're going to put together some sort of chapbook,” she said.
Cunningham is excited about how the publishing world is starting to embrace Indigenous voices, but she would like to see more Indigenous people up front, like agents and publishers and more Indigenous editors.
She also wants to see more Indigenous people included as jurors for awards and grants.
“I have found that when those people have sat in those positions and you see the sort of lists that they're putting together and award lists, you can see them really honouring those voices and championing for those voices. So that's pretty cool,” said Cunningham.
She’s also excited about the large number of emerging Indigenous writers and the wide variety of different genres in which they are writing. Still, she cautions, while Indigenous writers aren’t pigeonholing themselves in what they write, there is still a battle to get published in a wide variety of genres.
“It's definitely been something that I've actively fought against and probably will be actively fighting against for the rest of my career,” said Cunningham. Her short stories in God Isn't Here Today are speculative fiction and horror.
“I think maybe the industry still has to catch up a little bit, but the Indigenous writers are exploring,” she said.
As writer-in-residence, Cunningham gets to dedicate about 60 per cent of her time to her own writing projects. She is working on a memoir in the hybrid style of poetry and essays, and a young adult novel.
“Poetry is where my heart lives. It's where my personal story lives. So when I'm going through emotional turbulence, I turn to poetry just very easily,” she said.
As for fiction, it draws on her creativity and imagination and allows her to ask the “endless what-if” questions.
In spring next year, Cunningham will be swapping places for a week with the writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, Wayne Arthurson, who is of Cree and French-Canadian descent.
But before then, she would like budding and experienced writers to follow her events on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/CDWPUCalgary. And for those who attend the Calgary events, she encourages them to look for her strategically placed books, which will have QR codes for tracking.
“We're just going to put them out in the world, and then we would really like people, if they spot them, if they find them, to pick them up, to read my book if they want, and then go to the QR code, enter in where they found it and then enter in where they're leaving it for someone else. We're interested to track where my books end up in the world,” said Cunningham.
Writers interested in having Cunningham read their pages or would like to speak with her can contact her through the University of Calgary at:
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com