Isn't That Funny?
- Robert C. Nunn (Editor)
Drew Hayden Taylor: Essays on His Work. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Eva Gruber (Author)
Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness. Camden House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Drew Hayden Taylor (Editor)
Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa Close
A careful and well-researched first publication, Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature attempts to explicate the intricate relationship between Native identity, literary representation, and humour by engaging with a wide range of texts by Native writers. While the impersonal approach used by Gruber seems perhaps somewhat ill-suited to the subjective theme of Native humour, the book does provides a structured exploration of the topic for academic readers.
Generally, Gruber argues that Native writers use humour as an effective strategy for negotiating with existing stereotypes of Native identity, which results in imagining Nativeness anew. The book is divided into four chapters; the first two provide a historical and theoretical foundation, whereas the final two focus on textual analysis. Chapter One traces the genealogy of humour in Native communities, citing evidence from early accounts of European travellers, oral tradition, and contemporary Native writers. Focusing on Native literature, Gruber clearly leads the reader through an overview of texts in which humour plays a prominent role. Chapter Two considers definitions of humour (from largely Western sources) and theories of cultural representation. Chapter Three focuses on the means by which comic effect is produced. Formal elements, literary devices, and linguistic structure (originating both from Native and Western traditions) are examined using close readings of specific texts. In Chapter Four, the previous analysis of "how" humour is created moves to "what" the humour entails and "why" it is employed. Highlighting the connection between humour and cultural survival, Gruber concludes that laughter opens up more flexible definitions of Nativeness through Native literature.
One of the sub-themes that runs (albeit hastily) through Gruber’s book is the complex relationship between the non-Native literary critic and Native literature. This theme is picked up by Robert Nunn in his introduction to Drew Hayden Taylor: Essays on His Works. Asserting that his interest in Taylor’s work originates in delight and "fun," Nunn almost immediately complicates the laughter Taylor evokes. Can Taylor’s audiences indulge in simple enjoyment without seriously considering the conflict and oppression that are often the sources of his humour? Several essays in the collection also address and grapple with the way that Taylor destabilizes Native identity and Native and white relations with a wit that leaves neither side of the constructed binary "safe" from his biting insight. Any reader interested in the complexities of intercultural relations as explored or sparked by literature, even beyond a specific concentration on Drew Hayden Taylor, will appreciate these essays.
Nunn’s organization of the collection is exemplary, with each contribution picking up a thread from the essay prior. Birgit Däwes’ article begins the anthology by intrinsically linking identity and representation, specifically showing the way Taylor’s model for intercultural relations emerges in his work. Nunn follows by arguing that Taylor uses "Trickster humour" to execute an almost violent deconstruction of the means by which individuals identify self and other. The trick lies in the interrogation of identity and identification from all sides. Extending similar arguments to Nunn’s, Jonathan Dewar and Kristina Fagan variously note the satirical microscope Taylor puts both Natives and non-Natives under. Arguably the strongest of the contributions is Rob Appleford’s "Your Hand Weighs Exactly One Pound," a sophisticated exploration of "Indian humour" in Taylor’s work, particularly the role of the listener in the economy of laughter. Appleford’s purpose, "to point out the misrecognitions inherent in an unreflexive acceptance of ‘Indian humour’ as natural, straightforward and unproblematic as an interpretive trope," should give the non-Aboriginal literary critic, in particular, pause for thought.
This collection is rounded out by Ric Knowles and Monique Mojica’s "Introduction to Girl Who Loved Horses," which Nunn argues begins to lead readers away from a focus on humour to an area much in need of further exploration: the "spiritual dimension" of Taylor’s work. Thus, Nunn points to a gap in scholarship right before closing the collection with interviews and a biography of the author, leaving the dialogue regarding Taylor’s work open to new contributions.
Nunn’s use of the term "fun" to describe his study of Drew Hayden Taylor’s work is equally appropriate to describe the enjoyment of reading Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality, compiled and edited by Taylor. As a "textbook about some of the most private issues in Native culture," this provocative book brings together many and varied voices to open discussion on intimate topics such as writing erotica, two-spirited aunties, and pubic hair.
The sheer variety of subject matter and authors in Me Sexy is the most striking facet of this collection. From Joseph Boyden’s "Bush Country," an entertaining attempt to determine whether or not Native people have less pubic hair, to Lee Maracle’s "First Wives Club," a sexy Salish-style creation story, there is something to satisfy (or at least shock) almost any reader. Several of the contributors offer a humorous and casual tone, while others are more sombre. For instance, Marius P. Tungilik’s "The Dark Side of Sex" maintains a serious and sensitive attitude to the topic of child sexual molestation. The majority of the works draw from personal experience, while some document a strong engagement with academic research. Michelle McGeough’s "Norval Morrisseau and the Erotic" is a good example of the latter, in which McGeough traces erotic elements from Anishnaabe oral tradition in Morrisseau’s art. Other dimension-adding themes in the text are the relationship between sex, language, and literature; shifting attitudes towards sex and sexuality in Native communities due to colonization; and the importance of sexuality to identity.
The specific and varied writings of each contributor function together in a broader context to fulfil one of Taylor’s purposes for the book: to challenge dominant culture’s static and conflicted views on Native sexuality. What emerges is a vibrant, healthy, and downright sexy look at a subject area that has been largely neglected or ignored, particularly in the academic community. All readers will find something to engage with in Me Sexy and will likely be re-educated in the process-coupled with laughter and a little blushing.
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- As Canadian as It Gets by Donna Coates
Books reviewed: When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing by Stephen Henighan, Canadian Odyssey: A Reading of Hugh Hood's The New Age/ Le Nouveau Siècle by W. J. Keith, and Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries : A Reader's Guide by Abby Werlock
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MLA: Close, Lisa. Isn't That Funny?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #203 (Winter 2009), Home, Memory, Self. (pg. 151 - 153)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.