Beginning today, June 1st, through June 21, I am sharing a recommended read by an indigenous author each day on Twitter. Today, here, thoughts on Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (2017). I’ve also recently discussed the new Thomas King mystery set in Chinook, and there will be two more posts here, on June 7th and June 21st, chatting about other recent indigenous reading.
If you don’t already believe they matter, you are probably not going to read this book. It begins with more than thirty pages of discussion about terminology and ends with more than seventy pages of references, an appendix and a bibliographic essay. In between, in about two hundred pages, there’s a lot of exposition and argument, supported by illustrative and lengthy quotations.
Daniel Heath Justice is a professor (of First Nations and Indigenous Studies and English at the University of British Columbia) so it makes sense that this is a scholarly work.
If you are looking for a reading list, however, the appendix displays his online project which extended over a year’s time, offering a new recommendation each day, representing a variety of Indigenous communities and writers. He began on January 1, 2015 with “Beth Brant/Degonwadonti (Bay of Quinte Mohawk), 1941-2015 Multi-genre writer, Writing as Witness.” And he ended on December 31, 2015 with “Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee Nation) Playwright, lawyer. Sliver of a Full Moon; Waaxe’s Law.”
But if you are of a scholarly bent, or if you are already deeply engaged with a study of Indigenous writers and narratives, this volume (and the lengthy related discussions) is an essential addition to your bookshelf.
The volume is structured around four questions: How Do We Learn to Be Human? How Do We Behave as Good Relatives? How Do We Become Good Ancestors? And How Do We Learn to Live Together? Each section begins with a lengthy quote (first, by Lee Maracle and next by Linda Hogan, third by Gwen Benaway and finally Waawaate Fobister) and there are so many references to literary works within that the narrative swells with all these words (and so many women’s words among them).
Only occasionally does the researcher’s voice, the author’s voice, speak directly to the reader. As here:
“I belong to all of these lines, the intact and the unravelled, the tangled and the torn. Like all human begins, I’ve inherited some stories that have woven their way into my consciousness of self, but others remain unheard, unspoken, unremembered. There are gaps in our shared kinship that will never be bridged, absences too complete to fill, but there are some frayed edges that knit together with only minor scarring to show.”
It would have been a different book with more of this, and I’m not saying that I would have wanted that instead, but perhaps more of it, in addition. But Justice does refer to Tomson Highway’s 2017 volume, From Oral to Written: a celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980-2010, which is a little more celebratory and a little less analytical, so perhaps simply adding more books to the shelves is the best answer. (That’s often the case, no?)