Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
By Thomas King

University of Minnesota Press

Thomas King is a Native writer who teaches in Canada and published most of his fiction while living there, including his novels, Medicine River (made into an obscure but amusing movie starring—who else—Graham Greene), Green Grass, Running Water and Truth and Bright Water, all of which are, among other things, pretty funny.

But he was born in Sacramento of Cherokee parentage and he’s best known locally as the author of a short story first published in the 1980s called “Joe Painter and the Deer Island Massacre,” only around here we know it as the Indian Island Massacre. This infamous moment in North Coast history was mostly only whispered about then.

As a university teacher and scholar, King is fully capable of presenting facts and analyzes in non-fictional form. But in this book he simultaneously demonstrates that the story form not only communicates fact and analysis with different subtlety and depth, but can be an essential part of the meaning itself.

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” he writes. That we learn primarily by stories is widely asserted these days, but King is very skilled at telling stories, and his adaptations of a Native storytelling style helps this book treat some old subjects in a different way, producing some “aha” moments for both those familiar with these issues and those new to them.

He contrasts a Native creation story in which animals cooperate in contributing elements of a new world with the Biblical version of authoritarian hierarchies, and shows how these myths are supported by how they’re told. He explores the complexities of identity and societal expectations, and narrative strategies in some contemporary Native literature that adapt traditional honor songs. He does all this and more with a deceptively light touch.

“You know what’s wrong with this world?” asks a character in Truth and Bright Water. “Nobody has a sense of humour.” “Humour” is Canadian for “funny,” and it’s essential to King’s method and point of view. Though a number of Native writers employ humor—including irony, satire and paradox-- (some conspicuously, like Sherman Alexie) it’s been King’s trademark. He happily mentions Will Rogers, the great American humorist of the 1930s, who (like King) was born Cherokee.

But King’s main source of humor is the trickster figure of Coyote, who makes several direct appearances here, as well as inspiring a lot of his tone and narrative moves. But he leaves out my favorite of the Coyote stories he tells, in a poem called “Coyote Learns to Whistle.” Weasel tells Coyote he can whistle if he ties his tail in a tight knot, and Coyote ties his so tight the tail breaks off. The poem ends: “Elwood told that STORY to the Rotary Club/in town/ and everyone laughed and says what/a STUPID Coyote./ And that’s the problem, you know,/seeing the DIFFERENCE between stupidity/and greed.”

King also writes about his project to photograph American Indian writers, contrasting it with 19th century photos of the Vanishing Indian. It probably would complicate his point--those romantic old photos had to falsify the imagery to comport with expectations of what Indians look like, but those images have lasted, versus photographing Indian writers today, when they look pretty much like everybody else--if he noted that part of his project was photographing these writers wearing Lone Ranger masks. (Still, the Lone Ranger appears on the cover.)

With a little autobiography and some sharp observations, “The Truth About Stories” is seductive, entertaining and sneakily profound. Also a nice size—under 200 pages, in an easy-to-hold paperback.

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