The Need for Stories
- Tomson Highway (Author), Lee Maracle (Author), and Tantoo Cardinal (Author)
Our Story: Aboriginal Voices On Canada's Past. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Dan Yashinsky (Author)
Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Renate Eigenbrod
Suddenly They Heard Footsteps is an enticing book for anybody who likes to listen to and to tell stories and who, like the author Dan Yashinsky, may lament that we live in an age “when news replaces narrative.” His book is divided into two sections, the first and largest one gives storytelling accounts of a wide range of situations and contexts in which stories are meaningful, while the second section contains examples of stories from the author’s repertoire, “based on traditional patterns” but “rewoven with new yarn.” The book ends with a useful appendix on storytelling resources and an annotated bibliography.
In the first part of the book, Yashinsky writes about storytelling performances which demonstrate how age-old stories like fables, fairy tales, and myths open up conversations about individual and societal problems as these narratives are non-intrusive, suggesting but never dictating answers or meaning. He also points to family lore, stories of memory, and survival as told by his Jewish ancestors for example. In the context of his work as a storyteller for UNICEF, Yashinsky notes, “Change begins when we listen to one another’s stories.” Reminiscent of Edward Chamberlin’s concept of finding common ground through stories, Yashinsky’s insights take him on a cross-cultural learning path from his own “crossroads family” to Native elders, Irish shanachies, African griots, and caravan travelers in the desert. Often, he refers to Aboriginal storytellers, in particular Basil Johnston (Anishinabe), Alexander Wolfe (Saulteaux) and Tagish elder Angela Sidney (also featured in Cruikshank’s book Life Lived Like a Story) and elaborates on audience participation and on the qualities of listening so important in oral cultures.
Paradoxically, Yashinsky, like Aboriginal authors, praises a revival of the art of storytelling in writing, and he admits: “I’ve hunted and gathered about a hundred and fifty stories over the years, some by listening, most by reading, and a few I’ve made up myself.” It seems as if his allusion to the oral culture of hunting and gathering societies (which he repeats several times) is meant to make up, if only discursively, for the alleged loss of the oral in Western societies. The reference lends an Aboriginal voice to the author as does his adoption of the Mi’kmaq talking stick ceremony for his storytelling performances. While Yashinsky knows “that oral culture has its own decorum and unwritten principles,” it seems that his universalizing approach to storytelling allows him to forget about power imbalances that make some cultures more vulnerable to exploitation than others.
In spite of the above concerns, however, I could not help being drawn into Yashinsky’s telling of stories and their meanings for our lives. Maybe his book affected me in this way because I read most of it in a hospital at a time of my life when I was in desperate need of a story that would navigate me through a terrifying experience. As Yashinsky says, maybe “all storytelling is emergency storytelling.”
Although there are many publications on the Aboriginal history of Canada, Our Story, written exclusively by Aboriginal people, does not only delineate what constitutes Aboriginal history but also, to quote from the preface, “how our history is constituted” (emphasis added). The Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples emphasizes in its first volume different conceptualizations of history that illustrate their point about differences between Aboriginal and Western views with the inclusion of the Thanksgiving Address in their introduction. However, not many people from the Canadian general public read the Royal Commission Report. Our Story, on the other hand, is an accessible and very readable book in which one of the “defining moments” in history is considered the creation of all life. The spiritual connections embedded in the Thanksgiving Address therefore conclude the first narrative and set the tone for the subsequent accounts of “defining moments” in history.
The cultural and professional background as well as the individual tone and style vary greatly among the nine contributing Aboriginal authors from all over Canada including the often marginalized regions of Quebec and Nunavut. This emphasis on diversity is counterbalanced by the unifying assertion of the title: the various strands of Aboriginal history are woven together into one story. Common to all is a world view that challenges the boundaries of reality construction and the linearity of conventional history books from pre-contact to modern times. As Inuk writer Qitsualik puts it, “the persistence of this land forbids true time travel.” With that sense of the present in the past, she imagines a meeting between the “Thule” and the “Dorset,” progenitors of the Inuit. The trickster stories as told by Thomas King and Lee Maracle also undermine the pre/post binary as it was/is those so-called tricksters that re-create the world. They represent the epitome of adaptation and transformation, but there is, as Lee Maracle says, still “horror in having had change foisted upon you from outside.” This horror, another commonality among Aboriginal peoples, is expressed in several stories that explore the imposition of a hierarchical ideology (Basil Johnston), dispossession of the Métis (Tantoo Cardinal), the unjust treatment of Aboriginal war veterans (Marchessault), the impact of fascism (Thomas King), denial of Aboriginal peoples’ humanity (Tomson Highway), forced relocations (Lee Maracle), and the Oka crisis (Hayden Taylor). This is not a book about “Canada’s Past,” as the subtitle states, in the sense that the recounted events are behind us and no longer affect society; on the contrary, these stories draw readers in, maybe with an even greater urgency than the ones told by Yashinsky because Aboriginal peoples are in a serious state of emergency that must be understood through Aboriginal perspectives by non-Aboriginal people. According to Qitsualik, stories help you to live another’s life vicariously: “if the reader wants to understand a people, he or she has to live with those people for a while. And a story is the ultimate magic by which this may occur.”
Canada needs stories, Aboriginal stories in particular.
- Native Arc by Beverley Haun
Books reviewed: The New Media Nation: Indigenous Peoples and Global Communication by Valerie Alia and When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse 1850-1990 by Emma LaRocque
- Splendid Mappings by Heinz Antor
Books reviewed: Historical Atlas of Canada: Canada's History Illustrated with Original Maps by Derek Hayes
- Identity and Difference by Catherine Rainwater
Books reviewed: Women Reading, Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúam and Audre Lorde by Ana Louise Keating and Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction by Richard F. Fleck
- Wages of Farming by Albert Braz
Books reviewed: The Murder of Medicine Bear by Susan Haley
- Massacres and Floods by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: Children of the Day by Sandra Birdsell and The Wreckage by Michael Crummy
MLA: Eigenbrod, Renate. The Need for Stories. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 88 - 90)
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