Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
For many Indigenous nations, winter is a time of storytelling. So currently I’m doing battle with a difficult and cantankerous new novel that’s giving me lots of attitude and not much solace. Looking out at my snow-filled backyard, I find myself contemplating three things: how I miss the kisses of the tropical breeze coming off the Indian Ocean, whether I still could join my cousin in his plumbing business, and thirdly, how my book will be an exploration of a traditional Anishnawbe legend, albeit through humour. In Indigenous publishing, this can be as rare as an albino moose.
Ask your average Canadian literary fan to name an Indigenous author who uses humour in their creations and answers will be lean. Thomas King practically has the market locked up. His writings and the Dead Dog Café radio series were some of the first introductions for Canadians to the concept that Indigenous people could be funny. Eden Robinson, one of the most joyous and giggling personalities in Canada has for the longest time, written stories dark and edgy. But lately, especially in her Trickster series, she revels in her people’s sense of humour.
Granted I am no expert on the world of Indigenous writing, but other than those two, the pickings are kind of lean. There is the occasional brief foray into humour but by and large, it’s rare. And it’s not difficult to understand why. For several hundred years we’ve had little to laugh about. But we still did. Colonialism and oppression do not normally lend themselves to a robust Yuk Yuk’s culture. So as with many of our traditions, this humour went underground. It stayed strong on kitchen table tea and kept warm via bonfire conversations. For Settlers we became the tragic Indian, the stoic Indian, the disappearing Indian. But it lived. One unifying factor uniting all the 634 First Nations in this country, our storytelling is ripe with hilarious and comical tales.
The years pass. Logically, when oppressed people take their voice back, they will write about being oppressed. And write we did. In the past 40 or more years, the market has become flooded with Indigenous books extolling tales of woe and difficulties of our existence in Canada. This genre of writing has been christened “trauma porn”. Books specifically about residential schools have even become a subgenre.
Here’s where it sometimes gets a bit controversial. The late and prolific Basil Johnston wrote a memoir about his childhood residential school, Indian School Days. Some felt it wasn’t critical enough. In some sections of the book, there was the aroma of fond remembrances of his childhood there. And some humour. Some found that disconcerting.
Once, I was writing a play for an Indigenous theatre company and the artistic director told me directly “I know you can be funny but I want you to be serious.” So I picked the most depressing topic I could think of – again, residential schools. It wasn’t one of my best creations. And I made it kind of funny. That’s how I protest. Humour can be biting, cutting and draw blood. Sounds good to me.
About 10 years ago I was invited to a conference on multicultural humour in Kerala, India (yes, I was an Indian in India). I was there to talk about the multifaceted world of the Indigenous funny bone. The lecture before mine was a professor from the University of Tel Aviv who spoke on “Humour and the Holocaust” – two topics you don’t usually see combined. I was fascinated by her description of how a people with a tragic past can have a famous and well-developed sense of humour, in person and in their writing.
So do not always equate humour with frivolity. Our humour, like Jewish humour, is a form of survival. It takes a dysfunctional, unfair world, reorganizes and reinterprets it, and makes it palatable.
Native literature, by definition it seems, has to embrace and spotlight the problems within our communities; poverty, racism, sexual abuse, substance abuse, etc. These definitely exist and need to be dealt with, but frequently it seems that is all that exists. For many writers it’s become a cathartic exercise – but such content can also have a different psychology effect. It makes you expect the worst.
Recently my partner and I were watching The Queen’s Gambit, and that’s when I realized that perhaps we were reading too much Indigenous literature.
The young girl’s mother dies and she goes to an ominous-looking orphanage/school. There she befriends a creepy looking janitor who hangs out in the basement. The girl gets adopted by a couple. The father seems strange. The girl begins to drink and take these green pills.
All of these had our Indigenous spider sense going off madly. In Indigenous literature, nothing good should come from any of this.
The girl becomes a national chess champion.
Oh yeah, I had forgotten that this was not an Indigenous story. Were it so, there would be much more crisis. White people have it so easy (he says jokingly, expecting a critical outrage).
So as I sit in front of my computer, writing a horror story that reeks of our humour, I can’t help wondering how it will be received. In it I comment on many serious issues. There is death and tragedy, but also wry observations and witty opinions about contemporary First Nation life.
An elder from the Blood Reserve in Alberta once told me, “Humour is the WD-40 of healing.”
Let’s play doctor.
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