“While I was on a panel [at the Toronto Film Festival] I admitted for the first time in public that I felt like if I was really brave what I would be doing is writing books and not making films,” says Canadian filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones.
Immediately afterward, he was en route to another festival event and—ping!—he had an email from Annick Press saying his film, Fire Song, was a natural fit for YA adaptation. The film centers around Shane, a gay Anishinaabe teen wading through the aftermath of his sister’s suicide and grappling with being in the closet, on the Rez, and encircled by a soul-sucking darkness. It was a personal story that Jones had no interest in farming out to another writer. He’d have to eat his prophetic words and write it himself like his courageous literary heroes.
“One of the books I remember making a huge impact on me when I was pretty young was The Grapes of Wrath,” says Jones. “Being this very young, closeted, queer, grade-six kid without any friends, I think that was the first book where I felt like there was something deeper and more possible with literature than just wonderful, immersive stories.”
Immersive. That’s one word to detail the YA adaptation of Fire Song. Cross-reference it with lyrical and personal.
“When I began developing the story [for the film], it felt like nobody was talking about this epidemic of suicide in indigenous communities,” Jones says. “I wanted to tell a story about somebody who is extremely strong and resilient, who gets really hammered by life, is brought to the edge of suicide, and finds a way to hang on.”
His own depression is something Jones speaks about openly, the constant dance of maintaining a facade while internally battling to find a way out of isolation. It wasn’t until he met with a healer recently and was given his spirit name, Stands by the Fire (Ka-nîpawit Iskotêk), that he really understood his own relationship with depression.
“He talked about [my name] being a really powerful place to be as a storyteller because the fire is the gateway to the spirit world. And so somebody who stands by the fire is standing by that gateway. It’s also really dangerous because you’re on the edge. He talked about how a person can feel a longing for the spirit world, like a homesickness. That’s the thing that’s made sense. When I’m feeling like I’m really alone and I don’t want to be here anymore I think about it as a kind of homesickness or a longing for the spirit world where we come from.”
Origin is a point of contention for Jones when it comes to the landscape of YA conflict. He disagrees with the recurring theme of escaping roots and racing into a halcyon happily-far-far-away.
“What was important to me was to challenge that narrative,” says Jones. “[Characters] leave their shitty small town and they go to the city and they fall in love and they’re happy and it’s great. And that is just not the reality, particularly for a lot of Native people who leave their home communities.”
Having won an ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival award for Fire Song and with the release of its YA counterpart, Jones isn’t perpetuating that narrative in Shane’s story. Even with a well-reviewed film-cum-book, Jones says, “I feel like I still don’t have the confidence to really begin pursuing [books] in a serious way.”
That’s just modesty. With lines like, “When they kissed, it felt like they were a single spirit living in two skins,” he has the chops to get his own brand of Grapes into the hands of a struggling sixth-grader.
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator, handletterer, and shark enthusiast currently surveying the states for his next East Coast home.