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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

An Interview with Thomas King (August 1999)

by Margery Fee and Sneja Gunew

Thomas KingThomas King (1943 - ) grew up in California. He has a PhD in English and American studies from the University of Utah and is currently Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. He is the author of fifteen novels and short story collections, including A Coyote Columbus Story (1992) and Green Grass, Running Water (1993), which were both nominated for the Governor General's Award. In 2003, he was chosen to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures, published as The Truth about Stories. A year later, Thomas King was made a member of the Order of Canada.

In the following interview, conducted on August 14, 1999, King describes his own struggle in the larger political context of the American Indian Movement (AIM) heyday in the States and during the 1995 Quebec referendum in Canada; however, he explains that most of his political activism has come in the form of his fiction and the radio show, Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour (1997-2000) and Dead Dog in the City (2006), for which he is a performer and scriptwriter. While working on his dissertation on Native literature, King encountered a lot of material that would later come up in his own work, which has allowed him to produce a literary-theoretical position through storytelling. King describes Native literature as constantly changing, but also a place where oral and written literature meet.

King tells the stories of his youth and discusses the life trajectory which eventually led him to writing—from attending parochial school, to joining the Navy, to working as a photo journalist in New Zealand. He goes on to talk about his Cherokee, Swiss German, and Greek heritage in relation to his identity, and the challenges of being both an American in Canada and a Canadian in the United States.

—Evgenia Todorova

Transcript

This interview was conducted by Margery Fee and Sneja Gunew in August 1999 as part of a research project on public intellectuals in Canada and Australia supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Kim Snowden and Evgenia Todorova worked on annotations and final editing.

Thomas King: Oh education. I went to grammar school in Roseville, California. I forget the name of the school—Atlantic Street School, I think, was one of them. But who knows? And Grove Avenue School, something like that. It's been too long. Went to two years parochial school and high school. My mother decided that I needed a better education than public school could give me and she believed for some unknown reason that the Catholic Church—and in particular the Christian Brothers—would give me this. I mean, why not send me to the Jesuits? So I went to a boarding school for two years. I don't know how she afforded it. I don't even know. There may have been something that they paid for, you know blah, blah. But I got stuck in with a bunch of—half the kids at the boarding school were juvenile delinquents whose parents could not control them, and half the kids were really nice kids whose parents sent them there for the same reason my mother sent me there. And I came out of there a juvenile delinquent. But, anyway, two years in parochial school, and then two years back at public school in Roseville because my mother could no longer afford it. I'm not sure what happened. I wasn't too happy at boarding school.

Margery Fee: She may have decided that it was not performing the function she had wished for it?

TK: Actually, I got pretty good grades, but I was also getting indoctrinated with the Catholic agenda.

MF: Scary thought.

TK: I did better in religion class than the Catholics did.

MF: Yes, I can imagine.

TK: I could memorize all this stuff.

MF: Well, did she care about religion much?

TK: No, no. As a matter of fact, my mother was one of those people who was very—what would you say—

MF: Laissez faire?

TK: No. Well, I'm not sure, see, because I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church, and then I was baptized in the Methodist and/or Presbyterian Church. And in my life I went to Greek Orthodox services, Catholic services, Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical sects that happened to come through town with their tents. And it was just sort of a large grab bag. I mean, with the Methodists I spent a lot of time on Bible studies of all things, if you can believe it.

MF: Ah, Green Grass, Running Water.[1] Hello, it's starting religion classes.

TK: I won a baseball bat and a ball for being able to recite all the books of the Bible. You know, Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First Samuel, Second Samuel. I mean, it just goes on and on.

MF: It does. I'm impressed. I won a prayer book once.

TK: I just discovered that they give those things away for almost anything just to encourage you. Anyway, so high school. And then two years of public high school which was kind of a wash except that, you know, I finally did graduate from that. And then I went to Sacramento State—it was called Sacramento State College in those days, now Sacramento State University—and flunked out. I had a zero point nine grade point average in my first year. There was a reason for it. I was sitting in the cafeteria playing Hearts with the people, and then spending my evenings drinking beer, eating pizza down at Shaky's Pizza Parlour and singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Kumbaya" and all those great things. So by the end of the first year, I had blown this very small scholarship I had from the Lions' Club in Roseville and didn't know where I was going to go, what I was going to do. My mother suggested the service.

MF: Shades of the Christian Brothers again.

TK: So I joined the Navy. She wanted me to join the Navy and so I joined the Navy.

MF: "In the Navy..."

TK: "In the Navy." "Anchors aweigh my boys." I didn't make it through boot camp in the Navy. I went down to San Diego and I got there and I discovered that most of the people who were running my life in the Navy were, you know, considerably stupider than I was.

MF: And this was a shock, was it?

TK: This was a shock.

MF: You and your mother were both very naïve.

TK: Yes. I mean, it was a shock. I thought that these people at least would know something about war if nothing else. They knew little. I mean, they were just bozos and they wanted to do the stupidest things. I mean, one guy got caught with a cigarette under his hat—this little cigarette cap—and they made him eat it on the parade ground, filter and all.

MF: It's full of nicotine! It could have killed him!

TK: And I said, "I don't need this." So I was kind of sorry I had gone into the Navy because I had scored very high on the tests and they were looking to put me into Officers' Training School. But I got lucky. I got lucky. We were in the shower one night and one of the guys had a towel and he was flicking everybody else with it. And so a riot sort of broke out in the shower—one of those jolly teenage riots, you know, no beer but just a lot of fun and naked bodies bouncing around the shower walls. And I slipped and fell and took my knee out. And I had had a bad knee from sports earlier on.

MF: So you were relieved of your vocation.

TK: Yes. What happened was I went to Balboa Hospital down in San Diego and they looked at the knee, but they wouldn't operate on it because it had had a prior condition. And I had told them about it when I had joined, and they still said it was prior. So they said, "Okay, we're not going to fix it, we're going to send you back to boot camp." And so they sent me back. This is long but it's a good story. They sent me back to this one room and all the people who had come through Balboa had to sit in this room and then they had to be ushered out by these two doctors—you know, the last little bit of this process. And one doctor was a lifer who loved the Navy and you could hear him—you know, "You goldbricker,[2] you stupid son-of-a-bitch, get up there." Don't sit here and whine about, you know, a little head wound that happened to be a huge gash with a metal plate sewn in. And the other doctor was a civilian doctor who would say, "Oh does that hurt? Oh my, maybe we should keep you here for another two weeks." We're all going, "Please give me the civvie doctor, please." And my chart was the next one up and I could see it and the lifer came out and he grabbed my chart and my heart just sank.

My heart just sort of sank, and I thought, "Oh God, it's the end. I'm going to go back to boot camp, I'm going to be dead before the week is out." And just as he took my folder, he thought of something to do with the other guy, put my folder back and turned to the guy and said, "Come here you son-of-a-bitch." And in the mean time the civilian doctor comes out and takes my file and takes me in. And so he says to me, "Oh Tom, you got a pretty bad knee here. Have you considered surgery?" I said, "Well, they won't operate on it." And he says, "Well, you know, we can't let you go on a ship." And I said, "Jeez, I really wanted to go on a ship." And he says, "Well, you've got two choices. You can do shore duty and, you know, it's a lot of fun and maybe you can get a foreign land posting, or what else did you do before you came in the Navy?" I said, "Well, I was thinking about a college career." He says, "Well, I went to college, that's pretty nice." He says, "Well, look, you can have your choice. You can stay or I can just give you a 4-F[3] and send you out and you go back to school." And I said, "Well, you know, I really wanted to be in the Navy. Get me out of here quick!" And so he did. He gave me a discharge. He gave me a medical discharge.

MF: That's a relief. I was wondering where this was leading. I was thinking dishonourable discharge any minute.

TK: No, no, so I got out of the Navy and I hitchhiked up to Ashland, Oregon, to see the Shakespearean Festival. Got pneumonia from sleeping under park benches in order to go and see the festival. Got back to my mother's place sicker than hell, on death's doorstep, and I got over that and then I went two years to junior college to get my stuff back up again and then went off to—what did I do? I went off to—oh yes—Lake Tahoe and did some work as a blackjack dealer for a summer. And then I went down to San Francisco and got a job driving an ambulance for about six months until I got bored of that and then got a job—oh, here's another one. I love stories. You don't mind, do you? This could take forever.

MF: We do, if it takes forever. We have to get eventually to our real questions. But this is good. Tell us a little bit about being a blackjack dealer or whatever.

TK: Well, no, I wasn't a blackjack dealer, I was driving an ambulance and we had picked up a guy who had had a heart attack. And when we got him to the hospital, he turned out to be a vice-president of the Bank of America. And he said to me on the way, "You look like a smart kid, why don't you leave ambulance driving and come and work for me." And I said, "Well, I don't know, maybe I will." And so we got him to the hospital. I didn't want to tell him he was going to die, he looked pretty bad.

MF: You didn't think he was going to be able to hire you.

TK: That's right. But my bank was the Bank of America. About two months later, I was in the bank making a deposit and there he is and he says, "Come on work for me." And I said, "Well, sure." And so I became a junior executive which was a bank teller—the second most boring job I ever had. And while I was working the teller's cage, a woman came in who worked for a steamship company that gave people one-way passages across to Australia and New Zealand if they worked their way on board the ship and asked me if I wanted to go, and so I said, "Sure," quit my job at the bank and went to New Zealand. I spent three years there doing journalism, blah blah, photography, came back. Went back to Chico State University. From Chico I finished my B.A., my M.A., went out to Utah as a counselor for Indian students and would up getting into the Ph.D. program in English.

MF: Okay. Who supervised your thesis?

TK: Many people.

MF: Of course, I suppose, yes.

TK: But primarily a man named Bill Mulder, who was an Americanist at the University of Utah, and another Americanist, from Yale I think it was, who was there at Utah named Ed Lueders, and then a historian, Floyd O'Neal. Now, those were the three main influences of people who helped me along, and then I had other people.

MF: Floated in and out.

TK: Floated in and out. Although those two guys floated in and out, Mulder and Lueders. Mulder went to India for a while and Lueders took over as Chair. And I think—I'm not sure but I think—Lueders is listed as the Chair of my committee on the final Ph.D. dissertation.

MF: Which I have a copy of, actually.

TK: Oh God. Oh Lord.

MF: So when you started out on that thesis, was your project what it ended up to be or did it change? Because it seems pretty focused on Native Studies. 1971 would have been pretty early days.

TK: There were lots of things I could have done my dissertation on. I could have done it on William Eastlake, for instance, who's a writer I greatly admire, who wrote a series of books about Natives in the South West.[4] Or I could have done it on your Western writers, something like that, just sort of the generic kind of dissertation. But I really wanted to do something that was on Native literature or at least some aspect of Native literature. And I was a great fan of N. Scott Momaday.[5] Momaday really was not so much an inspiration on my writing because Momaday and I don't write anything alike. I mean, he really is a very poetic writer, a very lyrical writer. He has adjectives and adverb factories and I close them down. But nonetheless, he was the first Indian to win the Pulitzer and he was the major Indian writer out there. And so I wanted to do something with him and then Welch[6] and Silko[7] came along. And so by the time I started my dissertation, I felt I had enough—barely enough material within those three writers—to do something on contemporary literature. And I got interested in traditional literature and oral literature, and there was nothing on that. I mean, there was just absolutely nothing written on it at all. Or the stuff that was written on it wasn't very good or it was anthropological or it was ethnographic. I didn't know what to do with it. You know, not that I did anything with it myself. But I began to read some of the old stories—the old oral stories that had been collected from various sources—and I got sort of intrigued by relationships. I'm always big on relationships in my novels. And it sort of intrigued me, some of these relationships that began to appear. And so the good thing about the dissertation was that I didn't have anybody looking over my shoulder.

MF: They'd given up and gone away. Presumably they left you to your own devices.

TK: So I was completely on my own for that dissertation, and it shows. I mean, I think it's a reasonably poor dissertation. But it was new material for me. There hadn't been anything out there.

MF: It taught you a whole lot that turns up in your novels.

TK: It taught me a lot, oh yes.

MF: At least in Green Grass, Running Water and One Good Story. So I think, in a way, you were teaching yourself what you were going to use later. So who cares whether it's a good Ph.D. thesis or not, in a sense.

TK: No. I mean, it gave me a lot of background material to use later and the dissertation—the work of the dissertation—combined with seeing work like Harry Robinson's work, for instance, really gave me a foot up.[8] And it's funny how those little things come into place.

MF: I want to ask you more. Now I'm on to Frye, I guess.[9] Where did you get all that stuff on Frye? Was it from Helen[10] or did you have some of that yourself, or did you learn that?

TK: I read Frye's Anatomy of Criticism—is that it? Yes.

MF: That's the title.

TK: Thank you. I forget these. I read Anatomy of Criticism and liked it. And I liked it particularly because Frye has a kind of conversational way of dealing with fairly serious topics. I mean, he doesn't show off with his language particularly, and he has a kind of quirky way of coming to things. And I quite liked it. It was—

MF: Not a boring book, no.

TK: And then whenever I had a question about Canadian literature, I could always ask Helen and she would fill me in for hours. She explained tautology to me.[11] I still don't remember what it is but she'll explain it to me again if I need it.

MF: She's a constant reference source.

TK: Yes.

MF: For our project, you're perfect in way, I suddenly realize, because you're both an immigrant in a way and an Aboriginal as well. You see, in our project we're dealing with people who are in a sense diasporic, and also people who are indigenous in both Canada and Australia. You're a multiple category in your own person, which I like a lot.

TK: Only if you believe in national lines.

MF: Yes, okay, exactly. So that's sort of what I think I'll ask you about next. I mean, you may not believe in the Canadian border, but in a sense you are an American immigrant in one aspect of yourself.

TK: Politically that's true.

MF: And I think you've probably have had people react to you that way whether you believe it or not.

TK: Yes.

MF: I'd like maybe to ask you to talk about the politics of being American in Canada, being Canadian in the States (when you're back), and possibly being Cherokee in First Nations communities.

TK: Or wherever.

MF: Yes, yes. So the whole, I guess, mix and how that affected you in different communities.

TK: I don't know which is tougher, to be a Cherokee in Canadian Aboriginal society, or to be an American in Canadian society.

MF: You're on the bottom of everything.

TK: It's not that I'm on the bottom so much, it's just that I'm outside in the garden some place and I can't find a door to get in for the most part. People talk to me from the kitchen window. It just depends on whom I talk to. I mean, that's the odd thing—that my subject position, as it were, changes not through my own efforts but through the efforts and the ideas of others. You know, people will put me in different places. I feel like a piece of furniture sometimes.

MF: We'll move him over here now.

TK: That's right. We'll do contemporary Swedish and so we don't need Tom anymore.

MF: We'll shove him out.

TK: I think maybe Native writers in Canada feel a little bit like a piece of furniture that gets moved in and out of the house at periodic points. So, with me it's sort of like, "We don't need the Cherokee anymore, let's find an American. Oh my God, he's an American. Leave him in the corner there." I don't know how to deal with that particularly and it's kind of fun because I'll do talk shows every so often. And they'll say, "Well, how does it feel to be an American in Canada?" And I'll say, "Well, I'm a Canadian, you know. I've got citizenship." "Really. But you're still an American, right?" "Well, yeah, but I'm Cherokee, too." "What's that got to do with anything?" they'll say. "Well, you know, I guess it doesn't for this show, but the next one I'm going to be on..."

MF: Being Cherokee is crucial.

TK: "...it's going to be a big deal." That's right. So it's one of those questions that I can answer at the moment in a particular position, but I can't answer it in general because it changes, and it changes sometimes daily.

MF: Depending who you're talking to.

TK: When I go on book tour, it's the damnedest thing. It's like I have to figure out who they are and what they want and then I have to see if I can strike that pose, or if I want to strike that pose. So you say, "Well, here with Tom King, a Cherokee writer." "Hi, I'm Cherokee. I'm Tom King." Or, "Here we are with Canadian writer Thomas King." "Yeah, I'm Canadian, eh?"

MF: What about the German and the Greek. I mean, you said you went to Greek Orthodox Church or were baptized, I guess.

TK: Oh yes.

MF: They're going to want you back, you know.

TK: They may get me back in the next novel. Yeah, the German. Now, the reason I put German on my first book was because I didn't want my grandmother to feel left out of my ethnic mix. But what I didn't know was that she was Swiss-German.

MF: A whole other thing.

TK: A whole other thing completely. And even little of that. She was from Hudson River, New York, and she was wealthy. Her family was wealthy. And they lost all their money. Her father was killed or died—there are some wonderful stories about that—and her step-father (who may have killed her father, this was according to her), was a mean spirited son-of-a-bitch who sort of sold the kids into servitude, working fields and blasting tree stumps out of the ground with dynamite out in California.

MF: So this is how the family got to California.

TK: Yes, from New York to California.

MF: Okay, all right.

TK: And so I guess my grandmother was sort of a big mix with Swiss-German and everything else in there. And when I put German down, my mother said, "Your grandmother wasn't German, for Christ's sakes! She was Swiss-German and that was just a little bit, so get it straight!" But by then it was too late.

MF: It was too late. It had entered the biography.

TK: And so everybody puts in German and Greek. But the Greek part—my grandfather came directly from Greece. His family came over. He got through Ellis Island,[12] but the rest of his brothers had to go to Mexico because they couldn't get in through the Greek quota in the States and had to change their name to Monos in order to get across the line. So part of my family is Kousoulas, and the other part is Monos on the Greek side.

MF: They were pretending to be Mexican?

TK: That's right. Can you imagine?

Sneja Gunew: Where in Greece?

TK: That's a good question. An island—I'll have to ask my mother.

MF: Okay, so you're an ethnic mess, actually.

TK: I may write about that in my next novel.

MF: You get it all in there. Now I'll move to another issue. Our focus is people who do both creative work and what we would call intellectual work or political work or work with the communities. Intellectual work doesn't necessarily have to be, for us, writing literary criticism or literary theory, but people who write activist pieces for the papers or are out there in the communities doing some kinds of community political work or whatever. So those are the kinds of connections we're looking for in this project.

TK: Okay.

MF: So I guess the first question that we have, moving to that area, is: do you perceive yourself as an intellectual worker? I mean, how do you characterize what you do?

TK: Oh God.

MF: And would you resist or accept that characterization?

TK: You know, that's a funny thing. If you had asked me that ten years ago, I would have said, "Yes, I see myself as an intellectual activist." But if you ask me that today, I'm not sure that I would try to take that on. And the reason is because—in my novels, I do get into a form of intellectual activism. Certainly Green Grass, Running Water is part of that. Truth and Bright Water, the new novel, is in part that, but not nearly as strong as Green Grass.

MF: What about Dead Dog?[13]

TK: Well, Dead Dog is certainly a social satire, political satire. I guess I'm one of these people who will do that as long as their ass isn't on the line.

MF: And then when your ass is on the line?

TK: I don't like my ass being on the line.

MF: No.

TK: I was an activist during the AIM days in the States, and I have to admit that I got scared shitless a number of times both by the activists and by the police.[14] I mean, it seemed as though both of those groups had moments when they were deadly, when they were both deadly. And I was able to see that a couple of times with the police in Salt Lake City, in one instance, and then with some cops in Wyoming who stopped us on our way to Wounded Knee. We were headed to Wounded Knee and we never even got half way there.

MF: That was the Lionel—

TK: Yes, that's the Lionel thing.[15] Yes, there's more truth in that Lionel piece than one likes to admit, than I'd like to admit. And, like Lionel, I was terrified.

MF: Anybody with common sense would have been, I think.

TK: And sometimes the guys who were the activists on our side scared the shit out of me too.

MF: Did you see that stuff on Anna Mae Aquash in the Globe on the weekend?[16]

TK: No, no.

MF: You should have a look at that. It wasn't clear who killed her. I mean it's not clear still whether it was the police or the activists.

TK: Within the Native world, it's very clear that the police killed her, the FBI killed her. But there were people in the police force who would shoot you. If they were given the green light, they would have shot you. No question about that. And there were people within the movement itself who would have killed you at the drop of a hat. And, you know, I just didn't like that position.

MF: No, not a pretty position.

TK: I guess, in the end, either I didn't believe in something that hard to want to put my life on the line, or—well, what happened is I always used to see the absurdity of these sorts of black and white kinds of creations. And I would start laughing. Not out loud, of course, but just to myself. And I would say to some of these people, "Don't you see the absurdity of this? I mean, this is crazy! Come on, let's sit down for a second and just work it out." And these people—that wasn't the way they were.

MF: Oh no.

TK: They wanted those—

MF: That sort of violence was going to be the way to fight the revolution.

TK: I could see where sometimes you might want to resort to violence, but basically I was a chicken shit. And so my activism—if there is any at all—comes in the form of Dead Dog, where what I try to do is get people laughing so they don't think poorly of me for having taken a piece off their hides. And it works pretty well. Most of the time, I don't get people really incensed at what I do—although we've got a Dead Dog coming up that the lawyers may throw out because we're talking about the Americans coming up here to hunt Canadian bears. And Grace says, "Well, like, they got to come up here to hunt the bears because they've run out of everything else to shoot down there." And Jasper says, "Yeah, they're down to livestock and school children." But even as I'm writing it, I'm a little concerned.

When I wrote Green Grass, Running Water—I mean, after I finished the book, just as I finished the book—Salman Rushdie all of a sudden gets a death threat hung over his head.[17] And I'm saying to myself, "I've just taken orthodox Christianity and taken it to task in Green Grass, Running Water, and I've got Noah, I've got Jesus..."

MF: You've got a bad picture painted there of the major figures.

TK: And I'm saying to myself, "Tom, so I really want to do this?" And I had to think about that because I didn't want to be Rushdie. He may have got some notoriety but I didn't want to be him, or to live that kind of life.

MF: No, no. Who would? He didn't want to be that. He certainly didn't do that on purpose.

TK: No, I don't think so.

MF: When the (this is, I think, something Helen was telling me) the referendum came along in Quebec, though, and the Cree were looking at having to secede from a secession, you were sort of involved in that.[18] Was that anything sort of institutional or was that just your own personal—

TK: No, that was strictly personal. I was incensed. I was incensed with the French position on that because when we said, "What about the Cree in Quebec? What about the Native people in Quebec?" the French were saying, "There are no Native people, there are only French in Quebec." And you could see very clearly that while the French were arguing for a distinct society for themselves, and while they were using all the arguments that Native people have been making for years on that particular score, they were not willing to allow other people to make the same claim that they themselves were making. I thought that was hypocritical as hell. And it's a good thing I wasn't doing Dead Dog then.

But Helen always gets me to back off of some of the more, you know, rabid stuff that I put on Dead Dog. I got away with a thing called "American Justice" at one point in time, I only did one episode of it and Helen said, "This is a little raw." But, no, the Quebec thing got me fairly upset and if that had really come to a head, I might well have gone to Quebec on that. Because it was just so ludicrous that the French could say, "Look, we're a distinct society within an English-run country. We want this status. We're going to take this status, but we'll give it to no one else." It's almost, you know, Cyrano de Bergerac, "I say those things lightly enough about myself, but allow no other man to say them."[19] Well, tough! There are other people who are going to say them and there are other people who are going to want the same sorts of things that the French want. And if they can have sovereignty within sovereignty within English Canada, there's no reason why Native people can't, if they want it. I'm not going to tell them that they do need it, but if they want it, then—

MF: Well, they seem to think they do.

TK: I think there are groups that have a large enough body and political savvy, you know, to manage that. And there are groups that probably don't have that, but many times it's not their fault. But the French thing. I was willing to support Quebec for a distinct society, but I was not willing to support them at the cost of Native people.

MF: I think a lot of people would agree with that. You're going to have to be fair to everybody. So are you hooked up with other people in the Aboriginal community? Are you a part of organizations? Or do you feel yourself as primarily a writer and that's your community? I mean, where do you put your sort of activists or intellectual community? Or is there nothing fixed?

TK: Within the Native community, I am primarily involved in the arts portion of that. I'm not involved in any degree in the political community. I don't serve on any boards, I don't get on any task forces. I stay completely away from that kind of stuff. I don't work with any community agencies. I'm lousy at it. I just have little patience for that kind of work. And so all of my work is with writers. I sing with a drum group that goes around to various functions and the Aboriginal community supports them there.

MF: What's the drum group called?

TK: When we first started out, we called ourselves the "Four Skins," which was not my idea.

MF: Ah, no. Was Drew Taylor in this group?[20]

TK: No. I wish, I wish. But it could have been Drew. And then we called ourselves the "Clay Pigeons" for a while so that wasn't so bad. And normally we're known as the "Guelph Native Men's Circle." We go to Toronto and sing at get-togethers there.

MF: Okay, so this group is mainly for fun and profit and keeping in touch with Native communities, that kind of thing?

TK: Actually it's mainly to get together and sing, to sing powwow songs. Benjamin [King's son] sings with us and he's getting pretty good, as a matter of fact. And, you know, we do community work through the singing and that's probably as far as I go. The rest of it is really in the arts community, and it's just a relationship with established artists, a relationship with young artists. I try to go out of my way to encourage young Native artists to do what they want to do. I mean, Eden Robinson is so, so talented and people look at her and say, "Well, she's barely twenty for Christ's sakes, what does she know?"[21]

MF: Who cares!

TK: And I'm saying, "Listen, she is a real talent. Not only that, but she can handle a crowd as well as any pro I've seen."

MF: It's nice to see someone like that coming along. Are there other people like that? I mean, who are the other young people that you know that are out there?

TK: There are some. There's David Treuer who just had a book published called Hiawatha.[22]

MF: Had to happen.

TK: Yes, I'm sorry I didn't think of it sooner.

MF: That's what you want, though.

TK: And there's there is Richard Wagamese from Calgary.[23] He's published two books. And then there's Ruby Slipperjack.[24] I don't know if she's writing actively right now.

MF: Well, it's been a while since her last book.

TK: And Beatrice Culleton who did In Search of April Raintree, and Moshinyay. [25]

MF: These are not new writers, though.

TK: No, these aren't new writers. You know, it's a funny thing. There are a number of new poets coming out who have just sort of materialized.

MF: Louise Halfe. [26]

TK: Louise Halfe, Michael Paul Martin[27] out of Toronto. And playwrights seem to be—I mean, Ian Ross just won the GG [Governor General's Award] for his play and he's a younger person with just the one play out, really.[28]

MF: FareWel

TK: Linklater.[29] Yes, FareWel. In plays and in poetry we've had a steady number. Every so often somebody comes up. But in terms of the novel, there have been damn few Native writers in Canada who have gone to the novel. In the States, the novel is the big thing that the Native writers go for. Up here it's drama and plays.

MF: Can you think of why maybe?

TK: I don't know why. I really don't know why.

MF: Do you think—well, there are organizations that better support drama here, maybe? Could it be?

TK: It very well could be that.

MF: The Playwrights Co-op? I know there's a Native woman running that now. I think she's the president.[30]

TK: I mean, you've got Tomson Highway,[31] Drew Hayden Taylor, Monique Mojica.

MF: Moses.

TK: And it goes on and on. Daniel David Moses, yes.[32] But in terms of novels? Tomson wrote a novel this year, whether he continues in the novel I don't know. But the brightest talent right now is Eden.

MF: Yes.

TK: As far as fiction goes. I mean, of the people that I see around, she's head and shoulders above anybody else.

MF: Do you know if the En'owkin is really a force for production of new writers or how do you feel about that thing?[33]

TK: You know I like the idea of an En'owkin just because it gives Native kids a chance to look at writing as a career in a setting that you know has the accoutrements of being able to do it. But in the end, you're not going to train writers there. You will encourage writers there. And you will give them a good beginning and whether or not they do anything with it is up to them. But it's the same thing with the Iowa School of Writing. You know, you may get somebody out of Iowa who is a top-notch writer, but ninety percent of the time you're not going to. It's just that writing is one of those things. It's a disease. Quite frankly, it's a disease. You're kind of stuck with it. It's one of those long term, terminal diseases that you just can't get away from, and you have to make a choice at some point in time whether to push it as hard as you can, and that doesn't happen at school. At those schools you're going to get people who are encouraging you to write, you're going to meet other writers, you're going to be able to go to get-togethers that deal with writing, you're going to read good literature, hopefully. All those things add up and become a part of a package that you take away from the school with you that you may assist you to be a good writer. But in the end—especially with the novel, and with poetry and drama too, I suppose—you have to just sit down and you have to grind it out. Whenever I'm teaching my creative writing classes, I find the biggest book I can find—you know, Tolstoy's War and Peace—and bring it in and say, "You want to be a novelist? Okay, all you have to do is type every word on every page at least once." You got to be able to do that, just the physical end of it.

MF: Yes, just getting it out in quantity if not in quality.

TK: And then I say, "The bad news is you'll have to do it more than once."

MF: Yes, most good writers have a couple of those sitting in a drawer. How many of those do you have in a drawer?

TK: None.

MF: None. You don't? Okay.

TK: None. I've never started a novel I haven't finished. I think I'm incapable of doing that.

MF: Well that's good news, I think.

TK: I have a mystery that I've been working on for a while, but that's because other things have impinged on that.[34] But I don't have any starts on novels that I haven't followed through. Normally I have a pretty good idea of a large, overall arc that—

MF: Is going to get you to the end.

TK: That is going to get me to the end.

MF: If you can fill in the bits in the middle.

TK: With Truth and Bright Water, interestingly enough, I had the last line of that book written before I started the novel.

MF: Oh, that's comforting.

TK: It really was. I knew no matter where I wandered—

MF: That would be where you would end up.

TK: That was going to be the last line because that was the line that I wanted. A marvelous last line in the last sentence.

MF: Okay, so when you're teaching. You teach creative writing. Do you teach English as well? What's your situation at the University of Guelph?

TK: I teach Native literature and I teach creative writing.

MF: Okay. Tell me about the Native literature course because I sometimes teach one, too.

TK: I teach a two hundred course or a two thousand course, whatever they call it. And I teach a three thousand course and I teach a graduate course. It just depends.

MF: So you cycle through these. When you teach is there some kind of theoretical framework you use, or what critical work do you use?

TK: No, I'm a lousy teacher.

MF: You go from the text to whatever you come up with?

TK: What I try to do—in my survey courses—is try to give them a sense of the development of contemporary Native literature. And I also try to give them a sense of traditional oral literature. In those courses, I'll use Harry Robinson as sort of the swing on that. This man who stands between oral literature and written literature to show how traditional Native story telling techniques and ideas and all that sort of meet there. Where you can see it, where you can see it clearly. Kind of a geological fault, if you will, or a moment in a series of strata that you can see very clearly where one merges into the other. And the techniques and the ways in which you can make that work. You can bring that sort of Native sensibility in story telling into a contemporary context. Which is what I've been about so far. Although the new novel is not about that. I moved away from that just a little bit.

But I wish I had a theoretical framework to put that in, but my sense—and I guess I've said this in the very few essays that I've written—is that any time I come up with a theoretical framework, what happens is: I see this animal out there called Native literature. And I say, "Ah, if I make a net that looks like this, I can capture it. And if I make a net that looks this, anything that I capture will be Native literature." But by the time I'm done making the net, the damn thing has changed. You know, it's grown bigger, or it's grown horns, or it's taken off in a different direction. And the net that I've made—that I've so carefully crafted—suddenly doesn't fit anymore.

MF: That's a theoretical position.

TK: I suppose it is. But what happens, I think, is that the writers themselves are constantly in the process of changing the critical ground that you stand on. As you pick up a theory, as you craft a theory, and you go to take it out to see if it will fit over anything, by the time you've done that the writing has changed. They've shifted on you. And all you can do as a critic—desperately—is to say, "Oh, the damn thing's going to fit if I have to make it fit! Boom! There it is." But in actual fact, my way of thinking is that some of the very best critics are the writers that we have. The writers sometimes play off of critical theory. I mean, they play off of the notions of a critical theory. You may be ten feet behind or maybe two minutes down the road they've already passed or that they know is coming up. And I think writers try push that a little bit further to see where they can go. And I think criticism and writing sort of have this chase on between the two. I don't know how many times I've heard critics say, "It took four years to publish my damn book and now it's out of date." Well, it's not so much out of date. I mean, it is in a sense, but what's really happened is that the writing and the ideas behind what story telling is have changed, and sometimes they've changed dramatically over a space of time. And criticism is always looking for new ways to interpolate that material by sort of chasing and trying to hold it in place at the same time for a moment.

MF: So are there any critics or theorists that you find useful? Have you read Keeping Slug Woman Alive? That's Greg Sarris's book.[35]

TK: Yes.

MF: I mean, there are a couple of books out there that are almost novelistic. I think that one is.

TK: That's it. Sarris is a creative writer and what he's done with criticism, really, is simply tell a story.

MF: About his Aunt Mabel.

TK: About criticism, and about his Aunt Mabel, yes.

MF: I know you, you're "School Way".[36]

TK: Yes. So he tells about Aunt Mabel and I tell about Bella at the Sundance.[37]

MF: True, yes.

TK: We get at criticism through story, but what we're really doing is writing stories.

MF: I think, in a sense, you're getting at similar problems. I mean, it's some kind of problem about truth or about history or about race. Those are the problems that writers and critics are working on—in different ways, maybe. And that's a better way to look at it somehow. Perhaps.

TK: When Rudy [Wiebe][38] and Bill [Kinsella][39]got into that that argument about appropriation of Native voice, in some ways that was—on the one hand, it was a critical argument and an interesting argument over who could do what with Native material.[40] But it also was a personal argument, "I'm right and you're not," and that is very much a part of the critical enterprise. I don't know how many times I've seen two critics go at it at a conference. One gives a paper, one gives the comment, and the two of them have these knock-down, drag-out battles. And I'm going, "Come on, guys, I'll give you a quarter a piece. Call your mothers and tell them you've been bad boys. Stop it!"

MF: Well, it's about status in some sense, you know.

TK: Well, it is. It's not about criticism at all. It's about status in some ways.

MF: Yes, that was an interesting debate. Now Robert Bringhurst has put out his Haida stories.[41] Have you seen that?

TK: No.

MF: Sharp as a Knife, I think it's called. A Story Sharp as a Knife. I've got that and I've got already the predictable responses. I've got a copy for you. People saying, "Well, could he/should he have done this." And so it's on again, probably.

TK: God, yes.

MF: Anyway, I'll show you later. Okay, so let me ask you some of these really—

TK: Dense questions.

MF: Dense questions. This isn't dense at all. I'll start with the one I think is the most interesting for you probably. What does Canadian mean in your life? Can you can you talk about that?

TK: Basically it means Helen.

MF: Oh, that's sweet because Helen's so nice. She defines Canadian for you, does she, in her person?

TK: She defines Canadian for me, yes, she really does. She defines Canadian for me. I mean, she's a decent human being, she believes that there is truth in the world and that one should encourage it. She likes to believe—as my mother did and my grandmother did—that if you do good in the world, you will be rewarded in some ways. That there is such a thing as saintliness. And morality. And even though she knows that there is a problem with all of that, nonetheless she would rather live in a world in which that was possible than to live in a world that would reveal that it was just a sham. Whereas I believe that the world is a amoral at the very best—immoral, probably—and that the optimistic viewpoint is that people just don't give a shit about anybody but themselves.

MF: So I'm glad you found her. This has tempered a rather bleak position.

TK: The odd thing is that, while I believe it myself, personally, my novels are filled with optimism. They're very optimistic, and it's almost my sort of weeping off on the side and saying, "Please let me be wrong." But I'm not wrong. And yet I'll produce these works of fiction in which there is monumental optimism. Now, the new novel does not have that. In the new novel, I've finally been able to shake that great need of mine to please, and to say some things and do some things that I have not done before.

MF: So not quite so much funny and a little more bleak. That came through the reading, actually, I think.

TK: What I read was none of the bleaker points of the novel. One Green Grass is plenty for anybody. I don't think I'll be able to do it. I don't think I'll want to do it, to be honest with you. But the new novel deals with a number of concerns that have haunted me in my life, and I have finally been able to get at them. Now, not as deeply as I want to, but I've got to sneak up on these things. I can't do it all at once.

MF: Okay.

TK: It may be that you see a kind of devolvement of my novels into a kind of—what is the phrase? "Abandon hope all ye who enter here"[42]—as we work our way down into these circles all the way to the frozen bottom.

MF: Oh it's frozen, is it?

TK: I think it's frozen in Dante, is it not?

MF: Yes.

TK: Declining circles where Satan is frozen in this lake—

MF: Of sewage, essentially.

SG: And you look up his arsehole. Do you remember?

MF: Terrific. Do I remember? No, I've never been there.

TK: So it may well be that in the next novel I may go back to the Green Grass model, but do a very different take on the world. So I may really get into that, just layer worlds on and just really dive deep. I've got some wonderful stories that I'm planning to use. Andreas Schroeder did a thing on this guy who embalmed a whale and took it around the countryside on a specially made flatbed railroad car and charged people ten cents to see this rotting hulk. [43] And it began to rot.

MF: Moby Dick is back.

TK: Moby Dick is back. And he's just given me all the information on that particular guy. And they had charlatans who could make these whales out of papier mâché and throw in chicken guts on the inside so that they would stink so bad that people thought it was a rotting whale.

MF: Oh my. It sounds wonderful. I'm looking forward to the movie.

TK: People who think these things up. I mean, what marvelous metaphors for the world in which we live where we embalm this whale and take it across country on this flatbed truck and it rots out from underneath us even as we watch it. It just starts to decay. Anyway, don't get me started on that.

MF: I'm going to pop back around these questions. They didn't unfold in a very logical order anyway, I don't think. A question I skipped was: when you became a writer, how was this received in your original context, whatever that might be? Family, friends, teachers, colleagues? I mean, did that change your self-image or their image of you in an important way?

TK: Oddly enough, my mother was quite pleased.

MF: What do you mean "oddly enough"? Your mother's been grooming you for this all your life! She kept trying.

TK: She liked Medicine River, but then I wrote Green Grass, Running Water and I really thought she would hate that.

MF: Yes?

TK: I thought she would be very upset with that, and she loved it. As a matter of fact, she keeps saying, "Green Grass, Running Water is your best book. The other ones are okay, but Green Grass is your best. Coyote is so funny, bring coyote back." I'm going, "Mom, coyote is dead, he's not coming back."

MF: Coyote never dies. Come on, you know that.

TK: "Oh no, don't kill him off, bring him back." Well, with her I just wanted to get rid of coyote. So she was very encouraging. My brother was quite encouraging. He liked the books, he thought they were pretty good. On the new one, Truth and Bright Water, he said to me—he called me up and he said to me—"I've just finished reading your new book manuscript." And he said, "You're not going to make any money off of it, but it's your best work."

MF: Oh good. Well, it's always nice to have a brother who says things like that.

TK: And I don't think of him as a big reader, but he said it's the strongest of the three pieces and it's not going to make any money. He says there's no sex, you know, there's no exploding robots, blah, blah, blah.

The oddest thing—well, the interesting thing—is that my family is very small, whereas Helen's family is ten kids and God knows how many relatives all over the place. When I go into a family reunion these days, we just call a restaurant and get a table for three. So there aren't that many people to react to it. Helen, certainly. And I write for her, there's no question about that. I make sure that my books are intellectually astute enough to where I don't embarrass her. I would hate to do that.

MF: That's interesting. So now we know what the source of your—

TK: I really could you know do some more popular stuff if it weren't for her.

MF: And you don't want her sneering at you at the breakfast table.

TK: I don't want her sneering at me, no. I want her to think of me as a major force in the literary world. That's really important for me and it's important for her too. She doesn't want to be seen to be sleeping with some slug.

MF: Keeping slug man alive.

TK: Keeping slug man alive. So that community—certainly that very small community—is important. And they've been very supportive. I haven't taken any shit from them at all, and then the only other community that I hear from time to time is the writerly, critical community that's made up of all sorts of people. It's kind of a general mob, but not in the pejorative sense. But a general mob of people who comment on the piece. And that has been generally good—sometimes mixed depending on the piece and depending on who my audience is.

MF: What about what would be your ideal readership? I mean, do you think about an audience when you write, apart from Helen? Are you trying to connect with any other kinds of readers?

TK: I suppose in a general way. I mean, Medicine River was written in part for a Native community, a Native audience. Green Grass, Running Water obviously was written for a university audience.

MF: Yes, it just begs to be taught in a university.

TK: And I knew that I would just drive critics crazy with some of the stuff once they realize I'm playing with puns and allusions and perhaps even allegory at some points. I mean critics including me. I get excited about that sort of shit, too.

MF: So you might as well put a lot in there.

TK: Yes, so there is this layered, misleading book—you know, little clues all over the place. And, as Helen says, I've forgotten half of the stuff I've put in there.

MF: It's still there.

TK: It's still there. But you ask me about it and I go, "Oh, Jeez, oh yeah. That did mean something." I was thinking of something there but I can't remember what it was. But the new novel Truth and Bright Water is written—God, you know, I guess in some ways it was written for me. There are two boys growing up in that story who in some ways reflect, I suppose, two sides of my personality and I couldn't contain them within one character and so I had to create two in order to do it. And I suspect that as I mature as a writer I'll be looking more into what I want to do and not at an audience particularly. I'll have stories that I want to tell myself, that I want to make sure I get right. I mean, in part writing those novels is telling a story so that I understand what the story is about.

MF: Making sense of something for yourself.

TK: Making sense of something that's happened in my life. And Truth and Bright Water is trying to make sense of some things that happened in my life that I'll never make sense of. That's the crazy part. It is, in some ways, a useless exercise. It may be a cathartic exercise, it may even be—God help me to use the term—a healing exercise. But I doubt it. I really doubt it. I think it is simply a writerly exercise, in the end.

MF: You said Medicine River was written for a Native audience. Do you think it got a Native audience?

TK: I think so.

MF: I mean, do you have people who read your work and write or get in touch with you, saying, "Well, Tom, that was pretty good, " or "That was horrible."

TK: They don't get in touch with me, but I think what's happened is that book has had such a long life on the back list—Penguin's back list—and it's being used in things like adult courses on reserves.

MF: Okay, so there's a sort of institutional context for it now.

TK: Yes, it has an institutional context in which Natives are going to participate. And people even in high schools that have large Native populations have used it because—and they tell me this—it's a book that isn't gloomy. It shows Native people in a positive light. Well, that's a wrong reason for using a piece of literature as far as I'm concerned. Because sometimes the gloomy stuff is the stuff that is really powerful.

MF: Look at what Eden does.

TK: Yes, "Dogs of Winter" is just a marvelous piece. It's devastating.

MF: But you might not want to hit a high school class of somewhat insecure Aboriginal students with "Dogs of Winter."

TK: That's right.

MF: They might not just need that on the first day of school.

TK: And N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, which is a powerful piece, a wonderful lyrical piece. High school students don't like it. But they'll go for Medicine River.

MF: And Keeper'n Me. Well there it is. Different books for different age groups and different audiences. There's nothing wrong with that.

TK: No. But now I think it's changing for me and I've become more of a hermit. The only reason I'm doing this interview with you guys is because you and I are friends, but I've stopped doing it for people I don't know. Especially for Germans who keep writing me letters.

MF: Germans. Oh we'll have to talk about Germans, but not now maybe.

TK: Not now, no. I love them, but I'm getting notes from people who want to be my biographer. People whom I don't know, and I'm going, "No!" One, I don't want a biography written about me. Two, if it was going to happen I would do it, which I'm not. Or Helen would do it, which she won't until I'm dead at least.

MF: And then she'll be too old, we hope.

TK: Then she'll be too old and infirm and she'll forget all the stories and she'll have to make them up herself, who knows. But the idea that people—that critics have—is that they can simply move into a life and sort of dissect it, and that the person they lay out on the table unetherized is going to help them in the operation.

MF: Kill me, kill me, go ahead.

TK: That's right. Let us go, then, you and I, crack this body and see how it ticks and he's going to help.

MF: Amazing, amazing. Unless you suffered from great writer's syndrome or something, where you felt you wanted to be immortalized in some way.

TK: No.

MF: Amazing. But I want to ask you this question. If you saw yourself in the kind of context of Canadian literature or North American literature, where do you—you know, I feel that you get categorized as a Native writer and that bothers me. I mean, that's not where I feel you should be.

TK: It doesn't bother me.

MF: It doesn't bother you.

TK: It doesn't bother me because I am a Native who writes.

MF: Fair enough.

TK: So in that context, I'm a Native writer. I can't control that, either. I mean, people are going to say, "Ah, Tom King, Canadian writer." Well I could say, "Hey, I'm a North American writer."

MF: Yes.

TK: "Tom King, US writer, American writer." No, no, I'm really sort of Canadian because I do almost all my stuff about Canada. You know, "Tom King, Native writer." Well, yes, I'm that, too.

MF: And so it doesn't bother you.

TK: It doesn't bother me. Sherman Alexie says he wants to be considered a writer first, then Native second.[44] Which is fine. I understand what he's saying. He's saying, "Don't make me out to be..."

MF: "Don't box me in."

TK: "Don't box me in." And I've just gotten to the point—hey, you know. If that makes you happy? Sure. It doesn't bother me. They all fit.

MF: Do you have a place in the United States, do you think? Do people there read you or look at you as part of American literature?

TK: Yes. As a matter of fact, Green Grass, Running Water is taught extensively.

MF: Oh good. So Canadian culture is infiltrating.

TK: It's a funny thing, you know. This is the odd thing. They consider me a Canadian writer—the US does—and by dint of that, I'm an exotic. Now, they could consider me a US writer and they would be right to do that, but they don't for two reasons: one, I live in Canada; and, two, I write about Canadian stuff. I don't write about American stuff particularly. Now, the new novel will be interesting because it's set on the Canadian border, and much of the action happens in the US, in a US town. And so we'll have to see what they do with that. I don't know. When I was in Minnesota, I was considered an American writer by the Americans, and a Canadian writer by the Canadians. But I mean all of this is sort of political push-pull. And the odd thing is that what they're pulling on—although they don't know it—isn't me. It's an idea they have of me, but it's not me.

MF: But you said that you didn't know how Jane Flick and I could find borders in your writing. Ha ha ha. Light laughter, okay. Are there any questions we have missed?

TK: I try to destroy borders.

MF: Is there anything that you think we ought to ask?

SG: There's a whole kind of global dimension which we haven't talked about, or an international community. Far be it for me to bring the Germans back in. What I was thinking of was—in way back, when you were talking about teaching Native literature—did you, for example, bring in a comparative perspective? I mean, the other part of the project is Australia, for example.

TK: I know some of—I know parts of—New Zealand literature, Maori literature, and parts of Aboriginal literature out of Australia. But I don't know them that well. I've read some of those texts and I find them intriguing, but I don't know Australian Aboriginal literature that well or Maori literature to really begin comparing. What people do is just take one book, though, like Patricia Grace. [45] I could bring one of her books in and look at and say, "Well, this looks like this, and this does this, and blah, blah, blah." But I think you need to be smarter than that. So I don't.

I liked the one book that I read of Albert Wendt's, but I just don't have the kind of context for that literature that I have for Native literature. [46] And so I really am very much a North American critic and a North American writer, and I don't know that that's going to change to any great degree because, quite frankly, I have almost stopped reading critical texts and I just concentrate on the writing itself. And when I'm writing, I don't read. I'm like Eden, but not for the same reason. It's just that reading takes up so much of my energy that if I give it to reading I can't give it to writing. And I was a pretty good reader in my younger years, and I think now I'm just switched over to just doing the writing. Because I want to get the works out. You know, I've got stuff that I want to do, things I want to leave behind for my kids to puzzle over.

MF: Okay, cultural background. So when Helen's book comes out, you'll read it then. But you haven't really been part of the reading process?

TK: Helen is one of these critics who is very concerned about language and the words that she uses and making sure that she's up on the latest critical theory. And so, in part, her criticism is so far advanced beyond what I can read that it becomes impenetrable for me. And then other parts are not. Other parts are just great, and those parts shift back and forth and merge in really wonderful ways. Now, since I haven't read it I'm only guessing about this. She's read me sections of it and I've looked over her shoulder before she turns the computer off and she says, "Get out of here, go away." And then there are times when she's more open and she wants me to look at this and listen to what she's doing. So once the book comes out, I'll read it.

MF: And then we'll see it reflected in your work, I'm sure.

TK: Well, I mean, Helen always gets beat up in my novels, one way or another.

MF: I don't think she's beat up.

TK: Well, Helen Mooney in Green Grass, Running Water, taking notes, not listening, not paying attention to what's really happening because she's taking notes so vigorously.

MF: I sat beside her at a conference and she was like this the whole time. It's amazing, amazing, amazing.

Okay, what do you think? Are we done?

SG: That's it.

MF: Well, thank you.

TK: I hope that was helpful.

SG: Very.

TK: We hardly got into any stories at all.


[1]King's novel Green Grass, Running Water (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993) was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1993.

[2] Goldbricker is military slang for loafer, slacker.

[3] 4-F is a rating of the American Selective Service System for unfit for service.

[4] William Eastlake (1917-1997), is an American novelist and short story writer, who wrote The Bamboo Bed (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969) and Castle Keep (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965).

[5] N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is a Kiowa poet, painter, scholar and writer. He won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, A House Made of Dawn.

[6] James Welch (1940-2003) is a Montana-based writer and poet, who is the author of The Heartsong of Charging Elk (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

[7] Leslie Marmon Silko (1948-) is a writer of mixed Mexican and Native American heritage raised in the Laguna Pueblo, west of Albuquerque. She currently teaches at the University of Arizona and is the author of a collection of poetry, Laguna Woman (1974) and the novels Ceremony (New York: Viking, 1977), and Almanac of the Dead (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991).

[8] Harry Robinson (1900-1990) was an oral storyteller who told his stories in the Okanagan language as well as in English. Write it on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller (Penticton, B.C: Theytus Books, 1989) is a collection of Harry Robinson's stories, transcribed by ethnologist Wendy Wickwire shortly before his death.

[9] Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist. His book Anatomy of Criticism (1959) is one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century.

[10] Helen Hoy is King's partner. She is a professor and co-ordinator of Women's Studies at the University of Guelph and is the author of How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada, (Toronto: Toronto UP, 2001).

[11] Tautology, in logic, is a statement which is necessarily true, because its conclusion is equal to its premise.

[12] Ellis Island, New York was the landing point of 12 million immigrants in the early twentieth century. Between 1892 and 1924, Ellis Island received thousands if immigrants a day, each scrutinized for disease and disability as they made their way to the registry room. Ellis Island closed its doors in 1954 and it is now preserved as part of the State of Liberty National Museum.

[13] Dead Dog Café is a radio show written by Tom King and performed by Tom, Edna Rain and Floyd Favel. The Dead Dog Cafe began in King's novel Green Grass, Running Water and came to life on the CBC Radio One.

[14] The American Indian Movement (AIM) is a Native American activist association in the United States that was born when 200 members of the Native American community came together to discuss various issues that Indian people of the time were facing. The AIM protest in February 1973, also known as Siege at Wounded Knee, lasted 71 days. American Indians stood against government atrocities and ended in armed battle with its Armed Forces. AIM reclaimed Wounded Knee in the name of the Lakota Nation.

[15] Lionel Red Dog is one of the characters in the novel Green Grass, Running Water

[16] Anna Mae Aquash was a Mi'kmaq activist from Nova Scotia. She was murdered in 1976 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. See the Globe & Mail, Saturday August 7th, 1999 A1 + 8.

[17] In 1989 Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on the head of author Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. The novel tells of a young Indian's life in Britain and re-tells the legend of the prophet Mohammed. Some Muslims found the passages offensive and blasphemous, which under the laws of Islam is punishable by death.

[18] In 1995 the Cree opposed Quebec's proposed separation from Canada and held their own referendum to avoid having to forcibly participate in a referendum as part of Quebec. Over 96% of the Cree voted to stay in Canada; however, Quebec denied them. For more information see Sovereign Injustice: Forcible Inclusion of the James Bay Cree and Cree Territory into a Sovereign Quebec, published in October 1995 by the Grand Council of the Cree (of Quebec).

[19] Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) was a French dramatist and duelist. King is paraphrasing him.

[20] Drew Hayden Taylor (1962-) is an Ojibwa author and playwright from Ontario. His most recent play is The Buz'Gem Blues (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2002).

[21] Eden Robinson is a Canadian author of Haisla and Heiltouk heritage who grew up near Kitimat, BC. She is the author of Traplines (Toronto: Knopf, 1996) and Monkey Beach (Toronto: Knopf, 2000).

[22] David Treuer (1970-) is a writer of Ojibiway and Jewish heritage. His books include The Hiawatha (New York: Picador, 1999).

[23] Richard Wagamese is a Canadian writer of Ojibiwayheritage from Northern Ontario. His books include the best-selling novel Keeper`n Me (Toronto: Doubleday, 1994).

[24] Ruby Slipperjack (1952-) is an author, visual artist and a certified First Nations Hunter. She is an Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is the author of the novels Honour the Sun (Winnipeg: Pemmican, 1987), Silent Words (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1992), and Weesquachak and the Lost Ones (Penticton, BC: Theytus, 2000).

[25] Beatrice Culleton Mosionier (1949-) is a Metis writer from Winnipeg. She is best known for her novel In Search of April Raintree (Winnipeg: Pemmican, 1984).

[26] Louise Halfe (Sky Dancer) was born in Two Hills, Alberta and raised on the Saddle Lake First Nations Reserve. She is the award-winning author of the poetry collection, Bear Bones and Feathers (Regina: Coteau, 1994) and Blue Marrow (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1998).

[27] Michael Paul Martin is a Cree poet originally from James Bay in North Ontario. His first collection of poetry, She Said Sometimes I Hear Things (Toronto: 7th Generation), came out in 1996.

[28] Ian Ross is a playwright from McCreary, Manitoba with a degree in film and theatre. He won the Governor Generals' Award in 1997 for his play, Farewel (Winnipeg: Scirroco Drama, 1996).

[29] Linklater - I'm not sure who this is.

[30]Originally known as Playwright's Circle in 1971, it had a mandate to make sure Canadian playwrights got recognition. It became Playwrights Co-Op in 1972 and began publishing plays. In 1979 the Co-op was replaced by Playwrights Canada-a guild of Canadian playwrights formed to support Canadian plays in Canada and abroad. In 1984 the Co-op and guild merged to become Playwrights Union of Canada.

[31] Tomson Highway (1951-) is Cree playwright, novelist and children's author from Manitoba. He has worked as artistic director for the Native Earth Performing Arts, as a cultural worker for the Native People's Resource Centre and as a freelance artist and as director of De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group. He is the author of the novel Kiss of the Fur Queen (Toronto: Doubleday, 1998) and the plays The Rez Sisters (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989).

[32] Daniel David Moses (1952-) is a poet and playwright from Six Nations Lands on the Grand River, Southern Ontario. His play Coyote City: A Play in Two Acts (Stratford, ON: Williams-Wallace, 1990) was nominated for a Governor General's Award.

[33] The En'owkin Centre is an Indigenous cultural, educational, ecological and creative arts organization located on the Penticton Indian Reserve. The word En'owkin is an Okanagan conceptual metaphor which describes a process of clarification, conflict resolution, and group commitment.

[34] Dreadful Water Shows Up (Dead Dog Café, 2003) was published under the pseudonym Hartley Goodweather.

[35] Greg Sarris is a professor, author, screenwriter, and current Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

[36] "School Way" is an expression that comes from Greg Sarris's book Keeping Slug Woman Alive, when Aunt Mabel tells Greg that his method is "school way", i.e. his method of thinking is scholastic.

[37] See King's "How I Spent my Summer Vacation: History, Story, and the Cant of Authenticity" in Landmarks: A Process Reader. Eds Roberta Berks, Tom Eng and Julie Walch. (Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1998).

[38] Rudy Wiebe (1934-) is an author. editor, and Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at University of Alberta since 1992. His novels The Temptations of Big Bear (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (Toronto: Knopf, 1994) have both won Governor General's Awards

[39] W.P. Kinsella (1935-) is a novelist and short story writer who writes baseball inspired stories set in the American Midwest and stories set on Native reserves in Southern Alberta. His books include Dance Me Outside (Ottawa: Oberon, 1977), Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (Ottawa: Oberon, 1980), and The Thrill of the Grass (Vancouver: W. Hoffer, 1984).

[40] The debate is centered around the questions whether non-aboriginal writers should be able write from the perspective of an aboriginal character and whether non-aboriginal writers should be able to use traditional aboriginal stories in their fictions.

[41] Robert Bringhurst (1946-) is an author, poet and typographer. His book of poetry The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982) was nominated for a Governor General's Award.

[42] The inscription at the entrance to Hell - from Dante's Divine Comedy.

[43] Andreas Schroeder is a publisher, broadcaster, writer, poet. His work includes Scams, Scandals and Skulduggery (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996).

[44] Sherman Alexie (1966-) is a poet, author and screenplay writer who is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene American Indian. His work includes The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1993) which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the screenplay for Mirimax Films Smoke Signals.

[45] Patricia Grace (1937-) is a Maori novelist, short story writer and children's writer. She is the author of four short story collections and five novels including Sky People (Auckland, NZ: Penguin, 1994), Baby No-Eyes (Auckland, NZ: Penguin, 1998), and Dogside Story (Auckland, NZ: Penguin, 2001), which won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for Fiction.

[46] Albert Wendt is Samoan writer, poet and educator of mixed German and Polynesian ancestry, who has promoted creative writing across the Pacific. His works include Leaves of the Banyan Tree (Auckland, NZ: Longman Paul, 1979).

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