Lee Maracle’s Conversations with Canadians (2017)

It’s such a perfect way to begin the book, inviting readers to imagine sitting at a kitchen table with Sto:lo author, Lee Maracle. And because it is inspired by the recurring conversations which she has had, over the years, with Canadians, this motif is not only welcoming but also suits a political climate which should be focussed on reconciliation.

Dialogue is at the heart of reconciliation between indigenous peoples and settler Canadians, the need to alternate between listening and speaking (with an emphasis on listening for those with privilege who have repeatedly spoken over and denied basic rights to the oppressed).

And, yet, by its very nature, a book is a monologue. So readers bear the responsibility to carry the next phase of the conversation into the world, to respond and to listen some more.

This is not necessarily a comfortable position for white readers:

“To be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial.”

Even those who are committed to the idea of ally-ship have a great deal more work to do:

“Most Canadians think it is enough to know something, but this is not enough – you must commit to the continued growth and transformation of whatever you claim to know.”

And even writers who have attempted to honestly portray contemporary perspectives (often racist and sexist) in creating characters who challenged stereotypes are perceived as having been party to causing torment:

“Why can you [Al Purdy and Margaret Laurence] not stop ‘fucking caribou squaws’ or writing about ‘dirty half-breeds’?”

If this does not feel like a conversation, it is because historically the voices representing Lee Maracle’s perspective have been silenced, so she has a lot to say.

And she is not saying it alone: she advises those who have come to the table, this table laid with pages and words, to read more and reflect more. She recommends many specific writers and books:

Harold Johnson’s Two Families: Treaties and Government,
Daniel Francis’ The Imaginary Indian,
Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian,
Marilyn Dumont’s A Really Good Brown Girl,
Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice,
Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the American before Columbus,
Kevin Paul’s Little Hunger,
Cherie Dimaline’s Red Rooms and
Columpa Bobb’s “Wings of Darkness”.

(Four of these – almost half – are authors new-to-me, so I have this work ahead of me.)

Had the structure and the shaping of the narrative felt a little more like a conversation, that could have secured a readership from beginning to end. As it stands, I suspect that, unless white readers are already committed to ally-ship, they will be inclined to cherry-pick from the table of contents rather than read straight through, opting for topics of interest rather than an exhaustive experience of Maracle’s writings. So perhaps they won’t notice that some of the chapters feel like excerpts from other works, inserted to suit an outline rather than emerging as part of an organic whole.

Regarding the volume’s recent nomination for the 2018 Toronto Book Award, the specific consideration of the territories now called Toronto is slim, focussed largely on an anecdote shared regarding the author’s experience with two young women handing out product samples at the corner of Bloor and Spadina. Both Kerri Sakamoto’s Floating City and Carianne Leung’s That Time You Loved Me show off more of the city proper (these and other nominees are listed here), and I wonder if Lee Maracle’s book wouldn’t have better fit the criteria for regional nominations for west-coast literary awards (the Sto:lo people being from the Fraser River Valley in what is currently known as British Columbia).

Regardless, boosting the signal of indigenous voices – especially one with such a laudatory presence as Maracle – is vitally important. I admire her work and recommend it whole-heartedly.

Have you read any of the books that Lee Maracle recommends?

Which book by an indigenous writer would you recommend?

2018-09-17T18:56:43+00:00

7 Comments

  1. Naomi September 18, 2018 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    I have only read The Inconvenient Indian, but there are a few others there that I would like to read. I had to send Red Rooms back because it was an ILL, but I’ll have to get it again after the “Fall flurry” of books and reading.

    • Buried In Print September 18, 2018 at 5:25 pm - Reply

      I didn’t realize that Red Rooms is also a collection of linked stories! Did you get to peek at all? To see if there are any similarities to Dimaline’s more recent writing (I know you recently finished The Marrow Thieves)? I wonder why Lee Maracle chose Red Rooms in particular, if she wasn’t familiar with The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy (2013) or A Gentle Habit (2015) and wasn’t aware of The Marrow Thieves, which was probably in manuscript form while Maracle’s was too. Not that she is responsible for assigning homework to settlers – we should go a-seeking too – but a contemporary recommendation might have held a different appeal for younger readers.

      • Naomi September 19, 2018 at 1:43 pm - Reply

        Yes, I did peek at it! I even read the first section – mainly the narrator’s/maid’s voice, and then some of the first story. It was only a bit, so not enough to go on, but I found I wanted to go back to the narrator’s voice more than I wanted to read the story of the woman staying in the room. Also, from what I read, it didn’t remind me of The Marrow Thieves at all. It seems very different. For one thing, I don’t think it’s supposed to be YA.

        • Buried In Print September 19, 2018 at 1:52 pm - Reply

          That’s interesting. I seem to remember thinking that she hadn’t sat down to write TMT with the idea of writing for young adults, and that would make sense if you felt a distinctly different vibe to this debut collection. I definitely want to read it. If you are planning to ILL it after the fall, and think of it at the time, let me know it’s en route to you and I’ll join in.

          • Naomi September 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm - Reply

            Good idea! That would be fun!

  2. annelogan17 September 14, 2018 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    I love the way you put that-‘boosting the signal of indigenous voices’-so very well put, and I wholeheartedly agree.

    • Buried In Print September 17, 2018 at 6:25 pm - Reply

      It’s challenging, the wording of it all, but one can boost and add one’s voice and also boost by being silent and creating a space room for others’ words.

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