Friday, August 11, 2017

Who is What? Miscellaneous thoughts re: Joseph Boyden, identity

We are having a controversy up here in Canada -- Joseph Boyden, one of our brightest literary lights, is in some hot water.

In his fiction and non-fiction Boyden has applied himself exclusively to a deep exploration and excavation of Indigenous Canadian identity. He has also claimed that identity for himself -- a claim that, no matter how you parse it, appears to have been made in haste without the rigor of consideration he applies to his work.

This past weekend the Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada's self-proclaimed newspaper of note) published "The Making of Joseph Boyden" a lengthy investigative report by Eric Andrew-Gee. I thought the piece was impressively sourced and researched, yielding some unexpected insights into the affair. I also wondered what sort of piece might have been written had Andrew-Gee been given the time and space to meditate on why he was commissioned, and why he chose, to write this piece.

Newspapers run on deadlines, of course, and these days the deadlines are especially tight. If we disregard the fury and flurry of social media, this country still has established cross-platforms like Macleans, The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, etc., who without doubt have their own Boyden-related long-reads in the pipeline. "First to publish" means something in this environment, particularly when newspaper sales remain in a tailspin (our current elected leader doesn't conjure enough revulsion and horror to get us subscribing, it would seem).

Introspection was a luxury Andrew-Gee could ill-afford, in other words -- and I get that. So in that spirit here are a few non-mulled-over observations of my own on the matter.

First, the obvious: Boyden writes well. His characters are, in the main, explicable and empathetically rendered. He pays attention to the five senses and their effect on a person's thoughts, on the way a person is. His novels are immersive experiences that leave deep trails in the psyche -- people I've discussed his works with often tell me their dream-life is altered after reading him.

I do have some kvetches, mostly minor. Despite his years in Catholic school Boyden doesn't "get" Catholicism, and up until The Orenda I didn't see much effort applied to addressing that deficit. Consequently his portrait of the evil the Roman Catholic Church has inflicted on indigenous people occasionally slips into simplistic villainy -- a posture very much in tune with the current cultural temperament and certainly adequate for keeping the narrative engine chugging along, but less than satisfactory for readers holding out hope for the sort of insight that penetrates one's ideological bulwarks.

But his portrait of indigenous life prior to the colonial-religious assault is, for this pasty Protestant reader, a bit-torrent of continual discovery and awe.

As for this "pasty Protestant" business . . .

Mennonites have invested themselves in the quest for indigenous justice. It's not a "100% all-of-us, right across the board" deal, but it is significant enough to comment on (Google "mennonite indigenous" and you'll quickly get the gist). More pertinent to this conversation, it's an issue our literary aspirants take on board -- just about 100% all-of-us, in fact (including Yours Truly). If anybody has called-out Rudy Wiebe or David Bergen for appropriation of voice, I've yet to hear of it.

There is, of course, a difference of scale on these matters. So far as I know, neither Wiebe nor Bergen has claimed any indigenous connection deeper than acquaintance or possibly friendship. Boyden has claimed tribal affiliation, at times quite explicitly -- an understandably contentious issue.

So on that matter . . .

Tribes* don't produce novels, but they sure do produce novelists -- unintentionally, for the most part. If the novel is a métier you aspire to, be forewarned -- you cannot freaking win with your own people. There will be a bunch who will back you up -- the usual gentle agitators drawn, like you once were, to the losers and freaks among us -- and there will be a few who angrily call you out, but mostly you'll be shrugged out of town.

It's the shrugs that wound the deepest.They know the truth, these shruggers. You're not doing an honest day's work, for one thing. More to the point, you think you get us, but you really don't. You're of us, but you're not one of us. You're a pretender -- a fake, a fraud, and a phony.

The kicker is, this write-off is the truth, pretty much. In their zeal to capture the public imagination, fakery is a skill most young novelists are quick to adopt and hone as persuasively as they can. You're telling stories anyway, where exactly do you draw the line when called upon to make claims of earnest self-disclosure? If I think back to my lean and lonely SASE** days, had I been granted any sort of media spotlight at all there were precious few masks I would have had the inner fortitude to eschew. How else are you going to hit the jack-pot?

I am not suggesting Boyden's motivations are anywhere near as craven as, say, James Frey's.*** Boyden evidently identifies deeply with the fight to assert indigenous identity within an appropriated landscape. And if his claims of Anishinaabe identity are at best doubtful, the possibility he is from genuine Métis lineage is not at all out of the question.

But to my eyes this is the money-quote from Andrew-Gee's piece:
Lying at the heart of so much discomfort with the way Boyden has presented himself over the years, is a deep, basic gulf between the broad European and Indigenous notions of identity formation. The “Western” paradigm of self-actualization, of creating one’s identity through a process of lonely soulful questing, is to a certain extent incongruous with the North American Indigenous tradition of forging identity through community sanction and reciprocity.
For many Indigenous thinkers, the idea that someone would claim to feel Anishinaabe or Métis, and that others would put stock in that feeling, is nonsense.
Hm. More, please.
*"Tribes" -- a word I use in the Abrahamic sense, naturally.
** "Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope"
***Though Boyden's claims do strike me as somewhat akin to Michael Chabon's mischief.

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