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A Million Porcupines Crying in the Dark
Transcript of A Million Porcupines Crying in the Dark
A critical summary of chapter four of Thomas King's Novel, The Truth About Stories
Caitlin Buha & Morgan Hunley
The Truth About Stories
In his 2003 Massey Lecture, Thomas King examines the depth of Native Experience and Imagination. Beginning with Native oral stories, King discusses literature, history, religion and politics in an effort to make sense of North America's Relationship with it's Aboriginal People.
The Turtle and the Earth
King begins this chapter the same as the others, with the telling of the story about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. King uses the repetition of this story for a specific purpose, to explain to the reader that oral traditions go "all the way down". Stories are lessons and a part of our lives from the beginning whether we recognize it or not. King writes, "So how many turtles are there? he wanted to know. The story teller shrugged. No one knows for sure, she told him, but its turtles all the way down." (91-92) The story of the turtle and the earth is just one of many anecdotes used to build King's case that stories are one of the greatest determining factors of who we are.
Stories are All We Are
By reminding the reader that "stories are all we are"(92) King is making the reader take on responsibility to actively participate in the story of our lives. This chapter is devoted to making the reader understand that we are responsible for not only the stories we tell and the stories we listen to, but the stories we choose to believe.
King chooses to tell the story of his good friend, Louis Owens who committed suicide in an airport parking garage. Louis Owens was a Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish novelist and literary / cultural critic and theorist. King describes himself and Owen as "hopeful pessimists"(92), meaning that he and Owens both wrote knowing that none of their stories would change the world, but they wrote in the hope that they would.
King describes his and Owen's understanding of stories as if they were medicine, that a story told one way could cure and that a story told another way could injure. To outline this concept, King describes a story from Owen's memoir
I Hear the Train
, in which Owen's spends a summer picking tomatoes. In the summer of 1965 politicians in the United States made field jobs available to African Americans and the generic poor. The labor camp was an old military barracks left over from World War II and was surrounded by a ten-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Each night the camp was locked an each morning Owens and the other workers were let out and taken to the fields. Three weeks into the program, a White mob from a nearby town attacked the camp with the intention of burning it down, however the police held off the mob and it never happened. The next morning, the workers found the front gate open and the guards and supervisors gone. Everyone in the camp was forced to walk home, for some home was 300 miles away. In
I Hear the Train,
Owens writes, "Whether their memories, like mine, are warped and shadowed far beyond reliability. Whether even trying to put such a thing into words is an absurd endeavor, as if such things are best left to turn and drift in inarticulate memory like the river pebbles that get worn more and more smooth over time until there are no edges." (95).
King uses the story of Louis Owen's suicide to explain the power that stories have over our lives and how he likes to tell "saving stories" that help keep him alive. Owen's life is full of disappointment and hardship. It is a tragic story, but a good reminder to hold onto the heartwarming stories that "help keep you alive."
The Cornerstones of our Culture
King describes stories as being the, "cornerstones of our culture"(95). We can trace Aboriginal stories back further to other stories and back even further to the beginnings of language. The problem with this, as King describes it, is that written literature is considered measurable while oral literature is not. King describes an "ethnocentric stumble" (96), that believes all literature for Aboriginal peoples was oral and therefore inferior, when in fact pictographic systems were used by many different tribes to record stories. However, because of their Christian beliefs, superstitious European explorers burned and destroyed many of these pictographs and stories were lost.
King explains that Aboriginal literature was not purely oral in order to drive home the point that written stories and oral stories are of equal importance and also, that written word doesn't equal permanence. "If we stop telling the stories and reading the books, we would discover that neglect is as powerful an agent as war and fire." (98).
White Insensitivity to Language
King uses excerpts from N. Scott Momaday's novel
House Made of Dawn
to describe how written literature is considered to have a sophistication that oral literature lacks. That oral literature is "primitive" and as society advances, oral tradition is something we leave behind, "like an old skin" (100). Momaday argues that the White man takes "such things as words and literature for granted ... He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language ... an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return." (100). However, when Momaday writes about his Kiowa grandmother who could not read or write he says, "her regard for words was always keen in proportion as she depended upon them ... for her words were medicine; they were magic and invisible." (100).
King uses these stories to very clearly outline the difference between the European and Aboriginal understanding of stories and language. To Europeans, words are so commonplace that they are not special. Stories are taken for granted. Where in Native cultures, words are medicine and stories are magic.
The Essence of Racism
King uses the author James Fenimore Cooper as an example of an ethnocentric European view of Aboriginal People that novelists and historians created. Cooper saw Natives as either noble or savage. "Noble Indians helped Whites and died for their trouble. Savage Indians hindered Whites and died for their trouble." (103). Cooper believed that it was specific gifts that make Natives different from Whites. "Indian gifts and White gifts" (104). In his novel,
, Cooper's protagonist Deerslayer, gets into a philosophical discussion with Henry March, "Now skin makes the man, March tells Deerslayer. This is reason - else how are people to judge each other? The skin is put on, over all, in order that when a creature is mortal or fairly seen, you may know at once what to make of him." (103).
Deerslayer on the other hand, argues that although the men may have different colour skin, they're still both men. Men with "different gifts and traditions, but, in the main, with the same natur'. Both have souls ... and both will be held accountable for their deeds in life." (104).
I believe that King chose to use the dialogue between Deerslayer and March from Cooper's book
in order to clearly outline what would have been common British propaganda. The "Indian" isn't exactly inferior, they just have different gifts than the Whites, it's not their skin colour that's the problem, its their nature. According to Deerslayer, revenge is an Indian gift while forgiveness is a White gift. This is what I would consider to be the basis of racism against Native People. The idea that the White man was born with gifts of Reason, while the "Indian" has gifts of instinct. This just furthers the European idea of the "savage" and the notion that "skin makes the man."
Native Writers Work in Present
Something I found particularly interesting about this chapter is the idea that most Aboriginal writers place their fiction in the present. King has a few theories as to why this is true. King believes that the European version of the history of North America is too well defended by colonialism. The Cowboy/Indian image is so firmly in place and has been repeated so many times that there is virtually no chance of dislodging it from our culture. King writes, "Native writers began to use the Native present as a way to resurrect a Native past and to imagine a Native future. To create, in words, as it were, a Native Universe." (106).
A Native Universe
To expand on the idea of Native writers creating a Native Universe, King uses the author N. Scott Momaday and his novel
House Made of Dawn
to demonstrate how parts of the Native universe can be explained to non Natives through story telling. Momaday examines the assumption that the European world makes about good and evil. Using the occasion of war and the murder trial of the main character, Abel, Momaday reminds us that in Christian belief, good and evil always oppose each other but in Native culture that is not necessarily the case.
It seems King chose to use this story in order to demonstrate to the reader a Native perspective, where good and evil are not opposing ideas, but "tributaries of the same river" (109). King is trying to make the reader understand that there are different ways of looking at the world. One idea isn't better or worse and everything doesn't need to fall into the traditional Christian ideal of opposition, but the Native idea cooperation.
Porcupines and China Dolls
King has us look at Robert Alexie's novel, Porcupines and China Dolls to make a very serious point. That, "In order to understand the story, it is important to know the People and where they came from and what they went through." (116). This couldn't be more true. How can we expect to begin to fix all the mistakes of the past if we do not understand what the effects were and who was effected. How can we make right our wrongs, if we do not understand what our wrongs are. In
Porcupines and China Dolls
, Alexie writes about two boys who return from Residential school where the girls were scrubbed and powdered to look like china dolls and the boys had been scrubbed and had their hair cut to look like porcupines. At night, when the children were crying in their beds the sound was like "a million porcupines crying in the dark." (116).
I think that King chose to use this story in order to create a vivid emotional response in the reader. The idea of children being scrubbed, powdered and having their hair cut is quite powerful but then thinking about the sound of all those children crying in their beds to the point that it sounds like a million porcupines crying in the dark really makes the atrocities that were residential schools come to life. I think King makes this point so strongly to remind the reader what a terrible wrong residential schools were and that they deeply affect individuals to this day. It is one of those things that we need to keep telling stories about in order to preven it from happening again.
This chapter was full of many unique stories, each chosen to remind the reader of a very important truth; that stories are life. Stories have the power to heal, and the power to hurt. Stories make us who we are. Thomas King uses the stories of others and the stories from his own life to illustrate to us that stories are part of our life every day, whether we notice or not. We shouldn't consider oral literature "old skin", something to be thrown away because we are too "civilized" but a valuable piece of our history and a tool to create a better future. "And in the novel, as in life, whether he lives or dies depends on which story he believes." (118).
King, Thomas. (2003). The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto, Ontario: House of Anansi Press Inc.