- Helen Hoy (Author)
How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Penny Van Toorn
Where indigenous literary cultures are blossoming out of the wreckage caused by colonialism, there is something obscene and disturbing about Roland Barthes’s metaphor of the death of the author. In residually colonial contexts, where indigenous authors are struggling to make themselves heard, well-meaning white readers and critics often violate Native author-ity by accident rather than by design. "How should I read these?" is therefore a crucial question, politically, culturally, and ethically.
Helen Hoy’s book poses this question in relation to seven canonical Native women’s texts: Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash, Maria Campbell and Linda Griffiths’ Book of Jessica, Ruby Slipperjack’s Honour the Sun, Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree, Beverly Hungry Wolf’s The Ways of My Grandmothers, Lee Maracle’s Ravensong, and Eden Robinson’s Traplines. Hoy’s readings of all these texts are sensitive to the ways they are reading her. Her main object of study is not the texts themselves, but rather the relations between Native texts and non-Native readers, especially in white-dominated academic institutions. Hoy maintains an exploratory, interrogative mood throughout. Each answer to the title’s question leads into a new tangle of dilemmas, which she teases out using every instrument at her disposal—textual analysis, scholarly research, and anecdotes about her personal and professional experience as a white female teacher, researcher, and partner of Cherokee-Greek writer Thomas King. Hoy has taken the necessary risk of investing herself as a whole person in this project.
Hoy has something new to say about each of the seven texts, and about her own and others’ critical approaches to them. She reads Armstrong, Slipperjack, and Hungry Wolf partly in terms of traditional Native ways of knowing and narrating, but she also worries that this approach projects cultural stereotypes onto texts and authors. In all her readings, Hoy examines her own practices critically. For example, after foregrounding Culleton’s focus on the discursive basis of truth-effects and identity categories, she questions the politics of constructionism, and asks whether her reading locks Culleton into a European poststructuralist cage, or whether Native cultures have always been conscious of the ways words make the world.
Hoy is acutely aware of the pitfalls of cross-cultural reading: "All my chapters address difficulties arising from the possible inappropriateness of the cultural and aesthetic understandings that I bring to my readings." One of her interpretive strategies is to look to the texts themselves for instructions on how they should be read. She rightly rejects the idea that these works embody a pure, inscrutable otherness. The texts bear a "Native" label but refuse to be imprisoned by it, and cannot be contained in glass cases like so many anthropological relics of supposedly pristine, closed, changeless cultures. Hoy holds herself accountable to the authors and their communities, but is not paralyzed by the likelihood that some of her cultural assumptions and interpretive tools may be inappropriate. The texts have, through the very fact of their publication, been sent out into a socially and culturally heterogeneous world. And it is precisely because they are transcultural acts of communication that they offer coded instructions on how to participate correctly in the social process of meaning-making. One of the tasks Hoy sets herself is to foreground and explicate these coded "reading instructions" and to explore their implications in cross-cultural reading and teaching contexts.
Hoy keeps her introductory promise that she is "tracing a process, rehearsing areas of contention, proffering analysis that is then often of itself challenged, modified, or displaced, and ending with partial and provisional answers that invite further challenge." Hoy’s accounts of (predominantly white) classroom discussions of specific Native texts confront politically dangerous questions such as whether the texts are really "any good" or are included in courses because of affirmative action in curriculum design. Bristling with anecdotes, quotations, and endnotes that reflect the development of Hoy’s thinking over time, her text is marked by the history of its own becoming. Hoy likens her exploratory and expository method to a journey along a series of switchbacks on a mountain trail, a movement in space that lets readers see the same object from above and below, and from opposing directions. Rejecting any pretence of olympian scholarly detachment, Hoy grounds her thinking anecdotally in specific moments of social and textual engagement. The "I" in How Should I Read These? is by no means an immutable, independent monolith, and Hoy is interested in how she appears as an object of others’ scrutiny.
She has also found a versatile, unpretentious voice that can shift from a scholarly "lit.crit." mode into other tones and registers. She often theorizes through story, and there are many good ones in this book. I especially liked the one about the 1996 Haisla sports day at Kitimaat Village where, trapped between two different codes of respectful behaviour, Hoy did the wrong right thing in winning the hundred-yard dash for women over thirty-five. Reflecting on her desire "to enter into the spirit of the day ’comfortably,’ without having to come into conflict with my own values" she was disconcerted by the "intractable ... difference between another (admirable) ethic and my own."
Negotiating intractable difference—not just once, but repeatedly over time—is what How Should I Read These? is all about. Yet difference is necessary to dialogue, and Hoy invokes the idea of dialogue to imply that no reading is final, and no theoretical approach is universally valid. She brings a range of Native American, postcolonial, Black British and African American theorists into dialogue with female and male Canadian First Nations and Métis writers and critics. Within each chapter, subsections are introduced by pairs of opposed theoretical quotations. One such pair haunts Hoy’s entire book: "Anything we do is a violation"; "To know is not always to violate." Hoy frankly acknowledges her own fallibility, her privilege, and her complicity in the maintenance of unequal power structures. Yet she proceeds optimistically, confident that white mis-readings cannot "kill" Native author-ity, and conscious that if Native authors and critics judge her to have mis-read the authors, they will tell her so, and hold her to account.
- Peripheral Visions by Maureen Milburn
Books reviewed: Copying People: Photographing British Columbia First Nations 1860-1940 by Daniel Francis and Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present by Liz Heron and Val Williams
- Post-Race: Contemporary Black Writing by Karina Vernon
Books reviewed: Writing from the Borderlands: A Study of Chicano, Afro-Caribbean and Native Literatures in North America by Carmen Cáliz-Montoro, Race and Racism: Canada's Challenge by Leo Driedger and Shiva S. Halli, Dreaming Black Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History by Janet Gabler-Hover, and Being Black: Essays by Althea Prince
- Private Lives of Girls and Women by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996 by Kathryn Carter
- Just be Natural, huh? by John Moffatt
Books reviewed: The Buz'gem Blues by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Canadian History Revisited by Gordon Bölling
Books reviewed: Committed to the State Asylum: Insanity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Quebec and Ontario by James E. Moran and Where the River Narrows by Aimée Laberge
MLA: Van Toorn, Penny. Accountable Readings. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 151 - 153)
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