Nothing Like That
- Paulette Jiles (Author)
North Spirit: Travels among the Cree and Ojibway Nations and their Star Maps. Anchor Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by John Moffatt
Originally published in 1995, North Spirit is Paulette Jiles’s account of her years as a broadcaster and journalist in the Ojibway and Cree communities of Northern Ontario between 1974 and 1983. By turns humorous, tragic, spiritual, and satiric, the narrative reflects the volatile nature of the cultural dialogue the book explores, and in which Jiles implicates the reader: “You, the reader, are on this story road as well . . . You may be in search of wise elders, the ancient mysteries of shamans, but here you are, in an unforgiving climate, suspended in a flight machine that is pouring itself in a deep slant toward snowpacked ice.” The elders and shamans and the bleak depiction of the descending aircraft reveal a conflict at the heart of Jiles’s creative non-fiction. Many myths shape the expectations of both author and reader in North Spirit, including tongue in cheek references to old Hollywood westerns, literary allusions, and indigenous traditional narratives. However, if these are the landmarks on our journey, we meet them in the context of cold and distance and seemingly insurmountable linguistic and cultural barriers. We need maps, Jiles says, and her subtitle, Travels among the Cree and Ojibway Nations and their Star Maps reminds us that all maps encode a mythology and a cosmology; North Spirit argues that recognizing territory as unfamiliar requires us to seek out new maps and all they bring with them.
Jiles often uses humour to show how far she is off, or rather between maps, but her meticulous ear for dialogue keeps the gravity of her point within reach. When she tells a friend that using a radio phone will be “Just like a Somerset Maugham story. Did you ever read ‘Rain’?,” he replies, “No, but this is nothing like it. I saw North to Alaska when I was out to college in Toronto. It was nothing like that, either.” In fact, there is “nothing like” North Spirit Rapids and its people. Jiles describes both as “composites” of actual places and people, but the originals retain a uniqueness and indescribability to outsiders. Jiles, however, also emphasizes that the act of communication, while imperfect, is transformational and mythic; she describes moments in the life of a small Northern radio station or newspaper, not simply to point out differences in attitude towards modern media, but to show how learning to perceive those differences is transformative. For example, when Jiles attempts to “translate” a tragic shooting into “hard news”, believing that “At last I had something to teach” the volunteers at the station, she is told “The elders are going to take care of this. We just leave the radio station.” Instead of crafting “copy” from the event, Jiles listens “as the solemn voices in Ojibway spoke on and on. They prayed for the soul of Billy Bluecoat, and for the recovery of the young girl. They sang ‘Amazing Grace’ in Ojibway . . . This was how the Anishinabek handled hard news.”
Such acts of stepping aside are common in North Spirit, and reveal both self-deprecation and determination to engage with the cultural barriers. “I was becoming the village idiot,” she says of her efforts to learn Ojibway, a thought-provoking if often amusing process within the book. However, as she puts it, “all you had to do to get along in a new culture was to endure your own ignorance, say stupid things, flush with misery and embarrassment, and then rebound, stay cheerful, keep trying.” This rather Beckett-like spirit of “failing better” also informs her approach to Aboriginal myth and narrative. While Jiles refers to traditional stories throughout North Spirit, she is always part of an audience, listening. Her one attempt to tell one of the stories is a disaster; a creative writing class in Toronto greets a ribald narrative with “silence and even hostility.” Jiles doesn’t agonize over issues of ownership or appropriation; instead, her embarrassment itself conveys the problem with utter clarity; she internalizes a point that the elders in North Spirit make to the town’s white teachers: “the children had to learn that learning by experience was learning.”
Ultimately, this is a book about learning. The beauty of Jiles’s prose, her essential sympathy and good humour make the reissue of North Spirit welcome, but the memoir’s greatest value rests in its generous embrace of the problem of how people try to learn about one another.
- Accountable Readings by Penny Van Toorn
Books reviewed: How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada by Helen Hoy
- Personal Narratives by Bettina Stumm
Books reviewed: Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions by Teresa Godwin Phelps and Maps of Difference: Canada, Women, and Travel by Wendy Roy
- The Legacy of Oka by Tasha Hubbard
Books reviewed: This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades by Kiera L. Ladner and Leanne Simpson
- Mirrors, Mimics, Myths by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: Mirror Writing: (Re-)Constructions of Native American Identity by Thomas Claviez and Maria Moss, Contemporary American Indian Writing: Unsettling Identity by Dee Horne, and The Mythology of Native North America by David Leeming and Jake Page
- Words from the People by Gundula Wilke
Books reviewed: Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. A Short Introduction. by Paul Robert Magocsi and O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English by Charles L. Cutler
MLA: Moffatt, John. Nothing Like That. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 139 - 140)
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