Author Q&A: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Haida Manga Writer

We love our mash-ups—from country rap to breakfast tacos, there’s plenty of evidence that the whole is often greater than the sum of it’s parts. Still not convinced? Let us introduce you to author Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, the creator of a pop culture fusion we we can all groove to. Haida Manga is a blend of Indigenous iconography and Asian graphics unique to Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ work. His latest book, Carpe Fin, is a prequel to his 2009 award-winner Red, A Haida Manga. Carpe Fin started as a mural in the Seattle Art Gallery, but has since been developed into a hand-painted book that launched just a few weeks ago. I got to chat with Nicoll Yahgulanaas about his creative combinations, the story of Carpe, and what’s next for him—there’s great things ahead, some surprising some secret.

You can pick up a copy of Carpe Fin in-stores and online—and keep an eye out for Flight of the Hummingbird, a new opera adapted for youth with liberetto written by Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Your mixing of genres is really unique. What made you decide to blend Indigenous iconography and Asian graphics?

In the late 1800s in particular, Japan (and to a lesser extent, Korea) were places of refuge for Haida men enjoying an escape from British and Canadian racism. Even as a young man almost a century later, I hear stories of how wonderful an experience it was for a Haida man to be able to walk freely into any Japanese store or restaurant and be seen as a human.

Tell us a little bit about your newest book. What inspired you to write it?

Carpe Fin continues my exploration of an individual’s relationship to others, including the natural world. My book The Flight of the Hummingbird, which will soon be an opera commissioned by the Vancouver Opera and Pacific Opera Victoria, really sums up my exploration in a simple line: “I do what I can.” Carpe fin is Latin for seize the end.

The basic premise for this book was trying to explain how the Carpenter is found abandoned on a rock in the middle of the ocean. The two books also give me an opportunity to play with time, and in Carpe Fin and Red, time’s calculated sequence is distorted. It folds back on itself.

This approach isn’t necessarily because my hair is white—it is because for most of my life, I have seen how the waves of time expressed in the curves and undulations of one of the worlds significant artistic traditions have rolled off the lives of a living people.

Perhaps this is because there is a fantastical and imaginary image of Indigenous peoples. One characteristic of this imaginary Indian is how grand, spectacular and fantastic it looks the farther the observer is removed. But like the more caustic characteristics of Canada’s imaginary Indian troupe, this spectacular view is equally dehumanizing.

I recently attended the Freize Masters Fair in London England and saw a piece of Artplay carved by my great great grandfather in the late 1870s. It is an extraordinarily powerful carving and it is for sale at a price well over $1 million. Perhaps there are Egyptians alive right now who dream of pharaohs, or someone living in Rome who longs for an empire, and others who fabricate a perfect world that never existed and are condemned to live in the shadows of longing and inadequacy. I remind myself that the work done 150 years ago and the work we do today is always done in service of the contemporary living moment.  Distorting time allows me to play out this idea.

The experiences we all share today as living people make us all closer cousins than the relationship of any reader to a great grandparent. We are thrown together in the caldron of this contemporary moment faced with the challenges of the living. We need to be here now.

From your introduction, it seems like the story of Carpe has a life and history that expands before and beyond the pages of this book. Can you explain your relationship to this story?

Carpe Fin begins with the sentence, “Once upon a time this was a true story.” This book and its mural at the Seattle Art Museum is not any effort to faithfully execute some grand piece of knowledge passed on to me by successive generations of cultural keepers. I am suspicious of such claims to authority or interpretation that are not earned and owned by the living. In this way, Carpe Fin is my story. 

How did this story develop from a mural into a manga? What made you decide to explore the story beyond the mural?

Creating and reading this mural which is two metres high and six metres long was a very demanding exercise. The observer standing in front will have a very difficult time finding the narrative thread. One’s eyes will be pulled up and down and back and forth, and all efforts to locate the sequential presentation will be interfered with. Doesn’t life sometimes feel so complicated that there’s no way to make sense or reason out of its expressed madness? The book allows a quieter and more controlled moment for the observer. The observer can carefully turn the pages forward or even backwards, but is always in control.

What role does humour play in this book?

Haidas like to tease people. Sometimes it seems that teasing is our freest expression of love. Many years ago as an inadequate student trying to learn Haida, I asked an old woman to pass me the sugar. She and others at the table broke out laughing because what I had asked for was for her to “share some sweetness.” Puns are a big part of Haida worldview and our art really does play with that idea of multiple meanings existing in one place. That seems to be a definition of humour.

Did you come across any surprises when writing Carpe Fin?

 My main surprise is how readily I have agreed to do yet another mural. The next one will become part of the permanent collection of a very major European Art museum.

There is so much to look at on every page! Anything in particular that readers should look out for when reading?

I’d really like to see people cut up a couple copies of the book and forget my own idea of how the pages come together. They could construct their own unique idea of how the individual pages can be twisted and turned and arranged into a mural.

Can you tell me more about the design of the high-rise towers in Vancouver that are mentioned in your author bio?

I can’t say anything about it because it’s a great big secret.

What excites you the most about this book?

I really enjoy how my manga appeals to those much younger than I. Perhaps it’s because I’m immature or that younger people act wiser than I was at their age.

Carpe Fin, A Haida Manga

Published by Douglas and McIntyre
$30, available on