Özten Shebahkeget Interviews Lenard Monkman
Özten Shebahkeget: When did you begin to take writing seriously? And what motivated you to start?
Lenard Monkman: I didn’t take writing seriously until around March of 2015. I set it as one of my goals that year to become a better writer. That month, I started a personal blog just to get used to having a space for my writing, but also just to get into the habit of writing all of the time. Another thing that I started doing was putting out long Facebook statuses. I wanted to get into the habit of writing every day and getting used to having feedback from my online Facebook community. It was a good practice for me, and those long-winded Facebook statuses eventually became newspaper op-eds, which eventually became a job as a journalist. Truth is, I have always been a journalism nerd, I just needed to get used to writing every single day.
ÖS: What obstacles have you encountered as a writer?
LM: If you take it from 2015, I would say that there haven’t been too many obstacles. At the beginning of that year, I went from barely being able to write a properly formatted email and typing very slowly, to being able to write 500 words in 5 minutes by August. Although now, when I look at the things that I was writing five years ago, it is hard to read because I can see how much I have improved since then. The best advice that I ever got from anyone was: if you want to become a writer then you need to pen to paper every day. I always thought about that and recognized that every single time that I write, it’s an opportunity to improve with each story and each sentence.
ÖS: You are a co-founder of Red Rising Magazine. Why was creating a literary magazine for and by Indigenous people important to you?
LM: I wanted to get into producing media before we started Red Rising Magazine. It was definitely a collective effort to get it off the ground with a bunch of energetic, intelligent folks from Winnipeg. We went from not having a whole bunch of skills, to having all sorts of publishing related skills in just the first year. I think the main idea behind everything that we did was to give Indigenous writers and artists an unfiltered platform that existed outside of the traditional forms of media. The magazine became a place where many people that I know had their first opportunity to be published and it is something that I am proud of. Although I haven’t been with the collective for a couple of years now, I still believe there is a space for that type of work and would like to see it continue in one form or another.
ÖS: You have been a journalist with CBC since 2016. The Canadian media has always had such a profound impact in framing Indigenous stories, and storytelling is an integral aspect of Indigenous cultures. What do you feel are your responsibilities as an Indigenous journalist, and what have you learned from telling the stories of a vast array of Indigenous peoples in Canada?
LM: I think the biggest responsibility is to make sure that what I am doing is truthful and that people feel like they were accurately represented in the work that I have done. I haven’t done as much “accountability” type of journalism as much as I have done the “here are some Native people doing really cool things” type of journalism. I really want to use the mainstream media platform to try and boost our people’s presence and to highlight their successes. But I also strive to make sure that the reality of what our people go through is being heard in newsrooms like the CBC. What I have learned from talking to so many Indigenous peoples across the country over the years is that we are brilliant and that our cultures are diverse. I’ve also come to realize that so many of our struggles are similar from coast to coast. There are a lot of things that I continue to learn as the years go by, but getting a chance to talk to Indigenous people all over the country is easily the most enjoyable thing about my job.
ÖS: What are some of the books that have influenced you?
LM: I always give credit to Indians Wear Red. The book spoke to my reality of what it was like growing up in Winnipeg’s inner-city in the 90’s-00’s. It really was a “light bulb moment” for me to understand that what I was seeing in my life was happening not just in my life, but everyone else in my community as well. The last chapter “What Can Be Done?” was also a call to action for me. I think that the more we are able to try and create changes within our communities, the less healing the next generation will have to do. Another book that I really like is Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. There are a lot of really good psychological gems inside that book that are applicable to the Indigenous community.
ÖS: What do you write outside of journalism?
LM: I still love Facebook more than the other apps. It allows me to joke without feeling like I’m being judged. It allows me to write in long-form if I ever need to get a thought out. I also really just practiced everything that I could in terms of writing on that app. I also like to use Twitter, although it’s more of a professional space. Twitter has made me a better writer because I put a little bit of thought into trying to make those sentences a bit stronger.
ÖS: Where would you like your writing to go next?
LM: I feel like I have been thinking about this question for a couple years now. I try to improve with each story that I write. I also try to improve with each radio script, TV script and everything else that is journalism related. I have thought for a long time about whether or not I would like to write children’s books, graphic novels, fiction or nonfiction. I guess the biggest thing that stops me is feeling like I need to be an incredible writer before I actually start writing. Eventually I will settle on a subject, and hopefully I can dedicate enough time to sit down and hammer out something that is loosely based on some of the things that I have seen in my life.
Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. In 2021, he received the Manitowapow Award from the Manitoba Book Awards for his contributions to the Indigenous writing community.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.