This term, I asked students to listen to Lee Maracle’s Writer’s Trust Margaret Laurence Lecture to ground them for our Black studies course, African Literatures on These Indigenous Lands. This is a powerful lecture that reminds us that, in Canada, Indigenous women’s voices often come last, and that we have work to do as we demand that our libraries, syllabi, curricula, bookstores, and writing-prize culture recognize the power and relevance of Indigenous women’s stories. After all, Maracle says, “You live on Turtle Island. Where is your familiarity with the voices of its women?” (00:34:26-33).
It’s a struggle to move students beyond thinking about African and Indigenous people according to well-established, dominant narratives of suffering and oppression. My syllabus is full of writers and artists to showcase how brilliant and powerful works can speak to one another and be read alongside each other to imagine beyond these destructive narratives. We read the first chapter of Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter to prepare for the next week’s reading—Therese Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries—in order to encourage students to focus on the work of autobiography. From Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition, I read Deanna Reder’s generous modelling of “life story as method” and her insight that “âcimisowin is a preferred genre” steeped in Cree tradition (8, 11). I’m also thinking about how âcimisowina allow us to orientate ourselves, as readers, listeners, and storytellers.
In 2019, I went to my homeland in northern Uganda as part of the Transformative Memory Initiative, an organization that gathers people working in, with, and from communities that have come through mass violence. When we visited Burcoro, a few miles away from my hometown in Gulu, we were welcomed in English and Acholi, my mother tongue. I was struck that I was witnessing a land acknowledgement given as part of the welcome and as part of the hosts’ visitor orientation. The elders told us about the lands on which we stood, who the clan was, and a brief history of the space we visited. Each of the survivors of the Burcoro massacre (April 1991) oriented us by introducing themselves with respect to the land, shared what happened to them, and spoke critically against the power structures that sought to victimize them and lock them in victimhood—arguments that resonate with Reder’s insight in Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition regarding Donna Haraway’s standpoint theory (8).1 I think about how, in the last two decades, representations of Acholi people in the media have come fast and furiously, but have only ever depicted us as brutal rebels or deeply traumatized people. I think about the fictionalized dreadlocked, redeyed, dark-skinned, machete-wielding leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army as depicted in the James Bond film Casino Royale: he speaks in my Acholi tongue but is acted by Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé, who is far, far removed from the very real Lord’s Resistance Army and the effects of their war on Acholi people. I think about the African woman in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness who was described as a “wild and gorgeous apparition,” unreal and without a voice, even in her homeland, which was already complete with language, history, and culture. Deanna Reder reminds me that autobiography as knowledge-making, resistance, world-making, preservation, and reclamation is necessary against the forces that would tell stories about us to erase us from ourselves.
In my recent book, A Is for Acholi, I spend time responding to Conrad, illustrating the nonsense of his work through an excavation of this text in English, a language we share. I take space to orient myself, in the Acholi tradition, through introduction of my family and community history all the way to our life on Turtle Island, three decades later. Through Deanna’s book, I come to know that this kind of orientation is also a form of autobiography, a kind of storytelling from which we tell ourselves into being, into history, and into ourselves.
1. Reder recounts being “encouraged by Donna Haraway’s idea of situated knowledge that posited that those who are oppressed—those who speak from the ‘vantage point of the subjugated’—are better able to critique power structures” (8).
Casino Royale. Directed by Martin Campbell, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Columbia Pictures / Eon Productions, 2006.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. Project Gutenberg, 2006, gutenberg.org/cache/epub/526/pg526.html. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023.
Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2018.
Mailhot, Terese Marie. Heart Berries. Doubleday, 2018.
Maracle, Lee. “Lee Maracle Delivers the Margaret Laurence Lecture.” Ideas, hosted by Nahlah Ayed. CBC Listen, 5 Oct. 2021. CBC, cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-23-ideas/clip/15870410-lee-maracle-delivers-margaret-laurence-lecture.
Okot Bitek, Otoniya J. A Is for Acholi. Buckrider Books, 2022.
Reder, Deanna. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition: Cree and Métis âcimisowina. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2022.
Juliane Okot Bitek is an Assistant Professor in Black Studies at Queen’s University. She is joint-appointed in English and Gender studies.
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