A Review of Lee Maracle's My Conversations with Canadians
Review by Darrell Doxtdator
Lee Maracle’s My Conversations with Canadians is a compilation of ten “I-wish-I-said’s” — the various retorts and rebuttals that one thinks up after the moment has passed. In her 10 “conversations,” Maracle tackles a multitude of current issues ranging from basic terminology to the effects of colonialism, racism, feminism, paternalism, and the overall “innocence” assumed by Canadians (as reinforced by Western education). It is Maracle’s explanation of how and why Indigenous people “cannot say no to the development and rape of the land or our persons” and how then, "we have been infantilized and animalized and finally objectified and commodified.”
I’m an acquaintance of Maracle’s and can attest to her authentic voice from an Indigenous perspective and specifically, as a woman of the Stó:lö nation. She has authored numerous books of fiction and non-fiction, contributed to various anthologies, including the award-winning My Home As I Remember. She is a proud mother and grandmother who is committed to protecting the land. And she has heard plenty – both inspiring and disconcerting.
The never-ending discussion about authenticity of voice has flared up again. In a recent publication intended to celebrate Indigenous authors, an editor promoted the ill-conceived notion of an appropriation prize. Maracle devastates such ill-conceived notions, explaining how appropriation is theft, not only from her, but from all of her descendants.
As the author says, “Teachers fall on your path, and all you have to be doing is looking for them.” Currently, Canadians are being “volun-told” to reconcile with their colonial past. However, most Canadians will not be prepared for the truths necessary for reconciliation to occur. These truths are tough lessons. And require a tough teacher to deliver.
Maracle is well suited for this challenge. As she describes herself, “I am not the sort of badger you bring into the rabbit hole.” Instead, she deliberately tests Canadians on their “niceness.” Consider this exchange in the first “numbered conversation”:
“What are you going to do with us white guys – drive us into the sea?” from an older man shaking his fist.
After looking thoughtfully at him for a while, I said, “Thank you that you think I could.”…The answer shocked him as much as the question had taken me by surprise, but it made most of the men of colour in the audience chuckle. After the reading was over, my moderator pointed out that no white folks laughed at my joke…I responded as honestly as I could, “That’s probably because they knew I was not joking.”
There are times when the ten “conversations” remain too glib to be easily accessible. As such, footnotes supporting her points and identifying events would be a welcome addition as few Canadians will be knowledgeable about the books, people, and incidents she alludes to or mentions in passing.
Further, while lamenting the deployment of the “binary of race” by white academics (“It is as if white academics cannot handle more than one group of people of colour at a time.”), Maracle herself inadvertently allows the “binary of sexism” into her work. While demanding the full participation of women writers of all colours, she fails to take a consistent stance supporting all Indigenous writers. While initially acknowledging the success of Thomas King’s works, she also seems envious of it:
Despite the fact that Thomas King had released Medicine River, I was the only Indigenous writer that England considered “literary.” That, of course, was before the feminists got hold of Tom King’s work and lauded it to the skies. On the one hand, I thought it rather snooty of the feminists to make this judgment, and on the other, I found it rather non-feminist of Canadian self-declared feminist authors to focus on the promotion of Native male writing.
Making space for female Indigenous writers is a vital point. However, if one doesn't like the “musical chairs” approach to the publication industry, one shouldn't assume the very role that one is criticizing. Instead of competing for limited seats at a quicker rate, one could demand more chairs be provided.
At times, Maracle drops any veneer of humour. There is no possible way to “sugar-coat” rape and murder nor the cultural genocide inflicted on generations. Maracle should be applauded for speaking her truth. Undoubtedly, she will have her critics, some who will object to the tone of the book. Myself, I consider such an approach a necessity. It will complement Thomas King's An Inconvenient Indian quite well in a “good cop/bad cop” manner.
Still this raises the question: who is her intended audience? My worry is that My Conversations will find most of its readers among advanced Indigenous Studies students. Maracle notes the following:
You can mention any contentious subject about racism, sexism, and/or oppression, and your white male listener will mistakenly avoid applying it to himself…White men will only go as far as saying yes to what I said. After that, the conversation is over.
My Conversations with Canadians points out Canadians’ culpability in causing the current situation. Resolving this situation requires much more than just publishing the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As challenging as these “conversations” may be for some Canadians, the harshness pales in comparison to the abuses endured at residential schools. Readers will not be stripped naked, deloused, and then shaved bald on their first day of school. Only the readers’ false notions will be stripped away.
Darrell Doxtdator is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of the Six Nations Confederacy. He grew up on the Haudenosaunee territory of the Grand River. Darrell earned his Hon. B.A. (Political Science) from McMaster University (1986) and his LL.B. from Osgoode Hall (1989). On his call to the Bar in 1991, he refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. Instead, he re-affirmed his commitment to Mother Earth. After some debate, the LSUC agreed to make the Oath optional. Darrell continues to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” and finds that singing karaoke can be an effective instrument in achieving both objectives.