The writing of Canada’s aboriginal peoples is, predictably, replete with colonial history and (post-)colonial horrors. It is also replete with myth – from the ubiquitous trickster to all sorts of ghosts that have come to haunt First Nations people in a (post-)colonial, globalized world. This study looks at four contemporary First Nations novels to trace these ghosts – Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, and Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer and Motorcycles and Sweetgrass. It explores the question of how a traditional Eurocentric mode, the gothic, at the heart of which lie both imaginary horrors and the (colonial) binary of ‘self’ and ‘other’, can be turned back on itself in a very deliberate ‘writing back’ paradigm to express very real colonial horrors. This study also centers on the phenomenon of spiritual realism, prevalent in post-colonial writing all over the world, a mode in which mythical and spiritual elements enter a narrative of undiluted social realism to create a hybrid, decolonizing life-world, facilitating and celebrating a recovery of indigenous identity and culture in a globalized world, balancing colonial history with First Nations heritage.
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It’s Not by Any Lack of GhostsWe’re Haunted
text & theorie
Martin Middeke und Hubert Zapf
First Nations Gothic and Spiritual Realism
Königshausen & Neumann
Bibliografische Information der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek
Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek verzeichnet diese Publikation in der Deutschen Nationalbibliografie; detaillierte bibliografische Daten sind im Internet über http://dnb.d-nb.de abrufbar.
© Verlag Königshausen & Neumann GmbH, Würzburg 2014
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Umschlag: skh-softics / coverart
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Alle Rechte vorbehalten
Dieses Werk, einschließlich aller seiner Teile, ist urheberrechtlich geschützt. Jede Verwertung außerhalb der engen Grenzen des Urheberrechtsgesetzes ist ohne Zustimmung des Verlages unzulässig und strafbar. Das gilt insbesondere für Vervielfältigungen, Übersetzungen, Mikroverfilmungen und die Einspeicherung und Verarbeitung in elektronischen Systemen.
Printed in Germany
For my parents
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Mythology, the exact halfway point between truth and fiction, mythology, the exact halfway point between science and religion, that most elaborate of all fictions. Truth, mythology, fiction. Science, mythology, religion, the ultimate, the original circle. And thereby hangs an enormous, and very long, story
… of which more later.Tomson Highway, Comparing Mythologies
1. Introduction: First Nations, Writing, Gothic, and Canada
2. No Lack of Ghosts: Reading Traditions
2.1. Canadian Gothic: Wacousta and Other Savageries
2.2. Magical / Spiritual Realism: Decolonizing the Critical Mind
3. Sasquatch Territory: Reading Eden Robinson’s Kitamaat
3.1. Hors d’Œuvre Noir: Traplines
3.2. B’Gwus Calling: Monkey Beach
3.3. Haisla Gothic
3.4. Haisla Spiritual Realism
4. Foxy Smile: Reading Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen
4.1. Caravaggio, Madonna, and North Main: Gothic
4.2. Maggie Sees and Eagles Fly: Magical and Spiritual Realities
5. Nights’ Errand: Reading Drew Hayden Taylor’s Ontario
5.1. The Night Wanderer: West-Eastern Gothic
5.2. Motorcycles & Sweetgrass: Spiritual Reserves
6. Conclusion: First Nations Gothic and Spiritual Realism
Thanks are due, in order of appearance: To Christoph Henke, for his skilful introduction to literary studies and the eighteenth century (including its Gothic), as well as, much later, for his patience and valuable advice to a novice disserter. To Susan Birkwood, Sukeshi Kamra, Julie Murray and especially Jennifer Henderson who, at Carleton University, put me on the track of both post-colonial criticism and First Nations literature. To my supervisor, Martin Middeke, not only for encouraging me to set out on this journey and skillfully helping me along (not least employment-wise), but also for nudging me sufficiently to actually finish it. To my co-supervisor, Katja Sarkowsky, for her constructive criticism, her expertise and for granting me access to a personal library that is comprehensive indeed. And, occasionally, just for listening. To Dany Demir and Martin Riedelsheimer for the many hours of patient listening to my rants, redeemed with (many) shared cups of coffee and (quite a few) shared bottles of wine. To my colleagues, Monika Martens and Manuela Pusskeiler in particular, for covering when needed, and for taking me in stride. To Philipp Gassert for spontaneously taking up the vacant spot on the examining committee thrown at him from the doorway of not even his own office (I do apologize for that!). Lastly, to those who have, mostly unintentionally, thrown spanners and procrastinations my way, without which this would not have turned out quite the way it has, either.
As regards the publishing process, (second rounds of) thanks are due to Martin Middeke for the chance to publish this, under his editorship, in the text & theorie series, as well as to his co-editor, Hubert Zapf. And to Martin Riedelsheimer, for proofreading the typescript with proven and unsurpassable diligence and attention down to the last-but-one comma (the last we left for the reader to find).
Finally, even though they were first on the scene, my most sincere thanks go to my parents, Heidi and Willy Hauzenberger, who, apart from everything else, not only largely financed this escapade, but had to put up with my various moods in the process. To you, therefore, this book is dedicated, with love.
Augsburg, January 2014
In his 1992 review of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes: “For Okri, in a curious way, the world of spirits is not metaphorical or imaginary; rather, it is more real than the world of the everyday. And so tales of that world have, like tales of our own, their own justification” (Appiah 1992, 147). Appiah continues by coining the phrase ‘spiritual realism’ for the narrative technique Okri is employing. Knowledge of this review reached me, nearly twenty years later, by way of a friend who is currently writing her own dissertation on South African writing. While this is a curious example of the paths knowledge can take, a good illustration of Félix Guattari’s and Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of the rhizome, and a case in point for the (somewhat disheartening) truism among literary scholars that everything has been written before, the point I wish to make with this story is a different one: Reading Appiah’s review, I realized I was on the right track — to my gratification, I had found myself on the same page as so eminent a critic as Appiah, by coming up with the same term, independently. This study, then, is what came of a terminological idea, a ‘new’ critical term that seemed to be in the air from the outset and that only halfway through the project turned out to be merely the transfer to and application on Canada’s First Nations1 of a concept developed in the context of similarly situated Nigerian writing, describing exactly the same technique.
The realization that, regardless of one’s own scholarly efforts, much — indeed most — has been said or written before would be rather discouraging, were it not for the fact that this is only to be expected, since we, both as humans and as citizens of a globalized world, are all the product of the same discourses. In this case, both Okri and Canada’s First Nations writers and, in consequence, both Appiah and myself, are the discursive product of the English empire,2 and it is the English tradition that will be at the heart of the post-colonial encounters in this study. Everything is connected to everything else, they say, and one has to go back very far indeed to find something that is truly causa sui et effectus. The realm where such can be found is the realm of myth, of stories, and also the realm of fiction, of novel-writing. It also amounts to a truism to state that stories vary according to the teller — this, then, is yet another tale told of several examples out of a set of novels that, inevitably, draws on what has gone before in terms of criticism, as do the novels themselves, both in terms of stories or other novels and in terms of criticism on them. In the novels, the same myths of empire and rape, of colonizers and tricksters collide over and over again; in criticism, the same theories do so, too. Thus, all I can hope for is to add a few nuances of my own to the story that the reader may find worthwhile.
Writing about First Nations literature in Canada, engaging contemporary First Nations novels in academic discourse, is reading hybridity. On the one hand, a novel written by a First Nations author is just that — a novel, that is, a book written in the English language in that most English of genres. On the other hand, the writer of that novel belongs to one of Canada’s First Nations and has been raised in or at least can recur to that nation’s traditions and its stories.
There is a story I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Sometimes in the order of events. Other times it’s the dialogue or the response of the audience. But in all the telling of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away. (King 2003, 1)
This is how Thomas King, who is Cherokee and a professor of literature, opens his 2003 Massey lectures. The story he thus recalls is a very well-known Native North American creation myth; King’s focus, however, is not so much on the story itself but on how stories are told in an oral culture. Stories told in such surroundings change in each retelling, he observes, even though the substance remains the same, while the words of a novel, for instance, remain unchanged once they have been set down.3
Through my language I understand I am being spoken to, I’m not the one speaking. The words are coming from many tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the language’s stories, and when my words form I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns. (Armstrong 1998, 181)
Thus, Jeannette Armstrong, a writer from the Okanagan Nation from the valley of the same name in the interior of British Columbia, confirms King’s view and extends it into a cultural tradition: stories are told and retold, she argues, but they are never the sole invention of the speaker; his role is merely to listen and modify them to fit the current situation the story is told in. To write about First Nations literature is thus to encounter writing that sits uncomfortably with the very people by whom it is written, since it is at least in part the casting on paper of a tradition that is not used to being cast on paper, not used to the immutability of writing. It is to encounter writing that is by definition hybrid, and post-colonial in the sense that it arises directly out of the processes of colonial contact. It is also to encounter writing that is shaped and reshaped as much by stories of contemporary issues and patterns as it is grounded in centuries and millennia of experience, of history.
Of course, a similar process occurs in any kind of storytelling, of cultural tradition, of passing knowledge on to another. In Euro-Canadian culture,4 based as it is on the myths of Eurasia, the same stories — or at least very similar ones — are recounted time and again by different people in different modes and genres, too, drawing on a vast stretch of past experience — of both Eurasia and Canada itself. In critical terminology, the basic concepts of both metaphor and intertext are the reflections of these processes of retelling and reshaping. The difference between oral and written culture is one of quality, a quality that has to do with time and the acts of listening and reading.
For Native storytellers, there is generally a proper place and time to tell a story. Some stories can be told any time. Some are only told in the winter when snow is on the ground or during certain ceremonies or at specific moments in a season. Others can only be told by particular individuals or families. So when Native stories began appearing in print, concern arose that the context in which these stories had existed was in danger of being destroyed and the stories themselves were being compromised. The printed word, after all, once set on a page, has no master, no voice, no sense of time or place. (King 2003, 153–154)
Thus, the switch to a highly literary form, to the novel in the English (or Anglo-Canadian) tradition is a profound one — so much so that the First Nations novels discussed here are first and foremost exactly that, novels in the English tradition. But they are influenced and transformed, in fact subverted (beneficially to both sides) by the First Nations tradition of oral storytelling they also embody. This is what my study is about: a very conscious act of adopting and adapting the colonizer’s format to write back (cf. Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin 1989) to Eurocentric discourses, allowing myths of European and Native North American origin to clash and collide to form something new and meaningful. As I will show, the project the novels I discuss are engaged in is a deeply decolonizing one — not more and not less than to make Eurocentric discourse aware of its own hegemonies and discursivity. In her early reading of two of the novels discussed here, Coral Ann Howells summarizes the issue thus:
Concepts of identity and their representations in literary texts are of crucial importance for First Nations writers in contemporary Canada, for they are engaged in the double process of refiguring Aboriginal identities while at the same time educating readers within and outside Native communities by rehabilitating Native traditions for indigenous readers and interpreting those traditions for non-Natives. A Native person writing in English may find him/herself in an ambiguous position, addressing two different readerships (Native and white), while those readers may be assumed to occupy a wide range of positions vıs-à-vıs cultural and racial difference and to have a variety of frames of reference through which to read the text. (Howells 2001, 146)
At the very least, as Margaret Atwood recommends, “[t]he best thing you can do for a writer from a group in the process of finding its voices is to form part of a receptive climate. That is, buy the work and read it, as intelligently and sensitively as you can” (Atwood 2001, 27; emphasis there). If such a reading entails some decolonization of the mind on the part of the (Eurocentric) reader, then so much the better.
First Nations literature in Canada has boomed since the 1980s, albeit on a small scale, under a number of influences and contributing factors. While there have always been indigenous authors, it is only after the most devastating measures of colonization and assimilation had been abolished (though not necessarily overcome) 5 that writing by Canada’s dispossessed indigenous population has come to the attention of a mainstream, or at least a mainstream academic readership.6 Following the activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM), culminating in the 1978 “Trail of Broken Treaties” march to Washington, D.C., awareness of the issues surrounding Canada’s First Nations had also been raised, further fuelled by and at the same time fuelling the constitutional debates in the 1970s. In 1985, Jeannette Armstrong’s tale of the AIM years, Slash, came out, preceded by two novels by Métis authors: Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1974) and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree (1983). It is usually agreed among critics that these novels mark the beginning of the current phase of First Nations novelistic output in Canada. The latter, especially, has made a tremendous impact, being read by generations of Canadian students in high school; to the point of attaining a critical edition. Following these beginnings, aided considerably by the awareness of indigenous politics and issues raised by the Oka crisis of 1990 that also served as a catalyst for writers, First Nations novel-writing reached its first apex in the 1990s — albeit on a comparatively small base of comparatively prolific authors. Beside Armstrong, who has influenced many writers from all over Canada through the En’owkin Centre and its associated School of International Writing (the double meaning of ‘international’ in a First Nations context is doubtlessly intended), Lee Maracle and Eden Robinson stand out as the most prominent voices from the West. Richard Wagamese has joined them more recently; unlike theirs, his writing is based all over Canada. Similarly, California-born and Ontario-based Thomas King’s writing largely takes place on the prairies, often engaging the arbitrarily drawn border to the United States on the forty-ninth parallel. Other names that need to be mentioned here are those of Richard Van Camp, Tomson Highway, Ruby Slipperjack and Drew Hayden Taylor, who, from North to South, represent the Canadian Shield among First Nations novelists. Between them, these writers have produced a corpus of about three dozen novels, as well as numerous short stories.7
Obviously, canonization of the kind I have just begun to outline is a dangerous thing. In this case, the issue is complicated by the publishing industry and the book distribution channels, since usually only books that have made it onto the lists of a select circle of large mainstream publishers also make it onto the reading lists of academia, not to mention the general public. To make it onto those lists, work from minorities has to conform not only to Euro-Canadian readers’ standards, but also to their tastes and experience, thus ruling out overly much deviation from these literary preferences — deviation that surely comes natural to a people raised in an entirely different way of looking at the world. This can be a stumbling block for writing that is, obviously, not necessarily geared to these Euro-Canadian literary sensibilities; conversely, writing that is being published will, to some extent, conform to Euro-Canadian literary values. This is not to be helped (except by establishing indigenous presses and — in the long run — re-socializing mainstream Canadian readerships, both of which has been done, too), but as a reader of these stories and novels, one needs to be aware of the fact. The list of writers above, therefore, represents this canonization uncomfortably, but inevitably. That said, from among the small but exquisite store of novels that have made it onto the big publishers’ lists, Canadian academia has selected a few favourites that can be found on course outlines all over the country. Beside the classic (and ubiquitous) In Search of April Raintree, these most often are King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1993), Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) and Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000). Noticeably, I, too, have chosen two of these three very much canonized texts for inclusion here, which posits its own problems. Inevitably, since they are so well known and widely read in academia, the amount of secondary sources available on these texts is considerable (by comparison). Both Monkey Beach and Kiss of the Fur Queen, to give just one very pertinent example, make an appearance in Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte’s collection on the Canadian Gothic, Unsettled Remains (2008). Inclusion here, however, is not based on this kind of celebrity status. Both Monkey Beach and Kiss of the Fur Queen are simply among the novels that best exemplify the style of writing I find so striking among First Nations authors, that combination of outrageous humour (on which a little more later), darkly gothic (colonial) horror8 and redemptive magical / spiritual realism.9
From this perspective, Green Grass, Running Water, curiously, has not less to offer to the critic, but rather too much. This, in my opinion, is both despite and due to the fact that it is a masterfully postmodern evocation and simultaneous deconstruction of all sorts of (colonial) discourses, which has rendered it, rightfully, as primus inter pares among the triad of novels I have mentioned. King’s novel is in fact outrageously hilarious, darkly colonially gothic and full of spiritual and magical elements that decolonize and redeem its lifeworld. At the same time, however, Green Grass, Running Water is a very consciously postmodern text, often evolving into a sparkling phantasmagoria of all sorts of playfully subverted discourses. So much so that, at the end of the novel, all is cancelled and little remains beside a void of precariousness — the hallmark of postmodern meta-discursive writing. Perhaps that is precisely why King’s novel seems to be not overly effective in its politics — being very postmodern in its wide-ranging playfulness, it lacks the poignancy of other, more deliberately focussed texts. In other words, it is so efficient in cancelling all discourses that none remain; its circular structure, both a postmodern and an indigenous feature, over time turns all but on itself. It lacks, too, the gothic that I wish to trace in the texts I analyze here. While King addresses the same kind of colonial issues at stake here and, moreover, often does so with gothic overtones, he does so in a different mode than Highway or Robinson, for example — to quote the title of a novel by Richard Wagamese, King’s Alberta plains seem to offer a different Quality of Light. Green Grass, Running Water, too, uncovers all sorts of colonial skeletons in many people’s cupboards, but the uncovering is so tenuous that it always already cancels itself. Similarly, though a brilliant player with magical realism and illusion, King somehow lacks the cohesion in his mythology that would enable him to write the kind of spiritual realism I have in mind here. His tricksters and spirits are more of a pan-North American variety, an identity construct other writers have a tendency to oppose, spiced with a good deal of colonial quasi-mythical figures into the bargain. Moreover, there is such a kaleidoscopic profusion of them, evoking so many different traditions, that the overall effect is one of total canellation — not only of hegemonic discourses, but of even the most hybrid of counterdiscourses, as well. Perhaps, that is only what is to be expected from a well-versed professor of English literature — yet, put simply, Green Grass, Running Water is too symbolic, too playful, too deconstructive to offer the comparative argumentative cohesion to be found in other novels and hence in this study. Therefore it goes off the list. At the same time, it must be noted that what I have described as the novel’s greatest weakness (in the terms of this study), is actually its great strength. Through its all-cancelling meta-discursive postmodern play, Green Grass, Running Water stands out as resisting all hegemonies and discourses, notably including all re-essentializations of any First Nations identity, even in its most hybrid forms — hybriditiy itself being liable to essentialization. Instead, it is kaleidoscopic in the true sense of the word: at each turn of the scope, a new pattern emerges from the elements contained within, at random, cancelling all patterns that have gone before or come after.
Instead of Thomas King, I have chosen to add another very well known First Nations writer, Drew Hayden Taylor. Renowned and highly published as a playwright and humorist, his voice as a novelist is only just emerging and his two novels, both included here, are the most recent texts covered in this study; indeed, alongside texts by Wagamese, they are the most recent publication by any of the widely-known First Nations fiction writers listed above. As it is, Taylor’s The Night Wanderer (2007) occasioned this study. Not only does it, alone among the texts I read here, explicitly engage the English (and Southern Ontario) Gothic tradition, but it is also one of the more striking (or perhaps blatant) cases in point for the decolonizing, but also healing reworkings of myth done by spiritual realism. It was out of this reading of The Night Wanderer that a pattern began to emerge: gothic colonial horrors, combined with a subversive, meta-historiographic, but also re-assertive uses of mythical figures can be clearly observed in Taylor’s novel — in fact, being a novel for adolescent readers, it can be faulted for being too obvious on occasion — and then also traced in other texts, I found. Taylor’s second novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass (2010), is less gothic, but offers a slightly different take on spiritual realism, one that brings it out of the dark of a post-residential school context, into the light of a glorious Ontario summer, so to speak. Thus, for my purposes, it offers a near-perfect complement to The Night Wanderer, but also a counterpoint to the older, angrier and more regularly read texts in this study.
There are, of course, novels I have had to omit, more or less reluctantly. Ruby Slipperjack’s Weesquachak (2000) would have been another natural choice, yet it is unfortunately only available in a very unreliable edition, a fate the text most definitely does not deserve. Also, perhaps for that reason, it does not seem to appeal to the Euro-Canadian readership (including myself, to be honest) in the same way the others do. I will grant, however, that this is more a point for reading it than for omitting it. Weesquachak is of a different character in that it is not nearly as playfully humorous as the texts I have covered hitherto (and will cover below); in fact, it is seething with anger, not so much at the settler-colonizers per se, but at the havoc their policies have wrought within the community. Weesquachak, as the title implies (it is the Cree word for the trickster), is very deeply spiritually realist writing — however, its trickster is much more harsh a figure than in other texts. Taking the shape of the protagonist’s husband, he embodies the alcoholism, male domineering and domestic violence that is the legacy of residential school and European contact, but that is also part of the trickster tales of old, at least the adult versions of them, which I will come back to when discussing Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. Yet, even though the protagonists are put through a very hard school indeed, both husband and wife emerge grounded in the traditional ways of life at the end of the novel, on the path toward healing the rifts, it is implied. This, too, is a shift in agenda from the novels I will discuss here — in Weesquachak, to some considerable extent, Euro-Canadian ways of life and culture, education especially, are renounced quite forcefully. Coming from a professor of aboriginal learning at Lakehead University, this is perhaps hardly surprising; although the resulting way of life in Weesquachak is hybrid, too, it is so in a very traditional setting. Unfortunately, however, there is only so much space and a discussion of Weesquachak under the premises of this study must therefore remain a desideratum.
The same applies to Richard Van Camp’s short novel The Lesser Blessed (1996).10 Although it has little to offer in terms of spiritual realism, it would have been well worth including on the strength and poignancy of its darkly, devastatingly noir gothic realism alone. The Lesser Blessed, too, describes what the reader over time discovers to be the very personal, private repercussions of colonization within the (Dogrib) community. Ostensibly about the only somewhat more pronounced growing pains of a teenager raised by a singleparent mother in a town in Canada’s Far North (Van Camp’s own home of Fort Smith, NWT), only very slowly and obliquely the well-known patterns of the after-effects of residential school and similar repressions and violations of First Nations culture begin to emerge in the novel. Notably, Van Camp eschews openly marking his characters as First Nations, an insistence on both the universality of such themes and the irrelevance of colour markers his fellow writers tend to refrain from — or at least to leave aside for more intense political effect. Instead, he focuses on the rigours of life in the North — not so much on ice and snow, but on the temptations of alcohol and drugs, on the outlet they offer to youths who have few other prospects or distractions — and on the detrimental effects this has on the community. The most important aspect, however, is the dysfunctional family structures engendered by the resource-driven itinerant workforce in the North and the resulting uprooting and cancellation of traditional family structures and ways of life. It is these disruptive forces that affect the northern First Nations communities far more than the in-migrating Euro-Canadian workers from the South (who, of course, also usually receive higher payment). The mode Van Camp chooses for his novel is more a terse noir realism than classic gothic, which, nevertheless, ties in well with modern developments of the gothic elsewhere (for example, Kazuo Ishiguro’s dark dystopias). Eden Robinson also has produced a very similar tale in her newest novel, Blood Sports (2006), which focusses on an explicitly Caucasian family group in Vancouver’s slums. Readers will also encounter this type of writing in her Monkey Beach occasionally, as will be seen below. As it is, neither Blood Sports nor The Lesser Blessed, while being brilliantly urban gothic, have anything even remotely magical or spiritual in them, and so are not included here. This leaves my study with a corpus of four texts by three authors, Monkey Beach, Kiss of the Fur Queen, The Night Wanderer and Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. To this I will add a brief discussion of the stories in Eden Robinson’s Traplines, especially the novella “Queen of the North”, which is of particular interest as the direct pre-text of Monkey Beach; yet the entire collection has insights to offer on First Nations gothic writing.
Accordingly, I have chosen to arrange my analyses by author, going from the West to the East (which in itself is in a sense writing back to the usual European westward trajectory). First, however, in the following chapter, I will situate First Nations writing in the Canadian (literary, critical) context, with special emphasis on the gothic and magically realist modes as they occur in Canada. The Canadian Gothic, especially, takes a very distinguishable form and has always been in dialogue with not only the primordial forests and mountains of the land, but also with its (ab-)original inhabitants. This will be followed by some thoughts on magical realism. The term is in great demand, not only in post-colonial writing, but within the postmodern writing of the metropolis itself, and thereby has become confused (or co-opted) to such an extent that some re-defining and re-sharpening of this terminology seems called for, if it is to be a useful analytical tool. It is here that I will differentiate between magical realism, marvellous realism and, most importantly, mythical or spiritual realism. Only the last two, I propose, can occur in a post-colonial setting, and only the latter is really applicable to the kind of First Nations writing I discuss here. Postcolonial thinking, or rather the assumptions surrounding it, also requires some qualification in a Canadian and especially First Nations context. While there can be no doubt whatsoever that both Euro-Canadian and contemporary First Nations writing are the direct result of colonial history, hotly contested issues arise out of the application of the term (or label) ‘post-colonial’ to either (or both). Of course, this is no theoretical piece of writing; therefore, to raise awareness of the challenges involved and to arrive at a few working hypotheses on them will have to satisfy the needs of this study. The same applies to the Eurocentric concepts of both myth and literature itself — here, too, First Nations thinkers and thinking offer a dissenting voice that can be startling and strange to Eurocentric criticism, accustomed as it is to being the dominant discourse in a post-secular globalized literary world.
These theoretical considerations set the stage for Eden Robinson’s tales from the fjords and rainforests of the North-West Coast, which will be discussed in chapter three. Both her novella-length story “Queen of the North” — which, incidentally, despite all the striking parallels, is not in any way related to the sunk B.C. Ferries ship of the same name — and the novel expanded from it, Monkey Beach, share the same terse, dead-pan narrative voice that is characteristic of Robinson’s writing. There are all sorts of monsters in Robinson’s writing and Monkey Beach, especially, introduces the sasquatch, a mythical bogey man of the North-West Coast that serves as a reminder of the presence and validity of First Nations spirituality in the world. The gothic horror in her tales, however, derives not from him, but from a host of far less tangible, but at the same time much more real monsters. The after-effects of Canada’s infamous residential school system are at the heart of Robinson’s darker turns, when rape and violence, substance abuse and rootless wanderings dominate the lives not only of those who have experienced the schools (and similar violations), but of subsequent generations as well, to whom they are transmitted in uncanny repetitions, which makes the colonial residue all the more devastating. By comparison, the widespread encroachment of Euro-North American consumerism on the formerly pristine northern landscape seems paltry, yet it, too, is part and parcel of the problem and at best a mixed blessing that slowly leads to the loss of an entire way of life for the people, but that also brings in such things as SECAM video collections (this is the late 1980s) and up-to-date medical care. This loss of culture, but also the possibilities of hybridity are highlighted symbolically by the introduction of a leprechaun, that mischievous sprite from Irish folklore, into Monkey Beach, yet, significantly, it is also through him that the protagonist finds her way to an understanding and appreciation of her culture, or what is still salvageable of it, in a modern world. Sadly, but somewhat inevitably, she only does so after — and indirectly through — the death of her grandmother, from whom alone she could have learned much about her Haisla heritage that dies with the old lady. Nevertheless, both the story and the novel open a vista of coming to terms in a hybrid world, scraping together a very personal, multifaceted, but apparently viable system of reference at the end of a vision quest that culminates in a liminal experience that fuses traditional practices and Euro-Canadian literature.
A similar quest is embarked upon and completed in Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, which is the subject matter of chapter four. In this novel, however, two brothers experience the horrors of residential school first hand, resulting in a darkening of the gothic mode, which is used to depict both the school and other instances of colonial intrusion and their effects on the First Nations community in the novel. Also, mythical / spiritual realism is omnipresent, chiefly in the form of a benevolent trickster figure, the eponymous Fur Queen (herself a very personal, hybrid outgrowth of contact), as well as in the analogies drawn between colonial monstrosities and monsters from Cree tales of old. Thus, colonial monsters are first assimilated into a Cree mythology and then exorcised, as far as possible, through the redemptive powers of the (hybrid) trickster, who in this novel eclipses the traditional trickster, Weesquachak, and his adversary, Weetigo.11 That one brother dies at the end of AIDS, both the modern-day stand-in of the earlier diseases imported in the colonial context and a highly provocative, ambiguous sign of gay culture, at least in Highway’s cosmology, still serves as a potent reminder that colonial history and its effects, for Canada’s First Nations, have come to stay.
The ultimately redeeming trickster in Kiss of the Fur Queen, herself not only female (in itself a re-affirmation of Cree thinking that treats equally, if not prefers, the female principle), but also deeply hybrid from its very conception, is a mode taken up, to some extent, by Drew Hayden Taylor, whose novels conclude this study, in chapter five. In The Night Wanderer, the trickster, despite being much more traditional than the Fur Queen, leads a hybrid existence in two ways — on the one hand, he is a seventeenth-century Ojibway boy turned vampire at the court of France; on the other hand, he is an amalgamation of the traditional trickster, Nanabush in Ojibway, and his counterpart, Wendigo, revealing only at the end whether the positive or the negative side prevail, thus answering the quest set by the prologue to the novel. This, in a nutshell, also summarizes the role of The Night Wanderer in my study: the vampire, as well as other elements in the text, are obviously an engagement of the English and Southern Ontario Gothic, whereas the placement of the vampire in the everyday lifeworld of contemporary Southern Ontario and the explicit linkage of him to figures from Ojibway mythology constitute an uncomplicated example of how spiritual realism can shape meta-historiographic, decolonizing discourses — and at the same time fulfil the time-honoured role of storytelling of teaching the young. Taylor’s second novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, is a much more traditional trickster tale: as in the old stories (or so one hears from First Nations literati), the trickster enters the everyday reality of the people to wreak a little havoc, to disrupt their complacency, to womanize, but also to teach and effect the little changes of attitude that are to the people’s benefit. That Taylor’s trickster is also based on the adult version of the old stories, that he is a creature driven by fierce desires, an embodiment of what Sigmund Freund refers to as the pleasure principle, does not detract from the novel’s lighthearted mood — on the contrary, its adds a pleasurable depth to the fun. Thus, the trickster’s exploits include returning pre-conquest bones from the ethnographic museum and uncovering ancient stone paintings made by himself eons before, but also disentangling the protagonists (a single mother-cum-chief and her teenage son) from their everyday lives to allow them to see the bigger picture. Obviously, there is little space for gothic in such a tale (although there are some gothic elements), but Motorcycles & Sweetgrass offers a spiritual realism that is in the light, in the sunshine, as it were, by contrast to Monkey Beach and Kiss of the Fur Queen. The issues of colonization retreat to a role in the margins of history, commensurate with liberal Canadian policy in recent years,12 and so allow both the trickster and the people on the reserve to focus on the future, instead of trying to come to terms with the past.
Even from such a brief synopsis it becomes clear that neither gothic nor mythical / spiritual realism are used in these novels as ends in themselves, as mere aesthetic toys of a postmodern l’art pour l’art gesture. Rather, they serve as a means to an end, as the aesthetic expression of cultural, social, historical and/or political points to be made. The gothic mode thus becomes the preferred way of expressing issues, forces and violations of the act of colonization, I will argue. Importantly, it does not become so as the gothic mode, at least not primarily, even though the gothic mode can and does function as a tool to contain an other and thus can be subverted accordingly. Instead, in telling the very real horrors of colonization in an only mildly heightened realist mode, First Nations authors arrive at and find useful the same aesthetics that has also been used to express the fantastic, imagined experiences and ideas of the (classic) English Gothic. In other words, the mode found in the novels I discuss here is the largely genuine, realistic expression of real-world experience of, to give one example, the sexual abuses at residential schools. That this expression of experience should conform to the gothic mode is, at this juncture, coincidental. It is only in a second step of analysis that it is possible to recognize that the violations arising out of (stereotypically) Catholic abuses (The Italian, The Monk), overwrought scientific rationalism (Frankenstein), or the colonial encounter (Heart of Darkness) that have informed the English Gothic tradition are fundamentally the same that are experienced by First Nations people first hand, in the twentieth century. It is only at this stage, then, that it can hardly surprise that out of their own tales of horror, First Nations authors come to a deliberate use of the gothic mode to write themselves into the Canadian Gothic tradition, which has its own gothic novels involving ‘savage Indians’. Thus, the authors discussed here come to turn this Canadian Gothic tradition, of which more in chapter two, back onto itself, to subvert it, and — ultimately — come to make it perfectly clear that, for them and their people, the horror (in that momentous usage of Conrad’s Kurtz) is not merely the vicarious aesthetic terror13 of a safe English chair by the fireside, but has too long been fearsome reality. Thus, what as Eurocentric reader-critics might be tempted to read merely as an employment of the gothic mode is two things at the same time: it is the expression of the act of colonization from the receiver’s point of view in the terms the colonizers had all too often used to justify their own acts, thus turning colonial rationalism’s repressed back out into the open and onto itself, evoking it to haunt the colonial discourse by using the gothic mode, thereby debunking both the mode and the discourse. Thus, First Nations writers’ use of the gothic mode is a (postcolonial) counter-discourse in the full meaning of the phrase: it is both a discourse in its own right and of its own genesis, and a subversive debunking of a discourse used by the colonizers.
The employment of spiritual realism (and, in the process, writing back to magical / marvellous realism) is under slightly different auspices, I will propose. As hinted at, spiritual realism arises not so much out of a postmodern play with fantastic elements, as magical realism does, or the wonder at a reality that is beyond the words of any given language, as marvellous / magical realism does, but out of myth, the mythology of an aboriginal people14 imported into a realist, rationalist narrative (see chapter two for details). To put it over-simplified, for the purposes of this study, spiritual realism is simply First Nations storytelling technique in a written form and in the English language. I propose that this, too, serves as a means to an end in the writing I discuss here, as well as, perhaps, being an aesthetics that comes natural to the writers. On the one hand, in a time and space in which the indigenous languages of Canada are by no means spoken by even a majority of First Nations people themselves, in which the presence of Euro-Canadian mainstream culture is an incontrovertible reality of life and in which Euro-Canadian ways of life and the English language are the two most relevant unifying factors of a pan-Canadian First Nations identity (even though this is strongly overlaid by regional and tribal affiliations), to tell the stories of experiencing and overcoming colonial violations serves as a means to renew and reaffirm First Nations culture and spirituality and as a (perhaps the) major one of many ways to facilitate healing, both on the personal and community levels. On the other hand, to introduce First Nations mythology into a lookalike, and sometimes an evocation, of one of the favourite modes of (settler / post-)colonial writing — the novel, more specifically the gothic and magically realist novel — is also to write back to that discourse, to subvert settler-colonial magical realism in such a way as to show its presumptions and at the same time to modify it so that mainstream post-colonial literary thought and criticism must needs address their own inadequacies and fallacies. Thus, I will argue that the introduction of mythical tales and figures into the everyday reality of the novels, into the lifeworld of the protagonists serves, firstly, to call into question colonial discourses by calling into question its underlying assumption, the myth of postenlightenment rationalism and its linear teleology of progress; secondly, to do so in a mode that, like the gothic, is a lookalike of a mode that has been used to colonize the lands and the peoples of (North) America, thereby directly writing back to that discourse; and thirdly as a genuine, innate First Nations mode of telling stories, an expression of the current state of First Nations culture(s), thereby to do what storytelling has always been doing when not reduced to being mere art: to teach and to heal. This, I hope, my subsequent analyses will show.
Without question, these ideas are not entirely new. As mentioned above, the gothic mode has long been identified in First Nations writing, as well as in other indigenous writing from similar situations. My first debt of gratitude, in terms of secondary sources, is therefore to Katrin Althans, who in Darkness Subvereted: Aboriginal Gothic in Black Australian Literature and Film (2010) is doing for Australian Aboriginal writing what I plan to do in the area of Canada’s First Nations literature. She, too, traces a fundamental re-writing of the Gothic tradition; it would appear, however, that aboriginal writers from Australia, or at least the ones Althans reads, are writing much more intertextually than their Canadian counterparts. Notably (and perhaps inevitably), they, too, pounce upon the vampire when a colonial monster is needed for sucking the lifeblood out of an indigenous population. Althans also looks at something known as ‘maban reality’ in Australian criticism, which is the equivalent of my notion of spiritual realism; unfortunately, I have a feeling she fails to fully recognize the concept’s (and the literary practice’s) subversive power and, for that reason, tends to neglect the concept more than perhaps she should. Elsewhere, however, and setting general theoretical writing aside (which I will refer to in the subsequent chapter on theory), there is a dearth of book-length studies pertaining to my subject matter. I have already mentioned Thomas King’s lecture series on The Truth About Stories; his partner and colleague, Helen Hoy, stands out as the author of How Should I Read These? Native Woman Writers in Canada (2001), also a series of lectures, or rather seminar notes, a book that exemplifies the kind of careful open-mindedness that I hope to practise here, even though it is seldom directly relevant to this study. However, it does offer insights on Eden Robinson’s writing, of whose Traplines Hoy is an early reader.
Robinson’s work, particularly Monkey Beach, is also one of the novels among the four I will discuss here about which there is an appreciable amount of secondary sources in evidence.15 First and foremost among the sources available, from the point of view of this study, are two articles by Jodey Castricano and Jennifer Andrews, respectively, which explore the gothic aspect of the novel and thus lay the critical foundation for my study. Both also go far towards a theorizing of what both call the ‘Canadian Gothic’, of which both consider Monkey Beach to be a representative, with all the repercussions that statement implies on canonization and co-option (cf. Castricano 2006; Andrews 2001).16 The novel had been read as a subversive gothic from the earliest reviews on (cf. Thomas 2000); more recently, critics have situated Monkey Beach within the discourse of Canadian Feminist Gothic (cf. Kulperger 2009; Spreng 2007),17 again exhibiting the co-opting tendencies of Eurocentric criticism — that is, Robinson’s novel is read predominantly as (just another) Canadian novel. By contrast, several writers argue against the kind of Eurocentric reading, which these sources constitute and which my own study cannot escape being. Michèle Lacombe, for one, takes Monkey Beach as a starting point to argue for reading First Nations writing in terms of First Nations culture, looking for analytical tools in “[i]ndigenous literary nationalism and trickster discourse as it intersects with notions of hybridity” (Lacombe 2010, 253). The related problems of reading from a Euro-Canadian point of view, of catering to it as a writer (who wants to be published) and in the process alienating one’s own people are major ones and have been commented upon by several critics and authors.18 Another related aspect is the — sometimes stereotypical — connection to the land First Nations writers tend to exhibit, a certain holistic, environmentally conscious attitude — in the sense that land is to be preserved for continued use, rather than just preserved. This attitude is central in communities re-shaped by damages wrought by resource extraction on the part of the settler-colonizers.19 Obviously, all these issues touch upon contact and, in time, transculturation and hybridity, which most critics keep in mind and several focus on solely (cf. Sarkowsky 2009; Howells 2003, ch. 9; Wainwright 2006; Kulperger 2007). Recently, Lydia Roupakia has offered another meta-critical view on all of this by focussing on a renewed ethics of reading. In the wake of Zygmunt Bauman and Emmanuel Lévinas, she calls for reading with what she calls “[c]are and the [r]esponsibility of an [h]eir” (Roupakia 2012, 279), an ethics that hopefully also informs my own reading of Monkey Beach. By contrast, only one critic, Kristina Fagan, who is Métis herself, focuses on some of the more striking aspects of Monkey Beach and Kiss of the Fur Queen (and also present in Taylor’s novels), the involvement of both the trickster and his antagonists, and on the working-through of trauma that occurs in the novels (cf. Fagan 2009).
Fagan thus provides a direct link to Kiss of the Fur Queen, since she observes a similar approach in both novels (and in The Lesser Blessed, too). As mentioned, the perception of the gothic mode in Robinson’s and Highway’s novels is another linking factor; Jennifer Henderson, especially, focuses on this aspect, in terms of Catholicism, sexuality and the city (cf. Henderson 2009; Vranckx 2008). Katja Sarkowsky, in her discussion of the novel, places emphasis on space and mapping, but arrives at largely the same results — space, too, being both gothic and post-colonially and sexually charged in the novel (cf. Sarkowsky 2007, ch. 4; 2009).20 This is a general trend in writing about Kiss of the Fur Queen; roughly half of the criticism available is centered on a spectrum of issues surrounding residential school, colonialism, survivance and healing.21 This, in turn, leads directly to those more theoretical and/or Eurocentric critics who focus on transcultural and post-colonial themes in the novel. Eminent among the latter are articles by Diana Brydon and Cythia Sugars, respectively (cf. Brydon 2001; Sugars 2002).22
By complete contrast, almost no secondary sources are in evidence as yet on Drew Hayden Taylor’s novels. Donna Ellwood Flett, in one of the two articles available on The Night Wanderer, focuses more on the teaching of the text in a high-school setting than on its analysis, yet her reading touches briefly on many interesting aspects of the novel that will also inform my own reading (cf. Flett 2011). Maureen Clark, in the other essay, interestingly draws a comparison I have (somewhat subcutaneously) also drawn by invoking Althans: she compares the use of vampires in Black Australian and First Nations writing, using The Night Wanderer as her Canadian example (cf. Clark 2013). On Drew Hayden Taylor himself, there is more on offer, but the writing largely revolves around his distinguished career as a playwright, as can be expected (cf. Beck 2007, for example). I found several fairly recent interviews with him more helpful, since these tend to focus also on the many other kinds of writing he is involved in, including his prose (cf. Däwes 2003; Moffat & Tait 2004).
Other than that, in the context of First Nations writing, it is always helpful to turn to the more theoretical or poetological writings of the authors themselves, of which they all have some to offer. King’s The Truth About Stories is one such example, Robinson’s The Sasquatch at Home (2011) is another. King’s and Lee Maracle’s oft-quoted thoughts on the post-colonial will be discussed to some extent in the next chapter (cf. King 2004; Maracle 2004), as will be Tomson Highway’s Comparing Mythologies (2003). Highway is also a regular contributor to other collections, such as Drew Hayden Taylor’s Me Funny (2005), a collection on First Nations humour and a very good example on how to decolonize scholarly writing while not at all de-professionalizing it.
Humour, in fact, is both what I would like to conclude this introduction with and the one central theme / technique of contemporary First Nations novel-writing the remainder of this study will not really be concerned with. As even the most cursory reading will show, First Nations novels tend to be outrageously funny. Even in the ones most heavily laden with anger — Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong and sometimes Ruby Slipperjack come to mind — there is still a sarcastic residue of a tough-talking, dead-pan kind of humour, a witticism that is born of First Nations languages, as Tomson Highway, for one, argues; a humour that produces much more than just an afterglow in the English, or Anglo-Canadian transculturation.
Humour requires intelligence. It calls for the ability to take in information, deconstruct it and reconstruct it in a new, improved, refined format. The humorist then reintroduces that information to the world to achieve a completely different reaction. Humour also requires surprise. Generally speaking, if the punchline is something you’re expecting, then it won’t be funny. (Taylor 2005, 3)
The points Taylor raises (in his introduction to Me Funny) are, of course, so universally acknowledged as to be trivial. At least, at first glance they are. For if, as I have hypothesized, the agenda of the First Nations writing I am looking at is to deconstruct a discourse, to reconstruct it into something new and then, as it were, hurl it back into the speaker’s face as a surprise, then humour is the form and mode that, according to Taylor, is best suited to the task. This is precisely what Robinson, Highway, Taylor and all the others are doing. It may also well be that humour is both the best way to drive home a point in a memorable fashion and to avoid becoming unbearably serious and/or didactic at the same time. All of this applies both to the subject matter — violent, traumatic colonization at the hands of their very audience — and to the situation — having to both come to terms with and change for the better the society and dominant discourse they encounter — First Nations authors find themselves confronted with. Fagan convincingly argues that, for First Nations people(s), humour has been a crucial means of survival and adds that “[t]hrough a joke, one can both say something and not say it at the same time” (Fagan 2009, 210). Both statements are somewhat obvious — yet again the issue is not quite as simple as that. While most First Nations authors will imply that their humour is, first and foremost, ‘cultural’,23 that is: an expression of how community is built and maintained by First Nations peoples, humour is also inherently subversive in the face of colonization, since it deconstructs and displaces master narratives without even the need of unequivocally positing a replacement. While, of course, on the one hand this equivocation always already calls into question the trajectory of the humour itself, as well as its target, it is the avoidance of direct conflict (which tends to provoke mental ‘stonewalling’), that is humour’s most effective weapon. If, in the following chapters, I will draw upon humour at all, it will be predominantly this subversive, decolonizing quality I have in mind. The novels and their authors certainly play that card; however, as Fagan elucidates, there is much more to First Nations humour than that, even though “[v]irtually all of the scholarly writing on humour in Aboriginal literature examines the ways in which Aboriginal writers use humour to subvert white society and to counter colonization and stereotypes” (Fagan 2005, 24). Humour, she contends, is central to the inner workings of First Nations communities, since
humour is deeply social: a shared laugh is an affirmation of norms, attitudes and assumptions in common. Humour can allow the tolerance of disruptive forces, teach social values and enforce social norms. But these functions can have a problematic side, sometimes leaving people feeling excluded or humiliated […]. (Fagan 2005, 25)
In pre-contact indigenous ways of life (arguably still present in the smaller communities up North), the form of social intercourse had been the small, family-based semi-nomadic group; obviously, in such a small, unchangeable group, cohesion and, more importantly, harmony were essential. In as harsh a natural environment as North America can be, due to its predominantly continental climate, survival of the individual outside the community was impossible — indeed, such survival is (physically and psychologically) entirely impossible still. Hence the importance of humour in such groups, since “humour is […] a non-coercive and harmonious means of maintaining and enforcing community” (Fagan 2005, 35). However,
while humour can reinforce social cohesion, the flip side of this is that it can be used to pressure people into such cohesion. Community depends on a degree of conformity, and humour can be a way of establishing conformity without openly revealing deep negative emotions and without directly criticizing, blaming or interfering with others, thus maintaining social harmony. (Fagan 2005, 36)
Thus, humour also attains a dark side, as does the idea of community itself. This somewhat critical, pessimistic view of humour has to be taken with a grain of salt, however, since it is very much the criticism a strong individual — any strong individual — will offer in the face of group or community pressure. As artists or scholars, people need to be strong individuals, or they would not be the recognizable, public (and published) figures they are. By extension, however, this kind of individualism also renders them suspicious to coercive forces. Fagan makes a valid point when she observes that many First Nations authors, while practicing humour themselves, are also wary of the kind of in-community humour that serves as a means to a didactic, cohesive end. Certainly, to be laughed at by a dominant peer-group discourse is no fun, as any amount of adolescents around the globe can attest to.24 Nevertheless, artists and scholars inherently being the non-conformists they are, it is important to disengage oneself, as a critic, from this ingrained angst of communities and to see also the benefits of cohesive communities. Without doubt, as a tool for community-building, humour is to be much preferred to other modes.
This […] is in keeping with traditional Native educational practices, which generally discourage direct instruction as inappropriate interference. Stories and jokes encourage people to observe and interpret on their own, allowing them to see multiple possible meanings. Laughter also makes the teaching seem less pushy and coercive and shows that the teacher is not arrogant or self-important. (Fagan 2005, 30–31)
This freedom of interpretation can easily turn into indeterminacy; the message is then hard to detect — if there is one — when everything is called into question. Analyzing examples from First Nations fiction, including Kiss of the Fur Queen, Fagan arrives at the observation that
[i]n all of these examples, the comic characters embody excess, enjoyment, rule-breaking and disorderliness. At the same time, there is also a sense of moral and social order being asserted in each situation. This contradiction is the source of the humour. But it is also a deeply social contradiction; the point at which these forces meet is the fine edge between individual freedom and communal norms. This is an edge that each of us must negotiate, a process that is reflected (and perhaps learned) in our negotiation of this teaching humour. (Fagan 2005, 35)
To the Eurocentric reader, Fagan is obviously invoking something akin to the carnivalesque, in Bakhtin’s sense, although she does not seem to be aware of the fact herself, or is studiously avoiding the analogy so as not to re-colonize her own statement. From among the novels I discuss here, Kiss of the Fur Queen, especially, does contain such a carnivalesque element (I will look at the episode in question below, in chapter four), but the mode can be found elsewhere, too. The trajectory is similar to what Bakhtin has in mind; if not a relativity of all things, then at least the de-privileging of authoritative, hegemonic discourses is intended. Even more importantly, the novels as wholes can be read as a carnivalesque intrusion into Euro-Canadian systems of reference, since through their all-pervading humour, as works of art, they debunk and subvert the dominant discourse by being, ultimately, so hybrid and indeterminate that each reader has to find their own interpretation of what they have been told, and has to pick their own meaning from the multiple layers offered. This is not so very different from many radically postmodern texts, of course; yet this mode, too, is effective in a First Nations decolonizing project, a means rather than an end in itself. Also, this indeterminacy — be it a result of the carnivalesque or of traditional humour, or indeed an indeterminate hybrid of both — is not to argue that the texts do not have a clear, perceptible textual and political agenda. It is just that they refuse to be hegemonic in their alternatives and leave it to the reader to figure out how things could be done differently. Put differently, the novels I will be discussing here ask many questions, disrupt many accustomed ways of thinking, through the gothic mode, through magical / spiritual realism, and also through their humour, but refuse to give the answers — not to their protagonists, and not to their readers. Thus, in First Nations writing, humour, as well as the ‘darker’ modes that will be at the heart of this study, has twofold aims — to deconstruct hegemonic discourses and to build the community. In fact, community
has become something of a buzzword in discussions of Native literature […, used] unexamined and given uniformly positive connotations. Native writers, however, while valuing and affirming Native community, critically examine the process of community building. […] Humour – with its basis in incongruity – offers these writers an effective way to maintain such a balance, both affirming and critiquing their communities. (Fagan 2005, 44)25
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