Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King



I have never read any of Thomas King's fiction. This is a curious omission, given how much I've liked the other media of his I've run across, from the Massey Lecture The Trouble With Stories to the halcyon days when the CBC Radio ran The Dead Dog Cafe. (The episode where Gracie and Jasper were writing political slogans will always be near and dear to my heart. I still know the Stockwell Day one off by heart.)

I don't know why I haven't read his fiction. Given that his first novel in years just recently hit the shelves, perhaps it's time to fix that. Because I like his voice when it comes to nonfiction and radio comedy. I'm betting I'd like his other books too.

Which brings us to The Inconvenient Indian. This has been on my radar since it came out, and spent a gratifyingly long time on the Globe and Mail bestseller lists. While I think it's a very good book, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I also think it should be required reading for everyone in Canada and the United States. Full stop. It should definitely be read before trying to argue about what Indians "deserve" from federal governments.

(Sidebar, to do some naval gazing: As a very, very white woman, I'm never quite sure about what terminology to use, and tend to settle on Native. But for the review, I'm using Indian, as that's in the title, and King's noun-of-choice.)

We've all had those arguments, I think. They make me want to pound my head against the wall. I'm sure Thomas King has had exponentially more than I have, since they just happen my way every once in a while, and, he actually is Indian, and has to listen to toxic rhetoric far more often than I'd like to think.

We're doing very badly at this, people. Very fucking badly.

And as much as I'd like to say that I could just take this book and give it to people who are making incredibly bad arguments, that would presume that that's where my responsibility stops. And it's certainly not.

It's just...it's a lot wearier than I expected. The Truth with Stories had an energy to it that this doesn't. It feels like the weight of this history, these arguments, the repetitive nature of the way nothing changes, drags the book from sparkling anger to weary rage. That doesn't mean it's not a good read. It's just that it's not quite what I was expecting.

But King is a great storyteller, so it's an excellent read. Things are clear, lucid, and well-argued. I also like the recurrent rhetorical device where his wife appears in the narrative challenging him on something during the writing process, and how that has been incorporated into the text. 

The Inconvenient Indian is about interactions between Whites and Natives, over centuries of history, through treaties and popular culture, Live Indians, Dead Indians, and Legal Indians. It's an excellent summation both of what has happened, and how what's happening now bears eerie reminders of what has already gone before.

You don't get trust by just saying "Aw, come on! This time you can trust us!" And it's sad how much of the history seems to come down to that, and then acting confused when Indians don't extend trust based on totally real reassurances. This time. Totally.

The adjective inconvenient is sorrowfully apt. Why should we have to think about them? Take them into consideration? Do more than observe that the problem lies with them? Why, it might disturb our comfort if we start to think that the problem lies with us!

Well, good. It does. And it should make us uncomfortable.

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