Interview with 2024 CNFC Contest Judge, Lisa Bird-Wilson

Volunteer Margaret Lynch interviews 2024 CNFC/HLR Contest Judge, Lisa Bird-Wilson who shares her thoughts on writing, reading, and what she’s looking for in contest submissions.

Lisa Bird-Wilson is a Saskatchewan Métis and Cree writer whose work appears in literary magazines, newspapers, and anthologies across Canada. Her most recent book, Probably Ruby (2021), is published internationally and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, for the Amazon First Novel Award, and won two Saskatchewan Book Awards including Book of the Year.

Lisa is a founding member and chair of the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Writers Circle Inc. (SAWCI)/ Ânskohk Indigenous Literature Festival. She lives in Saskatoon and is the CEO of the Gabriel Dumont Institute, Canada’s first Métis post-secondary education and cultural institute.

(Photo Credit: George Gingras/Copyright Gabriel Dumont Institute)


Margaret Lynch: You are well-known for fiction writing through your short story collection Just Pretending (2013), your book of poetry The Red Files (2016) and your novel Probably Ruby (2021). Do those books contain nonfiction and/or autobiographical elements?

Lisa Bird-Wilson: My fiction is first and foremost fiction, but in all of it, the stories have at their centre my heart, my interests, the things that I want to know more about or am passionate about somehow–just veering off in all sorts of wild (fictional) directions that are not autobiographical or true.

For instance, I write around themes of identity, cultural loss, Indigeneity, and adoption. These are themes that are true for me, in that they are a part of my experiences and lived life. What happens after that, the particulars of the story, are for the most part fictional. This is why I love fiction–because it can go anywhere.

ML: Is it true you’re working on a collection of essays? Can you say more about the theme of the essays and how they will be linked? When can we expect to read them?

LBW: I’m actually working on a memoir under contract with Knopf Canada and my amazing editor Martha Kanya-Forstner. I’m mostly in the really messy bit right now and feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But I also feel like progress is being made, somehow. I’m writing about being adopted and Indigenous, finding my culture and background, reconnecting with my family of origin and my Indigenous identity. It’s a bit exhausting, but I hope it’s worth the telling in the end. Many essays have been published here and there (Globe and Mail, Room, Brick) and the content of those essays will be reworked into the book.

ML: Have you read any books over the past year that lingered with you, and if so, why?

LBW: I’ve read so much this year. For a while I was trying to keep track by taking pictures of little stacks of books, but I’ve just given up lately. It wasn’t very convenient to corral all the books I’m reading to take pictures of them. Since the end of August, I’ve just been reading and not attending to my “list,” which is a lovely way to read.

I read a few memoirs that are sticking with me. Cody Caetano’s memoir, Half Bads in White Regalia, left me with some ideas about how to approach naming the people in your story and about being generous to those people. Also Jenny Heijun Wills’ Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related is a memoir that I keep going back to for its beauty and lyricism, and for the way she grapples with identity and cultural loss.

One more stellar non-fiction author is Kyo MacLear and two books in particular: Birds Art Life and Unearthing. Unearthing recently won the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction and is an incredible study in generosity, patience, and acceptance as the author navigates a family secret and what it means to her identity. There are others, but I’ll pause there for now.

ML: What advice do you have for nonfiction writers as they prepare their submissions for the 2024 CNFC/HLR creative nonfiction contest? What will you be looking for in contest entries, what will impress you?

LBW: First of all, I’m so honoured and pleased to be judging this contest and to be able to read new works by writers–their trust in sending their work to me is an honour in itself. I’m always impressed by writing clarity and originality of thought and of expression, alongside a certain vulnerability.

 Of course the basics of grammar and structure are important in that they are a distraction if not done well, but after that, a skillful writer will turn an idea on its head for me, or open up a small window into an idea and express themselves in a way that I can’t imagine a better way to say or see the concept. But I’m not talking about novelty for the sake of novelty, but rather a close, sensory, and intimate examination of their topic that leaves both reader and writer more informed, a bit surprised, and with something to ponder long after engaging with the piece.

One word of very practical advice–employ techniques from fiction writing and I guarantee your nonfiction will improve.