He Had Stories in the Curls of His Fingers

If the definition of great writing is that it changes the way you look at the world, then Richard Wagamese, who died yesterday, was a great writer.

Back in 2002, another freelancer ran into a scheduling jackpot, so I was asked to copyedit For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son, his moving memoir that addresses themes that run throughout much of his work: the struggle for identity, to reconcile the difference between what you’ve been and what you want to be, to overcome the fear of looking into yourself in order to heal, and to rebuild the bridges that you or someone else has burned.

It was an intensely personal book, written from his particular point of view, but the themes could apply to just about anyone.

We were still editing on paper in those days, and a few of the pages I sent back to Doubleday were tear-stained. Fortunately, the mark-up was in pencil.

A few weeks later the publisher asked me to proofread the pages. I was living in a different, sadder world by then, and his words hit me even harder the second time I read them.

I came away from the project with a new point of view and a greater interest in issues related to Canada’s First Peoples. Though that may not necessarily have been his aim.

“I’m not a native writer,” he told Quill & Quire. “I’m a fucking writer. . . . I don’t want to be compared, I don’t want to be ghettoized, I don’t want to be marginalized. . . . I just want [people] to read my work and go, ‘Wow.’”

Count him successful on that score.