English Department welcomes first Indigenous Writer-in-Residence

Faculty of Arts
Student support
Jay Odjick
An interview with Jay Odjick, uOttawa English Department’s first Indigenous Writer-in-Residence.

The Department of English at the University of Ottawa is proud to welcome Jay Odijick as its official writer in residence for the Fall term of 2023. An indigenous writer from the Anishinaabe community, Jay is also an artist and television producer. Jay grew up right down the street from a comic bookstore, and spent much of his childhood immersed in superhero stories.

“At a certain point, I realized that I never saw a hero who looked like me or talked like me. That is why the first thing I did was a super hero comic with a native super hero called Kagagi: The Raven. I would say more than anything else, what inspired me was just not seeing people like me in popular culture or fiction often enough, and wanting to try to do something about that.”

Informed by his formative experiences as a comic book reader, Jay has always tried to include Anishinaabe influences in his work. For instance, while the Kegagi comic book was only published in English, Jay and his team created three versions of the subsequent TV show with subtitles for every episode: one in English, one with around 20 % Anishinaabe /Algonquin and one fully in Algonquin.

“I realized we had an opportunity to provide a real resource to kids and people who want to learn the language. But we didn't have the budget to do any of that, so I had to pay for the voiceover recordings, the studio time, the translation. The whole thing. The greatest challenge was trying to find a company that could do subtitles for a TV show in Algonquin, which no one spoke in DC.”

Jay’s encounters with members of the Anishinaabe community have re-affirmed his commitment towards indigenous representation and re-doubled his efforts to provide easy accessibility of Indigenous languages

“I found out just how important it was, or how meaningful it could be when I met an older native guy who was probably in his 70s. He was like, ‘You're the guy who makes the cartoons.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. I do. Do you watch it?’ And he said. ‘Yeah, I watch it. It's the only chance I get to hear my language anymore.’”

After the show, Jay illustrated 2 books by Robert Munch called Black Flies and Bear for Breakfast. Both were published in English, French and Anishinaabe.

Bear became the first national bestseller in an indigenous language. On Amazon, the version that was published in English and Anishinaabe vastly outsold the English version.

Jay is immensely passionate not only about preserving the language but also offering the tools with which to make the language more familiar.

“With the Munch book being written for very early readers, it provides a grassroots way into the language where it isn't overly complicated, and the language is simple, and there's a lot of repetition. And scholastic was also cool enough to put out an audiobook to help teach the pronunciation of things.”

Jay also started a language revitalisation initiative on Twitter. Called the Algonquin word of the day, Jay’s posts include illustrations next to their translations in Algonquin.

Despite the advantages of the internet, Jay worries about the influence of social media on young people. He recounts the Oka crisis of July 1990 as a foundational moment in his life as a fourteen year-old. Growing up, he had often experienced tension between the reserve and a small neighbouring town. However, to see effigies of native people being burned in Montreal, one of the biggest cities in Canada, was an eye-opening moment.

“The kids of today are never going to get to find that out at fourteen. They know that the minute they get on the Internet, and see the replies on social media. I've always been curious as to what that is like, and how those people are okay, because I don't know how you deal with it.”

He also hopes to learn what students are passionate about and how they view the world while encouraging writers to embrace their own unique ideas and experiment with different styles of writing.

“There is no one right way to write. You just have to find what works for you. Because at the end of the day, no matter how hard I try, I can’t see the world the way you see it. If you use your voice, you will be the absolute best at what you do. And that's the most important thing. If I could help even one person to find that or say, ‘Okay, I don't need to conform to this style of writing. I can do whatever I want’, then that would be amazing”

As a writer in residence, Jay hopes to talk to other writers about their projects as well as help them understand the business side of the publishing process.

“Don't be intimidated by this giant hulk, native guy with little tattoos and stuff, feel free to come by. Even if it's not for something you're working on and you just want to talk about writing, because it takes us a while to find out who we are, where we should be or where we feel like we fit. So anything I can do to help just to share my philosophies on the craft, or the business.”

You can find Jay at 352 Hamlin every Thursday from 1 to 4pm. Please feel free to drop by and have a chat about writing, drawing, publishing or just life in general.