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Reviewed by Starleigh Grass
For years in university I looked forward to the release of the latest copy of Off Centre Magazine so that I could flip straight to Drew Hayden Taylor’s column “The Urbane Indian”. I found his writing sharp, witty, and inspiring.
Needless to say, I was elated when I discovered that he had compiled some of his columns into his latest anthology, News: Postcards from the Four Directions.
Anthologies of columns are fickle creatures at best. Some, such as Everett Soop’s I see my tribe is still behind me, serve as a time capsule of sorts, giving us insights into the ideas and controversies of the day. Owing to the fact that some of the humor is topical and many of the allusions are obscure many of Soop’s clever one-liners have lost their crispness because the audience can no longer relate.
Tapwe: Selected Columns of Douglas Cuthland is a superior collection. The works selected to be in the collection have a certain timelessness so that even six years after the book was published questions such as how to increase the rate of post-secondary education achievement in Aboriginal communities or how to integrate traditional values of honouring Aboriginal women with the imposed patriarchal system of band politics remain relevant and important in Canadian life. Cuthland is a master of giving the reader adequate background information on a topic, including statistics and relevant historical information, so that when the punch line is delivered everyone has enough information to be in on the joke.
Richard Wagemese’s One Native Life is categorically different than Soop and Cuthland’s work. Instead of being a social commentary Wagemese’s work is introspective and celebratory. It does not risk becoming stale because the lessons and nostalgia that the author shares have broad and timeless appeal and do not rely on the reader to have background information in order to understand the work.
Drew Hayden Taylor’s work is a category in and of itself. Like Soop, Drew has a sharp tongue and isn’t afraid to publically address individual politicians. Like Cuthland, he is able to provide readers with background information on topics such as Ipperwash. Like Wagemese, he is able to write about the everyday things (usually related to food) that catch our attention and imagination, and uses these opportunities to bring readers, native and non-native alike, together in a celebration of our common humanity. The writing is a mixture of satire, self-reflection, and social commentary.
The real strength of Taylor’s work is that it gives us insight into Canada through the eyes of a playwright. There are times when he mentions other characters on Canada’s literary scene and if you’re familiar with Aboriginal authors and non-Aboriginal people who write about Aboriginal people, you might be able to speculate who he is alluding to. It’s interesting to hear him compare the artistic freedom that he experiences as a Canadian artist to the selective support that American artists receive.
The book is light-hearted and fun in many parts because the reader gets to live vicariously through Taylor on his playwright adventures such as his journey through India or watching one of his plays translated into Italian and performed in Italian theatre.
Intertwined with the fun, however, are more serious questions about art, ethics, and identity politics.
For example, the first year that the Junos had an Aboriginal artists award a non-Aboriginal artist who was accused of appropriating an Aboriginal family’s traditional song without permission won, while an Aboriginal artist was not selected by the committee because his work wasn’t Aboriginal enough. This calls to mind experiences of other Aboriginal artists in Canada. For example, in Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, a biographer explains that while preparing for the Canada Pavillion for Expo ’67, Norval Morrisseau was urged to change his work because it wasn’t Indian enough. Likewise, in Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, Alootook Ipellie describes how he tried to sell his work through an Inuit artist’s organization the non-Inuit bureaucrats declined his work because it was not Inuit enough.
While the decision makers in these examples judged acceptable levels of Aboriginality by how closely it resembled non-Aboriginal expectations of tradition, it seems today that Aboriginality is defined to some degree by dysfunction. Taylor resists this trend in his own writing by refusing to portray women as hookers or victims of sexual abuse. He does, however, experience pressure to write depressing works that portray Aboriginal people as inherently dysfunctional.
He makes light of the expectations in Aboriginal literature by introducing us to the frameworks of B-cubed (bingo, beer, and bannock) and R-cubed (rape, residential schools, and reserves).
Still, these comments bring up an important question on the Canadian literary scene. As Taylor points out, due to demographics Aboriginal artists must cater to a non-Aboriginal market. Recently the term “poverty porn” has been coined to describe the exploitative depiction of certain groups in degrading situations as entertainment. The danger in this is that it reinforces stereotypes and solidifies social relationships of superior/inferior. The difference between art and light entertainment, however, if that art should cause the audience to question their underlying assumptions about the root causes of the problem, and perhaps even come to new conclusions about how to go about solving the problem.
So, then, are works such as Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed which vividly describes a male youth’s descent into substance abuse as a result of sexual abuse, poverty porn? Do Aboriginal artists have a responsibility, as Taylor feels he does, to maintain certain standards in terms of their portrayal of Aboriginal people, or should they simply cater to their non-Aboriginal market? A broader question, or course, is what kind of society is Canada that it craves a certain level of human degradation in depictions of Aboriginal people?
One of the dangers of anthologies of newspaper columns is that they risk being dated and stale by the time they go to print. However, the topic of Aboriginal art in the hands of non-Aboriginal gatekeepers and a largely non-Aboriginal market will stand the test of time, making this book a relevant read for years to come.
Taylor’s writing demands a certain with-it-ness of the reader. Readers would be wise to two tabs open in their browser while reading–one open to an online dictionary to look up new words and one open to search allusions and references to names dropped that you think you should know but actually don’t. Taylor’s work is also eclectic. He is a dexterous writer, on one page telling us with a straight face that we should change the politically correct term from Aboriginal to autochtones while on another giving Stephen Harper a severe lecture on accountability and suggesting that he be charged with genocide.
Overall News is a worthy read, however, it does take some effort to get through, largely due to a lack of formatting. One never knows until half way through whether they are reading a column, a travel log, or a speech. The collection could have been better organized, with subthemes within each of the four chapters. The date at which the work was first published would have enhanced the reading experience, too, especially in parts where Taylor is discussing current events. Someone else should have written the introduction, as Taylor, being both self-deprecating and somewhat modest, did not give enough context for the work or background information about himself in the introduction he wrote himself.
The writing is excellent however, and these points do not on the whole detract from the reader’s experience.