Bloodlines, Stories, and Invented Identities
- Lally Grauer (Editor) and Jeannette C. Armstrong (Editor)
Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology. Broadview Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Josie Douglas (Editor) and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Editor)
Skins: Contemporary Indigenous Writing. Kegedonce Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cheryl Suzack
In Skins, a selection of short stories and chapter excerpts by Indigenous writers from Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Josie Douglas have compiled writings of intense sophistication and exquisite beauty that illuminate the diverse range of cultural, linguistic, and artistic traditions emerging under new conceptual of the “pan-indigenous.” Such a retreat from the normative category of the nation-state to pose questions of identity and narration marks a significant turning-point in the development of writing by First Nations’ communities, a departure that, attends to shared characteristics that focus on “homelands,” “histories of colonization,” “genocide,” “displacement,” and “survival,” and still recognizes the politics of representation and self-expression attendant upon differently-constituted First Nations’ territories. What connects these writers is not only an attention to the properties of cultural location that emerge through colonial policies of removal and assimilation (King’s “Borders,” Frankland’s “Who Took the Children Away,” Ihimaera’s “Life As It Really Is”), but also an awareness of the literary strategies deployed by indigenous authors to transcend national boundaries. In this regard, Maria Campbell’s depiction of the errant thief who disrupts the entrenched moral conventions of his village to facilitate the “shotgun wedding” of aged protagonists (“Dah Teef”) shares much in common with Alootook Ipellie’s emasculating shaman who restores social harmony by avenging himself on his wife’s lover (“Love Triangle”). The metaphysical qualities of these stories foreground their didactic function, yet they also suggest grounds for continuity and comparison that eschew the national designations that organize individual sections. Akiwenzie-Damm and Douglas have thus anticipated, even as they’ve remained dependent upon, alternative categories of reading for situating thematic similarities through metaphysical (Campbell, Ipellie, Bruchac, Laughton, Wright, Komene), communal (Van Camp, Blaeser, Hogan, Grace, Grace-Smith), historical/political (Alexie, Pascoe, Frankland), and kinship associations (King, Erdrich, Morgan, Lucashenko). These categories are especially welcome for teachers of indigenous literature seeking alternative conceptual arrangements that do not necessarily default to national identity or settler-colony comparative frameworks. An especially noteworthy contribution by Australian writer Alexis Wright extends even further the accomplishments of this work by describing with breathtaking sophistication the multilayeredness of the colonial worlding of the “water people” according to personal, cultural, historical, and spiritual remakings. Skins thus contributes an exceptional array of contemporary indigenous writing that, as the editors claim, “destroy[s] any limitations, stereoptypes or preconceived ideas others might place on what Indigenous writing ought to be.”
By comparison with the pan-indigenous approach to contemporary Native writing favoured by Akiwenzie-Damn and Douglas, Jeannette Armstrong and Lally Grauer’s anthology Native Poetry in Canada focuses on the development of Native poetry in Canada from the centennial celebrations of the 1960s to the establishment of Native publishing houses in the early 1980s, to the critical acclaim and award-winning recognition of this poetry through 2000. Beginning with the important early work of Chief Dan George, whose “poetic, oratorical performance-based style” has been much overlooked in literary criticism, the anthology tracks the evolving poetic vision offered by 29 of Canada’s best-known and newly-anthologized literary voices. Included are selections from established writers such as Rita Joe, Marie Annharte Baker, Emma LaRocque, Duke Redbird, Jeannette Armstrong, Lee Maracle, and Armand Garnett Ruffo, whose poetry illuminates the proximity of land, spirit, and historical associations discernible through oral and written modes of expression. Reclaimed voices such as Wayne Keon, Gordon Williams, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, and Skyros Bruce/Mahara Allbrett, whose writings appeared initially in literary review and little magazines, articulate powerful political engagements and aesthetic acts of cultural revivalism inspired by the “Indian movement” of the 1970s and 1980s. Selections from Joanne Arnott, Gregory Scofield, Connie Fife, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, and Randy Lundy affirm the sense of continuity and indebtedness in a later generation of writers speaking back to their literary predecessors. This sense of obligation and respect emerges most notably in Gregory Scofield’s “Not All Halfbreed Mothers,” a poem dedicated to “Mom, Maria,” which playfully abandons expectations of cultural sameness by articulating alternative forms of generational inheritance. Inevitably, however, the writing collected here eludes such confining categorizations as it discloses each poet’s desire to subvert, expose, and empower through artistic expression. As Marilyn Dumont notes in the preface to her poetry selections, speaking of writing as a dialectical relationship between figurative language and poetic invention: “It must be a dance of the intellect and passion, both emotional and spiritual, and it must be uncompromising in its manifestation.”
Armstrong and Grauer have arranged a collection of works of extraordinary breadth in their thematic treatment of cultural, political, and spiritual subjects. The brief selection of writing by Sarain Stump is especially moving given the symbolic beauty of his work and the poignancy of his untimely death. Instructors will value the accompanying biographical information, the substantial selections from each poet’s work, and the authors’ prefatory, all of which situate this collection as an ideal text for the university classroom.
- Native Inventions by Laura E. Donaldson
Books reviewed: When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African-Native American Literature by Jonathan Brennan and The Invention of Native American Literature by Robert Dale Parker
- Writing 2K by John Orange
Books reviewed: On the Threshold: Writing Toward the Year 2000 by T. Anne Archer et al. and Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Ficition on the Eve of the Millenium by Heidi Harms and Joan Thomas
- Writing the Dispossessed by Adam Beardsworth
Books reviewed: Hundred Block Rock by Bud Osborn and Keys to Kingdoms by Bud Osborn
- Fear of Doorknobs by Anne F. Walker
Books reviewed: Flesh, A Naked Dress by Susan Andrews Grace, The Clichéist by Amanda Lamarche, A Plot of Light by Susan McCaslin, and over the roofs of the world by Olive Senior
- Poètes en cage by Vincent Desroches
Books reviewed: Histoire de la nuit by Elias Letelier-Ruz and Bienvenue dans mon cauchemar by Marie Gagnon
MLA: Suzack, Cheryl. Bloodlines, Stories, and Invented Identities. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 108 - 110)
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