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How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada

by Helen Hoy
264 pages,
ISBN: 080208401X


Post Your Opinion
Learning to Read, Otherwise
by Cynthia Sugars

"Because you sleep does not mean you see into my dreams," wrote Sherman Alexie in his poem, "Introduction to Native American Literature". Alexie's observation, written in the early 1990s, is perhaps one of the more poignant expressions of what came to be known as the "appropriation of voice" debate that took over literary discussions in Canada in the late 1980s and early 90s. Linked to more wide-ranging postcolonial discussions of who could speak for previously silenced Others, appropriation of voice became the literary topic of the day, sparking heated arguments in literary reviews and conferences across North America.

In Canada, this debate centred around aboriginal stories and traditions, and it came to involve two questions: First, was it acceptable for non-aboriginal writers to write from the perspective of an aboriginal character or viewpoint? And second, were non-Native writers authorized to use traditional aboriginal stories in their fictions? The debate was sparked, in part, by Anne Cameron's Daughters of Copper Woman (1981), a collection that retells many of the oral stories of a secret society of Nootka women on Vancouver Island. Although given permission to use the stories, Cameron was widely censured for her misuse of cultural property that had been lent to her on trust. Similar charges were soon extended to Rudy Wiebe's Temptations of Big Bear (1973), W.P. Kinsella's Ermineskin Reservation stories, and Robert Bringhurst's retellings of Native legends. More recently, the question has been revived in response to Gail Anderson Dargatz's The Cure for Death by Lightning (1997). While the strident nature of these discussions has been somewhat tempered in recent years, the question of appropriation is still of immediate concern to many aboriginal writers in Canada, who claim, as Lee Maracle said to Anne Cameron at the height of the Copper Woman controversy in 1988, that it is time, for now, "to take a step or two to one side" and let aboriginal peoples speak in their own voice.

Helen Hoy's recent study of Native women writers in Canada, How Should I Read These?, returns to this turbulent territory, but with a difference. A professor of English literature at the University of Guelph, Hoy's focus is self-referential: the complicated situation of a white academic who has founded a career on teaching and interpreting Canadian aboriginal writing. Her study takes us through some of the most well-known, and in some instances, the most problematic, texts by contemporary Native women writers in Canada¨from Jeannette Armstrong's controversial political novel Slash (1985), a work that charts the period of Native activism and "Red Power" in Canada and the United States in the late 1960s and early 70s; to Maria Campbell and Linda Griffiths' tenuously co-authored work, The Book of Jessica (1989), which, in both content and form, embodies the turmoil of the appropriation question; to Beatrice Culleton's well-known account of two MTtis sisters growing up in Winnipeg foster homes in the early 60s, In Search of April Raintree (1983); to Eden Robinson's more recent, and disturbing, collection of stories, Traplines (1996).

Since she is married to a Native man (First Nations writer Thomas King), Hoy could make some claim to "insider" knowledge of aboriginal concerns. However, Hoy is careful not to justify her aboriginal focus on this basis, but rather tackles the contradictions of her position head on. What follows is a fascinating, evocative, and at times unsettling inquiry into the cultural and philosophical divide between Native and non-Native in contemporary Canada. In Hoy's account, the potential for epistemological mediation between what are at times radically different, and at other moments startlingly similar, cultures appears tenuous indeed.

Hoy is plagued by self-doubt and agonized soul-searching, and it is perhaps this more than anything else that renders her discussion of this communication gap more illuminating than any final word on the subject might be. As she makes clear from the outset, she is not interested in an explication of the fictions she writes about. Rather, her focus is the problem of reading Native writing from a White outsider perspective. How does one acknowledge the assumptions one brings to literary inquiry without becoming paralyzed by this acknowledgement? If non-Native readings of Native writers are necessarily compromised by the impossibility of maintaining objective distance, is the answer to not read Native writers at all? Hoy explores this dilemma by posing the problem as follows: "We have the obvious, and unfortunately not so obvious, point that it is not I who should be teaching Slash¨which is a different argument, by the way, from the one that I should not be teaching Slash. I can't teach it, and I can't not teach it." If it is one's responsibility, as a teacher of Canadian literature, to teach First Nations writing, how does one set out to do so responsibly?

Hoy also engages with a central critical conundrum: the problem of the commodification of cultural difference, which has sometimes resulted in a "neo-exoticizing" of the Native Other. How does one celebrate cultural difference without becoming fixated on it? As Hoy is well aware, there is a disturbing "propensity of non-Natives to employ notions of tradition and cultural difference to explain everything Indian." What does one do when the celebration of cultural difference slides into a form of tokenism and exoticism? Or, more importantly, when cultural sensitivity replaces social intervention and cross-cultural communication? This problem emerges in Hoy's analysis of one of the short stories in Eden Robinson's Traplines. A white man at a powwow attempts to pick up a young Native woman by feigning interest in her cultural otherness: "How should I eat these?" he asks of the bannock he has just purchased from her. The woman, irritated by his automatic "othering" of her as something to be assimilated, thinks to herself, "with your mouth, asshole."

One may be tempted to interpret Hoy's title (an obvious allusion to the bannock episode) as a comparable instance of cultural othering; however, this urge is countered by her insistence on deconstructing the question even as she asks it. While each chapter of her study pairs a particular text with a specific interpretative problem, the book does not offer a guide to reading Native literature. Hoy's goal is anything but this. Instead, her aim is for non-Native readers to shake the complacency that accompanies traditional literary evaluation: the assumption that literature makes one privy to transparent truths about an Other who can be assessed, appropriated, and in the process rendered familiar. Her goal is to demonstrate how no reading is neutral, even as there is no such thing as pure relativism either. This applies to the assumptions the reader brings to the text, but also to the ways particular aboriginal texts position readers differently, and in some cases unsettle non-Native expectations of them. Hoy illustrates this in her chapter on Armstrong's Slash, a book that has been singled out by non-Native critics for its "flawed" writing style. Such instances of cultural myopia, Hoy argues, are perhaps the very thing that Slash succeeds in highlighting. "Perhaps narrative plausibility and psychological individuation," Hoy posits, takes "second place to thorough probing of the political and psychological alternatives facing Native peoples." Slash, then, might be approached for the ways it forces non-Native readers to confront their "cultural arrogance", an important pedagogical message for discussions of the novel in non-Native classrooms.

Hoy's study revolves around an illuminating, and often bewildering, array of questions. It is also written with verve and style. Early in the book, she relates an occasion when she and Thomas King were being interviewed by CBC television for their thoughts on Canadian identity. After stating rather blithely that Canada should be thought of as a "conversation", Hoy allowed King his moment in the limelight while her thoughts drifted elsewhere. Minutes later, grasping at a forgotten word, King turned to Hoy and sought her aid. "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening," she was forced to reply. The juxtaposition of the two phrases becomes, for Hoy, an illustration of the dilemma facing Native/non-Native intercommunication: "Canada is a conversation"; "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening." Her call is for non-Natives to shed their complacent assumption that they do not need to listen. This might apply to the ways many non-Native critics insist on reading Native writing in Canada, as well as to the ways many non-aboriginals strive to assert their authenticity as Canadian through a too-willing appropriation of aboriginal stories.

Ultimately, Hoy is interested in the ways the reception of aboriginal writing in Canada has been influenced by the extraneous assumptions imposed on it. Examples range from the accepted evaluation of Slash as being insufficiently "literary" to April Raintree's supposedly "transparent" rendering of MTtis culture. The aboriginal Other has long been marketed for consumption in Canada, well before the appropriation of voice discussions of the late 80s. A quick glimpse in any local tourist shop makes this abundantly clear. Indeed, processes of indigenization, as Terry Goldie and Daniel Francis have so ably analysed it, have been central to Canadian culture since the nineteenth century. What Hoy is asking, and what it is crucial to ask at this historical juncture, especially when so many non-Native people are engaged in the study and teaching of aboriginal writing, is: How are these texts often unconsciously interpreted to be about "me", the non-Native reader? How do such readers position themselves in response to these texts? What does that say about the texts, and what about their readers?

Because you sleep means that you know what the experience of dreaming feels like, which in turn might make you long to see into another's dreams. Nevertheless, one can never wholly immerse oneself inside the dreamworld of another. If literature is a realm where the suspension of disbelief enables the illusion of such immersion, where the author's unconscious is momentarily allowed to touch that of the reader, it is also a treacherous space that leaves one open to misrecognition. You can read the text of the dream, but you can never stand in for the dreamer. Basil Johnston writes in his retelling of Ojibway legends that humans are set apart from the animals because of their capacity to dream. If dreaming is what links all human beings, it might also be what compels us to tell stories (and to read/listen to them). As Hoy would no doubt agree, this is not to say that we all dream the same dreams, nor that we can all symbiotically enter into each other's storied worlds, nor that we can offer the definitive word on the stories that we read. However, neither is this to say that we shouldn't be reading these stories at all. ˛

Cynthia Sugars teaches English at the University of Ottawa.

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