This weekend the first-ever Tâpwê! Indigenous Writers Gathering was held at the University of Alberta. Through the many fascinating and moving stories, poems and talks, it was reaffirmed that stories and storytelling are not dead or dying art forms, they are vital and vibrant cultural wealth that is very much alive, and being passed from one generation to the next. ("Tapwe" is a Cree word meaning "It is so.")

The weekend’s events were hosted by Edmonton Poet Laureate

Anna Marie Sewell

and featured authors

 Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak

Duncan Mercredi and Taqralik Partridge

Sharron Proulx-Turner and Richard Van Camp

Christine Stewart introducing the "Arc of Indigenous Literature" panel 

Keavy Martin and Richard van Camp drawing names for the book giveaway

Part of the sharing circle getting ready to share some of their workshop writing

The Tapwe! writers, Edmonton, March 31 2012

Thank you to all the authors, and to the students who participated in the workshops and read from their work in the sharing circle! Thanks as well to Dean Leslie Cormack for her introductory remarks, to elder Rose Marshal, and to our sponsors

Department of English and Film Studies
Writer in Residence Program
Office of the Provost
Alberta Foundation for the Arts
Faculty of Arts
Grant McEwan University
Faculty of Native Studies
Canadian Literature Centre
Audrey’s Books

A spooky camping story

Living in Jasper as a teenager, I had an amazing opportunity that few have: to live in a national park and experience some of the world's last wilderness. I went on many hikes and camping trips in those years. But I almost stopped camping altogether after I heard this creepy story from a friend at school.

One summer my friend and his little brother were on a three-day hike on one of the longer, more remote trails in the park. These are trails where it’s not unusual to hike for an entire day without seeing another living soul. On the second day of their trip they’d been up near the treeline and had dawdled around in the sunshine, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. By the time they came back down into the forest and got to the campsite where they’d be spending the night, it was past sundown, nearly dark, and starting to rain. They had to set up camp by flashlight. They were so tired they ate trail mix for dinner then crawled into their tent and fell asleep quickly.

In the middle of the night my friend woke up suddenly. It was dead quiet: the rain had stopped. And in the silence my friend could hear something large moving around outside.

His first thought was bear! That was scary, but my friend had been on many hiking trips, and he kept his head. He’d secured their food in an animal-resistant bag hung from a cord between two trees. There was no food in the tent, or anywhere else in the camp. If this was a bear it would probably sniff around a while and then leave. My friend kept still. He could hear his brother’s steady breathing and decided not to wake him. He didn’t want to make any noise that might spook the bear.

But then my friend became aware that the sounds he was hearing were not those of an animal. He was hearing slow, deliberate footsteps outside the tent. This wasn’t an animal, this was somebody walking around in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. In the complete darkness.

The sounds of walking stopped. Someone was outside the tent. Someone just standing there. Who? Why?

That was far worse than a bear. My friend broke into a cold sweat and his heart began to pound. Who would be out the dark in the wild alone, standing outside someone else’s tent? My friend thought about the camping knife that was in his pack in the corner of the tent. If he moved to get it, the person outside would hear him. The only other weapon was the hatchet they used for cutting firewood. But it was outside, leaning against the trunk of a tree. It was out there, with somebody.

My friend stayed still and listened. He waited to hear the sound of footsteps start again. He waited and hoped to hear footsteps fading away into the distance. But he heard nothing. Whoever was out there had walked into the camp, and then stopped, and was still standing there. My friend waited, and waited, and finally, incredibly, he fell back asleep.

In the morning he woke up to discover, much to his relief, that he and his brother were still alive. My friend told his brother what he’d heard in the night. Searching the muddy ground around the camp, they discovered bootprints that didn’t belong to either of them. That morning they packed up their gear faster than they ever had before, and hiked at top speed to the end of the trail, where their dad would be waiting to pick them up and take them home.

Crossing into Story

Q. How do you get to the Perilous Realm?

A. Storytellers are always crossing back and forth between our world and the Perilous Realm, but when they’re asked how one gets to the places they describe, they can be pretty evasive.
The answer, unfortunately, is that there really is no tried and tested way to cross over into Story. People can search their whole lives and never reach the Realm, while others may slip across the border from our world (which Storyfolk call the Untold) with little or no effort. Sometimes, as they say in Zen, you have to leave the way to the way. The journey itself might be the story you’re searching for. 

However you set out, and for whatever reason, my only advice is to find your own path.

Some people, like Will in The Shadow of Malabron, find themselves in the Realm without having meant to go there. Some end up in the Realm against their own will. It would seem that the only thing necessary is that you are somehow needed in a story, or a story is needed by you. If that’s the case, then the invisible boundary that separates you from the Realm will grow thin and permeable, so that you will likely not even notice you’re passing from one world to another. 

For each person who reaches the Realm, the passage is different. It could happen anywhere, not just in a forest or other mysterious, uninhabited place. It could happen to you while you’re crossing the street to visit your neighbourhood coffee shop, or even when you get up first in the morning and get out of bed. Suddenly, without warning, you will realize that the world is not the same world you were in a moment before. Now you are in a story, and you will have a role to play, a role you must see to the end if you wish to find your way home. For some, the story becomes their new life, and they never leave.

The face in the mirror


“I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me…”  Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”      


The next time you look in the mirror, stop and really look. Look into that face, those eyes looking back at you. Who is that looking back at you?

I remember holding my baby son in front of a mirror once. He looked at our reflection with confusion. He could see and recognize me, but there was this other baby in my arms. Then an uneasy smile came to his face as he became aware that this other baby was actually him. He saw himself smile. He saw himself.
What was the first mirror? Probably a still pool of water. Who was the first person to admire his or her face in a mirror? Who was the first person to despise what they saw?
When you stand between two mirrors and see yourself replicated over and over, copies of yourself marching away down a dim corridor, where does the replication end? Or does it? What if just one of those replicated selves was different?    

Many ancient cultures believed that a mirror could capture one’s soul, and that if a mirror was broken or harmed in any way it would harm the soul of the one who had damaged it. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was haunted and disturbed by mirrors his whole life, and often wrote about their troubling power.

Mirrors are so often dangerous, magical, or creepy in stories. Narcissus falling in love with his own face in the mirror pool. The wicked queen’s magic mirror in the tale of Snow White. The devil’s distorting mirror in Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The mirror Alice steps through in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Galadriel’s mirror in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Mirror of Erised. 

Mirrors are also dangerous for storytellers because they lend themselves to cliché. In how many melodramatic movies does the protagonist look in the mirror at a moment of loathing or self-doubt? And how often does he or she then break the mirror? And yet mirrors hold an unending fascination that stories haven’t yet utterly exhausted, and likely never will.    

There are many legends and rituals in older cultures associated with mirrors, such as the belief that by performing certain rites a young woman could see the face of her future husband in a mirror.  When I was a kid there was the legend of “Bloody Mary,” a girl whose face had been horribly disfigured, and who died of fright and grief while looking a herself in a mirror. It was said that if you stood in front of a mirror in a dark room and said “Bloody Mary” three times, she would appear to you, and maybe even try to kill you. We tried this, of course. My sister, or a friend of hers, was the only one who dared do it alone, and then came screaming out of the bathroom saying she’s seen something start to appear in the mirror.

In The Shadow of Malabron, Will Lightfoot finds mirror shards hanging from a tree when he first arrives in the Perilous Realm. They are shards of what was once known as Samaya, the Mirror of Truth, in the possession of the Fair Folk. The mirror allowed them to see within appearances to the truth within. It is also said they could travel through the mirror to other parts of the Realm. This great mirror was shattered in the Great Unweaving, and many pieces of it were taken by the servants of the Night King and put to evil uses.

Lotan the Angel used the shards in his possession to lure Will to the tree and keep him there until the fetches could overpower him and bring him under Lotan’s control. When Will looks into one of these mirror shards he sees someone else—someone malevolent—looking back at him through his own eyes. The question is: whose eyes are these? The likeliest answer (and one I didn’t know for certain when I first wrote the scene) is that these are the eyes of Lotan, the eyes in the face that he conceals from the world under the cowl of his shrowde cloak.     

Over the ages the Fair Folk have been gathering all of the lost and scattered shards they can find, in the hope of restoring the Mirror. Although they sometimes also give these shards as gifts to people who are lost and need their help. Perhaps they know that at some future time the ones to whom they give the shards will have an opportunity to return them to their rightful place in the mirror.

     Images: from Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane,  and by T Wharton     

What I Learned from a Batman Costume

There it was, impossible but true. In my hands. The one thing I wanted more than anything in this world.

Growing up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, the one thing I wanted more than anything in this world was a Batman costume. In the 1970’s, Grande Prairie was a small oil & gas boomtown far from anyplace you could get a Batman costume, or most other tokens of civilization for that matter. There was no Internet, no eBay in those days where you could order any costume -- any thing you wanted with a couple of clicks. Well, there was the Eaton’s catalogue, but they never had anything cool like superhero costumes (I don’t think superhero underwear had even been invented yet). Grande Prairie was just so, so far from the Batcave.

Let me clarify one thing: I didn’t want this costume for Halloween. I wanted it so that I could BE Batman, which was who I really was. That much was obvious to me at the age of ten. The only thing needed to confirm it was the suit, and then I could start my crime-fighting career. 

I dreamed and hoped and probably even prayed for a Batman costume. I bugged my parents obsessively. I left little messages on their pillows so that they wouldn’t forget to remember to look for a Batman costume the next time they went to the Woolworth’s department store on main street. I drew pictures of Batman costumes and formed plans in my head that maybe if I found a navy-blue raincoat at the store I could somehow add a cowl and ears, maybe with blue construction paper and clear tape….

One morning I was walking to school with a friend. We were dragging our heels as usual, talking about whatever we talked about back then. Girls? Probably not quite yet. More likely the latest cool thing the Fonz had done on Happy Days the night before. We were almost at the doors of the school when ahead of me on the sidewalk I saw a brown paper bag. I stopped and picked it up and looked inside.

Inside the paper bag was a Batman costume.

Yes, it sounds highly unlikely. So unlikely that years later, after the costume itself was long gone, I remembered this incident and wondered whether it had really happened. Maybe it was just a figment of my overheated comic book fantasies.

So I asked my Mom, the repository of family memory: could she corroborate this event? She could. It had really happened. She remembered how I came home from school that day in a delirium of joy with the Batman costume I’d found lying on the sidewalk in a paper bag on a frosty morning in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

(I should add that, being a good Catholic boy, I took the costume to school and dutifully handed it in the principal, who made an announcement over the intercom that a lost costume had been found. When school got out in the afternoon no one had claimed the mysteriously-abandoned package – the day’s second miracle – and so the principal returned it to me and said I could keep it).

(And we’re talking about the 1960’s Adam West version of Batman’s costume. Or maybe a slightly updated version of it. It wasn’t a full costume, only the cape and cowl. No shirt with muscles drawn on. No gloves. No boots. It might have included a belt, I don’t remember.)

Okay, not only is this story unlikely, it’s also not a very good story, is it? If my family was dirt poor and the bag had been full of one hundred dollar bills…. Or if the Batman costume had belonged to a kid who was teased and bullied at school and I’d had to make the agonizing choice of keeping the costume or giving it back to him….

But no, I was a typical middle-class North American kid with trivial TV-aroused desires. I did nothing to earn it, I didn’t “deserve” it. Maybe I’d dreamed and wished so hard that I actually imagined it into existence. Maybe the universe just gave it to me.

My life has been graced with unlikely gifts a number of times since the miraculous cape and cowl, in ways far more profound and life-changing. Sometimes a gift arrives that you hadn’t even known you wanted or needed.

The Batman costume was great for as long as the cheap fabric lasted, which wasn’t long. Soon enough I was dreaming, wishing, obsessing over something else I wanted more than anything in this world. Like the prettiest girl in school to fall in love with me (no such luck that time). I think now that the real gift I received that day was to be startled into an awareness of the everyday strangeness of life.

I’ve been watching the universe carefully ever since. You never know what you might find in a paper bag on the sidewalk. Or anywhere else. You never know what surprises might be hiding under the bland, boring skin of the familiar.

Maybe that’s how a writer gets made.

What is the Perilous Realm?

Q. Since the Realm is a huge world, would places such as the Screaming Wastelands, Bourne, Snowlands, Twilight Land, Dark Aunc, Tirreth Dree and Arzareth be like seperate provinces/states/countries within it?

A. The Realm is the world (or worlds) of Story, so really it is infinite in size, as vast and neverending as all the stories that have been told or might be told. So all of the places named above are “storylands” within the Realm, but yes, they can be thought of in a way like provinces or countries. The only difference being that you can’t always get to one storyland from another by way of a direct road or path, and maps are never very reliable. This is because Story is always changing, in the same way that each teller changes a story as he or she tells it. Take the tale of the voyages of Odysseus, first told by Homer in the epic poem The Odyssey. Each time the story is retold or translated or turned into a graphic novel or a movie, it’s a slightly different story. You could almost say that the story remains the same by constantly changing.

So, in the Perilous Realm, it is natural for storylands to grow, and sometimes to fade away, back into the Weaving from which all stories come. That is why you can never completely rely on a road or a map to get you to a particular storyland.

Something else that’s strange about the Realm is that each story within it has its own time, its own seasons and changes of day and night. It might be a warm summer’s day on the road to a storyland, but as soon as you step across its borders, it’s the middle of the night and raining. Then you go home, and years later if you return to that story, you might find yourself setting foot again in that same rainy night. For the people within that storyland, time passes normally and the seasons change, but for you, coming back to visit it, time hasn’t passed. It’s paradoxical, and most folk who live in the Realm don’t bother themselves too much with these mysteries. They leave that for the Enigmatists.

Here’s another question that sometimes puzzles people in our world when they think about the Perilous Realm: do the people who live in the world of stories know that they’re in a story? The most likely answer, I suppose, is that some do and some don’t. Or sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Aren’t there times in our own lives when we feel like we’re living in a story? (It may be a good story, a happy one, or a bad story we’d like to get out of). And don’t we sometimes tell ourselves stories about our lives, to try to make sense of them? I imagine that for people in the Realm, life is very much like that: they simply accept that there is Story all around them, that their lives are made of stories, but they don’t often stop to think about it.


Shade began life somewhere far to the northwest of the Bourne, as an ordinary wild wolf, before the Great Unweaving changed the Realm. He was the leader of a pack of wolves that hunted in the forests and tundra of the north, and at that time he had no name, nor did he have the ability to speak. He was an utterly wild wolf who had never met a human being nor suspected the existence of such a creature. For the wolves the greatest joy in life was the hunt. Shade and his pack hunted many animals, including the great, caribou-like deer called the tarand.

Then creatures of a kind the wolves had never met before began to appear in their territory. They were Nightbane in the service of Malabron, and they had come to trap wolves. For the first time,  Shade's pack found themselves running and hiding from something that was hunting them. But the Nightbane weren't out to kill wolves for sport or trophies (as some supposedly intelligent humans still do today). They were trapping the wolves in order to twist and mold them into nightmare creatures who would do their bidding, who would hunt and kill other Storyfolk on command (much as the conquistadors used vicious dogs in their battles with the indigenous peoples of the Americas).

Shade's mate was trapped by the Nightbane. She fought so fiercely against captivity that the Nightbane were forced to kill her. Shade caught up to them and killed many of them, but they wounded him very badly and he escaped into the forest to die. How he lived, and became a companion of the Stewards and was given speech and a name, and in time became the friend and protector of Will Lightfoot, is told in The Shadow of Malabron.

The Fair Folk

The Perilous Realm is the world of Story, and so it is no surprise that the Fair Folk are known in many stories throughout the realm by many different names.

The Fae. The Xian. The Sidhe. The Nunnehi. The Tylwyth Teg. The Aziza...

One could say that each storyworld sees and knows the forms and faces of the Shee in its own way. Each is one facet of the truth about these wise and mysterious beings, a truth which is wider and deeper than any one story can contain. The Fair Folk can appear tall and lordly. They are also “the wee folk.” They can be menacing and terrifying to behold. They can look so much like you and me that we would never suspect we had just met one of them. They can become thin and insubstantial enough to hide between the covers of a book. They can be nothing more than a voice telling an old tale by the fire.

In the novels of The Perilous Realm trilogy, the Fair Folk are sometimes referred to as the Tain Shee.

No one knows how long the Tain Shee lived in Eleel and the lands around it before the Great Unweaving. After the capture of their city and the destruction of their homeland, the Tain Shee fled and went into hiding from the Night King, and in time they became known as the Shee n’ashoon, or the Hidden Folk. (The name shee n’ashoon literally means “the shoeless people” and refers to their ability to pass unseen and unheard and leave no tracks).

What is also unclear is whether the Fair Folk are immortal. It seems that they once were, in the timeless time at the beginning of the Realm, but that mortality entered their world along with Story itself. They may live far longer than human beings, but even the Fair Folk must die and return to the Weaving, along with everything else.

The Hidden Folk travel in what is known to some as the Green Court, a moving city of tents and pavilions that is glimpsed at rare times by wanderers in wild, unpeopled lands and on the shores of lonely seas.

In the coming struggle to prevent the Night King from devouring all of Story, the Hidden Folk may be forced to reveal themselves at last to their ancient enemy, and march into his Shadow Realm. But the Stewards are no more and so this time the Shee will have to march alone against the Night King.

 Painting: Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan.

Imaginary Art

Every year the Art Gallery of Alberta presents a new exhibit “for children and their grown-ups” in the gallery space known as the BMO World of Creativity (what my family used to call “the kids room” at the gallery). This year, a brilliant young Edmonton designer named Gabe Wong was given the challenge of creating a new interactive, hands-on exhibit. His ambitious idea was to invent the art of an imaginary culture.

The results are stunning. As the AGA website puts it, “enter a place where geometric shapes and primary colours form the language, legends, and landscape of a new, imaginary culture. Move throughout the space to create performative compositions with sound and movement, construct mythological creatures in paper, decode cryptographic messages and develop new stories based on the immersive experience of method and madness!”

One of the walls in the exhibit contains a hidden message created out of shapes that are the alphabet of this imaginary culture. Kids (and grown-ups) can decode the message to get a very short story. Gabe and I had worked together on another project and so he asked me to write the story that would go up on the cryptography wall. The challenge was that I was only going to get about 40 words to work with! After much struggle I came up with a handful of ideas and Gabe chose one. I’m not going to tell you what the story is. You’ll have to visit the exhibit and puzzle it out yourself. When I visited the exhibit with my son, I realized I’d forgotten most of the story, so we ended up having to decode it anyhow.

The Nightwanderer and the Raven

Moth is an archer of the Shee. He is known to some as the Nightwanderer. His companion is the raven Morrigan. She has the ability to speak in a guttural language of croaks, squawks and tongue-clicks that only Moth can understand.

Moth and Morrigan have not always been shadowy wanderers. Long ago, before the Great Unweaving, they lived with their people, the Tain Shee, in the city of Eleel off the coast of the Western Sea. Their names then were Arthan and Seelah.
Their father, Lirr, was a shipbuilder and mariner of the Shee. Their mother was Lysse, a weaver. After his children were born, Lirr gave up his seafaring, but he soon grew restless and tired of home life. Eventually he built a new ship and sailed away in it. Neither he nor his his crew of the Shee’s finest mariners were ever seen again.

Arthan and Seelah grew up with their mother. It was from Lysse that Seelah learned the craft of weaving, though she quickly surpassed her mother in skill. As a boy Arthan was wild and reckless. Like his father he was given to long journeys by himself, though he shunned the sea and always turned his steps inland, to explore other places within the Realm itself. He had many adventures during his travels, but his curiosity and impulsiveness got him into trouble often.

It's said that Arthan found paths that brought him into our world, and even more dangerous places. Once he was trapped by a vain and vindictive sorcerer-queen who bound him with a powerful spell and kept him as a servant. He was forced to do her bidding, stealing treasures and trinkets she fancied, and working mischief and mayhem on those she disliked (it is possible that something of this time in Moth’s life has reached our world in garbled fashion, in the stories of mischievous sprites and elves, as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Once Arthan finally escaped the queen’s clutches, he forever after had a loathing for sorcery of any kind, and an even stronger desire to remain free and unbound by anyone or anything, even the laws and customs of his own people.

Lysse was troubled by her son’s long absences, fearing he might leave one day and never return, as her husband had. She persuaded Thur, the Shee’s greatest metalsmith, to take Arthan as an apprentice. The boy chafed against the smith’s stern, demanding authority and master and apprentice quarreled often. But Arthan did learn the metalworking trade. Perhaps from a desire to outdo his master, Arthan applied himself to the craft with such diligence that in time the Shee were asking for his handiwork, not Thur’s.

For her part, Seelah remained at home with their mother, learning and growing in skill as a weaver. She missed her brother when he left on his long solitary wanderings, and wished to go with him, but the craft she was dedicated to demanded almost all of her time. Her woven cloths and tapestries became widely known and praised among the Shee, and once a young prince of the Shee named Lotan came to her house, to request the cloth for a fine traveling cloak. He visited her every day while she worked on the cloak, and by the time it was ready, Seelah and Lotan had fallen in love. Arthan heard of this and made a rare visit to his mother’s house to meet Lotan. The meeting did not go well. Arthan learned that Lotan dabbled in spellcraft, and he took a dislike to the prince that was quickly reciprocated. Seelah was saddened that her beloved and her brother, both so proud and headstrong, could not overcome their mutual dislike for her sake, and their own.

At that time, rumor came to the lands of the Shee that distant lands were falling under a terrible shadow. Entire worlds of the Realm were fading and disappearing. And then the Steward Oreyn came to Eleel.

The Stewards (or the Innathi, as the Shee called them) visited Eleel from time to time and their visits were always times of great joy and celebration, but on this occasion Oreyn brought grave news. The troubling rumors were true. A dark power known as the Night King had risen and was devouring  storylands, turning all he conquered into a bleak and nightmarish shadow version of the Realm. The Stewards were gathering all of their friends and allies to meet and stop this threat.

The Shee joined the alliance, and Lotan rode to battle, promising Seelah he would return in victory and they would be married. Arthan wished to go, too, but his skills as a smith were needed for the forging of armor and weapons, which the Shee had had little use for until this time.

The war was long, and from time to time messengers would return to Eleel with news of the battles and how the alliance fared. There were many tales of heroic deeds and sacrifice from the war, and Seelah began to weave these stories into a great tapestry.

And what happened then, and how Arthan and Seelah became Moth the Nightwanderer and the raven Morrigan, is told in The Shadow of Malabron.

Illustration by T Wharton

Will Lightfoot

Will Lightfoot is a boy from our world. He has dark wavy hair, brown eyes, and stands about five foot four. His birthday is August 6th and his full name is William Joseph Lightfoot. He is the son of Jack and Rose Lightfoot. Jack is a welder and mechanic. Rose was a gardener and a fine storyteller. Will has a younger sister named Jess (short for Jessica).

Will’s interests (at least before meeting Rowen of Blue Hill) included soccer, video games, and drawing.

When Will was 11 his mother became ill and spent a number of weeks in hospital before passing away. Rose was of Native American ancestry and when Will was younger his mother told him stories based on the tales and legends of her people. Most of these stories involved a boy hero named Light-of-Foot, or Lightfoot, who roamed the prairies and mountains with his pony Great Heart, having all kinds of adventures. After his mother’s death Will lost interest in books and stories.

Three years after Rose’s death, Jack Lightfoot got a job offer in another city in the west. He decided to take the job and move his family because Will and Jess were not coping well with the loss of their mother. Jess has stopped speaking in anything more than a whisper, and Will had become sullen, withdrawn and was almost always angry. Jack hoped new surroundings might help his children.

The family spent several days crossing the country in their rickety camper van. Along the way they stopped at a campsite where Will stole his father’s beloved old motorcycle. He ended up crashing it and found himself in a strange world called the Perilous Realm…

Illustration by T Wharton