From Oral to Written: A Celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980–2010. Talonbooks and
full-metal indigiqueer. Talonbooks
Indigenous literatures pose a problem for Canadian literature as an institution. There is an increased interest from the reading public in writing by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis authors, and an acknowledged need and responsibility to engage these texts in Canada’s educational institutions. However, Canadian literature hasn’t historically provided readers or educators with a wealth of canonical texts by Indigenous authors to work with. A glance at the table of contents of most anthologies of Canadian literature in English intended for classroom use typically reveals a handful of Indigenous authors at most, with greater representation reserved for specialist anthologies with a tighter focus. The lack of work by Indigenous authors in these anthologies, and within the canon more broadly, reveals a significant structural fault within Canadian literature. Tomson Highway’s From Oral to Written is an attempt to address this fault by offering readers a curated list of 176 texts by Indigenous authors produced in what is presently known as Canada. Highway’s project is both to celebrate the emergence of Indigenous writing as “a genuine movement, a genuine wave, a genuine phenomenon” in the years since 1980, and to make that writing accessible—principally by introducing and summarizing each text he profiles in order to induce his reader to pursue that book.
Highway’s profiles follow a pattern: he introduces the book, offers a synopsis, and closes with a paragraph that contextualizes it either aesthetically or politically, or both. This allows the reader—and Highway’s introductory essay suggests that this reader is a settler rather than Indigenous—to understand both the thematic qualities of a given book and its potential use value. In the concluding paragraph of his entry on Jim Morris’ play Son of Ayash, Highway writes:
if a . . . definition [of myth], particularly useful for our purposes here, is ‘that which defines the collective subconscious of a people, a culture,’ then this story maps out, in the collective Cree-Ojibwe dream world, the epic voyage that we all start taking at birth.
This is the argument, essentially, that Highway gives for reading Morris’ play: it provides the reader with an insight into the foundational myths of a people and thus constructs the epistemological structures that inform the cultural products and meanings which that particular people produce and exist within. This argument indicates that if readers are aesthetically interested in the type of text that involves a mythic hero’s journey and engages cultural archetypes—like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or Beowulf—then Son of Ayash will appeal to them, but it also asserts the use value of this text in a classroom setting. This is the central value of From Oral to Written, though it occasionally limits the book as well. The entries are not meditative essays like those in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies, and, given the richness of Highway’s language, that feels like a loss. However, as it establishes a past and a present, and anticipates a future, for Indigenous literatures in what is presently Canada, and makes those literatures accessible, the use value outweighs this concern.
If From Oral to Written makes a compelling argument for the “first wave” of Indigenous writing, the biopunk poetics of Joshua Whitehead’s full-metal indigiqueer shows the explosive promise of the future. Whitehead writes through and about the character Zoa—a heavily hybridized queer trickster figure who inhabits, like a virus, cultural works as diverse as Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, infecting them and reconfiguring them in an assertion of Zoa’s own existence. Through Zoa, Whitehead is able to draw out the trickster elements latent in the Harawayan cyborg, using the contradictions latent therein to critique and elude settler-colonial power. Ultimately though, the crucial act of defiance that Zoa performs is not in the critique, but in the persistence of their existence as queer and Indigenous in the face of the dominant culture’s desire to erase, to expunge those identities. full-metal indigiqueer recalls the best work of bpNichol and bill bissett while deploying the generic structures of cyberpunk and its descendants, and yet remains wholly its own. It is beautiful and challenging, closing on the line “wearesurvivingthrivingdyingtogetitright.” This is Whitehead’s first book of poems; there is no better reason to be excited about the future.