Interview by Marta Orellana; copy edited by Holly Sawchuk
Editors BC is pleased to welcome Rhonda Kronyk as a presenter for our October 20, 2021, monthly meeting, “Indigenous Editing.”
As an Indigenous editor (Tsay Keh Dene, northern BC), Rhonda helps foster a respect for Indigenous perspectives in the world of writing and editing.
Read on to learn about the important work that Rhonda does, how she got started, and how editors can take an active role in reconciliation.
Can you tell us about yourself? What are your hobbies and passions?
I’ve always loved gardening, reading, photography, and being out in nature. But the thing I’ve been most enjoying lately is finally having the time and energy to be creative—whether it’s personal writing or art.
In the last couple of months, I’ve been taking a lot of art classes through Eventbrite. The classes have helped me pick up my acrylics, watercolours, and drawing materials again. It’s been a whole lot of fun to get so absorbed in a project that I can let the rest of the world fall away. When I finally stop, I’m often so relaxed that I feel an energy that I can channel into work or other projects.
How did you get started in writing and editing?
I literally fell into it! It’s one of those stories that can’t possibly be true, so I wrote a blog post about it several years ago. The short version is that I gave my dog a bath, fell on the wet floor, and broke my wrist too badly to continue the construction job that paid for my PhD studies. At that point, I had to pull out of the program at McGill and literally overnight find a profession that wouldn’t stress my wrist.
Fortunately, I had done some editing in university and edited a book for a professor emeritus while I was at McGill. One of my mentors at the University of Alberta recommended me to his editor at Brill Publishing, and I started my new career. Soon after that, I pushed my comfort zone and began pitching stories to magazines and getting published.
As an editor, I was a generalist for years, and I still don’t restrict myself to one type of editing or genre. But after attending the Indigenous Editors Circle in 2017, I realized that there aren’t enough editors who have the necessary knowledge of Canadian history to edit work by and about Indigenous Peoples the way they need to be edited.
Since then, I’ve increasingly focused my work on those manuscripts, especially those written by Indigenous authors.
Working with Indigenous stories and writers, what do you love most about this aspect of your work?
First, this has been an incredible learning opportunity. Every time I read a manuscript by an Indigenous author—whether it be fiction, memoir, poetry, or non-fiction—I learn something. I’ve learned more about the realities of being an Indigenous person in the last few years than from the research I did prior to that.
Second, I’m proud of the contributions I make to helping “present [Indigenous] culture in a realistic and insightful manner, with the highest possible degree of verisimilitude” (in the inestimable words of Gregory Younging, Elements of Indigenous Style). I’m proud to be just one of the many Indigenous editors who are continuing the work that Greg started so many years ago.
Finally (okay, not finally, but there is only so much space for my answers!), I can see how my work ripples outward in meaningful ways to help Indigenous authors and all readers. You might think that I make the greatest contribution to manuscripts written by non-Indigenous authors. And yes, that is often true. But I also use my knowledge to help Indigenous authors expand or clarify their work. By doing so, I know that I play a part in helping readers get a fully-rounded picture of the historical and contemporary realities that Indigenous authors write about.
Actually, I have to say one more thing that I love. I get to read the manuscripts of incredible authors before almost anyone else. What joy! But more importantly, I work with incredible people who write in ways that deeply touch me and enrich my life. Their stories feed something in my soul that I didn’t even recognize needed nourishment. That is a gift that I cannot begin to express my gratitude for.
In your opinion, what progress still needs to be made in the area of writing by non-Indigenous authors to ensure that their writing is not appropriating, offensive, or showing a lack of cultural awareness?
The publishers I work with are increasingly aware of their responsibility to respect Indigenous stories and realities. They more often consider the ramifications of publishing books that are culturally inappropriate. As such, they are starting to reach out to Indigenous readers and editors on behalf of their authors.
But authors themselves, especially self-published ones, must be proactive and consult with the Indigenous Peoples they are writing about. They need to understand that the stories they’ve heard are oral history that are, in a sense, owned by the people who created the stories. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “knowing” that which they can’t know. For example, rather than understand that Indigenous stories have been used for millennia to teach and ensure the survival of their cultures, some authors assume that hearing those stories gives them insight into Indigenous Peoples’ lives. It doesn’t. And using those stories without consultation and community permission is cultural theft—even if it doesn’t go against inadequate copyright law.
Unless people are writing their own stories, there is simply no excuse for not consulting Indigenous Peoples when you write about Indigenous Peoples—I don’t care if you are a new writer with a great idea for a novel or an experienced professor who has studied and taught about Canadian history and Indigenous Peoples for years.
Have you seen changes in Indigenous representation in writing and media that you have observed over the years that you feel are positive and steps in the right direction? What are they?
Yes, changes have taken place. A lot of the change is because publishers are finally willing to buy manuscripts from authors that would not have been published in the past. Think about the incredible contributions from authors like Alicia Elliott, Waubgeshig Rice, and Billy-Ray Belcourt (to name just a few of many) have made to Canadian literature.
Sometimes I feel like publishers are unaware that some of their work furthers the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, and I would like them to be more aware so they can build on the positive changes they’ve started. However, for all the work that has been done, I don’t want anyone involved with the publishing industry to think we can stop moving forward at this point. There is still a lot of work to do.
I think that journalism is the most visible place where we see change. I’m working with an author on her memoir, and she talks about how she was discouraged from speaking Cree when she greeted people for interviews, she didn’t see stories about Indigenous Peoples that reflected lived experience, and she wasn’t made to feel comfortable as an Indigenous person in a national newsroom.
Fortunately, journalists like her have helped make journalism as a career easier for Indigenous people to enter than it used to be even if there is still a great deal of racism and tokenism in newsrooms.
When I first saw Duncan McCue wear a beaded poppy to honour Indigenous soldiers on National Aboriginal Veterans Day or heard him greet viewers in Anishinaabe, it brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful.
In your upcoming presentation for Editors BC, what information or knowledge do you hope attendees will come to understand and come away with?
I’m going to give a short introduction into the work Greg Younging began that led to the creation of the Indigenous Editors Association.
But the focus of my presentation will be allyship. I had a bit of a smile when I saw that your fourth question was about how non-Indigenous authors can do better around issues of appropriation and cultural insensitivity, because that’s where I had decided to take this presentation.
But my focus, of course, will be about our work as editors and what it means to be an ally to Indigenous authors, editors, and readers. While I suspect my definition of allyship in this context will challenge some people, my ultimate goal is to help further the conversation of what it means to be culturally sensitive editors.
It’s only when we better understand our role in a larger system that we can consciously contribute to the positive changes happening in the publishing industry.
Marta Orellana lives in North Vancouver, BC. She is a copy editor, translator and proofreader, specializing Web writing and editing as well as academic and technical writing and editing. Marta is also a French Immersion teacher and a polyglot, whose love of language is what has driven her appreciation for the written word.
Holly Sawchuk is a writer and editor in Vancouver. She loves coffee, connecting with creative people, and getting lost in all the ideas in the Opinion section of the Saturday paper. Holly spends her free time reading about writing and writing about reading.
Image provided by Rhonda Kronyk