Carving Texts

Reviewed by Mike Borkent

Diane Schoemperlen’s and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ books explore the material and mediating conditions of textuality and storytelling by carving up texts. Schoemperlen dissects a range of public domain books and images from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to develop By The Book: Stories and Pictures, a work of found texts and collages. Inspired by the experimental, avant-garde tradition, the book includes an understated manifesto that discusses the creative potential of the “fragment” and collage to produce “something new and unexpected.”

Schoemperlen draws her textual content from sources that focus on topics including natural and cultural history, geography, and public hygiene, with one or two sources contributing to each chapter. Each source is fragmented and collated to produce narrative and poetic effects. For instance, in her opening story, Schoemperlen informs an Italian immigration narrative with language from a nineteenth century Italian-American guidebook: the protagonist duplicates phrases and lists in attempts to communicate with those around him. The source text becomes at various points author, narrator, and character to create an anachronistic pastiche that enriches the story’s ending. Other chapters simply collate long series of loosely inter-related statements that reveal racist, sexist, anthropocentric, nationalist, Romantic, and other normative and idealistic ideologies. The focus on just one or two sources for each section preserves their archaic, stale, and patronizing tone, which is at times quirky and humorous and at others tiresome and trite. These exhaustive collections need further trimming to better highlight their findings. The visual collages, which consist of creative combinations of extra-textual images and select phrases and words from the sources, are more successful. Many collages are revelatory and witty, although their similar visual style starts to feel formulaic over time. While the book offers several intriguing sections (especially the first and last chapters), it needs further carving to achieve real freshness and innovation.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s graphic novel Red: A Haida Manga, on the other hand, is a stimulating re-visioning of the comics medium. He illustrates the visual culture of the Haida, including carvings and face paintings, and adapts a Haida parable about revenge. The protagonist, Red, is an orphan boy whose sister is stolen away by a raiding party. Over many years, he becomes a leader who is driven to develop weapons, including a fantastical wooden whale submarine, in order to find his sister and avenge her kidnapping. In the meantime, his sister has built a new, happy life with a husband and son. As the story unfolds, we see how the trauma of separation has driven Red with a singular, vengeful purpose. I find it troubling that the story seems to romanticize the kidnapping of women between Indigenous tribes and nations. However, the focus on Red, rather than his sister, may excuse this to some extent. The story does speak to a range of contemporary issues surrounding community, security, and retaliation, and offers a message of peace, adaptation, and forgiveness.

The story is beautifully depicted (albeit with a few hiccups in sequences where the panels pinch together), and clearly blends Japanese manga and Haida storytelling traditions. Yahgulanaas successfully adapts typical comics paneling to Haida visual style. The structure of the story, not just the content, is informed by the arts of carving and painting and their intimate connection to Haida cultural practices. On the final pages (and inside the slipcover of the original 2009 hardcover edition), an illustration of all of the panels combined together reveals a composite Haida painting or carving, much like those found on bent boxes and building panels. In a note, Yahgulanaas encourages readers to “destroy the book” and “reconstruct this work of art.” He invites readers to become participants in the processes of story-making, to carve up the narrative and experience an alternate reality: the living visual tradition of Haida art.

In this way, Yahgulanaas encourages the reader to connect to the Haida storytelling and visual art tradition, in which stories are embedded in communities and are informed by audience participation (a quality presumably inherited and adapted from Haida orature). Similarly to Schoemperlen’s found texts and collages, Yahgulanaas’ contemporary expression of Haida storytelling employs the malleability of texts to draw attention to their mediation and complex cultural integration.

This review “Carving Texts” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 186-87.

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