Tomson Highway loves women. At the moment, he’s sweet-talking Maggie the waitress, and Maggie is having none of it. “You want a receipt,” she says, looking at Highway and his guest, eyeing the tape recorder. “Well, we don’t have receipts here. All I can get ya is a piece of paper, and I’ll have to write it down.” It’s not an explanation, definitely not an apology, and her demeanour suggests that this had better be okay.
“Maggie is the queen of the Winchester,” Highway yells over the din of two pool tables and a big-screen TV. Then the band in the (empty) back room strikes up a country song about a hard-drivin’ woman, and the whole setup begins to resemble a scene from one of his plays. Highway lights up the first of many cigarettes. “At least there are no chairs flying!” This is Monday. The chairs fly on Saturdays.
The Winchester Hotel bar is on Parliament Street in Toronto’s Old Cabbagetown neighbourhood. “This was my brother Rene’s favourite neighbourhood. The first place I ever lived in Toronto was just around the corner. I moved in with him. That’s probably why I stay here,” Highway says.
Highway’s debut novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the relationship between the brothers Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, the abuse they suffer at residential school, and how that pain affects their adult lives. Aboriginal people believe that unacknowledged pain leads to an imbalance among mind, body, spirit, and emotion that is manifested in illness. In Highway’s case, the pain was insistent and the illness serious. “I didn’t have a choice,” Highway says. “I had to write this book. It came screaming out because this story needed desperately to be told. Writing it hit me hard in terms of my health. So I went to a medicine man, who helped me defeat the monster. We lanced the boil and cured the illness.”
Tomson and his brother Rene were removed from their family and sent to a church-run residential school in the 1950s. Tomson eventually went on to university in London, Ontario, where he studied classical piano and English literature and embarked on a promising career as a concert pianist. By the 1980s, though, he abandoned the concert hall to write plays, becoming well-known for a six-year tenure at one of Canada’s first Aboriginal theatre companies, Native Earth Performing Arts. Rene survived residential school to become a gifted dancer before dying of AIDS in 1990. Aboriginal peoples don’t think of death as an end, just a different way of being. “My brother has always taken incredible care of me,” Highway says.
It was his brother who led him to his house, he says, which he now shares with his longtime partner. “Cabbagetown was the last place I was thinking of buying a house,” he says. “I looked at 36 houses and didn’t like anything. Then I met up with an ex-dancer who had known Rene, and he told me about my house the same day the sign went up. I looked at it and bought it on the spot. It’s literally 90 steps away from the first house Rene and I lived in all those years ago. I moved in with him in October 1978. He died October 19, 1990. And I bought my house on October 19, 1991.”
Highway may owe his house to his brother’s spirit-world real-estate connections, but he owes his strength to a solid upbringing in the Cree tradition. Born in a tent on his father’s trapline, Highway spent the early years of his life in the bush before his family was forced to settle at Brochet, a Cree community in northwestern Manitoba.
“We had fish camps way up north on Rainy Lake,” Highway remembers. “My father had five camps, and he rotated his fishing and trapping schedules over five years so the lakes and land could replenish. At every lake we had a cabin, an ice-house, and a fish house he built with his own hands. We had two canoes at every camp, a set of traps, and nets for an entire summer of fishing.
“The first six years of my life were magic,” Highway says. “I had the trapline, the dog sleds, the caribou. My first diaper was rabbit skin. I had my parents. They were married for 60 years. Their love, dignity, and respect built me a house on solid rock. After that, anything could happen, but nothing could tear that house down.”
Instead of being bitter, Highway says he has emerged from his residential school experience learned and at peace. “I’m very lucky,” he admits. “I have a wonderful life. Despite the physical manifestations, writing the book was incredibly therapeutic for me – and, as it turns out, for all the people who went through residential school, who had the same experience, and whose lives were almost destroyed.”
The writing process was also difficult in another way. Highway has an uneasy relationship with the English language, which was forced upon him at residential school. “For long periods, I couldn’t even look at the manuscript,” he says. “I’m very angry at the English language.
“I wrote the book in Cree, really, and translated it as I went along. A character would speak to me in Cree, and I would translate it and put it on the page. And I would talk with my mother in Cree, but write down the ideas in English. The humour, the workings of the spirit world, the fact that Cree has no gender, the concept of god as two-spirited [both male and female] – everything is so difficult to explain in English. And the business of [circular] time doesn’t translate. It was such a struggle, every step of the way,” Highway remembers.
“English is so hierarchical. In Cree, we don’t have animate-inanimate comparisons between things. Animals have souls that are equal to ours. Rocks have souls, trees have souls. Trees are ‘who,’ not ‘what,’” he says with a note of exasperation.
Cree cosmology is at once complicated and yet very simple. Everything is in balance, everything connects to something else, and nothing is without value. Highway knows that some connections have been devalued in the linear, colonial world – such as the connection between women (as life bringers) and the Earth (as life sustainer).
“Women have more [innate] power than men,” Highway explains, “so men try to pound it out of them. Some of my own sisters are battered. I see it so much, and it’s just accepted as the way things are. It drives me crazy.” So he vents his frustration by writing about it. Kiss of the Fur Queen makes pointed reference to the violence many women endure. And Highway’s plays – especially The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing – cover the same territory.
“I feel like a one-note wonder sometimes, because I keep writing the same stuff over and over,” Highway admits. “But men are so dysfunctional. They’re hiding; they’re denying. Men are completely freaked out by the power women have, and that terror breeds violence. It’s just so poisonous.
“There’s a major fault in Western society,” he continues. “It makes room for only one god, and in only one gender. There’s no balance, no co-existence, no partnership. My brother’s death – all these diseases like AIDS – are a reflection of what we’re doing to the Earth, of what we’re doing to women. We must restore the balance or reap the consequences. In Kiss of the Fur Queen, I try to restore the goddess to her rightful place. It’s the only way I can make a contribution to change.”
Kiss of the Fur Queen is a requiem – for childhood stolen, for a life lived, for a world out of balance. But it is also a celebration of survival. “Death is the most miraculous passage,” Highway reflects. “It is a huge gift. I’m living for two people now, and my life has become richer for it. When Rene was in the hospital, when he realized he was going to die, he took my hand and he told me, ‘Don’t mourn for me. Be joyful.’ So I’ve been joyful ever since. He wanted me to have that.
“I used to write music for him to dance to, and now I’ve written this. It’s my way of saying thank you.”