This city makes a cameo appearance in Darrel McLeod’s Governor General’s Literary Award-winning memoir, “Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age.”
It arrives late in the narrative, near the end of a heartbreaking and gorgeously composed chapter called ‘Mistikosow: The Frenchman.’ Darrel was working as an orderly at a hospital in Vancouver, and he spent a number of days at the bedside of a patient who had attempted to commit suicide. The situation of this patient hit very close to him and he took the opportunity to counsel ‘the Frenchman,’ intimately drawing upon his own personal experience.
A relative of Darrel’s I won’t reveal which had committed suicide and, in mourning, he retreated to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta in 1989, to heal.
“I couldn’t deal with it. I just had to get away,” he told me last week, reflecting upon his first ever visit to this city. A part-time resident of the Col. 5 de Diciembre here in town, he suggested we meet at El Solar, the beach bar, for an afternoon cocktail and chat.
“I had to have a complete distraction,” he said, his feet in the sand, a Modelo in his hand, waves before us and loud music behind. “And it worked. It was a complete and total distraction and it really got me out of my pain and my grieving. And it was wonderful. I came here to study intensive Spanish, and that worked too. It put me in another zone. I think it probably saved my life, in many ways, coming here.”
There are moments described in Mamaskatch, Darrel’s life from birth to age 32, that are literally breathtaking. The title is from the Cree, a tribe of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. He explained to the CBC late last year that it translates roughly to everything from “how strange” to “it’s a miracle.” And the Governor General’s Literary Awards, for the uninitiated, are Canada’s oldest and most prestigious awards for Canadian literature. Mamaskatch is Darrel’s first ever published book.
The genesis and development of the book is as fascinating as any. After he completed a memoir writing course at Simon Fraser University, Darrel maintained contact with the instructor for over a year where she guided him through the phases: paragraphs into pages and then pages into stories.
She then suggested he work with a fiction writer, and from there he explored ways to enhance the craft of the narrative with scenes and details, increasing dialogue, and character development.
“With stories that I told in the past, people were just blown away,” he said, “but they wouldn’t touch it, in terms of making editing comments and editing suggestions, and she wasn’t fazed. She said, ‘from the beginning of the story to the end, what we need to see is how that, all that stuff that unfolded, how that impacted you. And we also need to know in your current perspective how you feel about those incidents back then and what happened to you.’ So it was really rich.”
Early drafts of Mamaskatch reached 500 pages and, with the help of these mentors, Darrel tightened the narrative down to 300 and eventually the 225 pages of its final form.
Since its publication in September, Darrel’s life has become a whirlwind. “In December I found out I was nominated for the Governor General’s Award,” he said, “and a couple weeks later I found out that I won it. So I went to Ottawa to receive the award and participate in all the ceremonies. I came back to Mexico and found out I was nominated for the RBC Charles Taylor Award. So I will travel to Toronto the end of this month to see if I win that, and it’s real suspense. With the Charles Taylor Award you don’t know until the actual day.”
The book is currently available only in Canada, though Darrel is planning to avail it here in this city with a launch party and celebration upon his return next month. And his next book, picking up where Mamaskatch finished, will explore even more his life in Puerto Vallarta. “It’s about how I got to play music here at a jazz bar, which was a dream come true for me.”
“When I quit working full time about six years ago, I was able to devote more time to it,” he said, “and the guitar player I’m working with now is a real genius. His name is Rafael Zermeño. I gave him English lessons in exchange for guitar lessons.
And after I’d learned a few songs on the guitar, maybe four, I said that I want to see how the guitar part fits with the vocals. And, of course, he played a really fancy version of the guitar part while I sang. After about six weeks of this, he said to me, ‘you know, this is really working! Why don’t you come for an audition at a Jazz bar and see what the owner thinks?’
That led to a weekly stint at the venue, a couple years ago, that spanned three months during high season. The two kept in touch while Darrel wrote and edited Mamaskatch he told me it began in earnest six years ago, too to the point where they’ve amassed a collection of some 45 jazz songs, many of which they’ll present at the Jazz bar in late March.
“We’ve worked up a repertoire of French love songs,” he told me. “Some Latin songs and a couple Portuguese songs and there’ll be a couple in English too. We’re going to do this amazing night of music that’s all about love. The travails of love, I say in the description, because that’s what it really is, and everybody can relate to that, right? And we’re ready! Ready to rock the world!” “Or jazz up the world, I guess!”