The Globe and Mail
Everybody’s read Tom King. The raccoon that lives under my house has read Tom King.— Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion
First of all, let me start off by confessing that I’m a huge Tom King fan. By that I don’t mean I’m a physically imposing fan, but merely a reader who appreciates his talents. As a developing author, I hoped to grow up to be much like him – again, not specifically a 6-foot-5 half-Greek, half-Cherokee, American-turned-Canadian photographer and former moustache grower. Instead, I wanted to stand in his shadow or beside it, using the written word and humour to showcase the multifaceted environments of the Indigenous community. In that journey, I still have far to go.
But first, let’s go back to just after Time Immemorial. In 1986, the Contemporary Indigenous Literary renaissance began. By that I mean an explosion of written and published material that sprang forth from our community and took Canada by storm. Before that, there had been the occasional book that would grab the attention of the Canadian literati briefly before they would return to their Margarets. I speak of influential texts such as Halfbreed by Maria Campbell, Prison of Grass by Howard Adams and Bobbie Lee: Indian Rebel by Lee Maracle.
Then a play called The Rez Sisters set the theatre community on fire. Written by an unknown playwright – Tomson Highway – in an unconventional theatre space – the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto – the play was about seven Anishnawbe women from a reserve on Manitoulin Island who want to travel to Toronto to participate in the world’s largest bingo game. This innocuous storyline won the 1987 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play, and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award the following year. The number of remounts of The Rez Sisters must be approaching triple digits by now.
In my opinion (and we know what that’s worth), that simple play opened the doors for many of us who followed in the publishing game. It was a catalyst of sorts. It showed the Canadian public the versatility and talent that existed within our Indigenous communities, and most importantly, that we could tell our stories in a way anyone could enjoy. Within a decade, writers such as Jeanette Armstrong, Basil Johnston, Ruby Slipperjack, Marilyn Dumont, Daniel David Moses et al. were on their way to becoming a substantial presence in the larger Canadian literary world.
This “big bang” of modern Indigenous storytelling had, and in many ways still does have, an objective. It could be said it was born from the effects of colonization and its prime focus was to record and detail the repercussions of said colonization. In the epigraph to the published version of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Highway writes: “Before the healing can take place, the poison must be exposed.”
And exposed it was.
During this renaissance period, most of the plays and novels coming out of the Indigenous community had three general storyline variations. They consisted primarily of a historical narrative, a victim narrative, or stories dealing with the byproducts of what I call post-contact stress disorder. In short, they were gloomy, dark, angry, and dealt with oppression, depression and suppression. As the saying goes, when an oppressed people get their voice back, chances are they will talk about being oppressed. And Native people had a long history of oppression to talk about. So the writing became cathartic on a personal and cultural level.
As a result, I remember talking with several people at different times who would tell me they were reluctant to see any more Native plays or read Native books because they were tired of being depressed. The literature had begun to develop a reputation.
By this time, Thomas King had relocated to Canada from America and soon began pumping out novels and non-fiction using his own style. What was of particular interest was the unique flavour of his storytelling. It bucked the trend.
King’s first book, Medicine River, was an interesting departure. Published in 1989, it wove together tales of various southern Alberta First Nation people into a cohesive tale of returning home, finding home and accepting those colourful people that make up home. Told from the perspective of Will, an expat returning to Medicine River for a few days to attend his mother’s funeral, the reader is transported to a joyous and lovable town bordering on a large Alberta reserve.
What makes this novel so unique for the time is that it didn’t dwell on many of the stereotypes usually associated with Indigenous literature. King refused to allow his characters to be victims in the way many previous Native authors had focused on. His characters had flaws, but alcoholism, homelessness, drug addiction and sexual abuse were not de rigueur. Yet, his characters were centred in a very Indigenous context. They were not polemics for the evils of Canadianization. Instead, the book (and those that followed) was a celebration of the humour and frequently quirky aspects of small-town life. And the novel was highly successful – CBC turned it into a made-for-TV-movie in 1993.
Over the following years, King’s literary output included the award-winning Green Grass, Running Water, The Truth About Stories, Truth and Bright Water and The Inconvenient Indian (for which I constantly tease him, referring to it as “The Incontinent Indian”) and a host of other amazing fiction and non-fiction. Of course, this includes perhaps the most popular of his creations, and one of the most beloved of Canadian comedy shows, the radio series The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour.
The beauty of King’s writing is that, like all good authors, it seems effortless. Like those words always have and always should be in that specific order on the page, and that was the way the great literary gods planned it.
This was not long after I wandered into the field of Indigenous literature and woke up one morning to discover I was a playwright – and later a journalist, filmmaker and novelist. In fact, Tom King and I have an ongoing contest of sorts, around who can write in the most mediums. So far, we are tied. He has never yet had a play produced, and I still have not yet slain the book-of-poetry dragon.
As any academic will tell you, literature is not static. It grows and evolves, like everything else under creation. Indigenous writing is no different. Perhaps some of that healing has been accomplished. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, curiosity has been developing in our writing community toward the concept of genre fiction. While Indigenous literature may itself be considered a unique genre in itself, many in the last decade or two have let their interests wander further afield to areas not usually hunted by our writers.
Daniel Heath Justice, a noted academic from the University of Alberta, has to be one of the more adventurous of our writers, having published an Indigenous fantasy trilogy back in the mid-2000s, full of elves, magic and swords – The Way of Thorn and Thunder, Wyrewood and Dreyd. Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, publisher of Kegedonce Press, compiled and edited a collection of international Indigenous erotica called Without Reservation in 2003.
More recently, there’s been an explosion in the popularity of science fiction. Cherie Dimaline took the Canadian youth market by storm when she wrote The Marrow Thieves three years ago. The dystopian tale has Native people being hunted and harvested for their dream-inducing bone marrow. Next came Waubgeshig Rice with his equally popular Moon of the Crusted Snow, another dystopian story about life on a small northern reserve that loses contact with the rest of the world.
I myself have written a collection of science fiction short stories, Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, as well as a vampire novel called The Night Wanderer. I’m currently working on a horror novel. Indigenous people seem to be colonizing mainstream Canadian publishing.
As usual, my buddy Tom is no different. When he’s not pumping out award-winning fiction or non-fiction, he can be found neck deep in one of his favourite past-times: writing detective murder mysteries. DreadfulWater, The Red Power Murders, Obsidian and a few others have established his presence in that genre. And true fans will notice there’s a lot of autobiography in Tom’s writing, shown by the fact that the detective in these novels, the delightfully named Thumps DreadfulWater, is an American Cherokee photographer who discovers he’s diabetic. Tom was once a professional photographer and still is.
That biographical tendency also shows up in Tom King’s most recent book, Indians on Vacation (just long-listed for the Giller Prize). Protagonist Bird Mavrias, a Cherokee-Greek writer-photographer expat, meets a woman, Mimi, who will be his wife. They move to Canada and end up in Guelph, Ont. Anybody who knows Tom and his work will notice more than a smidge of familiarity in that character. Less like Tom’s real life, the two characters, into their golden years, end up tracking down Mimi’s great-uncle, who disappeared into Europe 100 years ago with a precious medicine bundle belonging to the family.
Indians on Vacation has his usual wry observations on life, interesting witticisms and spot-on perceptions of white life from the Indigenous perspective, all the while taking you on a curious journey.
I like reading Tom King because he does, succinctly and cleverly, what all good writers should do – he educates, illuminates and entertains with every paragraph.
But like I said … I’m a fan.
More on Thomas King
- Read an excerpt from Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian
- Review: The Inconvenient Indian: The true story of native North Americans – ‘Whites want land’
- Review: The characters shine in Thomas King’s latest detective novel, Obsidian: A DreadfulWater Mystery
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect title for Howard Adams' novel.
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