The recent TV adaptation of Eden Robinson’s clever novel Son of a Trickster was amazing for two reasons. First, it demonstrated how far contemporary Indigenous storytelling has come from its days hanging around the campfire and kitchen table. Secondly, the fact that it mixed the real with the surreal was a great watershed moment. Stories like that take chances. It goes down avenues that a few decades ago would have seemed unlikely. It embraces the fantastic.
Co-written and directed by Michelle Latimer, the show (Trickster, on CBC) explores the difficult life of a teenager who discovers his father is Wee’git, the Heiltsuk trickster. And that comes with a lot of personal and supernatural problems. Who knew?
Much like Robinson, authors such as Cherie Dimaline are exploring what could have been, not necessarily what was or is. Dimaline’s novel, The Marrow Thieves, is a dystopian novel where the dominant culture has lost the ability to dream, and now seek Indigenous bone marrow to alleviate the problem. Another author, Waubgeshig Rice, wrote the highly popular The Moon of the Crusted Snow, which takes place in an alternate version of now, after the electrical grid goes down, leaving the inhabitants of a fly-in reserve desperate to find a way to survive.
Ah, how things change. A thousand years ago, when I was a young acolyte sitting at the feet of Tomson Highway – then artistic director of Canada’s premiere Indigenous theatre company, Native Earth Performing Arts – the groundbreaking playwright asked me: “Drew, you write mostly kitchen sink stuff, don’t you?” At that time, I had a handful of plays under my belt as I was still struggling to figure out the medium of stagecraft. I had not yet progressed from metathree to metaphor.
I nodded. He shook his head, adding, “I can’t write that way. I have to throw in some fun stuff.” As a result, spirits and people cohabitated quite easily in his stories. But that was not always the case for all First Nation writers. “Kitchen sink,” as it’s known, was frequently the genre of choice.
“Kitchen sink” style depicts social realist–type scenes of domestic life. Not all but many were focused on real people in real situations, exploring the issues plaguing modern-day life in Indigenous urban and rural communities. And there were a lot of issues. Occasionally some casual mysticism was thrown in. After all, many Canadians associated Indigenous people with spirits, tricksters and talking animals. Sometimes all three combined if they were going for a GG or Giller.
For those who spent the 1980s shopping for leg warmers and big shoulder pads and weren’t aware, the decade saw an explosion of Native literature. The Contemporary Native Literary Renaissance (my term), provided the opportunity for stories about the Indigenous experience to be told loud and proud. Prior to the CNLR, books by First Nations authors were few and far between. More a curiosity than a movement.
Then, amid tales of flashdancing and footloosing, Indigenous stories canoed to the shore and suddenly were all the vogue. Plays, novels, poetry etc. appeared in theatres, on book shelves and on the nightstands of Canada as the 1990s came and went. Canadians began to discover there was more to First Nation existence than carving totem poles, living in teepees and protesting the government. We had stories to tell and knew how to tell them.
The tales told during those decades had certain characteristics. Most noticeably, when members of an oppressed culture have the opportunity to tell their stories, there’s a good chance those stories will be mostly about being oppressed. So, angry and sad tale after tale poured out of our writers, detailing the depilatory side effects of colonialism, and its continuing repercussions.
Genre fiction such as science fiction or horror, while not completely absent, was a rare commodity in Indigenous North American literature. Those that did pop up were frequently written by non-Natives, for example Svaha (sci-fi) by Charles De Lint, or those with limited Indigenous background, such as The Indians Won (alternate reality) and Nightwing (horror), both by Martin Cruz Smith. In terms of Canadian content, the only genre title I am only familiar with is Bearwalk, (horror) by Lynne Sallot and Tom Peltier from those pre-CNLR years.
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a sizable, noticeable shift in our stories. They’ve taken on a more spectacular and speculative structure and topic. Once an alien concept (get it?), rez genre writers are now churning out science fiction and horror novels, and quite successfully.
Empire of the Wild, Cherie Dimaline’s follow-up to her sci-fi book, is a sort of mystic horror tale involving a rougarou (Métis werewolf). Similarly, short stories by Tom King, along with his award-winning novel Green Grass Running Water, blend contemporary society with a certain amount of mysticism and humour. Wrist, written by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler, is a horror novel set in Northern Ontario. Add to those The Unplugging by Yvette Nolan, a play about two Indigenous women struggling to endure after the world has collapsed. Love Beyond Body, Space and Time by Hope Nicholson goes further, highlighting sci-fi short stories from the Indigenous LGBT community. And the list goes on.
After a decade or two of writing stories that celebrated everyday life, I myself more recently have written a vampire novel, a contemporary trickster tale (where Nanabush rides a vintage 1953 Indian Chief motorcycle), a collection of science-fiction short stories and have just finished an all-out Indigenous horror novel I am currently planning to flog. I don’t just wade in the pool, I power dive.
The reason for such a change in storytelling avenues? Hard to say. Perhaps an eagerness to explore all the boundaries of storytelling, or possibly a growing weariness of a life limited by the four walls of your average sink. Maybe, just as they are in the dominant culture, science fiction and horror are a means of escape. If the mundane is difficult, the spectacular is distracting. Personally, I see it more as a return to tradition. Most traditional storytelling consists of amazing tales of mysticism, monsters, strange places and wondrous things limited only by our imagination. It’s been said that science fiction and horror do the same thing all other literature does: It explores the human condition. It just uses different tools.
Earlier, I mentioned that it was a genre we were interested in exploring. I may have been wrong. I think it’s a genre our Elders were familiar with. We’re just rediscovering it and putting new moccasins on it.
Incidentally, I’m working on a new novel, about our first contact with aliens. It takes place in 1492.
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