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When Coyote meets Adam: or Thomas King’s new space

Marta Dvorak

Résumé

Cette étude examinera le recueil de nouvelles intitulé One Good Story, That One de l'auteur amérindien Thomas King, en particulier sa technique, qui consiste a alterner des narrateurs homodiégétiques d'une compétence douteuse avec des narrateurs hétérodiégétiques suspendus entre une focalisation interne et externe, entre la position de narrateur omniscient et celle d'observateur extérieur, mi-personnage, mi-raconteur. Quant aux lieux de l'action T. King les situe tantôt dans le monde contemporain des autochtones qui vivent soit à l'intérieur soit à l'extérieur des réserves, tantôt dans les lieux anhistoriques de la mythologie amérindienne ou judéo-chrétienne. Par le biais de la défamiliarisation, de la déconstruction et de la recontextualisation, T. King estompe les frontières entre l'histoire/la réalité et le mythe/la magie mettant en question l'historicité du mythe de la frontière et les origines de la civilisation nord-américaine. Sa production littéraire, fondée sur la dialectique et le syncrétisme ludiques, crée un nouvel espace social et littéraire.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Thomas King

Texte intégral

  • 1  For a survey of the larger body of Native literature to which King’s work belongs, a literature "r (...)

1The short story collection One Good Story, That One  was published in 1993 by native writer Thomas King, whose imaginative and playful works are grounded not in print culture but in the strong oral tradition of native culture. Although his work often reflects the realities of a certain ethnocultural community, that of status and non-status Indians in Canada and the United States, it nevertheless goes beyond the realm of the sociological or anthropological, simultaneously foregrounding the role of formal codes and conventions in storytelling1. This paper will first of all focus on King’s multiple narrators, the numerous I's that range from intradiegetic narrators of questionable competence to extradiegetic narrators straddled between internal and external focalisation. These narrators oscillate between the stance of omniscient narrator and that of external storyteller; they are partly character, partly storyteller. I will then go on to examine the settings, which King constantly alternates, moving the reader from the contemporary world of Natives living on reserves to those living off. He moves from the contemporary to the historical, just as he moves from the historical to the ahistorical, projecting us back to the places of Amerindian or Judeo-Christian mythology. Through the techniques of defamiliarization, deconstruction, and recontextualization, King blurs the borders between history/ reality and myth/ magic, questioning the historicity of the frontier myth and the origins of North American civilisation. We shall see how his literary production, grounded in dialectic and syncretism, ultimately creates a new literary and social space.

2Let us take a look at the beginnings of some of the short stories and see what they have in common :

1) Alright.

You know, I hear this story up north. Maybe Yellowknife, that one, somewhere. I hear it maybe a long time. Old story this one. One hundred years, maybe more. Maybe not so long either, this story.

So.

  • 2  "One Good Story, That One", in One Good Story, That One, Toronto: Harper Collins, 1993, p. 3. All (...)

You know, they come to my place.2

2) This one is about Granny. Reserve story. Everyone knows this story. Wilma knows it. Ambrose knows it. My friend, Napioa. Lionel James. Billy Frank knows it, too. Billy Frank hears this story in Calgary. He hears it three times. Maybe six. Boy, he tells me, here comes that story again.

  • 3  "Magpies", p. 21.

Sometimes this story is about Wilma. Some people tell it so that Ambrose is all over the place. The way I tell it is this way and I tell it this way all the time.3

3) This one is about Coyote. She was going west. Visiting her relations. That’s what she said. You got to watch that one. Tricky one. Full of bad business. No, no, no, no, that one says. I’m just visiting. Going to see Raven.

Boy, I says. That’s another tricky one.

Coyote comes by my place. She wag her tail. Make them happy noises. Sit on my porch. Look around. With them teeth. With that smile. Coyote put her nose in my tea. My good tea.

Get that nose out of my tea, I says.

  • 4  "The One About Coyote Going West", p. 67.

I’m going to see my friends, she says. Tell those stories. Fix this world. Straighten it up.4

4) You know, Coyote came by my place the other day. She was going to a party. She had her party hat and she had her party whistle and she had her party rattle.

I’m going to a party, she says.

Yes, I says, I can see that.

  • 5  "A Coyote Columbus Story", p. 121.

It is a party for Christopher Columbus, says Coyote. That is the one who found America. That is the one who found Indians.5

  • 6  Emphasis mine unless stipulated otherwise.

3The stories told in the repetitive mode of oral stories, and told in the first person singular by extradiegetic narrators have phatic beginnings that immediately establish contact with the receiver. Witness the first word of the title story of the collection, which is "Alright" (reinforced throughout the short story by plentiful interjections indicating discourse such as "so" or "anyway"), and which is followed immediately by the personal pronouns directly invoking the narratee and his or her contact with the narrator: "You know, I hear this story up north", as well as the modaliser: "Maybe Yellowknife, that one, somewhere" (p. 3)6. Social or emotional contact thus moves from the implicit to the explicit, is maintained through the shifter "you" in which readers everywhere recognize themselves. Similarly, the deictic in the opening sentence of "Magpies" that begins "This one is about Granny" places the story into the domain of the already mentioned, the known and familiar. The sentence fragment that follows it ("Reserve story") classifies the story into a known category, allowing the reader to participate in the creative process by anticipating pattern.

4Yet, all the while encouraging us to establish a rapport with the narrator, King sabotages the interaction and prevents us from ever really knowing who the narrator is. In some of the stories in the collection, we divine the narrator’s identity as a tribal elder through his use of native terms transcribed phonetically, and through a narration in the form of oral idiom: a haphazard, sporadic use of the third person singular accompanied by a parasite "s" in the other forms ("I says, they says"), the exclusive use of the simple present, the elision of the relative pronoun, the use of demonstrative pronouns in place of personal pronouns, the inversion of, and/ or elision of subject and verb, the tagging on of "this one/ that one/ those ones" at the end of sentences to reinforce or take the place of the subject. The first person narrator of the title story recounts how a friend of his brought three young white anthropologists to see him so that they could record his stories. In "Magpies" the intradiegetic narrator is called "old one" by one of the native characters, while the narrator of "The One About Coyote Going West" is called alternatively "Grandmother" and "Grandfather". This narrator functions on two diegetic levels: although he/she is not really a character but a storyteller, (s)he interacts with his/her narratee, Coyote, who in turn not only commissions and listens to the story but also participates in it. When Coyote, a Trickster figure in North American Indian mythology, first drops by for a visit, the narrator challenges the veracity of the stories she tells about Christopher Columbus that she has gleaned from history books, and agrees to tell the "real" story about "who discovered Indians" (p. 69). I have been using the masculine and feminine pronouns for the narrator because this figure of the Elder, this voice of wisdom, is both male and female. At times Coyote addresses him/her as Grandmother, at other times as Grandfather. This indefinite, or double dimension of the narrator mirrors the bipolarity of the Trickster figure, which in oral stories is traditionally powerful yet comic, awesome yet mischievous, corporal yet incorporal, natural and supernatural, male and female.

5In spite of its basic indeterminacy, the persona of the narrator in each story takes shape in our minds, as the focalisation simultaneously caters to yet turns the tables on certain stereotypes imposed on a colonised people and perpetuated by the colonisers. The whites in the title story are perceived as loud talkers with short attention spans but nice white teeth. When requested to tell a story for the anthropologists eagerly waiting with their tape recorders, the narrator offers to tell the one about Jimmy who runs the store near Two Bridges and who has a car but who never drives, or the funny one about Billy Frank and the dead-river pig. But these suggestions meet with little enthusiasm, as they do not correspond to white expectations of Indian storytelling as shaped by Hollywood films and dime-store novels, and the narrator is asked to tell an "old" story, a good "Indian" (p. 5) story of Creation. The narrator is thus encouraged to conform to preconceptions that associate whites with the contemporary world of science, technology and communication, all the while locking natives into the mould of the Other, relegating them to the past, to the irrational, to myth and magic. By offering to tell the story about Billy Frank who hurt his back and lost his truck, by introducing digressions in his Creation story and analogies to contemporary experience, the narrator breaks the mould of the Other, sets in motion a conjunctive process linking the native with the prosaic realities that make up the lives of the majority of today’s North American inhabitants, whatever their cultural heritage may be.

  • 7  Similarly, in "Magpies" the story moves from place to place, varies according to the teller. Conse (...)
  • 8  Arthur Rimbaud, Lettre à Georges Izambard, in Oeuvres de Rimbaud, Paris: Garnier, 1960, p.344.

6We non-native readers are led to accept as one of us (i.e. as a fellow member of contemporary Western civilisation) this extradiegetic narrator whose presence is so strong that it exposes the storytelling process. Nevertheless, we are warned at the beginning of the short story that the narrating I heard the story "up north", and that it is an "old" story. Thus our narrator is but passing on a tale that has been told many times before in countless places and periods7. Who is I? Here we can echo Rimbaud and say that "Je est un Autre"8 for even after having made the distinction between the creator-author and his creature-narrator, the I  of "I hear this story up north" is perhaps not the same I as the one that, after the interjection "So" signalling the end of discourse and the beginning of story, tells what seems to be the story proper: "they come to my place" (p.3). We are faced with a strategy of embedding in which a chameleon narrator shifts from receiver to teller, or rather a Chinese box spiral in which the I puts on or peels off masks, changing identities, compressing periods, telescoping geographical locations as well as levels of diegesis. For throughout the story proper recounted by the original storyteller (original in the sense of first in time), the contemporary narrator relaying to us the story he heard leaves his imprint through his trademark refrain "maybe... maybe not", first voiced in the exordium. In this way, King creates a layered effect, a multiple identity. For King’s multiple narrator is unreliable, even incompetent, peppering the narration with modalizing terms such as "I don’t know", "I think", or "I forgot" that deny his power of testimony. He is unreliable with respect to space, unreliable with respect to time. He confides to us that he heard the story in Yellowknife, but then qualifies the information with the modalising terms "maybe" and "somewhere" (p.3). Where, then, is "my place"? Are we in the Northwest Territories or the neighbouring Yukon? On Canadian territory or American? We have no means at our disposal of placing borders, of placing the story.

  • 9  The painter/ writer Emily Carr noted with astonishment the different notions of time held by the N (...)

7King creates the same uncertainty with respect to temporality: "Old story, this one. One hundred years old, maybe more. Maybe not so long either, this story" (p.3). We are faced with more than mere hesitation concerning dates. King actually generates a double dimension: historical and ahistorical. His narrator mixes precise references to a chronological, measurable past (100 years) with vague terms that evade historicity such as "a long time" or "later". But in fact, we come to realize that the narrator uses the chronological lexicon erroneously, or rather subjectively and freely in the Native fashion rather than objectively in the white fashion9. When the narrator begins the story of Creation, recounting how in the beginning there was nothing, no water, no land, no stars or moon, no Indians or white men, he specifies that the latter came "later, maybe one hundred years. Maybe not" (p.5). The numerical figures signifying the historical mode are actually being used in a mythical mode, and time expands indefinitely when a century encompasses billions of years. How then can we gauge since when this "one-hundred-year-old" story has been transmitted orally fromI to I?

8Thomas King is evidently exploring and problematizing the distinctions we make between the historical and the mythical, between fact and fiction. He desacralises and calls into question certain founding myths upon which Western civilisation is grounded by taking the reader on a unique voyage through time and space.

  • 10  For example: "There was nothing else in this world. Just Coyote. She could see all the way, too. N (...)

9Many of the stories project us back to the time of the creation of the world. It is suggested many a time that Coyote was present on the primeval scene, even that she was at the origin of the universe10. In "A Coyote Columbus Story", King compresses time and space and fuses the story of Creation with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores  of North America. Bored because the Indians refuse to play with her anymore, Coyote makes three ships, and soon these men "in silly clothes" arrive looking for things to sell :

Yes, says those Columbus people, where is the gold?

Yes, they says, where is that silk cloth?

Yes, they says, where are those portable colour televisions?

Yes, they says, where are those home computers? (p.123-24)

10King’s parody of how Columbus "found" America and the Indians (while actually, as the narrator points out to Coyote "Those things were never lost", p.127), functions through a deliberate, even systematic use of anachronism that deflates the noble heroic deeds of white history books through contiguity with the modern and the trivial. How better to question the historicity of the founding myth than to deconstruct it, recontextualize it, and reweave the strands along with contemporary cultural references?

11Through a similar syncretic technique, in "One Good Story, That One" we are projected into the Garden of Eden, only to find that the archetypal Garden of our Judeo-Christian heritage has been transformed into the Garden of Evening. The story deconstructs Genesis and subverts it by interpolating into it figures from native folk tales and references to modern consumer society to desacralise a text that a large part of Western society still regards as a revelation, as a recording of absolute truth. In this Garden in which converge east and west, ancient and modern, history and myth, Ah-damn is writing down all the names of the animals. But although in the Biblical text Adam named every beast of the field and every fowl of the air brought before him as a mark of the domination over every living creature that God had given him, here the animals who parade in front of Ah-damn dictate their Indian names to the white man who is reduced to the role of mere transcriber.

Dog come by, says A-ma-po.

Raven come by, says Na-co-tah.

Coyote come by, says Klee-qua. (p.8)

12The Trickster of native mythology furthermore makes a fool of Ah-damn by walking past him half a dozen times dressed up differently. Only Eve alias Evening, an Indian woman, is intelligent enough to notice all the coyote tracks that come around in a full circle. If Adam, the mythical figure larger than life, father of humanity, has been trivialized and transformed into a mere interjection that we utter when we hit our thumb with a hammer, even so does King subvert the figure of the Old Testament Deity. When Evening finds mee-so or apples growing in a tree along with potatoes and pumpkin and other good things to eat, this god warns her to leave the tree alone. We learn that this god has a bad temper

like Harley James. Bad temper, that one. Always shouting. Always with pulled down mean look (...) That one goes to town, get drunk, come home, that one, beat his wife.  (p.7)

13The analogy made linking the Old Testament God with a twentieth century drunk who beats his wife turns the Garden of Eden and the sacred text inside out. The fact that Harley James’s wife ends up leaving him would suggest that defiance of the deity is possible. The intersecting planes of "reality" and myth introduce a political dimension into the space of the story. The narrator in the end goes on to draw a parallel between this god’s expulsion of Ah-damn and Evening from the Garden and the whites’ expulsion of North American Indians from their lands. We can note the pointed use of the possessive to underscore the dispossession and displacement :

that one says that Evening and Ah-damn better leave that good place, garden, Evening’s garden, go somewhere else. Just like Indian today. (p.9)

14When the narrator informs us that upon leaving the Garden, Ah-damn and Evening "come out here" and have "a bunch of kids" (10), he is in effect telescoping two spaces, the ahistorical archetypal space of Paradise and the historical, "real" space of contemporary urbanized North America. A new space has in fact been created: a liminal zone between the world of the teller and the world of the receiver. The story is permeable to two-way interference, allowing characters to walk out of it just as it allows narratees to enter it. When the narrator begins his story of Creation, he cautions his listeners about the power of the word: "You fellows keep listening, I says. Watch the floor. Be careful" (p.5) as if verbalising a space in which there is no matter might cause the floor to drop out from under their feet. The hinted at shift from Austin’s constative speech act to a performative one does take place in the end. When the anthropologists say goodbye and leave, the narrator carefully cleans up "all the coyote tracks on the floor" (p.10).

  • 11  Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative: the Metafictional Paradox, New York: Methuen, 1984, p. 28.
  • 12  L. Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative, p. 161.

15Thomas King’s short stories belong to what Linda Hutcheon calls narcissistic narrative that shifts the focus "from the ‘fiction’ to the ‘narration’ by either making the narration into the very substance of the novel’s content, or by undermining the traditional coherence of the fiction itself"11. King’s work is, in Hutcheon’s terms, diegetically self-conscious and linguistically self-aware; in other words it is fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and linguistic identity. Now if a certain unreliability, a certain weakening of the powers of the narrator is one of the specificities of postmodern writing, it is perhaps because it is an effective strategy in getting the reader to participate in the construction of meaning. If, as Austin pointed out, to tell is to act, we must also admit the corollary that to read is to act, and that to act is "both to interpret and to create anew- to be revolutionary, perhaps in political as well as literary terms"12.

16King destroys our notions of space and time, disrupts artistic illusion to mock monolithic views, and transposes the values of one age or culture onto the positions of another. His stories are echo-awaking in the sense of the Greek term legein, i.e. a telling or narration that brings together, that forces an awareness in the receiver that the story personally concerns both the narrator and the narratee. If King displaces the world of legend into a naturalistic world of contemporary events and bathetic topical references, it is to lure readers into sharing a new literary space, and perhaps even beyond that, to lure them into creating a new social space, a new Garden where there will be room for all.

Notes

1  For a survey of the larger body of Native literature to which King’s work belongs, a literature "revealing a continuum of the ancient and the modern that is complex", cf Penny Petrone, Native Literature in Canada, From the Oral Tradition to the Present, Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990, p.vii. Much of this literature, however, does not make use of contemporary storytelling strategies, as does King. The writing is often content-oriented, with mechanical narrative structures, a conventional linear time frame, trite imagery and an absence of narratorial distancing. These works are nonetheless of undeniable sociological significance, and contribute to removing the social group from its position of marginality.

2  "One Good Story, That One", in One Good Story, That One, Toronto: Harper Collins, 1993, p. 3. All further quotations refer to this edition. The numbering is mine.

3  "Magpies", p. 21.

4  "The One About Coyote Going West", p. 67.

5  "A Coyote Columbus Story", p. 121.

6  Emphasis mine unless stipulated otherwise.

7  Similarly, in "Magpies" the story moves from place to place, varies according to the teller. Consequently, the intradiegetic I is a persona that is and yet is not that of the narrator who has heard it somewhere. It is interesting to note how the narrator feeds the ambivalence by proclaiming that his version is immutable ("The way I tell it is this way and I tell it this way all the time") yet immediately contradicting himself: "Sometimes I tell you about those magpies first"(p.21).

8  Arthur Rimbaud, Lettre à Georges Izambard, in Oeuvres de Rimbaud, Paris: Garnier, 1960, p.344.

9  The painter/ writer Emily Carr noted with astonishment the different notions of time held by the Native communities of the west coast, particularly the fact that their cemeteries noted the time of death in terms of centuries, considering any smaller units to be totally insignificant. Cf. "Century Time" in Klee Wyck, Toronto, Clarke, Irwin and Co. Ltd., 1965.

10  For example: "There was nothing else in this world. Just Coyote. She could see all the way, too. No mountains then. No rivers then. No forests then. Pretty flat then. So she starts to make things. So she starts to fix this world" ("The One About Coyote Going West", p. 69).

11  Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative: the Metafictional Paradox, New York: Methuen, 1984, p. 28.

12  L. Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative, p. 161.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Marta Dvorak, « When Coyote meets Adam: or Thomas King’s new space », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 30 | Spring 1998, mis en ligne le 10 juillet 2008, consulté le 28 juin 2017. URL : http://jsse.revues.org/142

Auteur

Marta Dvorak

Maître de Conférences à l’Université Rennes 2, fondatrice et directrice du Centre d’Etudes Canadiennes. Sa recherche porte essentiellement sur la littérature contemporaine du Canada. Ses articles ont été publiés dans des revues canadiennes et françaises, et deux ouvrages ont paru sous sa direction en 1997 : La Création biographique, et Canada et bilinguisme, aux Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

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