Border Crossings: Thomas King's Cultural Inversions

by edited by Arnold E. Davidson, Priscilla L. Walton, and Jennifer Andrews
223 pages,
ISBN: 0802041345

Post Your Opinion
Defying Categories
by Raj Mehta

Thomas King is certainly known to Canadians for his work on the radio serial The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour¨no longer running sadly, though CBC still hosts an official webpage. His books include Medicine River, Truth and Bright Water, Green Grass, Running Water and the short story collection One Good Story, That One. He has also written books for children and published DreadfulWater Shows Up under the pseudonym Hartley Goodweather, as well as edited a collection of First Nations writing, All My Relations.
Border Crossings explores a multiplicity of dividing lines in the work of Thomas King: territorial and cultural spaces, the conflation of past and present, the fusion of oral traditions with contemporary texts, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries and the overlapping frameworks of gender, ethnicity and nationhood. As an American who moved to Canada, and of Cherokee, German-Greek descent, he curiously "can be read as a Canadian writer and a Native writer, but he cannot be a Canadian Native writer because the Cherokees are not 'native' to Canada." Much might be made of the alliance between national borders and identity politics, but King's rejoinder circumvents any national objectification: "I guess I'm supposed to say that I believe in the line that exists between the US and Canada, but for me it's an imaginary line. It's a line from somebody else's imagination." This is important, for King's impulse is one of constituting Native literature as singularly North American. The cultural construction of boundaries makes up the multiplicity¨and ambiguity¨of themes that cut through his writing¨and this while subverting any claim to a postcolonial vision.
While the past couple of decades has been a boon for postcolonial studies, certainly the field has become so diffuse that it is now vulnerable to critique on various levels. Writers have argued, for example, that non-European writing is assessed only in juxtaposition to, and thereby reduced to mere critiques of, European texts. King, in a piece entitled "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial", takes this a step further in his consideration of Native literature:

"While post-colonialism purports to be a method by which we can begin to look at those literatures which are formed out of the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the colonized and the colonizer, the term itself assumes that the starting point for that discussion is the advent of Europeans in North America. At the same time, the term organizes the literature progressively suggesting that there is both progress and improvement. No less distressing, it also assumes that the struggle between guardian and ward is the catalyst for contemporary Native literature, providing those of us who write with method and topic. And, worst of all, the idea of post-colonial writing effectively cuts us off from our traditions, traditions which have come down to us through our cultures in spite of colonization, and it supposes that contemporary Native writing is largely a construct of oppression; ironically, while the term itself¨post-colonial¨strives to escape to find new centres, it remains, in the end, a hostage to nationalism. "

The diversity of Native literature that King champions involves a disregard for national schemes. This is understandable too when one comes to terms with nationalist exclusions of Native literature. Arnold Krupat has noted the kind of institutional literary separatism that bars Native literature from general survey courses of national (or for that matter, Western) literature. Still, despite King's take on the Eurocentricism of the postcolonial, there is surely something to be said about the marginalized status of Native cultural traditions in relation to the hegemonic pressures that are ubiquitous to postcolonial exegesis. King is keenly aware of this, but understandably circumvents the diminution of his work to a mere ideological postulate, a sociological testament of some sort. Indeed, this is one of the points carefully articulated in Border Crossings. The book's fortT lies in its appreciation not just for King's overtly literary ventures, but his talent with various forms of expression¨radio, photography and television¨and in how these negotiate cultural spaces through his discriminating use of humour, paradox and irony.
King has remarked that "Tragedy is my topic. Comedy is my strategy." Thus King's comic vision is best approached as a kind of artistic survival tactic wonderfully illustrated in a self-reflexive moment from Truth and Bright Water:

"You know what's wrong with the world?" My father reaches under the seat and comes up with a bottle. The label says 'Wiser's.'
"Is that whisky?" I say.
"Whites," he says. "It's as simple as that." My father passes me the bottle. I take a sniff. It's iced tea, and it's pretty good.
"That's because they took our land, right?"
"Because they broke the treaties?"
"Double nope."
"Because they're prejudiced ... ?"
"That what they teach you in school?" My father takes the bottle and has another drink. "Listen up. It's because they got no sense of humour."
"Skee tells some pretty good jokes."
"Telling a joke and having a sense of humour," says my father, "are two different things."
The comic element, inasmuch as it incorporates language, ideology and social formulations, constructs a way to read against the grain of common assumptions and thereby refigures and questions culturally inscribed assumptions and recycled misrepresentations. In a way, this argument in the book is rather reminiscent of Allan J. Ryan's ethnographic look at the comic world view in Native Art in The Trickster Shift.
However, the very resistance implicit in King's tactic might well defeat the substantive confrontation his inquiries open, and indeed, one might suppose that the palatability of his work accounts for the affirmation his work has received. We chuckle some when we hear Gracie Heavyhand (Edna Rain), Jasper Friendly Bear (Floyd Favel Starr) and Tom King (as himself) excerpt the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples on Dead Dog Cafe¨but how many among us has read it? The authors of Border Crossings raise this concern (though in too cursory a fashion) and I think are on the mark to suggest that King's figurative and inversion techniques provide a more inviting space for cultural mediation by being less threatening than the exercise of mere defiance. King himself has admitted that "it doesn't help the fiction if all you do is talk about the kinds of oppressions White culture has had on Natives. There are all sorts of other ways to do it which are much more powerful." Indeed, do we not take stock of our ignorance of the Royal Commission Report? But the "we" here implies a particular audience. As well as Border Crossings portrays the ways in which King negotiates and unsettles sides of "borders", one wonders about the reception of King's ironic distancing when it comes to Native audiences. I am weary of falling here into the trap of conflating King's pan-Indianness with some stereotype of the "Native Indian". Clearly, both Native and non-Native readers and audiences of King's work are not equivocal about cultural alignments. The authors do point out that King is in "a position that makes him vulnerable to exclusion from both Native and non-Native arenas." King's role on Dead Dog CafT is a perfect illustration of this, as Gracie and Jasper strive to make him stereotypically "Indian". King's role on the show is as the "straight man", a "point of entry (if a conflicted one) for non-Native listeners." But the role of King as a point of entry for Natives, his energizing possibilities for a dialogic space, would well complement this study. Still, the palatability, if it can be called that, of King's humour, is not a neutral space, but a strategic fault line, a context for counter discourse. Border Crossings is attentive to the virtuosic novelty, subtlety of tone, voice, character predicament as well as the cross-cultural intertextual linkages in King's work. Reader's of King's work know that the spaces King opens up are not monolithic or static messages, but often contradictory, unsentimental and poignant observations of our disparate foibles that are constantly being transformed and contested. ˛

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