This page last revised 3 June 1997
King, Thomas ed. All My Relations. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990.
This is an anthology of writing by nineteen Native Canadian writers, which represents both an attempt to promote Native writing, and an effort to undermine commonly held misunderstandings. It is published by McClelland & Stewart, "The Canadian Publishers", which gives the collection a status of national and cultural importance, while indicating how these writers are working in and through Canada's hegemonic culture. This would seem to go some way towards undermining the book's claims to authenticity, but for the fact that King's stated purpose is much more complex than that. In fact, his introduction specifically considers the concept of the authentic, and is wary of what is potentially a highly limiting notion. Thus, the selection includes work that represents Natives in both traditional and contemporary roles and situations; and the format of the writing ranges from a transcription of an oral narrative to examples of conformity with the generic conventions of the Western short story. He is reluctant to constrain the possibilities for Native expression, but is ready to admit that the advent of a written culture with English as a shared language has allowed the various indiginous cultures to discover and explore areas of common belief and practice.
Although King believes that it is too early in the history of Native publishing to be able precisely to delineate characteristic patterns, the two major themes which he cites as frequently recurring are those of community and the role of oral literature. He has included a short story of his own in the volume, "The One About Coyote Going West." Coyote is an example of the mythological "Trickster" character who often occurs in Native literature. King himself says "The trickster is an important figure for Native writers for it allows us to create a particular kind of world in which the Judeo-Christian concern with good and evil and order and disorder is replaced with the more Native concern for balance and harmony." (King, xiii) He relates the story in a colloquial, spoken style. Witness the opening lines: " This one is about Coyote. She was going west. Visiting her relations. That's what she said. You got to watch that one. Tricky one." (King, 95) As the story unfolds, the reading experience can seem strange for the non-Native. Characters change gender and identity, abstract nouns are blurred with concrete nouns, and the physical universe is represented as a radically unstable place. All of our metaphysical certainties are undercut. And although King himself might well deny this, it seems to me that on some level he is deliberately working to undermine our (Western) received ideas of story telling. It seems that he must be in large part writing for a Western audience, partly because of the publication circumstances, and partly because it is the subversion of those stable categories which is the story's chief point.
Ruby Slipperjack's story "Coal Oil, Crayons and Schoolbooks" also runs against Western expectations, but in different ways. This relates an ordinary day in the life of a Native schoolgirl, who remains unnamed, from waking up in the morning, through school, and then home afterwards. But there is no dramatic narrative sequence here, just an account, in the present tense, of the things that happen, in chronological order. This is a description of a small community and a family, with no priviliging of a "hero" or of particularly important events. The emphasis is very much on the perceptions and sensations of the narrator. Her perceptions are sometimes mistaken or blurred, but there is no attempt to correct them; the method has some degree of commonality with the modernist "stream of consciousness". But what we are really presented with here is a fairly static (by Western standards) embodiment of a set of cultural norms and relationships, which seems to be pictorial in many respects, with the emphasis on the representation of the community.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by David Harris.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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