Oratories Serve

Reviewed by Susan Gingell

Stó:lō-Métis orator, author, and unabashed feminist Lee Maracle announces in the subtitle of Memory Serves: Oratories its difference from previous volumes in NeWest’s Writer as Critic series. Of course, the book’s materiality means it cannot literally be what its subtitle professes, thus provoking from the outset questions about the nature of the genre. Maracle’s Preface explains her multi-stage process for producing the speeches “turned-essay[s],” though the “new kind of prose” she claims to be writing may not be altogether novel, considering the history of print textualizing of orature from all contexts, and Indigenous people’s writing down of Indigenous “storying up” globally. However, in foregrounding the oral as Maracle does, she points to her thinking’s foundations and Stó:lō-derived method of working, enriching our sense of oral-written hybridity beyond style and content to process. Moreover, when editor Smaro Kamboureli explains that their editing process included the pair reading texts aloud to each other, she reveals another loop in the dance between oral and written that produced Memory Serves.

The book is more meta-oratory—a coming to theory, to use Maracle’s own formulation in her best-known essay “Oratory” (included here)—than it is literary criticism or theory. But then Maracle’s Stó:lō-based senses of how stories and songs/poems are created and of what the works do differ from Western understandings of the author and creative process, and from any takes on literary function and value centred aesthetically or didactically.

Stó:lō, Maracle tells readers, produce works communally from an oral base and with frequent feedback loops, but with the primary teller’s or singer’s/poet’s individual stamp. Stó:lō oratories provide ample opportunity for listeners or readers to co-create, arise from an ethics of non-intervention and care-taking of all sentient beings and their environments, and are more concerned with transformation than conflict and resolution. These creations are meant to prompt reflection on whether the direction of an individual and her people accords with who the individual and people understand themselves to be, and what they formulate as “the good life.” The ramifications for Maracle’s view of what constitutes an appropriate response to Indigenous literature are that such a response depends on critics having a firm grounding in the oratory of the authors’ cultures, including its genres, and requires consideration of the literature’s efficacy in stimulating thought about how individuals and societies govern themselves to support well-being for all.

While Maracle does valuably address her own and other Indigenous writers’ work, repeatedly lauding that of other women, her most detailed and enlightening critical comments are ironically focused on male creations. Observing that Tomson Highway’s Rez Sisters “makes us want something more from our lives . . . not just [to] resist the oppression, but also the . . . being stuck,” she praises Highway’s “revolution[ary]” re-making of the Trickster of oral tradition into a “transformer” who “inspires a different less cataclysmic, social relationship between Canada and Indigenous women.” The sole oratory she dedicates to a single work centres on The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, by male filmmakers at Inuit production company Isuma, which she values for being directed to Inuit but collaterally serving all Indigenous people. It does so by “mapping the death of cultural belief and community” that occurs when the shaman Aua complies with the Danish anthropologist’s request to “download” stories, thus changing the way Aua’s family relates to the very stories that sustained them. In both cases, Maracle focuses on Indigenous oratory in new media serving communities through the transmission and transformation of Indigenous knowledge in contemporary contexts.

While Maracle privileges Indigenous-to-Indigenous communication, she writes that Memory Serves is a book “my community . . . [and] Canadians” need. Her volume serves our mutual needs in identifying a path to peace and reconciliation through shared cultivation of the non-interventionist care-taking ethic, though Maracle is clear the settler state must make reparations for appropriation of Indigenous resources and other damages. It serves by writing down Indigenous “storying up” of events, and by providing Indigenous peoples with arguments for “rematriation” and Canadians with considerable insight into another way of being and creating. The book also richly serves scholars interested in memory; ecological thought; colonization and de-colonization; resilience and reconciliation; the interface between orature and writing; and Stó:lō philosophy and culture, especially the verbal arts. We can be grateful, then, to Kamboureli for prompting Maracle to gather and re-work the book’s seventeen “oratories.” Readers would have been even better served, however, by more careful copy-editing—or more robust responses to it—and by a chronological arrangement and/or complete dating of the oratories to enhance understanding of the development of Maracle’s thought.

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