Hypocrisy and hypodermics

Last week, William Bennett resigned from his position as the United States’s drug czar. Unfortunately, the drug war is not likely to fade away with him.

Over the past few years an increasing number of public figures in the U.S., from right-wing libertarians to liberal city mayors, have become proponents of some form of legalisation, citing chiefly the unmanageable cost of maintaining the drug war, the havoc it is wreaking on individual rights, and the impossibility of it achieving its goals.

In Canada, the voices of legalisation have always been much quieter, but as police forces across the country demand more resources and greater legal maneouvering (read: power to infringe on constitutional rights), opposition to the drug war enterprise will no doubt become more vocal.

The Drug Solution by Chester Mitchell, an Associate Professor of Law at Carleton University, challenges not just the inconsistencies of our drug policy and its fiscal costs, but the human costs which are being incurred.

Mitchell argues the need for a systematic approach to formulating a country’s drug policy based on science, justice, and cost-benefit social accounting — three measures which have long been absent from our drug policies.

The inconsistencies in drug policy, specifically with respect to a drug’s legal classification and its corresponding danger, are staggering. As Mitchell writes, “whether a drug is considered ‘hard’ or ‘soft,’ ‘medicinal’ or ‘abusive,’ addicting or benign is primarily determined by politics, no pharmacology.” The legal definition of a given drug is perhaps the least reliable testament of its pharmacological properties, as it is based on cultural bias and random historical circumstances.

In an added twist, now marketing especially determines the application and definition of a given drug. Mitchell uses the example of benzodiazepines: Dalmane is sold as a sleeping pill and Valium as a daytime tranquilizer, though there is nothing significantly different between them and they could be easily reversed.

“There’s nothing special about drugs,” said Mitchell in a recent interview. “Like any commodity in society there is competition for control over its marketing, its pricing and who has access to it.”

Mitchell points to the competition for control of sedatives among different professions. Alcohol, used today for recreational purposes, is a legal sedative controlled by large corporations with some competition from illegal distillers. Diazapam is controlled by the medical profession. Marijuana, an illegal “narcotic,” is controlled by small entrepreneurs, farmer and other illicit producers. In the past it has been used medicinally to alleviate symptoms of glaucoma, epilepsy, asthma and insomnia. Though there is no evidence to support that marijuana presents a greater danger for abuse than either alcohol or diazepam, it remains illegal, a Schedule 1 drug under U.S. federal law.

In 1938 and 1940, the U.S. and Canadian medical establishments gained control over a class of drugs for the purposes of prescription and treatment. Since then these lists have grown dramatically and economists estimate that by instituting such classifications the medical profession has been able to double its income.

As Mitchell writes: “Medical incentives likewise compel pharmaceutical producers to downplay similarities and highlight differences. If the inventors of Valium had reported that their new drug was very similar to alcohol they might have been denied both patent protection and regulatory approval.”

Inevitably such drug policies have also come to reflect the inherent cultural bias of North America and consequently promote interventionism in foreign countries. U.S. policy makers have recommended everything from direct military involvement to bombing crops with locusts. But when it comes to foreign affairs it’s business as usual.

“So you’re an American and you march into China. What do you want to do? You want to eradicate their drug use and replace it with yours, just like your religion, your clothes.”

Mitchell cites the increased exports of tobacco to new markets in Asia and Africa for American corporations. “The turnaround,” as Mitchell says, is when Latin America says we’re going to sell you cocaine and that’s a heinous crime. To understand that kind of hypocrisy you have to understand the depth of the culture that’s involved, because to have that kind of blindness you have to have grown up in a system that accepts this as a god-given right and everything else is perverted, foul and dirty. That’s the way cultures work.”

One proposal which was batted around the talkshow circuit last year was put forward by Ronald Seigel in his book Intoxication. Seigel suggested that the best solution to America’s drug crisis was the development of so-called “safe” psychoactive drugs. His thesis was that the use of drugs, or pursuit of intoxication was second nature to humans.

But neither his thesis nor his proposed solution are remarkably new. In The Natural Mind, Andrew Weil put forth the idea that it is human/animal nature to seek out mood-altering substances. AS Mitchell jokes, “at a very early age little children learn to hyperventilate and spin around.”

With regards to developing “safe” drugs, Siegal’s proposal is hopelessly unrealistic, says Mitchell. “Finding a harmless non-addictive stimulant or psychoactive drug is like finding a flammable fluid that you can’t ignite. It’s a contradiction in terms, you can’t do it.”

What can be done, however, is make the use of a given drug safer than not. The form of intake may be altered, it could be eaten instead of smoked, taken in its natural form, etc. And perhaps more importantly, the social context in which a drug is used can be changed to make it conducive to safer use.

Rather than foster xenophobic attitudes of prohibition, society must learn to “integrate its safe use into the culture in order to minimize the harm. The problem comes when you take something like coca, refine it into a pure white powder and put it into a society that doesn’t have any customs for dealing with” — a situation Mitchell describes as “ingredients for disaster.”

The situation of which Mitchell speaks is readily apparent. Whereas cocaine is used in South America among indigenous peoples for the alleviation of fatigue, hunger and for various rituals, its use and marketing in North America are increasingly problematic. Purely a recreational drug, cocaine has been endowed with a multitude of myths, as being a signifier of a certain upwardly mobile lifestyle, and even supposedly increasing sex drive. The illegality of cocaine, and the high demand for it have produced conditions in which purity goes down as price rises. The development of more volatile, “homemade” drugs like “crack” cancan be traced to the underground economics of the drug trade: a quicker hit, highly addictive, and cheap. It is no surprise that the drug war has failed to stem either demand or supply.

But even legalisation of drugs presents the problem of regulation: does the government then assume control of the drug trade?

“Giving responsibility to the government can be very dangerous,” admits Mitchell. “It’s a bit like the arguments against obscenity. Pornography may have a negative impact on society, though it’s not clear, but giving the government the power to censor this stuff is more damaging than the actual porn. We constantly lose sight of that. We think of the government as some costless intervenor, but no, it is very costly.”

This “costless” intervenor is currently erecting an immense system of informants, strategists, counselors and undercover cops which, as Mitchell writes, “creates a warlike atmosphere conducive to the abuse of human rights.” The side-effects of such measures have been seen in Colombia where, according to the Village Voice, increased powers of arrest and seizure granted to the police have coincided suspiciously with the disappearance of over 100 members of the labour party.

Besides the failings of law enforcement, Mitchell points out that the other main component of the anti-drug program, education, has become little more than an exercise in propaganda. Mitchell is opposed to the allocation of any more money towards education, especially tax revenue derived from the use of certain drugs.

Presently, Ontario’s mandatory drug education plan starts in grade school, and while there are some positive steps, starting their education with tobacco and alcohol — the drugs with which children are most familiar — it appears to be little more than a demonstration of positive and negative reinforcement.

“What seems to be happening, when children learn about drugs, although what they’re learning is not necessarily accurate or complete, it doesn’t seem to change their attitudes. Particularly because students aren’t uniform, some of them are fully convinced they’re never going to use tobacco, whereas you also have the profile of the student who is most likely to become a smoker. They are the least likely to respond to what their parents or teachers are telling them.”

The biggest fault in the anti-drug education campaign is the bewildering reliance on slogans to discourage use: Dead On Drugs, Drug Free America, Just Say No — Mitchell, appropriately enough, likens them to commercial advertisements.

“Slogans don’t prompt one to think. Like a Coca-Cola slogan, the idea is not so much to sell people Coke because they’re already drinking a phenomenal amount. Rather, it’s to make them feel good about being Coke drinkers. The slogans in each case are doing the same thing, that is, make people feel intolerant about drugs. It’s not to teach them anything but to reinforce their prejudices.”

Unfortunately, Mitchell notes, the debate will really heat up when people begin taking the words to heart.

“What happens if a teacher reads my book, reads the sources I’ve quoted and becomes convinced radical reform of the drug laws is necessary? And then they teach students that marijuana is no more dangerous than tobacco. Then parents come pounding into the school saying you’ve got to fire this teacher. It’s like the creation-evolution debate where the state is stepping in and saying this is the official science.

“There’s all sorts of potential for a witch hunt.”

Walcott’s Caribbean Odyssey


By Derek Walcott

Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux

Nowhere is there a claim, either in the book or on its jacket, that Derek Walcott’s Omeros is an epic, even though the title, style, and subject matter bring it in close proximity to the epic tradition. Is it an epic, and if not, what sort of narrative poem is it? I leave the matter of classification for someone more qualified for the task. For my part, I can point out that it does have some epic characteristics. Walcott has written in a loose hexameter and has employed many epic conventions, albeit to a small scale.

In the introduction to his epic poem Genesis, Frederick Turner explains one of the intentions behind the epic structure: “These rigidities compel the action again and again to come to a point, a focus, to collapse the wave function of possibility, to choose one path of plot.”

Walcott’s poem is less disciplined in this respect than what we would expect from an epic; his chapters, although fairly equal in length, are not always neat divisions of plot. Rather than a long, continuous narrative that never loses sight of its impetus and destination, Omeros is a collection of plots, subplots, and characters strung somewhat loosely together by the author’s various underlying concerns. In fact, what the story lacks in grandness is compensated for by the wide range of concerns, a quality frustrating to the reviewer who wants to give an overall view of the book.

Some background in the history of Saint Lucia, the island where most of the action takes place, and of the people of the Antilles would be helpful in understanding parts of the book, something myself did not have. But the reader ignorant of historical background will be carried through any difficult passage by Walcott’s consistently beautiful language. The natural world is animated with character by his attention to detail, and the most striking metaphors and similes crystalised to simplicity by such self-contained images as “that conch-coloured dusk low pelicans cross,” “Seven Seas, as blind as a sail in rain,” and an extended metaphor of Sunday strolling across a wharf in Lisbon dressed ina cream suit.

The weakest parts of the book are those about Major Plunkett, who fought in the Battle of Saints so that he could afterwards live on the island on a pension. It is understandable that Walcott would be less moved by Plunkett, who is trying to write a history of British imperialism in the Caribbean. However, the reader will find that the book invites re-reading even immediately after the initial attempt.

The names and situations bring much of the Trojan War and the Odyssey to mind. One character, Achille, a poor fisherman, competes with another fisherman, Hector, for the love of the island beauty, proud and independent Helen. Unlike his ancient namesake, Achille lacks the pride that would lead to either bloodshed or sulkiness, and he allows Helen to go to whomever she chooses. There is also Philoctete, whose fetid leg would was opened by an anchor, and there is Seven Seas, a mysterious blind old man whom the narrator calls Omeros. (I leave it to the reader to discover Walcott’s provocative etymology of the name.) And there is the narrator, who progressively plays a greater role, until he is subtly identified as Walcott himself. He leaves his island for a self-imposed exile in Boston. There he sets out on an odyssey through Spain, England, Ireland, Greece, Venice, and even Toronto, before returning to Saint Lucia.

The most powerful episodes of the book are those in which the poet slips his characters into prophetic dreams or fantasy. Achille follows a swift up a river to Africa, where his father is troubled to learn that Achile cannot remember his real, African, name. “What’s the difference?” asks Achille. “In the world I come from / we accept the sounds we were given.” He tearfully learns, though, that in losing his name, he has become merely the shadow of it.

The narrator sees the ghost of his father on a street in Boston, and is told:

One you have seen everything and gone everywhere,

cherish our island for its green simplicities …

the shadows of grape leaves on sunlit verandahs

made me content. The sea-swift vanishes in rain,

and yet in its travelling all that the sea-swift does

it does in a circular pattern. Remember that, son.

After the poet returns to Saint Lucia, he is met in his sleep by all the personae of Omeros: Seven Seas, a blind vagrant he saw in London, and Indian shaman, a marble bust of Homer, and a goat in an old stone theatre. These merging personae reveal to the narrator what it is he has learned in his wanderings.

Most of the closing scenes in the book take place along the seashore in January. Walcott creates a sense of change and the beginning of a new era by evoking the two-faced god Janus. (“Ah, twin-headed January, seeing either tense.”) The inhabitants of the island can begin to come to terms with their identity, which is neither the aboriginal race of the islands nor the people that were once transplanted there by colonists as slaves. Standing at the shore, everyone can conclude the wanderings he or she has made on this island which now belongs to each, and to which each of them belongs.

Sword and sorcery

It seems strange to me that there are people out there who have never read any fantasy. What I mean by fantasy is a genre of writing that is distinct from all others in that it describes events and things that could not happen in our mundane world: magic, dragons, wizards, and the like. Fantasy is not all cute little hobbits and big bad Dark Lords; the genre contains some stunningly original and … well … magical writing, from the indescribably beautiful John Crowley to the dark and depressing Stephen Donaldson. If you haven’t read any of it (and I envy you, because you’ll get to read some great books for the first time), Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is a good place to start.

Tigana is the story of a province that was invaded by an empire from across the sea, and was wiped out, not by genocide or by mass destruction of property, but by a spell put on the whole of the country so that no one can now say or remember the name of the province. The book describes the efforts of a small band of expatriates to overthrow the tyranny that they live under, and restore the name and glory of their province, Tigana.

It is a big book: over six hundred pages. It is also a very quick read, with the kind of page-turning energy that makes the reader want to find out what happened next. The characters are well developed and interesting, and the setting is well thought out and carefully drawn.

It’s not a perfect book; more sophisticated fantasy readers might feel a certain lack of depth in the world and the characters because of the flatness of the language. Kay is not much of a stylist; he tells good, entertaining stories, but without the kind of literary sophistication present in other writers. This is, however, only his fourth book, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Guy Kay is also the author of The Fionavar Tapestry, an epic fantasy trilogy that received a great deal of acclaim. He worked with Christopher Tolkien on editing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillon in 1974-75. Originally trained as a lawyer, Mr. Kay now devotes his time to writing. The Varsity spoke with Mr. Kay last month.

The Varsity: Are you conscious of yourself as a specifically Canadian writer?

Guy Gavriel Kay: I’m very conscious of being Canadian … I don’t, while writing, project myself from a nationalistic viewpoint. I do a great deal of my writing overseas, in Europe. There are a whole bunch of biographical reasons for that: simply, a strong interest in the continent that was engendered very early, a fascination with history … the depth and texture of the cultures in Europe are what I try to evoke pretty much in my fiction.

It’s been said that no one but a Winnipeger could have evoked the winter of The Wandering Fire [a book in Kay’s first trilogy] [laughs] … If you haven’t lived through it, you can’t depict it. Some of my friends who grew up down the block from me said, “All you did was take a typical Winnipeg winter and made it mythological.”

The Varsity: Do you have plans for a sequel to Tigana?

Guy Gavriel Kay: The book that I’m currently working on is not a sequel in any way; it’s not part of the structure or the characters or the narrative of Tigana.

What I am doing again is following a method I evolved for Tigana that is my departure from the trilogy. In Tigana I wanted to evoke the flavour and the ambiance of Renaissance Italy, for a couple of reasons: one, because it’s a fascinating period, I became extremely interested in some of the themes and motifs that emerged for me from extensive reading in the period. The other is because it is a very accessible period … rather than a totally alien world. I wanted to create a world that had some anchoring for the reader. We all have images of the Renaissance. We may have got them from Hollywood, but we’ve all got them, and we all have some way of visualizing how people looked and moved, and what the landscape looked like. I’m not recreating the Renaissance period; I’m evoking the flavour of the Renaissance.

In the new book, I’m trying to do the same with Provence, in the troubador period. So that’s the method I seem to have discovered, or stumbled upon, which is to do a great deal of research on a period of European history, then go there to write. I wrote Tigana in Tuscany, and I’m writing the new novel in the south of France, which my friends accuse me of doing simply as an excuse to do something self-indulgent, only a partial truth because it is helpful to be there.

There may be writers who can look at the Bathurst streetcar going past their window and evoke all the groves and vineyards, but I do better if I’m looking at all the groves and vineyards.

The Varsity: From The Fionavar Tapestry to Tigana there seemed to be a more naturalistic feel to the magic that’s happening, and I’m wondering if that was deliberate?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Very much so. I think that what happened was that Fionavar was my statement for the time being in the High Fantasy epic-class mode. I very deliberately picked up as many of the trappings of that form as I could. Part of the reason was that it was a somewhat conscious throwing down of the gauntlet to the barbarians in the Temple …

I stopped reading fantasy … in the later ’70s I suppose, after The Silmarillion year … I used to feel for a while that I had an obligation to keep up on what else was coming out, and I found it so increasingly frustrating, what was happening to the genre, I just stopped. Then a few years later, it started to feel like a cowardly act to just abandon the notion of fantasy, because I’ve always seen such richness in the field. So I sat down to do my own, and in the process of doing that, I very consciously wanted to say: High Fantasy has potential, and depth, and range that it’s not even being asked to explore by the people working in it now, doing the derivative spin-offs.

Consistent with that, I embraced many of the totemistic, archetypical elements of fantasy: the enchanted swords, the jewels with magical powers, the whole structure of the epic quest. The trilogy! The fact that it was blocked out as a trilogy … it’s like a sonnet … one of the rules of High Fantasy is that you do it as a trilogy.

With Tigana, I’m a long way from that. I’ve said what I had to say on light-and-dark, good-and-evil issues. Tigana is a mortal scale conflict. That, I think, is the single biggest difference. It’s about men and women against men and women. It’s not about mortal man against the renegade demiurge, which is one of the other standard formulas of High Fantasy. This one is a political novel, in its essence. It’s about themes of freedom, and conquest, the struggle for independence, the implications of tyranny, working right down to things like sexuality and family life, how those oppressive elements filter their way down to the smallest nuance.

The Varsity: This book has a lot of very interesting and erotic sex in it. Was that a deliberate choice?

Guy Gavriel Kay: You make conscious decisions to try to incorporate certain themes in your writing, but then the book gets going; it takes over to a certain degree.

I was reading Milan Kundera in the period before I started writing TiganaThe Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Laughable Loves, the short stories there explore—among other things—what I call “The Insurrections of the Night”: the notion that when your daytime freedom has been taken away, when your mobility, and your creativity, and your opportunities for independent action are taken away in the daytime by oppressive, totalitarian regimes, one of the things that seems to happen is an increasing decadence at night, in the sexual sphere, and there are two elements to that. One is that it becomes a kind of symbolic, if meaningless, assertion of your independence; the other—and I have a dialogue in Tigana that spells this out because I wanted to be as clear as I could—if we accept the almost cliched psychological assertion that in order to have a happy relationship we have to respect ourselves, and I do believe that, then if you look at the situation of people who have been conquered or dominated and are allowing that condition to persist, the levels of self-respect in such people must, inexorably, begin to drop. And their belief that they’re worthy of healthy, nourishing sexual-emotional relationships must diminish. And that is one of the themes of the novel

The Varsity: Do you see yourself as being a fantasy writer for the rest of your life, or do you intend to go in different directions?

Guy Gavriel Kay: What I would like to see happening in part as a result of my fiction is a blurring of borders. What I’m more interested in doing is breaking down a tendency towards categorization which we all seem to have. There’s fantasy over there, there’s science-fiction here, there’s mystery there, and here’s mainstream … our reflex seems to be to slot things rather than assess them, rather than look at the individual work, our first instinct is to categorize it, even if it doesn’t fit easily into the category.

People seem to be recognizing that Tigana is a legitimate move to broaden the horizons of what fantasy has been asked to do, and to deal with themes that can legitimately be called those of serious mainstream fiction.

The Varsity: So you see yourself as trying to broaden the mainstream to include these fantasy areas.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Exactly.

The Varsity: Final question: do you have any tips for younger writers?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Only the most platitudinous one, the one which always irritates people because it sends them back to themselves … which is the honest truth that the way you are going to learn to write is by writing. You don’t learn to write by taking English courses. You learn how other people wrote, and that is of some use, you certainly want to be as well read as you can. But the other way I put it is that inspiration is vastly overrated as a source for writing, because it’s often more an excuse: “Oh, I don’t feel inspired today, so I will wait until the Muse is sitting on my shoulder.” You don’t write books, especially long ones, without trying to cultivate the discipline that simply means you sit down and you don’t get up until fifteen hundred words, or a thousand, whatever your speed, are done.

You may come back the next day and look at what you did before, and trash it. But it’s important to keep that rhythm of knowing that that’s what you’re going to do today, you’re going to sit down and write.

No position is neutral

Age of Iron

By J.M. Coetzee

Secker & Warburg

To acquire knowledge in the novels of J.M. Coetzee is often to acquire a choice of action and that choice, even if it is of inaction, is always a political one. Once an act of violence has been seen, it cannot be ignored—to forget is to express support for its perpetrator. To choose a side with the victim is never a heroic choice, or even a choice that carries unbearably painful consequences and often a complete change of circumstances; it is unappreciated, unasked for an necessary. Necessary because knowledge is never just an oppressive act or system, but also of one’s own complicity with it.

In Age of Iron, Coetzee’s latest novel, the author examines the way violent political repression implicates all aspects of all private life. Nothing in such a regime can be exempt from its systematic violence and destruction; to thin oneself separate is to be blind to one’s actual situation. Age of Iron is the story of a good person in “times when to be a good person is not enough.” The novel is written as a letter from Elizabeth Curran, an older woman dying of cancer, that is to be mailed to her daughter in America when she is dead. She starts at the day she is told that her disease is terminal, and she begins by using the disintegration she perceives around her — the general condition of violence and danger, the growing numbers of the homeless and roving gangs, the tramp she finds on her doorstep, the dilapidated condition of her house — to describe and reflect the cancer inside her. However, as she explains her surroundings to provide material, her narrative starts to change its focus. Everything she describes is fragmented and a bitter parody of what a good person wants to see, from the very personal through to the whole social structure. Her body is torn apart by cancer, an invasive, alienating thing which she imagines as a perverse baby that won’t be born. Her family is separated: of her husband she says only that they separated and he died; her only child is in America and has sworn not to return until the system has changed.

Curren’s household seems to consist of elements brought together more by chance than design, including the tramp who moves in at the start of the novel, her domestic Florence, Florence’s two daughters, her son and his friend. This household is comprised of strange and silent alliances and enmities, random acts of violence and humiliation erupt without warning, people die or disappear suddenly, and the house is open to violation and invasion from without. It holds no sanctuary and offers no united front.

Out on the streets a larger picture of the same situation looms; vague images of unspecified threat from roving gangs and wandering dangers mix with specific incidents delineating the divorce of institutions from their functions: police do not protect, but victimize; ambulance drivers do not try to save lives. Men that the protagonist sees fighting a fire that rages through a shantytown turn out to be feeding the flames. This is all played out against the broader landscape of South Africa, a country warring on itself.

As Elizabeth Curren describes a world of savage random brutality, horrifying deaths, ceaseless spirals of internecine strife, impotence, alienation, and despair, she comes to fit her cancer into what she describes. It is a shame, and more, the inheritance of a crime committed a long time ago, committed in her name, a crime that she is part of and that is part of her. No longer does she see her disease as special, distancing her from her surroundings. Instead she understands it as the inevitable realization of those surroundings inside herself.

At the start of the novel the protagonist longs to be able to return again to childhood, to have a mother tell her it will be all right. By the end of the novel an adult attainment of a state of childhood is reflected in the willed blindness of those who will not see what goes on around them. This state is not innocent, but ignorant, and pertains mainly to adults — all the children portrayed in the novel respond directly to the violence that controls their world, preparing themselves to perpetuate it in some way as soon as possible. The novel laments the loss of the idea of childhood as innocence, an idea which Curren realizes has no meaning here. To see, in this novel, is to open your eyes and know that you are impotent in an unbearably painful world, to be confronted with choices that offer no comfort or escape from being implicated in the systematic brutality of apartheid. Childhood as ignorance is a metaphor for the time before the eyes have opened, not a metaphor for a time when pain did not exist.

Age of Iron is deeply moral, without being moralistic, bitingly painful without being sentimental, and despairing without being cynical. In elegant, sparing, and poetic prose Coetzee depicts hell.

Reclaiming the Native voice

“She’s not here to play with you, Emma,” she said. And no, I wasn’t: I was there to interview Emma’s mother, author and storyteller Lenore Keeshig-Tobias.

Lenore and I had to finish this interview before she was to leave for her next scheduled interview, and in the meantime, two-year-old Emma’s baby brother Adam had to be given his feeding. Luckily, Keeshig-Tobias is used to doing four things at once.

Keeshig-Tobias has published poetry in anthologies and journals, as well as published several children’s stories and plays. In this interview she speaks of her roles as a Native storyteller and of the issue of appropriation of voice; in particular, of ‘Native’ stories being written by non-Native Canadians.

Currently a chairperson on an advisory committee in the Writers’ Union of Canada, Keeshig-Tobias is helping organize a planning session for writers of colour from across Canada. Their aim is to outline a list of recommendations to be made to funding agencies, arts organizations and writers themselves on the issue of appropriation.

“We’ll be dealing with this issue of appropriation or as people say ‘racism’ in writing and publishing houses. The decisions will be made only by the people in the discussion sessions, anything other that would be paternalism.

“The answers have to come from these people. The answers have to come from us, not from the white majority of the … of the Writers’ Union for example,” she laughs.

“Otherwise it would be just like Indian Affairs conceiving of another wonderful benevolent plan and then plunking it down on Natives and having the Natives run around and make it work.”

According to Keeshig-Tobias, her work on the issue of appropriation is grounded in her commitment as a Native writer to her own people.

“I feel my roles is to work to foster and promote a greater understanding of Native culture. I don’t write for non-Natives, I write for my people. I write in English so it is accessible to non-Natives as well but my primary audience or concern are my own people. It’s nice if non-Natives can appreciate it as well but I think we have a lot of healing to do within our own people and as an artist I feel I have a part in that.”

“I guess in that way our work, as artists, is not out there for entertainment. It’s not there to decorate your walls, it’s there for a purpose. These are teachings that we, as artists, offer to the people.”

Although currently living in Toronto, Keeshig-Tobias is from a reserve on the Bruce Peninsula which she often visits. She works on programs for educating Native children with both traditional and new Native stories.

“Everything stems from the old tradition. Everything stems from storytelling. Whether you’re a poet, a playwright, whether you do screenwriting, fiction, short fiction, children’s literature, whatever it is, it all stems from the oral tradition.

“I received some advice from an elder, who said to me, ‘Lenore, don’t tell the traditional stories until the ground is covered with snow’ and I said ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Well, mosquitoes and blackflies like those stories.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, ha-ha that’s quaint.’ And even though I didn’t understand at the time what she was telling me I decided that I would abide by that. That’s how badly I wanted to be a storyteller, ‘I will do as the old people have said. I will not tell traditional stories unless there is snow on the ground.’

“As time went by I did come to a greater understanding and that understanding is that, well, these stories are not meant for everyone. They’re for certain ears only — Native or non-Native. Not everyone is, I suppose, capable of understanding a story, and then there are people who will abuse those stories or abuse that information — just use it in the wrong way. So in a way it is a form of censorship or self-censorship but information is not always accessible to everyone and there are reasons why.”

In Keeshig-Tobias’s view, assuming a Native point of view, or using Native folk tales, symbolism or metaphors is a violation against Native “ownership” of their stories.

“In our culture, and it exists in non-Native culture as well — the whole idea of copyright — in our culture, people own stories. Families own stories — and there are some stories that are out there in the public domain. If you want to tell a story, you find out who it belongs to and you go and you ask. You don’t just come pick, pick, pick, take, take, take, take. You go and you ask, and if it’s given to you, you tell it. If it’s not given to you, well, you have to ask again and again. It’s as simple as that.

“The white Canadians have to realize that Native culture is not their culture and is not like their culture. They have to learn how to respect Native culture. Sometimes when you respect something enough, you respect it enough to leave it alone — especially when somebody tells you to leave it alone,” she laughs.

“I’m always very leery about writers who write about things outside of their own culture and if you look at the history of the Native–Canadian relations you can see why. I mean, look at the history of the western hemisphere — when the white man first appeared in this hemisphere — you can see the misinformation, the stereotyping, the oppression that has occurred and still exists to this very day, because they felt that they were better, they felt that the six nations were beneath them, primitive, savage, heathen.”

Keeshig-Tobias believes non-Native and Native writers alike have to be aware of the kinds of stereotype they may create or perpetuate when writing about Native peoples.

“There’s such a lack of Native material out there that people — I’ve done it too, and I still do it. I just read whatever I can that’s Native, whether it’s by non-Natives or Native peoples themselves. There have been times when it has been such a hunger that I would just read and devour these things. And writers and artists must understand that as artists, they have a responsibility for stories and ideas that they put out there for public consumption — for readers, for listeners — because those stories will have impact on people. And also there is the responsibility to the people or the culture that the stories are about. Are you misrepresenting? Are you perpetuating negative stereotypes?

“I think when one understands that there is responsibility, and that stories are basically sacred, and if one understands where one comes from and is able to confront one’s psyche — and be truthful, then I think this shows up in their art: a profound self-understanding.”

To Keeshig-Tobias, a writer who appropriates a Native voice often shows a lack of respect as well as a lack of understanding of Native culture.

“I think our Native culture as a whole has had to work through it over the years and I think we’ve come through it now, there’s now need to do that searching—we know who we are now. I think it was during the ’50s and ’60s, even earlier than that, that we were wondering ‘Who am I?’ The fact is now, we know who we are now.

“I always find strength when I look into my own culture. Our traditional people say that you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from; and so I see that a lot of these white Canadians are appropriating Native stories because they feel there is nothing within their own culture that’s worth writing about and I feel very sorry for them, very, very sorry for them because they are denying their own existence. They’ve got to come to terms with their own history, their own culture and basically their own psyche, otherwise they will always be incomplete.

“If they don’t have a good understanding of themselves and their culture and where they come from, what the heck makes them or anyone think that these people know Native culture?”

The issue of appropriation of voice broaches on the touchy subject of censorship. Do writers overstep themselves and infringe on other peoples’ rights? Keeshig-Tobias believes that a proper consideration of the issues of appropriation should not be confused with the question of censorship.

“Those who myopically see the whole issue of appropriation as a shackling of the imagination are in the minority and they are usually men who already, by virtue of being men, are in a position of power. It’s just mind-boggling and I have to laugh at times — ‘You’re shackling up my imagination.’

“Well, you’re imagination comes right up to my nose and if you try to push it any further, then watch out, because I’m not going to be abused that way. I’m not going to allow you to rape me or my stories or my culture. I’m not going to allow you to take away things from my children.

“Respect, that’s the bottom line, respect. Rick Salutin, he said, ‘Well, what about respecting me, the writer?’” She pauses and laughs.

“‘What about respecting yourself?’ Well, I didn’t say that to him, but the writer has to respect the culture that you’re writing about. Respect your art. Respect yourself.

“I think as time goes by, as these writers become more aware of the situation and the ramifications of theft, they will understand that they have to ask.

“Last year, someone from the Women’s Press sent me a manuscript to read. It was a manuscript by a white woman who had assumed a Native voice and I read it and it was, it was just horrifying. What did this woman think she was doing? And you do have to question people’s motives for doing this because I certainly don’t want to become someone’s mission. Don’t pat me on the head so that you can have bread and butter and ease your guilt.

“This particular story was so patronizing, it was just horrendous. This woman had assumed the voice of a Native child who was going through a revival of her Native culture brought to her by a white woman. And so the child looked upon her as the Messiah so to speak. I mean, good heavens, if I’m going to follow somebody down the garden path it certainly is not going to be somebody who is not of my own culture.”

To Keeshig-Tobias, Native stories and poetry are not only forms of art based on tradition but they are also forms of empowerment.

“Storytelling and stories, poetry are not just there for entertainment. They reflect the deepest, most intimate perspectives of a culture and only those people who are so intimately involved in that culture have a right to tell those stories.

People outside the culture tend to whitewash. They don’t understand the characters, the symbolism. When they do attempt to use this stuff they basically take power away from the people that the stories are about—their symbols, their metaphors.

“We need people like myself and other artists to basically tell our own stories, whether these stories are fluff [she laughs] and funny, or beautiful poems, or stories about abuse and substance abuse. These are part of our reality. We have to know these stories.”

Mordecai and the zombie conspiracy

Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions

By Mordecai Richler

Viking Press

Lovers of literature tend to believe that skilled novelists will, as a matter of course, be skilled essayists, and vice versa. This proves little more than that lovers of literature are a foggy-headed bunch indeed. Novelists usually produce essays light on facts and heavy on adorable personal anecdotes, while essayists generally write turgid, allegorical novels featuring characters named Death and Doom and Illness.

That said, it’s hard to find grievous fault with the latest book of essays by novelist Mordecai Richler. Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions is light, funny, and utterly without lasting significance. Within its 254 pages lies proof that a good-but-not-great novelist can, with a lot of hard work and a tolerant publisher, produce a hatful of good-but-not-great essays.

By far the most entertaining work in Broadsides is a series of book reviews written over the years by the author. Richler understands instinctively that serious book reviewers are the lowest form of life; he therefore resigns himself to making fun of the authors he’s supposed to be reviewing, mostly by quoting, without comment, the worst examples of their prose. This strategy serves Richler well, especially since he chooses to review only the very worst that contemporary literature has to offer. In one inspired piece on Maureen Reagan’s autobiography, for example, he succeeds in culling huge laughs simply by reprinting extended excerpts from the book.

In another highly entertaining review, Richler mops the floor with Kenneth Atchity, an obscure professor who has published a book on creative writing: “I’ve read other scribblers on the writer’s craft — say, Henry James, Cyril Connoly and E.M. Forster. But…unlike James, Connoly, or Forster before him, Atchity is actually a professor of writing.” This is satiric writing at its best: dry, clever, and breathtakingly mean. Richler is, at heart, a supreme curmudgeon, and Broadsides is best when the author is indulging his most misanthropic instincts. Luckily, this is most of the time.

Like most other good writers, however, Richler is incredibly lazy, and cannot always resist the urge to go for the easy joke. More often than not, the object of these cheap laughs is women — feminists in particular. Consider, if you will, the following ho-ho on the subject of gender neutral language: “This unseemly distortion of our language, taken to its logical extreme, may yet lead to a revised feminist edition of Shakespeare, where we may look forward to Hamlet musing, ‘What a piece of work is personhood.’” Can Mordecai Richler possibly not know that we have all heard this joke (and variations thereon) fifty times before, and that it is, above all, not funny? That adolescent boys recount this non-joke is somewhat unsettling. That an otherwise resourceful writer like Richler recounts it is somewhat unreal.

Happily, Richler is able to suppress his misogyny in the book’s best piece, a short non-fiction narrative entitled “All the Conspirators,” in which Richler describes, in the driest of prose, his own quest to find the most paranoid conspiracy theorists in the United States. He finds some great ones: one woman in California thinks that the CIA engineered the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., while a man in New York states, presumably with a straight face, that “our government is now practicing zombie-ism, and doing it in you name.” Editorial comment from Richler is kept to a minimum, demonstrating the author’s grasp of the first rule of journalism: find lunatics, and let them speak for themselves.

For most of this book, the only person speaking is Richler himself. That’s okay; he’s genuinely funny, and occasionally has an insightful thing to say on any number of subjects. Next time, however, he should talk to more conspiracy theorists — me, for example — and leave the discussion of feminism to people who actually know something about it.

Sweetman reconsiders the myth and mutilation of Vincent Van Gogh

Life was such a burden to him; but
now, as so often happens everybody is
full of praise for his talents … Oh
Mother! He was so my own, own brother.

—Theo Van Gogh in a letter to his mother after Vincent’s suicide

Theo’s reflection on his brother’s death encapsulates two aspects of Vincent’s existence. The first is the commonly held mythological vision of the artist burdened by physical and mental illness, poverty and loneliness, who is appreciated for his artistic genius, “as so often happens,” only after his death. However, with the words “He was so my own, own brother,” Theo bears a moving and poetic testament to the loving and attractive aspects of his brother, a vision which is often hidden by the shadow of the popular myth.

The title of David Sweetman’s biography, The Love of Many Things: A Life of Vincent Van Gogh, likewise addresses the complexity of his subject’s life and reputation. In his narration of Vincent’ s life, Sweetmant relates the stories which have given rise to Vincent’s apotheosis as “the archetypal artist of the modern age: ignored and rejected, while sacrificing himself physically and mentally in the service of his art.” However, the biographer challenges this simplistic popular notion as he brings to light the artist’s “love of many things.” Sweetman writes in his introduction, “Indeed if one tries to look at the paintings with eye and mind uncluttered by the legends that have accrued about him in the hundred years since his death, one can see that the works themselves are gloriously, happily sane.” This book, published on the centenary of Vincent’s death, is the first biography of Van Gogh to be written in the last twenty-five years. Since then, new research and more modern and mature understanding of the artistic movements of the last century have allowed Sweetman to present a “fresh look” at Vincent’s life.

To meet David Sweetman is to meet a man whose intellectual cruise control is permanently set at twice the speed limit. He is a self-proclaimed research fanatic. “Research is wonderful. Put me in a library where I haven’t been before and it’s very difficult to get me out. You could just scrap the book for all I care, I’d be content to just sit and do research.” His final product, however, is evidence that the apparent nonchalance towards writing is mostly facetious. Sweetman later admits his love for writing, emphatically gesticulating as he proclaims, “I have tried to describe every detail of Vincent’s environment, to make the reader see the things as Vincent saw them.” This attention to detail is never onerous, nor does it draw attention to itself. The author’s careful balancing fo plot, setting, and various themes allows the book to read like a well-told story.

In the opening pages, in which Sweetman explores Vincent’s childhood and early youth, the author adamantly dispels the notion that Van Gogh was born a crazy genius. “Indeed, for the first twenty years of his life there were no grounds for thinking that Vincent was in any way different from those around him except in minor and at the time insignificant ways. Later such details would be pored over and blown up out of proportion in an attempt to uncover incipient signs of both genius and madness.” However, Sweetman does not shy away from psychoanalysis. Van Gogh’s father was a Dutch Reformed minister and his mother was an amateur artist. One can hardly ignore their influence on their son whose two greatest passions in his short life were religion first, and then art.

Having thrown away his promising career as an art dealer with a major firm in London and Paris, Vincent found himself in Borinage, a coal-mining region in Southern Belgium, attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Although his talents as a preacher were highly suspect, Vincent became fanatically sympathetic with the poverty-stricken miners who “led lives of near-slavery in conditions of unimaginable squalor.” Vincent did everything possible to share the lives of the miners. He starved himself, giving any food he received to the miners. He moved from a modest room in the house of a local family to a severely inhospitable shack near the mine. Because of this eccentric self-mortification, combined with an inability to preach, Vincent was dismissed, but his association with the poor never left him.

At the relatively late age of twenty-seven, “without much evidence of aptitude, [and] with little inclination to undertake the necessary training,” Vincent decided to become an artist. He fervently hungered to create art of and for the poor, common people. However, Vincent had no source of financial self-support, and was entirely reliant on the allowance he received from his brother Theo for the rest of his tempestuous life. David Sweetman captures the turbulence of this troubled life, as well as offering a precise analysis of Vincent’s progression as an artist. He investigates Vincent’s training in Brussels, his relationship with a prostitute at The Hague, his friendship with artists such as Paul Gaugin in Paris, his addiction to absinthe and his inability to sell his work.

Sweetman’s best writing appears in the last two chapters in his book, in which he investigates Vincent’ final years of growing artistic genius, and increasing attacks of madness. In one passage, the author conveys the passionate vitality of the sunflowers Vincent painted in his new home, the yellow house” in Arles:

They scream yellow. Some are set in a
yellow vase on a yellow table, some
are violently alive, burning with
sunshine, others are dead, limp,
exhausted but not with the tranquil
death of a real sunflower when it
passes into a dry-brown state before
scattering its polished yellow seeds;
this was death by self-immolation, a
yellow suicide…Before he started
painting he would drink innumerable
cups of strong, black coffee,
deliberately overstimulating himself
so that he could reach that high note
of yellow. It was a dangerous thing.

It was in this “yellow house” that Vincent was later found in his bloody bed, having cut off his ear and presented it to a local prostitute. This was the first of a series of mental attacks which eventually led to his suicide. He was confined to a mental institution and his yellow house sealed by the police until Vincent’s friend Paul Signac arrived to visit his ailing friend. David Sweetman conveys the power of the awesome moment which transpired when they re-entered Vincent’s home:

When they entered the shuttered rooms,
they found Vincent’s paintings waiting
like forgotten treasures in a half-lit
cave…Stacked in these cluttered
chambers was one of the greatest
achievements of nineteenth-century
art, produced in less than a year, and
looking at them once more was the man
who had started out a mere eight years
before virtually unable to hold a
pencil and who had done all this in so
short a time. Signac can only have
looked as his hunched, wounded friend
in amazement.

Vincent Van Gogh has traditionally been considered an “evangelist” of the Expressionist and the Abstract-Expressionist movements in art. In 1929 the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited the work of Cezanne, Gaugin, Seurat and Van Gogh, hailing them as the precursors to the modern movement. Sweetman sees this as Vincent’s “canonization — by a church to which he had never belonged.” One of the main intentions of his book is to take a “fresh look at Van Gogh’s life, unhampered by outdated theory.” In the past, authors and critics have painstakingly tried to hammer square pegs into round holes by analyzing Vincent’s life and work within the constraints of the theory that he was the “prophet of modern art.” Sweetman argues that “to support this, almost everything about his intentions had to be ignored or distorted and his own taste in art denigrated, for Van Gogh was a passionate lover of the art of his own time, an art aggressively rejected by the founders of the modern movement.” Rather than rejecting his roots, Vincent increasingly looked back, admired and drew inspiration from his artistic environment. Sweetman demonstrates that Vincent was indeed “one of the last artists of the 19th century, not the first of the 20th century.”

This biography is not for the reader seeking erudite and in-depth artistic analysis of Van Gogh’s painting. Sweetman mockingly dismisses the art world’s hyper-theorists who have not time to talk to ordinary people wanting to know about art, because they are too preoccupied with their own discussions. “They are always deconstructing this and deconstructing that. Van Gogh painted for ordinary people. His art is purposely very simple, and I don’t mean that as a put-down, it’s a compliment, it’s very difficult to be simple.” One might also apply this description to the biography. While Sweetman’s thorough scholarship and valid argumentation make the book valuable to students of art, it is nonetheless simply written and entirely accessible to ordinary readers.

Sweetman himself has been inspired by the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. He calls his book “an inadequate attempt to repay an enormous debt.” On the other hand, David Sweetman’s biography is a more than adequate attempt to resurrect Vincent for a moment, and then lay him back to rest a little less misunderstood.

Recreating the language of the oppressor

Native Literature in Canada

By Penny Petrone

Oxford University Press

In Native Literature in Canada Penny Petrone, a Professor Emeritus at Lakehead University, writes a history of Native literature from the oral tradition through its evolutions and adaptations into written culture, with reference to Native cultures as they face and survive the crushing impact of colonialism.

Petrone rejects Western approaches to Native literature, and projects a field of study that would recognize the importance of the historical and cultural background of Native writing, and would develop a terminology for a sophisticated and thoughtful application of criticism that evolves as much from that background as from Western critical traditions. She also provides a detailed and comprehensive survey of Native writers and writings of the last two centuries.

One of the book’s aims is to trace the effect of political necessity on Native literature, from the great oratorical traditions of the pre-contact days to the need to use oratory in the losing battle against the whites — first in challenging and then in attempts to protect the Native peoples during the different treaties and negotiations. This theme is manifested again in the protest literature of the 1960s and the contemporary essays on current conditions.

After trying to define the original oral literature of the Natives, and after defending its right to be considered as literature, Petrone describes how oral themes and traditions evolved into the first explorations of writing. From 1820 to 1850 the first Native writings in English were sermons, letters and missionary tracts, mostly due to the efforts of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society who converted Natives, training them to become teachers and missionaries. Out of this training arose a proliferation of written work — sermons, histories, accounts of travel and autobiographies, letters and diaries — that brought a certain amount of fame for such missionaries and teachers as John Sunday, George Copway, Peter Jones, George Henry and Henry Steinhauer.

Petrone details some of the divided positions of the Natives who used the styles and religion of Western literature to express Native concerns. She also demonstrates the uniqueness of many writings that combine Western forms such as the essay or sermon with the complex figurative imagery of traditional Native oral culture. She details this intertwining of forms and style through the development of Native writing as it changed in response to the steadily worsening situation of the Natives throughout the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.

The last two chapters of the book deal with the explosion of Native literature in the last two decades — an explosion that uses both Western literary forms and oral and written traditions for its inspirations. Petrone lists and briefly describes a great many works and writers, as well as summarizing styles that have developed from historical and political backgrounds. Current writers are tied in with themes and movements delineated in the book. Works that renew old legends, those that continue a tradition of writing aimed at protest, and works about contemporary experiences of Native life are shown to have an established place within Native literary history.

The Author points out how current autobiographies evoke older Native approaches to autobiography that incorporate community traditions and history into personal accounts. She demonstrates a continuity with earlier styles of storytelling in modern short stories, drama and novels, depicting a particular Native way of experiencing life as the basis for rambling, episodic narratives that mix fiction, autobiography, didactic asides and poetry. She examines suggestions of historical Native reverence for figurative language and poetic imagery that permeate the work of contemporary poets. In a survey of the latest Indian voices, Daniel David Moses, Rita Joe, Tomson Highway, Duke Redbird, Thomas King, Maria Campbell, Basil H. Johnston, Beatrice Culleton, Jeannette C. Armstrong and numerous others of varying fame and ability, Petrone explores the florescence of a field of literature that has started to demand recognition of its own terms in critical and cultural approaches.

The many projects of the book, still pretty much the only one of its kind, are fascinating, although occasionally awkward syntax and poor organization obscure the point Petrone is trying to make, as when she uses some specific example to fit in with all her theses at the same time without explicitly pointing out what she is doing. This is especially noticeable in the chapter on oral literature, in which she attempts to define it, while rejecting Western definitions, and simultaneously putting it in a historical context.

Though the book is too short and too full to really explore any single one of the complex issues raised in a very satisfying way, it makes a good introduction to the vast amount of material and themes that await critical, cultural, political and historical exploration. It also provides a loving, well-researched look at the individual writers who make up this dynamic literature.