Francine Cunningham, the University of Calgary’s 2023-2024 Canadian Writer-in-Residence, is hoping to make a big impact in her position this year.
The Cree and Métis writer is the author of the poetry collection on/me, which was runner-up for the Indigenous Voices poetry award in 2020, a finalist for the B.C. and Yukon Book Prize for writing that provokes, and a City of Vancouver Book Award. Cunningham also wrote God Isn’t Here Today, a book of short fiction that is shortlisted for the 2023 Indigenous Voices Award, longlisted for the inaugural Carol Shield’s Prize for Fiction, and winner of the 2023 ReLit Award for short fiction.
Cunningham was raised in Calgary and then left for 20 years, returning in 2020. She calls returning a full-circle moment.
“I’d never actually been to the (University of Calgary); even though I’ve spent so much of my life in Calgary, I was always just really intimidated by it,” Cunningham says. “So, for me, this is a coming home to a place that I’ve always wanted to be, and being able to go there as the Canadian Writer-in-Residence is really nice. It’s really cool to be able to step back into my home in that way.”
Cunningham says a novel she is currently working on draws from her life and she feels being back where she came from will help her to write it.
Cunningham was drawn to the UCalgary writer-in-residence position because of the amount of community outreach she will be able to do, as well as the program’s good reputation.
“I think that because it really allows you the time and space to work on your own manuscripts while, at the same time, providing you with those opportunities for community connections that you don't always get as a writer,” Cunningham says. “Also, the fact that we can offer so much of this community programing for free to the community because the university is paying me.”
During her time here, she will be running a monthly Indigenous writing circle, manuscript consultations and youth programming.
Cunningham also hopes to provide a safe space for other Indigenous writers. “I really want to connect with Indigenous folks on the campus who want to become writers, who want to tell their story,” she says. “Whether or not they write right now is not an issue for me. I would just like them to come with their ideas and create a safe space for people to share their story ideas, share their life.”
Cunningham has her master’s degree in writing, although, despite loving writing in secret her whole childhood, she never really thought becoming a writer was in the cards for her due to being told by teachers she was not good.
“I didn't understand all the rules. I didn't understand spelling. Like these things just didn't come naturally to me,” she says. “So I feel like for a lot of people that was just like, well, then you're not going to be a writer. So, I kind of put it on the back burner.”
While studying performing arts, she took a class on writing from an Indigenous lens and that is where she gained the confidence to finally go for it. She hopes to inspire that same confidence in others. You can access manuscript consultation online.