Healing Imagination

  • Amberlee Kolson (Author)
    Wings of Glass. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Beth Cuthand (Author)
    Voices in the Waterfall. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Lee Maracle (Author)
    Five Wives Club: Coast Salish Style. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs

Do excruciating efforts to bring about truth and reconciliation between indigenous and settler peoples lack imagination? Beth Cuthand’s Voices in the Waterfall, AmberLee Kolson’s Wings of Glass, and Lee Maracle’s First Wives Club: Coast Salish Style demonstrate that imagination is not frivolous. Rather, imagining is critical to understanding and fundamental to life. It offers hope for healing and restoration. Indigeneity must be respected with imagination because indigenous identities do not lie imprisoned in fusty glass cases. Within the borders of the Canadian state, indigenous persons live and change even though they are not necessarily bound by its mapping.

Beth Cuthand is a Cree author, Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and Anglican minister. Cuthand’s Voices in the Waterfall is a captivating collection of poetry with a dash of prose. In four parts, “Our Sacred Spaces,” “Invasion,” “Revolution,” and “Return to Our Sacred Spaces,” Cuthand shifts between blunt and enigmatic voices as individuals and communities grapple with pivotal choices. Although these voices have a predominantly feminine ring, masculine expressions are featured. The discovery of a page of Louis Riel’s oration juxtaposed against the chorus of a lodge of Orangemen is stimulating. Cuthand also dedicates a poem to her Dad, who admonishes her not to heed “people who / say the stories have to be told / exactly the way they’re/ given to you . . .” because “[t]hat rule was made for / anthropologists / who didn’t understand/ the stories come from down here.” Although people may engage new mediums and technologies, the “stories won’t die. . . . As long as we tell them / they’ll live.” Cuthand’s stories of the physical and existential journeys of families are simultaneously grounded, ingenious, and highly personal. Although some readers may find these stories shocking, Cuthand avoids titillation. Instead, she uses intimate pain as a tool to dig ferociously towards a common humanity that has the power to produce meaningful change. Stories of individuals as they interact in time, place, and community are told through a lens of indigeneity; however, this is a vast and living indigeneity, even as it brushes the history books.

In Wings of Glass, Chipewyan-Polish author and playwright AmberLee Kolson chronicles the daily life of an unnamed, depressed woman whose voice has been weighed down by her roles as wife and mother and by the childhood trauma that plagues her. The title is taken from the protagonist’s observation of a mosquito, slapped and severed of its fine resilient wings, and her fantasy that these wings adhere to her body and allow her a flight of freedom. She and her siblings are orphaned and, after living with their grandparents for a time, they are sent to an orphanage. Her sense of identity warps when she is told that she was separated from her siblings and chosen for adoption because she had blond curls and was least phenotypically recognizable as half-Chipewyan. For the remainder of the woman’s formative years, parent-child interactions are modified by the use of the word “adopted” as a slur. Alienation is intensified by the awareness that her tragedy is “common knowledge” even though she is not allowed to speak of it. In adulthood, the woman’s propensity to burst into tears is associated with such childhood abuse and the realization that her adoptive mother enjoyed making her cry. The woman feels “pushed from behind . . . by some great black amorphous shape of such magnitude that [she] dared not look behind to see what it was.” Perversely, this force from behind does not propel her forward but adheres her in depression. Wings of Glass culminates in a mystical encounter and astonishing surprise for the tortured woman as she vacillates between death by suicide and depressively slogging through life.

Lee Maracle is a renowned Stó:lō author, professor, and authority on indigenous relationships with the Canadian state. Despite opening in a chatty voice absorbed in the topic of sex, Lee Maracle’s First Wives Club: Coast Salish Styleis probably not what most readers will envision as a glance takes them half-way through the complete title. Maracle tips the balance of this collection of ten short stories towards the latter half of the title. Perhaps it is a clue: a play on words, an invitation to imagination, and an indication of something beyond disastrous divorces of Mother Earth. The stories sound notes of weariness and frustration alongside propitious tones as Maracle exercises voices that linger on the themes of sex, belonging, indigeneity, and gender. Maracle explores the ways in which sex is vital to human interaction while “permission, however, is structured by the social milieu from which we arise.” Winking at the humorous impossibility of discussing sexuality without double entendre, Maracle employs sex as a device for examining the relationships between indigenous and settler peoples in the lands that became Canada.

Cuthand’s, Kolson’s, and Maracle’s works have a quality and relevance that preoccupies the imagination. Cuthand’s volume is slim yet it has the capacity to consume time because it is so fertile. Spaces on the page are an important poetic mechanism because they guide rhythm and allow Cuthand’s poems to be read in a variety of ways. Voices in the Waterfall will not grow old because it will be reread and reimagined. In its fantastical imaginative spirit, the delightful conclusion of Kolson’s Wings of Glass could appear dismissive of the hard realities articulated on preceding pages. A western, quantitative, pseudo-scientific bias teaches that wondrous experiences are somehow less real and less useful in everyday life. There is a great deal to be learned from holistic, inclusive, indigenous perspectives. It is not wise to discount the inexplicable. Kolson suggests recovery in her protagonist’s painful path. For the woman, healing is found in fleeing the people and places that impose shrouds on indigenous identity, returning to a place of belonging, reinvigorating long-suppressed connections, and restoring family. Likewise, Maracle’s First Wives Club ends in a father picking up the bundle of a mother’s dreams for her child. All three authors pursue hope and healing through imagination.

This review “Healing Imagination” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 142-44.

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