|Coyote's New Guise
by Michael Harris
Postcolonial thought, or its antecedents, influenced the liberal education of many these past few decades. Sometimes, as might be the case with Thomas King's latest offering, the stance seems to amount to a litany of outrage and apology. Other times, as in King's groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne truly remarkable, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.
It would be refreshing to review King's new collection of short stories, A Short History of Indians in Canada, as pure fiction. But the hefty burden of polemic weighs down King's prose (which is otherwise so light, so comic). Like Tony Kushner's triumphant pair of plays Angels in America-the ultimate AIDS drama in many respects-King's new book is political first and foremost. The questionable side effect, of course, is this: it is art second. The politics-ranging from cross-cultural adoption issues, to the history of Native exterminations in North America, to internment camps built for Japanese Canadians during the Second World War-are not especially new or provocative.
"Coyote and the Enemy Aliens" is, as its title suggests, a Coyote story. We've seen these before. Coyote is a sort of chameleon for King (as for others)-a figure, like Crow, who is not to be trusted. "Sometimes I tell Coyote stories," says King's narrator in this one. "Boy, you got to be careful with those Coyote stories. When I tell those Coyote stories, you got to stay awake. You got to keep those toes under that chair. I can tell you that."
Green Grass, Running Water starts off with a Coyote, too. (Actually, it starts with a one-word sentence-"So"-my favourite beginning to a Canadian novel). In Green Grass, a primordial soup is occupied by Coyote-the trickster character verily dreams the world into being: "That Coyote is dreaming and pretty soon, one of those dreams gets loose and runs around. Makes a lot of noise." And on from there, with Coyote acting the part of the mischievous god-or the befuddled wizard. In William Bright's A Coyote Reader (1993), the coyote is described as being part of a super-powered pre-human race, "capable of being brave or cowardly, conservative or innovative, wise or stupid."
"Coyote and the Enemy Aliens", unlike Green Grass, shuttles Coyote to the forefront of the action. This is no sideline overseer or court jester. This Coyote works for the white man and is in charge of those Japanese internment camps; he's in charge of stealing property, and fishing boats, and of separating women and children from men. The Japanese are the "Enemy Aliens". "Enemy Aliens," says Coyote, "don't mind that smell . . . They're not like you and me."
And there's the rub: "They're not like you and me." Like so much in this book, that line smacks of straw men. King, despite the lightness of his prose, does not seem terribly interested in subverting popular perceptions. Perhaps the problem is that-after a couple decades of strong, activism-infused literature-King has fashioned many of those popular perceptions himself. How could he be asked to tackle the opinions he brought to light?
While the sentiments he fostered all those years ago may be equally valid now-and, to be sure, this so-called postcolonial age is not beyond the problem of colonialism-the artistic merit is lessened, for it is not novel, and it is no longer ambitious.
That said, some of King's stories are damn funny. "A Short History of Indians in Canada", the title tale for this collection, is a brief, vivid romp with a surprisingly moving end. Bob Haynie, an insomniac businessman staying over in Toronto, is instructed by the late-night doorman to check out Bay Street for "some excitement".
If we didn't know better, "some excitement" might sound like a reference to a red light district. But no, this is the magical realist world of Thomas King, a place where "some excitement" means (obviously) a flock of Indians flying through the sky, crashing into office buildings. "Smack! Smack!" is the sound-effect King selects. "Bob looks up just in time to get out of the way."
It's a macabre humour, to be sure, and rife with political import-"In the old days, when they came though, they would black out the entire sky," we learn. But none of that lessens the comic effect. And most of the stories in this volume are indeed laced with King's signature gloomy brand of satire. "Little Bombs" is a particularly fine story, in which a wife plants miniature bombs (as jokes) where her husband might come across them.
Throughout A Short History, King employs the oral stylings he has become renowned for in previous books: "So Coyote starts driving. He drives to those mountains. And that one drives into those valleys. And then he drives to the Pacific National Exhibition in that Vancouver city." The tone is convivial and unassuming. The tone is a trap.
Homi Bhaba, in his characteristically brilliant essay, "The Postcolonial and the Post-Modern", takes a good look at this trap, or, rather, at the reason for laying it. Bhaba starts with the post-structuralist notion that language can be divided into two sets: we have langue, which is the golden language, the system of language before it gets mangled; and then we have parole, the act of speaking, the instance of trying to use our langue. What Bhaba suggests is that parole is always, and necessarily, messing with langue. The act of speech destabilises language. Because casual, everyday speech is rife with the possibility for error, and for invention, the rules that bind our language begin to rupture each time we honour speech over dictionary, or lived experience over received dogma.
Thomas King, then, is a champion of parole. His stories and novels, for children and adults, have built up a world where living speech allows for change in ways of thinking about (and expressing) ourselves. When his books are most free, when his writing is most light, King scores his greatest points. But too often in this latest volume, the stories swerve toward that brassy one-mindedness that King's previous books seemed to despise. ò