by Garry Thomas Morse
Last week, I was interviewed by an SFU student about “Aboriginal Genres” in writing and publishing and this really got me thinking about First Nations representation in literature and the arts.
Caveat lector was the first thing to spring to mind, as my own knowledge base pertains primarily to my mother’s people, the Kwakwaka’wakw (originally and still widely misnomered as the Kwakiutl), and even then, there are many gaps. In addition, my own interests are bound up with a preoccupation with poetic form and what might be called literary aesthetics, and partly for that reason, I was eager for perspectives and contributions from other writers with a First Nations background.
Emily Schultz, Graeme Gibson, Dionne Brand, Louise Dennys, Aritha Van Herk, Margaret Atwood, and Merilyn Simonds at “Beyond Survival” at the 2012 Vancouver Writers Festival.
(Photo: Chris Cameron)
In her groundbreaking Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (first published by House of Anansi in 1972 and then in 2004 by McClelland and Stewart), Margaret Atwood indicates that Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers
depicts not only the sufferings of the victim, but the mentality of the Canadian onlooker who needs to identify with victims. The protagonist is a folklorist who has deliberately chosen as his subject a totally abject and failed tribe of Indians. This tribe, the A—-s (they aren’t even allowed a full name), epitomize the “losers” who give the book its title.
Atwood goes on to say that “Canadian writers seem to have been less interested in Indians and Eskimos per se than they have been in Indians and Eskimos as exotic participants in their own favourite game.” However, in describing the Indians in Beautiful Losers and Klee Wyck as not victims but “a potential source of magic”, even with this positive spin, they are still to a large degree being objectified. Even the benevolent spiritual guide and ally only becomes so at the loss of their humanity, even in a work of fiction.
In Marcia Crosby’s 1991 essay “Construction of the Imaginary Indian”, which is included in the Vancouver Anthology (Talonbooks), she critically examines depictions of First Nations peoples in written work that are generally deemed to be positive. At the time of writing, she confesses
“[a]s one of the less than one percent of First Nations students who attend post-secondary institutions, I was often overwhelmed by the authority of an institution that seemed to legitimate the construction of First Nations people as homogeneous, as taxonomically divisible into various scientific categories, or as grotesque caricatures.
There are times in reality and not in fiction when this does appear to be “their own favourite game”, to echo Atwood, in reference to these institutions.
In conclusion, Crosby argues that
native imagery and art is already deeply entrenched in the public arena and in institutional collections, as a symbol for a national heritage, a signifier for Canadian roots, a container for the Canadian imagination and a metaphor for the abstract ideals of Western ideology. Although it could be argued that much of interest in native people has evolved out of humanitarian or benevolent concern, I must ask if the intention redeems the results of these endeavours–results such as the entrenching of stereotypes, the continuance of patronage and the representation and objectification of the other. Whether our otherness is embraced by art connoisseurs and contemporary critics, or studied as a science, or collected by archaeologists, otherness supposes cultural hierarchies and exclusionary practices.
In Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada), he discusses the proliferation of “Dead Indians” in our consciousness:
But the Dead Indians I’m talking about are not the deceased sort but “the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears. North America has had a long association with native people, but despite the history that the two groups have shared, North America no longer sees Indians. What it sees are war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, loincloths, headbands, feathered lances, tomahawks, moccasins, face paint, and bone chokers. These bits of cultural debris–authentic and constructed–are what literary theorists like to call “signifiers,” signs that create a “simulacrum,” which Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist and postmodern theorist, succinctly explained as something that “is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”
Otter Man by Beau Dick, copyright 2007
Over the summer, there was a story in The Vancouver Sun about Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick, who in what was a startling decision to some, elected to burn forty of his own creations (ceremonial masks) rather than sell them. I also appreciated this remark by gallery owner Sarah Macaulay, who was exhibiting his work:
“I don’t want to pretend it’s contemporary art..It’s something unique in the world. Anthropologists and curators have attempted to compartmentalize the work in order to understand it. In a way, they live outside of our universalizing definitions.
I’ve also observed a faddish tendency among some of my “comrades” to try and equate First Nations’ systems of belief with Socialist leanings, thinking that Red equals Red, I suppose. On the West Coast at least, the potlatch ritual has a great deal to do with status (with which the cycle of wealth and generosity are inextricably tied) and as I’ve come to learn, this ritual plays an important role in documenting a particular event or ceremony. One of my relations, Daisy Sewid-Smith has herself drawn a parallel between Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs and their families with the British nobility, as a frame of reference more familiar to non-aboriginals. That is to say, even I fancy myself something of a “bête noire” in a family of notable nobles, such is my Shakespearian whim.
Holy Smokes! She repeated that Katherine Hooker Coat and Jenny Packham Dress!
Therefore my own personal idea of Native reconciliation is contingent upon about $100,000 in annual upkeep just to keep me looking good in dove-grey, à la Kate Middleton.
In Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid (D&M Publishers), in an essay called “The Art: An Appreciation”, Bill Reid asserts the importance of such art in terms of understanding ourselves:
these vanished men and women have emerged through their art out of a formless mass of ancestral and historical stereotypes – warriors, hunters, fishermen, every man his own Leonardo – to become individuals in a highly individual society, differing in every detail of life and custom from us, but in their conflicts and affirmations, triumphs and frustrations, an understandable part of universal mankind. So the art, because it embodies the deepest expression of this essential humanity, can be as meaningful and moving to us as it was to them.
On a personal note, in trying to come to grips with my own aesthetic approach and convictions regarding literature as Art, whether that be my own preoccupation with various mythologies or what I imagine to becertain atavistic leanings toward the ways of my Kwakwaka’wakw ancestors, and even grasping the mode of presentation that is suitable for them, I have struggled with expressing what I could only call my own perspective of “home truths”.
Reid also suggest that by bringing our contemporary sensibility to these remnants of the past, enriched by a knowledge of the world’s art, we may find in them deeper meaning than their makers intended. He speaks most eloquently of the “wild extravagance of the Kwakiutl” and the importance of their “prodigal theatricality” in relation to their artistic praxis:
One has to see the supernatural dignity of the cannibal birds, as they gyrate with snapping beaks, or witness the humour of the Bukwis, or experience the magic of the transformation masks where an eagle becomes the sun, instantaneously, before one’s eyes. And then to feel them all come together in the impact of the Hamatsa drama, the wordless telling of the emergence of man from his primordial past. Otherwise the faded trappings of Kwakiutl dramatic art can be only a flicker of the whole, seen briefly in a dark mirror. But even this is a powerful image, as this exhibition proves. It seems that the only limitations to Kwakiutl expressiveness were those of material and technique, and the eventual bounds of wildly untrammeled imaginations.
One of my favourite plays, also a book and multidisciplinary project, is The Edward Curtis Project (Talonbooks), written by Marie Clements, with photographs by Rita Leistner. With many complex layers, this collaboration by Clements and Leistner is an example of the kind of thing I would love to see more of, one that even in its critique of Curtis leaves room for sympathy, drawing a parallel between the artist of yesterday and the artist of today, the aboriginal of the past and the aboriginal of the present.
In a recent interview at Douglas College, Doug Editor asked Tomson Highway his thoughts about theatre companies being afraid of mounting his play The Rez Sisters or other aboriginal plays without an aboriginal cast, and Highway responded thusly:
My position is that first of all I don’t believe in mind control, thought control. Artists should be able to do what they want to do. That’s my bottom line. A writer should – you know writing is so difficult, and carving out a career as a writer is so difficult, so challenging, so impossible. You meet so many impasses that you should let a writer just do what they want to do. Don’t try to stop them. Don’t try to slow them. Encourage them to fly and to fly as high as they can. So my bottom line is those plays should be done by black actors in Nigeria. They should be done by Turkish actors in Istanbul. They should be – they have been – done by Japanese actors in Tokyo. They should be done by Zulu actors in Durban, South Africa.
Pamela Sinha, Cara Gee, Jean Yoon, Billy Merasty, Jani Lauzon, Djennie Laguerre,
Michaela Washburn and Kyra Harper in Ken Gass’ production of Tomson Highway’s
The Rez Sisters at Factory Theatre in 2011. Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh
Now I certainly cannot speak for a people, or even my own family group, but in terms of the Assu family, through the historical and even literary record, I think it is safe to say its members are generally not content to dwell in the past. I understand that my great-grandfather Chief Billy Assu was the first to record his songs for Ida Halpern, who had set out in the late 1940s to put on record the songs of West Coast First Nations. It was indeed exciting and strange to find that I could listen to these songs online, even a Kwakwaka’wakw love song, and to realize that my great-grandfather’s singing voice was more or less in the public domain.
Perhaps that is why another of Highway’s responses reaches me to the core:
…what I call my other language, what I call my third language, is music. And I am talking about music literally to the point where you know the repertoire from the inside out – I’m talking the language of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin. Like seriously, from the inside. To know the late Beethoven sonatas intimately. To know how to play them. To be able to analyze them and so on and so forth.
As Drew Hayden Taylor points out in his book News: Postcards from the Four Directions (Talonbooks):
Tomson Highway is a classically trained pianist who, for a period of time, struggled with whether to devote his life to becoming a concert pianist or a playwright. Classical piano is also not something that is natural to Native cultures. Evidently, I suppose, ours is a drum culture. Yet Tomson is exceedingly good at tickling the ivories, though I have no knowledge of his drumming capabilities.
News is full of such tongue-in-cheek remarks, as Taylor’s winsome essays, which charm with something akin to a Reservation newsletter-style, cover a lot of ground. Amid banter about the potential Canadianizing of porn, with stock maple syrup jokes to boot, Taylor reminds us of his book about Native sexuality called Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality (D&M Publishers), in which he said that
often the impression the dominant culture has about anything to do with Aboriginal sexuality is limited to dead hookers, high rates of STDs in our communities, and instances of residential school sexual abuse.
I must admit, these scenes—scenes I can only think of as “Gooey Duck Harlequin” scenes—are not the least fun to write and even Taylor’s book cover inspired a character or three in my own new series of novels. Instead of the “traditional” metaphorical devices associated with automotive repair and oil derricks, one can make proverbial hay with lovemaking so intense that an entire tray of freshly made bannock must be swept to cedar planks as the protagonists go at it upon a kerfed box.
A couple of years, I recall there was the launch of Janet Rogers’ Red Erotic (Ojistah Publishing), a collection of indigenous-themes ‘sexy poetry’. I asked Rogers, the current Poet Laureate of Victoria BC, for her thoughts on the book:
Whenever I introduce my Red Erotic book and the material within it, I always preface the reading by saying “Erotica is like Burlesque. It is always delivered with that wink of the eye, with a good dose of healthy humour.” After making this statement, the shoulders of the audience drop and people really seem to open up to the erotic poems after that. So to draw from the (what is becoming almost cliché) notion that Indians have access to a humour other cultures don’t, to say that it is a “we have nothing left to lose, so we might as well laugh” kind of humour, I am exercising my birthright as a Native humorist to write really dirty, nasty, sexy poetry – and get away with it.
How’s that for expressing ourselves? Another thing that always seems to crop up in the book trade is subject of genre. In News, Taylor suggests that Native writers are flourishing in all genres of literary expression, save for that of science fiction (which has perhaps taken on a broader meaning with the moniker speculative fiction) and here is his reason why:
I think this is because Native writers, like most Native people, are still dealing with what the past has taken away, and are somewhat preoccupied with reclaiming what our ancestors had. So we are more often than not pretty much looking to the past for our future.
Happily, Rogers had more to say on this subject of genre and originality:
Well, isn’t all genre based on our creation stories to begin with? Sky Woman, from my Haudenosaunee culture could have been any alien, landing on a turtle’s back – sphere shaped enough to be a space ship, and spreading seeds to all corners of the land creating the 4 main races of man – spawning clones, no? Our culture, the textures, and the spiritual stories the colours – all of these lend themselves so well to all the genres. I know a lot of writers say every story has its origins in the Bible…well I argue that and say look to Native creation stories and Native culture…we were first again there. We occupied all the genres before they were coined as genres. No such thing as an original story, no matter how you dress it up.
I also got in touch with Eden Robinson, whose unique and celebrated novel Monkey Beach (Vintage Canada) recently made the CBC Canada Reads list of top five books in BC and Yukon, to ask for her thoughts on her writing process:
I’ve waited to tackle some stories until I felt like I was emotionally mature enough to do them honour and not just rant. Angry writing is a hammer. Plus I cry when my characters cry so any of the tough material leaves me weeping at my computer. I also speak my dialogue to get the taste of it. My dad thinks I’m nuts. We’ve started collaborating on little stories about the mountains in Haisla territory and he’s seen my process at work. If I’m obsessed about a story, I’ll write it over and over and over until I have something I can live with. He wants to just get the shape of it.
I’ve been spoiled by how beautiful stories can be, even hard stories. A brutal and ugly story can be more if you find the right words in the right order, if your characters says just the right thing, unexpectedly funny or poignant, then it’s like being lost in the winter tundra with the sun setting and the temperature dropping and then the northern lights start snaking across the stars: you’re probably still going to die of hypothermia but listen to those lights crackle, live wires snapping over your head, God’s very own fireworks display.
Robinson also wanted me to have (and presumably to share) this apt quote from Sherwin Bitsui, which I think says a lot about a growing feeling nowadays in Native circles:
Tonight’s conversations veered toward Native alcoholism, suicide and poverty, while quietly in my mind, I went to sit with my grandmother on a hillside at home admiring spring grass and bird songs. Yes, we may have issues, but our stories are infinitely complex and beautiful, not just infomercials for pain and suffering.”
CBC journalist and filmmaker Waubgeshig Rice, who has written a book of short stories called Midnight Sweatlodge, also offered up his thoughts about the role of writing and storytelling in First Nations culture:
Storytelling is the backbone of First Nations culture right across North America. Passing down stories orally from generation to generation for millennia is what reinforced many rich and diverse cultures. This spirit helped these cultures maintain in the face of colonialism. First Nations held on to these stories while the settler culture told them they were supposedly wrong. In recent generations, traditional stories and practices have reemerged and are reigniting that storytelling spirit.
First Nations storytellers have also embraced the written word to share their stories and culture. It may seem a bit ironic to use the colonizer’s tools to document our experiences, but the success of First Nations authors proves that it’s important to relay those unique stories to non-Aboriginal people as well. Literature is a vital outlet in providing a window into our communities and cultures. Also, when we’re unable to hear from each other face-to-face, it’s given us a chance to learn and relate to one another from greater distances.
As part of the younger generations, I grew up with the both the written word and the spoken story as cultural influences. With my own fiction, I attempt to marry the two in a respectful manner. It’s difficult, and I don’t feel I can truly do our traditional stories justice on pages in books. But my goal is to write reference points for our experiences that others can explore in the wider world. If I can show other First Nations people that we have powerful stories and experiences to share, and if I can open the eyes of non-Aboriginal people to the unique perspectives of the original peoples of this land, then I will have done my job as an author.
In particular, I wanted contributions from two authors whose poetry is to be published by Talonbooks in 2013, partly because their upcoming books are so diverse in form and conception, and partly because their work at the “verge” discloses a historical scope of at least a century of First Nations struggles and suffering without losing sight of the continual possibility of curative transformation—a type of transformation the reader of their works may ultimately experience and undergo.
In the Dog House (available from Talonbooks in 2013)
One of the writers who has deeply affected me, and many others, is Wanda John-Kehewin. I feel that her versification is often engaging the narrative form in Canadian poetry, and yet her sincere oracular gifts shy away from the cold mechanistic feeling of some performance poetry. Often, when I am listening to her, I wonder if such timely admonitions can in the same breath be songs of healing.
Here is what Wanda John-Kehewin had to say:
Poetry is a healing outlet of expression that allows me to filter out how I feel about a situation or circumstances. It is a way of processing emotions that I find hard to express otherwise, and a way of allowing my feelings to be openly shared. I do this hoping my words can bring comfort and/or understanding to others who have felt the negative effects of being First Nations. I’m not saying that all First Nations have gone through tribulations but a majority of them have, either first, second or third generation, possibly the fourth since first contact.
I write, also, with hopes of helping to inspire more understanding between First Nations people and Non- First Nations. I write the truth as I see it because I have lived it. I can be the shoe on the other foot in terms of displaying first hand, the detrimental effects of colonization on a micro level. It definitely is a burden at times and yet I carry it with me in hopes of a better future for my own children as well as anyone who is affected by my raw truth. It took me a very long time to admit, even to myself just how negative of an impact past events have had on me and writing poetry and prose has had a positive impact on how I view or choose not to view life.
I think all forms of artistic expression, including writing, is beneficial to future generations as well as our own generation to allow healing to truly radiate across the canvas span. I come from a place where people are still being affected, some without even knowing it. I think writing is an awesome medium to bring understanding where only stereotypes and labels only existed and there are many First Nations writers who have committed themselves to healing and teaching others through the creative writing channel with stories, essays, articles, plays, and novels.
Writing is a journey in itself and for me, it is a way of healing from the past except that my past is an open book which I have had to allow myself to be shared in order to bring about change both within myself and the outer world. No matter how small the change, when I can affect just one person in a crowded room, I know I have brought about a small change both within myself and in someone else’s life.
I am but thirty-six years young, but poets like Jordan Abel make me feel more like a hundred and thirty-six years young, or at the very least, old young. I might call him a media-savvy young whippersnapper, but in person he has such a genial and unassuming manner. While other poets are merely flirting with poetic experiments and technique, Abel appears to be dauntless in his application of conceptual techniques, whether through the creation of textual eyescapes or fugal soundscapes, to a broad range of First Nations’ issues. And here is what he had to say:
As a poet, I tend to write a lot about the representations of Indigenous Peoples in North America. Specifically, I’m interested in how people have written about Indigenous Peoples, and how that writing has impacted Indigenous culture.
I first began exploring this topic through fiction. I was reading Marius Barbeau’s book Totem Poles at the time and was inspired by his transcriptions of Nisga’a oral history. I wrote a lot of short stories that attempted to revitalize traditional Nisga’a storytelling. However, all of the stories that I wrote were almost exclusively filled with details that Barbeau had included. And, when I attempted to update the stories for contemporary readers, my additions tended to be superficial. After a while, I realized that my approach wasn’t getting me anywhere. So I made the switch to poetry. At first, I began writing lyrical poetry that relied on the narrative of traditional Nisga’a stories as a backbone. But I found the resulting poems to be very similar to short stories I had just stepped back from.
I had reached a point of frustration. I knew there was something about Barbeau’s writing that I wanted to talk about. But I felt like my approaches to writing about this topic were failing miserably. After a while, I realized that I had been concentrating on the ideas that Barbeau was writing about, but not on his writing itself. And part of what compelled me about his book Totem Poles was that Barbeau was inextricably involved in the cultures he was writing about. While the contemporary role of the anthropologist is mostly to observe and not to interfere, Barbeau’s generation had not yet reached that understanding. Barbeau played an influential role in the cultures he was attempting to document. He had been operating under the impression that First Nations culture was about vanish, and decided that he should save it from disappearing. Among his methods of preservation, he was fond of purchasing totem poles and potlatch items from struggling villages.
Photograph of Marius Barbeau, 1957
I was immediately confronted with a challenge—how was I going to write poetry that included both the First Nations narratives and Barbeau? By chance, I stumbled upon erasure poetry—a process that requires erasing elements from a source text in order to reveal new meaning—and I attempted this process for Barbeau’s book Totem Poles. The process worked. I was able to begin a poem with an excerpt from Totem Poles and then subsequently erase sections of that passage until new meaning was formed. By utilizing this process, I was able to account for both the traditional narrative that I was originally interested in, and Barbeau’s influence as an ethnographer.
The resulting book, The Place of Scraps, was completed exclusively with the erasure method. Although my approach changed over the course of several years, I was always attempting to write about the same issue. For me, changing my writing methodology was an integral step towards writing the book that I actually wanted to write.
As aforementioned, last week, I was interviewed by SFU Student Kevin Luk about the subject of “Aboriginal Genres”.
KL: Do feel there is a lack of First Nations culture in Canadian popular fiction? And furthermore how would you characterize the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations in Canada?
GTM: These are complex questions and I feel that whatever I say will be a crude generalization. It is perhaps easier to recognize there are a multitude of Nations in what is now called North America, each with respective cultural practices and identities, and these are not being expressed in popular fiction. I am not overtly critical of the current relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations in Canada, although it occurs to me that the surface elements of that relationship are what is most often expressed, and not the deeper significance. It is more a question of how communication may arise that no longer has to deal in cultural tropes and stereotypes, or what is more, a totemic form of tokenism. Therefore, it is not a lack of cultural representation I am speaking of, but the very nature of that representation, which is seldom examined. I should add that I do not feel it is necessarily a negative relationship, just one fraught with misunderstanding.
KL: What is your opinion on non-aboriginals portrayals of aboriginals? For example films like Dance with Wolves have a very western perspective on aboriginals.
Misty Upham at the 81st Academy Awards.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
GTM: With the exception of Wes Studi in Heat and Misty Upham in Frozen River, it’s hard for me to take many a Hollywood representation of aboriginal characters seriously, as the overblown sanctimoniousness stems from a Western mode (in the Common Era, one may hint) of storytelling. Adam Beach certainly deserves his own crappy romantic comedy to align him with any decent looking non-aboriginal leading man, but that is not the same thing as having an aboriginal actor playing a real aboriginal person, as Beach has many times in smaller roles, and sometimes in the company of Studi.
Historically, and I am speaking in a Canadian context now, portrayals of aboriginals have been for the most part by non-aboriginals. That is not a critique, merely a comment, and this extends to ethnographic research, anthropology, cultural theory, and evaluation of artistic praxis. It is rather ironic, and perhaps just a little bit hypocritical, that the bulwark of critical theories, concerning literature for example, along with some of their most ardent promulgators, display an absent-minded neglect towards the work and perspectives of First Nations peoples.
Karlie Kloss commits a cross-cultural faux pas on the catwalk at the Victoria’s
Secret 17th Annual Fashion Show, at the same time taking a valiant stand
against hot dinners.
The most common representation these days is of an idyllic totemic metonymic figure that may be appended to various ideologies and causes. Before you know it, you’ve been inukshuk’d! That may be awfully confusing, so let’s look up the word “metonymy” in our Merriam-Webster:
a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (as “crown” in “lands belonging to the crown”)
Language affects our ideas and actions unconsciously, at the very roots. It is sometimes a good place to start from.
KL: What challenges do writers face when publishing fiction with strictly aboriginal themes?
GTM: I would say there are a number of very successful books with aboriginal themes. I would venture that the challenge, for those who wish to take it, is to publish more innovative or interesting work that does not adhere strictly to aboriginal themes vis-à-vis current marketing trends. We are obviously familiar with this kind of trending, which is only a step away from the most successful bodice-rippers in existence. Then, obviously, it leads to an erotic vampire Native version of Pride and Prejudice…and oh my, I’ve just created a monster. Best of luck with that!
KL: What is the current condition of publishing like today with the spread of new digital media?
GTM: Unstable but exciting. There are many opportunities to engage the reader with new kinds of media. There have been countless apocalyptic articles about the spread of e-books and e-readers, but I think that new technologies spur on healthy dialogue, as it reinforces our connection with books and our comprehension of their aesthetic and tangible value. I am also aware of some communities that returned in large numbers to their bookstores after about a year of trying out various e-readers. As one of my colleagues pointed out, a book cover in public can start up a conversation. I also feel that newer technologies are helping publishers to better understand and redefine their role, which more than ever, is to work on the reader’s behalf to provide important works of quality. This endeavour is by no means mutually exclusive to those who choose to self-publish.
KL: What is your opinion on First Nations social issues being discussed through fictional genres such as science-fiction, comedy, fantasy, or mystery?
GTM: I have no issue with First Nations social issues being discussed through fictional genres. You might say the descriptors are more misleading or troubling. There are some that would point out that these elements have always existed in various cultures and in various world myths, and for that reason, this concept of “genre” has no real weight. Thinking of a more familiar example closer to home, I would say that when the dream world and the way of life are inseparable, to isolate such elements such as “dreams” or “fantasies” does not really make any sense, or at the very least, is a distortion of the perspective of many First Nations peoples. I’m reminded of the admittedly small Anglo-faction who wanted the potlatching Natives to more chastely foxtrot, as a means of bringing “civilization” to them.
KL: In your recent book, Minor Episodes/Major Ruckus you have blurred the different lines of genre by employing surrealist and speculative fictional techniques. What drove you to create such a surreal combination of issues and themes?
GTM: Well, my new book is the start of a series called The Chaos! Quincunx, a genre parody that cycles through five different literary styles, including surrealist, speculative, terrorist, environment, and time travel. The erotic sendup is already implicit in every part and (I hope) at the height of its midlife crisis gives Canadian Literature a new lease on life.
This is a good place to mention that I asked Paul Seesequasis to tell me a little about something in the same vein, his own comically revisionist version of the 17th century, as portrayed in his novella Tobacco Wars (Quattro Books), a book that most definitely and defiantly challenges the concept of genre:
‘(The warrior) reaches back, pullls the tomahawk from his deerskin belt, and whacks Ben Jonson on the temple with a resounding thud.’ That thud from Tobacco Wars rather rudely welcomes the 17th century British playwright to the new world as later Pocahontas tours London as a tobacco baronness and celeb. The tropes are untamed and freed from their colonial cages. Nothing is as it seems or as its been written. The Indian Act may be percieved as tragedy but I prefer it as farce – a comedic satire wherein Native strippers tantalisingly disrobe their buckskin regalia whilst sneaky coyotes run through the darkened theatre of history, lifting hind legs and urinating on settler audiences. Some miss the satire, they don sacred headdresses and Victoria’s Secret Navajo bra and panties, they are prisoners of their own perceptions, while the ticksters dance around them and give them post-colonial wedgies. From the pre-Columbian Mayan city of Xunantunich to the modern three-story teepee with plasma tv and wii, there is a continuum, a clown dance, a survivance of humour that is liberating. Free your mind and your ass will follow. The Shamanistic Creeds are passed on, wth the traditional chant ‘Eh~ Sexy lady – Op op op op’. Hear that ancestral voice. It is our spirit smiling.
In answer to your question, surrealism was a natural place for me to start. I was already fairly well versed in French Surrealism and a number of its astonishing fictions when I realized that some of these ideas had their roots in other cultures, even in my own Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, and this reinforced the connexion. Death in Vancouver, my first book of stories, contains the embryonic soil for everything I am writing now, including bizarre and surreal riffs on a tale told by Joe Capilano to Pauline Johnson about the unfathomable lure in “Stanley Park” and also a Thomas Mann short story re-envisioned as a neo-Kwakwaka’wakw folk tale, and I mean as folk. However, this is in addition to trimmings with Russian and Celtic and Yiddish sources that portray my own notion of the global city.
KL: One characteristic of Native art is its distinction between the European arts that we are all very accustomed to. How do you feel about the hybridization of aboriginal culture with western culture? Should it be embraced for contemporary audiences?
GTM: I have more trouble in making such distinctions, although that may be more the case with visual art. I do have an interest in the mythologies of Greece and also German reflection upon them. It also strikes me as interesting that at the start of the 20th Century, French artists and writers were attempting to “tap into” other cultures as a means of uncovering something about the psyche as a means of resistance to European power structures. The only issue with all this embracing with contemporary audiences is that it is often a means of diluting the significance and one may speculate, spiritual aspect of such artistic practices. So we churn out cartoonish buttons and banners and dilute the raw power of artistic expression, what it once was and what it could be again.
However, to politely smother one another with passive aggro–that sounds quite Canadian, hmm?
KL: Thomas King believes that the future of Native culture is in peril and that aboriginals are losing control of it. He also claims that most Canadians do not know much about Native history and therefore lack a proper relationship with it. What is your opinion on the future of aboriginal culture in Canada and the relationship between non-aboriginals and aboriginals?
GTM: That sounds not unlike the plot to the movie Speed. Who is driving this cultural bus and how fast are we going anyway? I am tempted to concur with King’s point with regard to history in general. However, with credit to the “Anglos”, as I believe they are called by Wes Studi in The Last of the Mohicans, they did document a great deal, for better or for worse.
Wes Studi in Last of the Mohicans. Historically, are we still missing part of the picture?
Fortunately or not, the responsibility ultimately resides with First Nations peoples, myself included, to assert their own truths and their own oral histories, in order to counter these revisionist histories. This is no small job, and the complacency in the face of it is no different than that felt by non-aboriginals who also let their history be written for them, often on a daily basis. With all these sound bites and propaganda, it is a wonder we even know what mythology is, anymore.
Incidentally, I am thinking of a coda to a translation of Sappho by Catullus, a poet of Ancient Rome, more or less the global city of its day:
Catullus, leisure is your end
otium Catulle tibi molestum est
leisure then too much pleasure
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis
leisure, inevitable ruin of rulers
otium et reges prius et beatas
and pretty cities
There’s even mention of a Prius in there. One way of looking at it is that in the middle of translating Sappho and therefore preserving a form of culture, Catullus gets distracted and stops to give himself a good talking to. If he is not going to preserve the past, as well as look to the future, then who will? Who, indeed?
Kevin Costner, maybe?