Friday, May 22, 2009

The Truth About Stories

"In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted - knowingly or unknowingly - in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaningless. if we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives. Ben Okri"
Before I tell you about reading Thomas King's book, I have a story of my own to tell.

Once upon a time (within the last five years) two of my friends were fighting. We had had a triangular friendship since university - sometimes all three of us were friends, sometimes they weren't so friendly but I still was (in an expat, far away kind of way.) During one of their friendlier periods, my two friends got together and had an argument about Thomas King. They both sent me emails about the fight and I responded.

The thing is that the entire time, I hadn't a clue who Thomas King was. It wasn't necessary to know to understand the dynamics of the argument and so I didn't worry about it. Since one was a law student and the other on her way to becoming a banking bigwig, I assumed it might be about some sort of finance law, so frankly I didn't want to delve any deeper.

Fast forward a couple of years and the banker and I were talking about the argument. As she talked, I finally admitted to not knowing what the fight was actually about. Turns out, as she told me, that Thomas King is a famous Native writer. I don't think she had really gotten what being my kind of expat might mean - namely, that I am out of the loop. I suppose if I worked hard enough, I could keep up with the news and the latest books and movies, but there isn't really a way to work around the fact that I just don't have my finger on the pulse of North America these days. That's just fine with me, but it does make for some interesting social issues on trips home.

The point of all this is that after said discussion, I went out and bought a book by Thomas King. I ended up with a CBC Massey Lectures non-fiction book called The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative because on that trip home I was especially obsessed with trawling the social studies section of Indigo.

Each of King's chapters can be read alone, though if you do that it may take you as long as it took me to figure out that he begins each with the story of the world being created on the back of a turtle and ends with variations of: "Take Charm's story, for instance. It's yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don't say in years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You've heard it now."

I found his take on the difference between Biblical creation stories and Native creation stories very interesting (especially as I'm teaching a unit on African American folktales and their meaning right now - dialect for ESL students, gah!):
In the Native story, the conversational voice tends to highlight the exuberance of the story but diminishes its authority while the sober voice in the Christian story makes for a formal recitation but creates a sense of veracity... Of course, none of you would make the mistake of confusing storytelling strategies with the value or sophistication of a story... nonetheless, the talking animals are a problem."

A theologian might argue that these two creation stories are essentially the same. Each tells about the creation of the world and the appearance of human beings. But a storyteller would tell you that these two stories are quite different, for whether you read the Bible as sacred text or secular metaphor, the elements in Genesis create a particular universe governed by a series of hierarchies - God, man, animals, plants - that celebrate law, order, and good government, while in our Native story, the universe is governed by a series of co-operations - Charm, the Twins, animals, humans - that celebrate equality and balance."

The book also introduced me to a new photographer, Richard Throssel, and since I love photography more than the other visual arts, that was quite cool. I was looking for a particular photo he had mentioned in his book, but since I couldn't find it, I settle for some others, including one of small cute children. Couldn't resist. King also discussed Robert Alexie and Harry Robinson, Ruby Slipperjack and Eden Robinson, "These four are creating their fictions, I believe, primarily for a Native audience, making a conscious decision not so much to ignore non-Native readers as to write for the very people they write about." I'm curious. Porcupines and China Dolls has gone on my Amazon wishlist.
"Of course, written stories can be performed orally; although, apart from authors on reading tours to promote their books and parents reading to children, this seldom happens... But the act of reading is a private act. And no matter how many people may have read a book or an article or a poem or a short story, each person reads that story themselves, by themselves, whereas oral stories generally have an audience in which there is a group dynamic."
Mr. King obviously hasn't taught any Korean ESL classes. I spend a fair amount of time reading aloud to my students (Particularly anything with dialect and there's been a lot of that lately. My fake Southern accent is perhaps improving...) and they spend a lot of time reading stories aloud to me. It's quite nice. Plus there's all that reading to small children that I certainly hope parents are doing.

I really liked what he had to say about how the stories we tell ourselves drive our ethical beliefs. I think Obama's election was a perfect example of how that dynamic can work.
The oil industry and our oil-based economy, not just in Canada but in the world, depend on two things for their continued existence. The ability of geologists to find new fields of oil and our willingness to ignore the obvious, that, at some point, we're going to run out of oil... It's not that we don't care about ethics or ethical behaviour. It's not that we don't care about the environment, about society, about morality. It's just that we care more about our comfort and the things that make us comfortable - property, prestige, power, appearance, safety... Perhaps we shouldn't be displeased with the 'environmental ethics' we have or the 'business ethics' or the 'political ethics' or any of the myriad of other codes of conduct suggested by our actions. After all, we've created them. We've created the stories that allow them to exist and flourish. They didn't come out of nowhere. They didn't arrive from another planet. Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.

Perhaps we do have the kind of ethics we imagine we have. Maybe they're just not steady. Not dependable. Ethics of the moment. Potential ethics. Ethics we can draw on when we feel the need to do so. Ethics that can be wrapped in newspaper and stored in the freezer. Season ethics. Annuals rather than perennials.

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