- Richard Wagamese (Author)
For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Heather Hodgson (Editor)
The Great Gift of Tears. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- J. R. Lévillé (Author) and S.E. Stewart (Translator)
The Setting Lake Sun. Signature Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Albert Braz
The Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz justified coining the neologism transculturation because, he argued, only such a term conveyed “the extremely complex transmutations of culture” he had unveiled in his research. The books under review certainly testify to the degree to which transculturation has manifested itself in Canada. All three works explore not so much the loss of a culture or the transition from one culture to another, the processes Ortiz describes respectively as deculturation and acculturation, but rather the manner in which cultures constantly adjust to new ways of being and seeing.
As its title suggests, For Joshua is Wagamese’s open letter to his son. Because of his drinking, Wagamese loses access to his only child, who is six years old at the time of the writing. As he confides, alcohol has controlled his life: “I was a drunk and never faced the truth about myself—that I was a drunk. Booze owned me.” Yet, instead of simply accepting the finality of his loss, Wagamese decides to try to reach his son through his writing. The memoir is supposed to be nothing less than the author’s way of performing his traditional Anishinabe paternal duty of introducing his child to the world.
The dominant themes in For Joshua will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Wagamese’s previous two novels. Like Keeper’ n Me (1994) and A Quality of Light (1997), the memoir explores the negative impact that cultural and familial disintegration have had on young Aboriginal people and how, after being moved from one foster home after another, they try to fill the void in their lives by (re)embracing Native spirituality. Wagamese tells us early in the text that the problems he faced as a youngster were directly linked to the fact that he had “no idea where he belonged in the world.” This dislocation produces a severe crisis of identity because, a wise old man tells him, “To belong is to feel right. It’s a place where everything fits.” In the current work, Wagamese is even more forceful than usual in his insistence that the solution to whatever ails First Nations lies in a return to traditional cultures. He writes to Joshua that the lesson he wishes to impart is that “the journey is the teaching.” However, this statement is qualified not only by Wagamese’s search for wholeness through a vision quest but also by his repeated assertion of his Aboriginality: “I was created to be Anishanabe-niini—Indian man. Thus, I was born Ojibway. I emerged onto Mother Earth as a human being gifted with this identity—male Ojibway human being.” His journey to self-knowledge begins when he discerns that all the metamorphoses he has undergone are external; he has only changed his clothes, not his Indianness.
For Wagamese, Aboriginal people are natural ecologists and custodians of the land. Still, he does not envisage Newcomers as perpetual sojourners: “You don’t have to be Ojibway, Cree, Haida, Inuk, or Blackfoot to love Canada. You don’t have to be Native, because the truth is that everyone born here is native to this land.” Judging by their works, the playwrights included in The Great Gift of Tears seem to be much less certain about such affinities between Natives and Newcomers. Hodgson’s collection comprises four plays by three Saskatchewan Native writers: Floyd Favel (who contributes two works), Deanne Kasokeo and Bruce Sinclair. The most impressive of the plays is Favel’s Governor of the Dew: A Memorial to Nostalgia and Love. Less than twenty pages long, it is a fable about the pernicious effect of cultural contact. Based on a Cree legend, the play enacts a tale about a Beaver who falls in love with a beautiful woman. Despite the opposition to their union by their nations, the couple marries and the woman goes to live with Beaver. When she becomes ill with a sickness for which the Beavers “have no cure,” she returns to her people. However, it is too late. The Beavers have become infected with whatever virus the woman carried and, by the end, only the protagonist survives the cataclysm. As he relates: “I recovered, but my family did not. The snows melted; / I buried all of my loved ones, then all of my tribe. / ALL OF MY TRIBE!” So catastrophic has been the contact between the two cultures that the valiant (and now remorse-ridden) Beaver ultimately becomes the governor of his people’s bones, the Governor of the Dew.
The other plays deal with more contemporary issues. Favel’s All My Relatives probes the cultural transformations undergone by Aboriginal people as they move from life in the bush to the reserve and then to the city. One of the inescapable consequences of urbanization seems to be the loss of Aboriginal languages, a phenomenon that a female elder interprets as an apocalyptic omen, a “sign of the end.” Kasokeo’s Antigone is an updated version of Sophocles’s play. Set on a reserve, it focuses primarily on the political conflict between the band’s corrupt leaders and their traditionalist opposition. Sinclair’s Mary of Patuanak gently parodies the story of the Virgin Mary as it dramatizes a young Dene woman’s quest for emotional wholeness by combining Christian, Dene, and Cree spiritualities. None of these plays, though, has the impact of The Governor of the Dew. In Antigone, Kasokeo begins to broach the culture of dependency that characterizes reserve life, in which people rely on the government to replace an item as basic as a toilet. But almost as soon as she raises the matter, she drops it. Similarly, Sinclair states that when he was growing up in northern Saskatchewan, he “became aware of the discrimination against the Dene [like his protagonist] by the Cree and the Métis of the area.” However, he does not explore the subject to any degree.
J.R. Léveillé’s The Setting Sun Lake is about cultural contact, but of a slightly different kind; not between Aboriginal people and Europeans, but between a young Métis woman and an older Japanese poet. Narrated by an aspiring architect named Angèle, the novella documents her encounter with the somewhat mysterious Ueno Takami, a dalliance that takes place in Winnipeg and at Setting Sun Lake in northern Manitoba. In addition to its proclivity to attributing people’s behaviour to their ethnonational background, the central problem with Léveillé’s work is that it is hard to fathom why Angèle is so captivated by Ueno. His observations certainly seem less profound than the text suggests: “‘What a wonderful surprise,’ said Ueno. ‘Frank told me there would be a visitor today, but I never imagined . . . You look good with your hair in a ponytail. And I like your shoes.’” Léveillé’s book, which was first published in 2001 as Le soleil du lac qui se couche and is beautifully rendered into English by S.E. Stewart, is less than 100 pages long. Its slightness resides not only in its length.
- In Pursuit of Potential by Tricia Hopton
Books reviewed: Lifedream by Herménégild Chiasson and Jo-Anne Elder, At the Zenith of the Empire by Stewart Lemoine, and Omniscience by Tim Carlson
- Breaking Out of the Lens by Deena Rymhs
Books reviewed: Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film by John E. O'Connor and Peter C. Rollins and Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing by Simon Ortiz
- Memory and Resistance by Adele Holoch
Books reviewed: Je me souviens: Memories of an expatriate Anglophone Montréalaise Québécoise exiled in Canada by Lorena Gale
- L'historienne condition by Maxime Prévost
Books reviewed: Historien et citoyen: Navigations au long cours by Yvan Lamonde
- Dynamic Equivalences by Sylvie Vranckx
Books reviewed: “That’s Raven Talk”: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures by Mareike Neuhaus
MLA: Braz, Albert. Cultural Transmutations. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 183 - 185)
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