“I’ve always conceived of language as music,” says Tomson Highway: musician, playwright, novelist. “I play Chopin still, but in Cree,” he continues.
This slim volume is subtitled on “Imagining Multilingualism”, which might strike you as a poor prospect for entertainment, but Highway is a gifted presenter.
With a live audience, this piece must have been wholly engaging. Even in only a handful of pages, flat stark black-and-white pages, his humour comes through, and readers have a clear sense of his cadence.
“Ever seen a score by Arnold Schoenberg? Learning Chinese would be easier.”
But in between these observations and witty snippets, there is a great deal of personal reminiscence, philosophy and mythic writing.
This volume begins with the tale of a birth, and even in the young life of Tomson Highway, it’s clear that there is a remarkable synergy at work.
“So there we were, Joe and Pelagie Highway’s brood, the privileged children of three Native languages each as distinct one from the other as English is from Arabic and Korean or French is from Mandarin or Swahili—for Cree, like Ojibway and Blackfoot, is an Algonquian language; Dene, like Slavey and Dogrib, Athapaskan; and Inuktituk resides in a linguistic family all on its own, like Hungarian in Europe, let us say. Between these three Native languages, that is to say, there is not a stitch of similarity, not a syllable in common.”
One can imagine the linguistics textbook.
“So if the Dene language belongs to and comes from the soil and the muskeg and the reindeer moss of the northern extremities of the three Prairie provinces and a sizeable chunk of the Northwest Territories—though not so much Nunavut for, on that side, the language merely peeks into is southern extremity—then Cree comes from the laughter of a cosmic clown, as he/she has been called, a merry-maker called the Trickster, Weesageechaak in Cree, Nanabush in Ojibway, Glooscap in Mi’kmaq, Iktomi in Lakota, Coyote on the plains, Raven on the west coast.”
One can imagine the poems, the lyrics, the songs.
“Without speaking other languages, you would never know these facts. You would never know that such a vision of life, one so different from yours, existed. There is simply no other way of digging out such information. Speaking one language, I submit, is like living in a house with one window only; all you see is that one perspective when, in point of fact, dozens, hundreds, of other perspectives exist and one must, at the very least, heed them, see them, hear them.”
One can imagine just how much more than is to imagine. Through all those windows.
Something similar is at work in The (Post) Mistress, a one-woman show, which contains eleven musical numbers in a variety of musical styles, written by Tomson Highway in Cree, French and English.
At the heart of the production is Marie-Louise Painchaud, a 49-year-old Francophone post-mistress in Northern Ontario. She is but a single window.
“You see this uniform, this counter, these boxes? Mailboxes. This is a post office, my post office, the post office where I work here in my hometown of Lovely, a small farming town near Complexity, Ontario, and just spitting distance from the legendary iviere Armitage, the long and winding, cliff-sided river that connects Lake Mahji-di-ate to GeorgianBay on Lake Huron, so you can just imagine how beautiful it is, maple trees for miles.”
Complexity, with its monstrous penny, evoking Sudbury with its monstrous nickel is a mining town, is in the background, however. The set is the post-office but overshadowing the props is Marie-Louise, whose voice, whose laughter, sets the stage more than anything.
Yet the letters and the addressees create the sense of enlarging the cast and they provide the opportunity for Marie-Louise to reflect upon a variety of subjects. She affords access to many windows.
“That’s Barbaro Botafogo, my friend Sylvie Labranche’s secret lover; writing from Brazil, can you believe it? He writes to her once a month ever since he had to fly back home – after his term at the university in Complexity was over one year ago – back to his wife and children in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the sexiest city in the world, this Barbaro Botalogo tells my friend Sylvie in these letters. Isn’t that terrible? He has a wife and God knows how many children down there and he still writes to her, the nerve, but anyway. Accordng to the man, it’s so hot down here in Rio de Janeiro that they wear nothing but dental floss, even to go shopping. ha! You wear dentail foss here in Lovely, Ontario, in February and you’d freeze to death, no doubt about it.”
The community is of vital importance and Mary-Louise evidently plays a central role in it, but in this context she appears to be on the margins, observing and considering the various scenarios which play out in the envelopes which come and go.
There is another aspect of this story which fits with a conversation between Tomson Highway and Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, in which he discusses his relationship with his brother, who died some years ago.
The conversation made me cry, but it was not simply that it was sad, but that it was so overwhelmingly beautiful. There was something so ludicrous and so true about his observatios, that I felt my understanding of the world shifting. I had not considered that words used to discuss loss and grief could contain so many possibilities.
But language is fluid and illuminating when you look through Tomson Highway’s windows. These are wonder-tales for our world.
(Source for initial quotes: CBC’s “Life and Times” documentary from the later 1990s)