Archive for the ‘Alexie, Robert’ Category

Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright

May 3, 2009

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The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously — if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. Looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of years ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Those are the opening sentences of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and fair warning they are. If you are uncomfortable with giving yourself up to a book in which spirits, like the serpent, drive or influence the action, it probably isn’t worth your while to take on the remaining 438 pages. If you are willing to enter that world, there is a remarkable journey ahead of you.

Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf — she knows the spirits, the land, the sea, the native people and the intruders that form the story of this novel. It won Australia’s primary fiction prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2007, was published in the United Kingdom last year and finally became available to Canadian readers a month ago. (That’s fairly typical of how long we Canadians have to wait to read outstanding Australian fiction, but I’ll save that for my next post.)

Wright sets up the dialectical tension that will dominate the book and its characters a few pages later when she introduces Desperance, “a town intended to serve as a port for the shipping trade for the hinterland of Northern Australia”:

In one moment, during a Wet season early in the last century, the town lost its harbour waters when the river simply decided to change course, to bypass it by several kilometres. Just like that. Now the waterless port survives with more or less nothing to do. Its citizens continue to engage in a dialogue with themselves passed down the generations, on why the town should continue to exist.

Desperance may be the empty, pointless geographical centre of the book but it is surrounded by teeming action. To the west and east, there is the Pricklebush, home to the indigenous people, some of whom venture into town, some of whom avoid it. To the north, across the tidal mudflats, is the sea, home to its own collections of spirits and opportunities. To the south is the desert, again with its own set of creatures. And looming ominously over this all is the Gurfirrit mine, the latest foreign intrustion into this world. If Desperance represents the hopeless, empty past, the mine represents the equally hopeless, but threatening, future.

The powerful natural forces all have a human representative or two in the current reality of the book. Probably the most dominant is Normal Phantom of the Westside of the Pricklebush. Formerly the area’s best fisherman, he now is an amazing taxidermist who restores fish to life:

When nobody believed the story spread by Norm Phantom about not being the maker of his work, he kept his beliefs to himself. These were the fascinating secrets of the fishroom. Secretly, Norm remained convinced that others helped in such exquisite creations, something much more powerful than himself. A supernatural master artist who created miracles, a dalliance of God consuming the room as an experimental studio, a type of expose for life in the decaying world, where the air smelt like a beach.

Norm avoids Desperance and always has. Some time back, that led to a split in the Aboriginal community and a number of his neighbors headed across town to create the Eastside. Their leader is Joseph Midnight and they make periodic attempts to get along with Uptown (the white community); some even work in the mine.

Elias Smith is the human who emerges from the sea, dragging his fishing skiff across the mudflats. He becomes a feature of Desperance for a while but is obviously out of his element — eventually he drags his boat and self back to sea.

Mozzie Fishman (the last name is ironic — he hates the sea) is the human of the desert. A religious zealot, he leads a convoy of ancient vehicles and followers around the desert, periodically showing up in Desperance as yet another disruptive force.

There is also a queen (at least in her own mind) that “rules” over these four: Angel Day, the mother of Norm’s seven children, she left some time ago to take up with Joseph on the Eastside and has had a number of offspring by him.

Desperance itself, the empty centre, has equally empty characters — a hapless mayor, Stan Bruiser, and an equally hapless policeman, Truthful. In the book (as in Wright’s vision of the life she is describing), they serve mainly as punishing foils to the indigenous people.

As the opening sentences indicate, there is a similar cast of spiritual characters — not just the river serpent, but giant gropers in the sea and the winds, trees and blowing sand of the desert. They are joined by the spirits of the dead, departed or missing. Just as Robert Alexie in Porcupines and China Dolls (see my previous post) periodically makes his spirits concrete characters who drive the book, Wright has no hesitation in frequently making these forces real.

The result is an exceptional book, an exploration of a culture that values the land and its spirits every bit as much as its day to day reality — another feature it shares with Porcupines and China Dolls. As a Caucasian, raised as a Christian, I won’t pretend to understand it. I do appreciate the opportunity, provided by both books, to at least begin to appreciate it.

That is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to overlap these two reviews. While the nations of Alexis Wright and Robert Alexie may be geographically, quite literally, a world apart, they have much in common. And sometimes it is very helpful for those of us who are trying to comprehend the world we live in to look at the Antipodes to help achieve that understanding. I think Carpentaria does that for Canadians; equally, I think Porcupines and China Dolls (if you can figure out how to get it) would be valuable reading for Australians.

(I understand that Alexis Wright is coming to Canada this fall for the author festivals in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto — perhaps some others as well. Canadian readers might want to prepare by reading the book in advance. I don’t know if there are any plans for Robert Alexie, whose book was just released — it would be fascinating to see the two authors on the same platform.)

As promised in my previous post, this is the second of three related posts. Novels about indigenous people are not the only ones that show similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction. I have been fascinated for some years about that similarity — in a few days, I’ll complete this mini-series with some thoughts about why it exists and some examples that I hope visitors to this blog will find useful.

Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie

April 30, 2009

To understand this story, it is important to know the People and where they came from and what they went through.

***

Even back then, the People realized the value of the white man’s education and didn’t make a big fuss about it.  They just didn’t realize how it was going to be done.  They put their faith and trust in His Majesty and His Majesty’s government and believed “said children” would be cared for.  They had no reason to think otherwise.

What they didn’t know when they put their “X” on the Treaty was that the church would be given the responsibility to educate their “said children”.  It sounded like patronage, and it is still a contentious issue to this day.  It probably always will be.

Soon after, the first mission boat arrived in Aberdeen, and thirty-five children were herded out of the Blue Mountains and dragged off to mission school.  The People have no words in their language for mission school.  The closest anyone has come to it is “hellhole”, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that years later twenty-four of the thirty-five would return.  More importantly, eleven wouldn’t.

It had begun, but no one knew what “it” was.  Things were beginning to change; the future was unfolding, as it should.

porcupines-and-china-dolls_theytustitlemain1From the day the first white man arrived, the treatment of Canada’s indigenous people has been dreadful.  First came the diseases like smallpox (sometimes spread deliberately with infected blankets) that wiped out entire populations and decimated others.  For those who survived as they built up resistance, then came the demons of alcohol and guns. 

Perhaps the most heart-breaking, and longest lasting, tragedy however was the mission, or residential, school, a practice that lasted more than a century, from the 1880s into the 1980s.  Children were taken from their families, culture and environment at age six or seven in a conscious effort to rob them not just of their heritage but of any chance to mature in a normal fashion.  Those who survived were returned at the age of 16, damaged and only partly there.  The mission school experience is a scar that will never heal for both those who went through it and those who inflicted it upon them.

The quotes above come from the opening pages of  Porcupines and China Dolls, a novel about the consequences of that travesty.  Set in 1999, its central characters are James Nathan and Jake Noland — they entered the mission school together more than 30 years earlier.  They helped each other survive the decade there; they have been trying, with limited success, to help each other as brothers ever since.  Those school experiences may be more than 20 years back in chronological history; Robert Arthur Alexie’s point is that they are ever present today.

The author is uniquely qualified to write this novel.  Born and raised in Fort McPherson in Canada’s Northwest Territories (where the novel is set), he became chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in band, was on the Gwich’in Tribal Council and helped negotiate the land claim agreement for the tribe.  While it is not explicitly stated, one can only assume he had first hand experience of the mission school regime.

Just yesterday, after a private audience with some survivors of mission school abuse, Pope Benedict finally formally “expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church” to indigenous children (the Roman Catholic missions ran about 75 per cent of the 130 schools). In doing so, the Catholic Church joined the Government of Canada and Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches for the horror they had directly inflicted on 150,000 children — and indirectly on even more of their descendents.

Before going further, I’d also like to quote the most useful cover blurb that I can ever remember seeing.  It comes from Thomas King, himself an award-winning Native author:

A terrific book that deals with present day concerns.  Its narrative strategy is one that North American readers aren’t going to be used to…but for Native readers, what they’ll hear is some of the overtones of oral literature and oral story telling.

Readers should heed King’s implicit advice — just as Sam Selvon requires an ear, so does Alexie.  Oral literature also tends to wander down some sideroads and this book is no exception.  Be prepared to let the storyteller lead, because the path he takes is well worth following.

Alexie uses the first third of the book to frame his story (in a strange way, he’s not unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in investing so much time before really beginning his story).  I’ll supply just one indication of the kind of care he takes in developing this:

This first generation of mission school children, after relearning their language (Reviewer’s note:  The children weren’t allowed to use their native tongue in the schools), ways and customs, began raising the second generation.  What they didn’t know was that they lacked one of the most important and fundamental skills needed to preserve the family unit.  This skill, which can only be learned, was parenting.  A recipe for disaster was in the making, but no one knew it at the time.

After these “parents” delivered their children to the school, as required by law, the first thing that happened to the boys was that their clothes were removed and burnt, their heads shaved and a uniform provided.  They become the “Porcupines” of the book’s title.  Much the same happens to the girls, although their haircut consists of bluntly-trimmed bangs and a straight cut across the back just below ear level — they are the China Dolls.

The individuals that emerge from those schools are only partly there; it isn’t just the skills of how to parent that have been missed.  The part that is there is badly damaged and the desire, no need, to escape is constantly present.  Getting drunk works for a day, although there is the hangover problem.  Meaningless sex (having never experienced love, it is not surprising that they cannot give it) is a complementary option, although it carries the risk of VD and pregnancy.  The only permanent solution, and Alexie does not hesitate to reference it often, is to put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger — to this day, too many Native people still opt for this solution.

Part of the oral tradition is that the real world has a parallel Dream World, that is every bit as “real” to those who experience it, because it is based on lived experience.  It is a nightmare that they have lived, peopled by very real Evil Spirits.

The dramatic action of Porcupines and China Dolls begins when a hungover Jake sees Tom Kinney, the priest supervisor who sexually abused him a quarter century earlier, in a feature on television.  Without thinking, he tells his girl-friend that he was abused — she has the wisdom to call in a counsellor who tells Jake that his friend Michael, who had commited suicide a few years earlier, had left a note saying he was abused.

While there are numerous side stories, the second third of the book centres on whether Jake will “disclose” his experience, knowing that that may only start an even more painful process.  How many others, including James, had the same experience?  Will they also disclose?

Alexie resolves these questions in one of the most dramatic pieces of writing that I have ever read.  I can’t remember the last time that a book caused tears to flow down my cheeks; this section did on both the first read and the reread.  The resolution takes place at a community healing ceremony.  The Dream World, the Evil Spirits and the History are every bit as real as the present day experience.  It is an incredible piece of writing.

If this were a conventional novel, the author would quickly tidy up the loose ends in a denoument and close the book.  This is not a conventional novel — Alexie still has 100 pages to go in a 300-page book.

The final third does have more hope than the first two-thirds, but the author is careful to temper it.  Attempts are made to stop drinking.  A revival of traditional ways banned by the authorities, such as drum-dancing and cremating the dead in the Blue Mountains is tentatively tried.  Both James and Jake have women they honestly want to love and they make genuine efforts to try to learn how to do that.  Relocating south to Yellowknife and starting life over is an option, but that too carries risks for someone who has been so grotesquely trained for life.  Alexie’s ending cannot be completely happy, because that would be a total denial of the Canadian Native experience.

Porcupines and China Dolls is not a perfect book.  As noted, those who are not used to the oral tradition will find some of the side trips distracting.  Alexie’s commitment to telling the truthful story makes much of it relentlessly depressing — I’d argue that since we white people sentenced these Natives to live that depression, that is no excuse to not read about it.  I am not a parent but I think this is a book that every reading parent should at least attempt, if only to appreciate how lucky they are that no government or church is taking their child from them.

Porcupines and China Dolls is not a new book — in an ironic way, its history is a reflection of some of the woes Native people face that the book talks about.  It was first published in 2002 by Stoddart Publishing, which went out of business days after and the book dropped from sight (I can find a few used copies on online sites but not many).  Penguin apparently published an edition in 2004 — in a quick search, I can’t even find any used copies of that version.  This edition is published by Theytus Books, a First Nations owned and operated house based in Penticton, B.C. (they do have an American subsidiary, so the book is available across North America).  The proof copy that I read has a 2008 copyright, so I presume Alexie has revised the earlier work — I have no idea how extensive the changes might be.  Whatever he did, the result is one of most impressive books I have read in a long, long time.

This is the first of three related posts. On Monday, I will post a review of Carpentaria, the award-winning Australian novel by Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation. It is a book that has many similarities in acquainting those of us who are not indigenous people — in either Canada or Australia — with that world. And a week from today, I’ll indulge in some thoughts and examples about some other similarities that can be found in the fiction of these two nations, even if they are geographically a globe apart.

 


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