Thomas King, The Truth About Stories

The CBC has been hosting the annual Massey lectures since 1961; I've read several of the collected volumes now*, and some of them (including some I haven't made it to yet) deserve a place on any bookshelf. But not one of them matches the artistry and value of Thomas King's The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Not one of them.

Each of the five lectures begins by recalling the story that tells of the turtle supporting the world on its back, a story that always leads a listener to ask what's under the turtle - "another turtle" is the answer, so the same question, and the same answer, and so on, until the listener asks how many turtles there are. "Nobody knows," the storyteller shrugs, "but it's turtles all the way down."

After this five-times-told story is the book's core statement, told six times in all: "The truth about stories is that's all we are."

King talks about First Nations** history, telling stories about critical moments, offering wisdom phrased in self-deprecating ways. He talks about arts, especially literature, produced by First Nations peoples, both the individual artists and the works they've produced. He talks about himself. All this, you and I need to know. I'm not going to summarize it, because damn it, damn it, I'm going to be forcing people to read this book. (Sorry.)


The point I keep worrying away at, now that I've read the book twice in succession, is the constructedness of First Nations identity in Canada. OK, every identity is constructed by every viewer, big deal, but this time it is a big deal. Our lives are organized around the stories we tell about the world and ourselves, and we choose wrong. We keep choosing wrong.

You want a different world? Think it differently; tell a different story. Even better, tell the same story differently. In King's view, and in mine, a creation story that emphasizes boundaries and punishment, like Christianity's, generates a society very different from one generated by a story emphasizing cooperation, like the aforementioned turtle story.

King suggests that one reason First Nations writers rarely write about the "Cowboys and Indians" period of North American history is that the constructed "Indian" is so powerful that it overwhelms the reality that was being lived at the time by the First Nations. Much of White knowledge comes from the exhaustive photographic record developed by Edward Sheriff Curtis, who took some 40,000 pictures in his 30-year project, of which over 2,200 have been published. Thing is, Curtis carried with him backdrops and "Indian" props, including clothing from one tribe that he got members of other tribes to wear. He carried wigs and paid men to shave, so he never photographed a First Nations man with a crewcut or mustache, or a woman in a print dress.

How on earth, King asks, can he compete with that? Let alone the Hollywood tradition of the western, though he doesn't talk about that. No, the stereotypical Indian is so entrenched that there's no fighting it: there is only now, and the stories to tell that have meaning for the lives we live now.

The postscript to the Massey series, which was not delivered as a lecture and which King says is a story he will never tell aloud, about a friendship with a man whose family adopted a girl with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a friendship King believes he lost through negligence, ends crushingly with dislocation and violence and a paucity of hope. He weeps at this story, he says, not for the family, but for himself:
And for the world I've helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because knowing all this, it's doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different.
It's the story, you see. It's easier to tell a story of self-contempt than to live a life of effort and sacrifice. We need to find different stories to tell.

Or I do, anyway.

* So far I've finished Frye's 1962, MLK's 1967, Fuentes' 1984, Chomsky's 1988, Saul's 1995, and King's 2003 lectures. MLK's is poignant in the extreme, obviously, given his death the following year.
** I know King uses the term "Indian," so I should as well, but I just can't do it. In 1983 I played basketball on a team that included two Secwepemc boys from the Chum Creek reserve, named Leigh and Doug. We got crushed by Ralph Bell Elementary, in Kamloops. What I remember, especially, is the kid who had to cover Doug shouting out, "I got the chug - he's my check!" So it's hypercorrection, I guess, because I should have spoken up in 1983: I knew it then, and I said nothing. Students at Ralph Bell can learn the Shuswap language now, but I doubt that helps Doug. They're still going to ski at Sun Peaks.


sexy said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Popular Posts