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Canada is a nation built on stolen land. Further, throughout its history, the people who decide things in my country have tried to keep the Aboriginal people it was stolen from in a state of poverty and powerlessness - disenfranchised, dispossessed, and as much as possible, disappeared.

However, people who are marginalised often fight back. In recent years, much of the resistance to oppression has come in the form of demands for self-determination. In his book Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto, Taiaiake Alfred - speaking largely to other Indigenous people - addresses issues related to Aboriginal self-determination in Canada, with the aim of clarifying the meaning of Aboriginal self-determination and identifying what Aboriginal people must do to in order to achieve it. In so doing, he names and expands on three key principles - peace, power and righteousness - that must shape and inform any action directed toward the creation of a true Aboriginal self-determination.

As reviewer Peter Jull comments in the Indigenous Law Bulletin,
Alfred calls for a clear re-centring of indigenous self-determination politics away from expedient policies devolving western-style governance and political structures from dominant governments to indigenous communities by returning to cultural values and outlooks. Angered and ashamed by fringe status and dependency among indigenous peoples, he shows how most current ‘reforms’ offer little more than a perpetuation of that situation. It is contended that the white man can no longer pretend that ‘the natives aren’t ready’, while ‘the natives’ can demand and expect better results than an often cynical or weary national politico-administrative apparatus usually offers. (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ILB/2000/69.html)
For a more detailed review of Alfred's manifesto, check out Scott Neigh's blog, A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land: http://scottneigh.blogspot.ca/2005/11/review-peace-power-righteousness.html

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Although Winona LaDuke's novel, Last Standing Woman is written as fiction, the author states in a note that "the circumstances, history, and traditional stories, as well as some of the characters, are true, retold to the best of my ability." Indeed, Last Standing Woman tells with a sometimes searing truthfulness the history of the White Earth Anishinaabe people from the 1860s to the present, through seven generations, including three women named Ishkwegaabawiikwe, or Last Standing Woman.

The story of the White Earth people's resistance to racism, oppression and attempts at assimilation is told in an episodic fashion, tracing first the loss of identity and then the struggle to reclaim it despite such obstacles as land swindling, missionaries and their boarding schools, government housing projects, and alcoholism and sexual abuse.

As if to demonstrate the survival of her people, LaDuke writes the final chapter of the book - which deals with the vision of the newest woman to be named Ishkwegaabawiikwe - in Anishinaabe, declaring to the world that despite all the years of struggle, her people's language and culture survive in the young and will survive into the future.






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One thing I'm loving about what's happening in the world of sff anthology editing these days is the growing number of projects devoted in one way or another to supporting the concept of diversity. Because, as editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older note in the Introduction to their anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History,
We grew up reading stories about people who weren’t much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. When we looked for faces and thoughts like our own, we found orcs and deviants and villains. And we began to wonder why some people’s stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to.
The brief for this anthology was simple: to publish stories of speculative history, set between 1400 and the early 1900s, stories that are grounded in real events, that focus on marginalised people, and that have a speculative element. The stories in this anthology for the most part do this very well. They speak in the voices of the ones who did not have the power to tell their history, who were subsumed and made to disappear into the dominant narrative of the powerful, the colonisers, the privileged.
Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center. People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins. Today, mainstream history continues to perpetuate one-sided versions of the past while mistelling or erasing the stories of the rest of the world. (http://longhidden.com/)
The stories collected in Long Hidden are examples of resistance to this dominant master narrative of history. And there is much good reading here.

Worth noting is that this excellent and prigressively-themed anthology comes from a small press - Crossed Genres (http://crossedgenres.com/) - that seems to be doing some intetesting projects. I have several more of their books in my TBR pile, and a few more on my To Be Acquired list.

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Junot Diaz's remarkable novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is one of those books that leaves me not at all certain of how to talk about it. I could talk about the characters, who are memorable and vibrant and clearly drawn, even those that would be caricatures in a lesser work. I could talk about the language, which is a mix of English, Spanish, and the evolving form of speech known as Spanglish (Wikipedia informs me that it is neither pidgin nor creole, but is more than just code-switching or jumbling phrases from both parent languages), which is engaging and creative and wholly apt. I could rave about the wide range of multi-cultural references from genre novels to literary classics, and how they mirror the same kind of rich amalgam between cultures that the use of Spanglish does. This is in many ways a novel of the post-colonial world in that it is a mosaic of multiple influences.

I could talk about the novel as an indictment of what Junot (in an interview in The Boston Review) calls:
The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—which becomes the rape culture of the Trujillato (Trujillo just took that very old record and remixed it)—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love. (http://www.bostonreview.net/books-ideas/paula-ml-moya-decolonial-love-interview-junot-d%C3%ADaz)
I could try to convey the plot - or plots - of this complex novel. There's the life of the young American-Dominican man who is steeped in popular culture and longs to be a writer, told by another young American-Dominican man who longs to be a writer, and the curse on his family and how that has shown itself though three generations, and then there is the story of life (and death) in the Dominican Republic under the rule of Rafael Trujillo, and all of this is tied together in a narrative that doesn't let you go even after you've finished reading.

Or I could just direct you to some more coherent reviews that will tell you that this is a great novel and one that deserves to be read, like these two:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/books/04diaz.html
http://www.thenewcanon.com/wondrous_life.html

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This anthology, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, of speculative fiction stories written from a post-colonial perspective is well worth reading, if at times acutely uncomfortable for the member of a colonising culture who is thoughtfully reading them.

There is a great deal of unquestioned colonialist thinking in science fiction. The literature of future space exploration, particularly as written by British and American writers, is very much a literature of humans (usually male, usually white) expanding throughout first the solar system, then the galaxy, sometimes throughout the universe, taking charge of planets that are either uninhabited, or peopled with Others either too primitive or too decadent to resist, or otherwise unfit to retain soveriegnty. It's a literature of colonisation and exploitation, occasionally leavened by the insights contained in such critiques of this vision as Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest.

These stories make us look at this narrative from the other side, for the perspective of the colonised snd exploited and othered. As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Preface:
They are the voices of the invaded; of the colonized; of the erased and the oppressed; of those whom others would make into aliens and blithely ignore or conquer or enlighten.
A brief concluding essay by Ekaterina Sedia summarises the recurrent themes of these stories far better than I could. Speaking to the importance and meaning of narratives such as those collected in this volume, she writes:
We find ourselves rebelling against the lies and the dominant narratives fed into our collective psyche, Clockwork Orange-style, by Hollywood’s dream factory—a truly terrifying notion, if you think about it for a bit. We find ourselves looking for ways to escape, but realizing, time and time again, that the post-colonial world is still rife with colonial injustice and oppression. And yet, slowly, slowly, we are finding voices to tell our stories, to reclaim what has been lost of history. These broken, half-forgotten histories and dreams will never be restored to their original form, and part of living in the post-colonial world is making peace with that. Because we can still create the future, and try to hope that it will be treated better than our past. The writers in this book are taking a step in that direction—because the frontier that they see is one not in space but in time, a time when all voices are heard and all stories are listened to, when no history is erased, no matter how small or inconvenient. We see a different frontier—and I hope that this book let you glimpse it as well.


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Keri Hulme's novel about damage and redemption, The Bone People, is at once the story of three broken people who must be stripped down to the bone before they can begin to heal, and also a vision of the need for a cultural renewal for New Zealand's peoples that brings white and Maori together.

Set in rural New Zealand, the novel centres on the relationships between three people. Kerewin, mostly white with some Maori heritage, is an artist who has lost her ability to create; she has broken all ties with her family and lives by the sea in a tower (a Rapunzel who ultimately must cut her hair and tear down the tower she has built of her own volition, for the princes who come are too much in need of freeing themselves to free her as well). Joe, mostly Maori with some white heritage, has been damaged by childhood traumas, by the loss of dreams, and by the death of his wife and biological son; gentle when sober, jovial when drunk, with a core of violence that is unleashed by frustration and his sense of failure. His adopted son, called Simon Peter (a fragile rock to build anything on) is the only known survivor from the foundering of a small vessel off the coast, near the small town where Joe lives and where Kerewin has built her tower; a precocious white child of perhaps seven or eight, he is unable to speak (though not for any medical reason), and difficult to deal with, as he often skips school, roams the country side, steals, has seemingly irrational fears that send him into hysteria, and reacts to the frustrations of being misunderstood and unable to communicate with outbursts of violence.

When Simon breaks into Kerewin's tower, and Joe must come to retrieve him, a bond is formed among the three of them, and their interrelationships will ultimately result in stripping all three down to the bone and forcing them on journeys both physical and spiritual through which they may find the paths to healing, redemption and renewal.

Hulme does not hold back when dealing with the ambivalent nature of relationships - however loving - between people struggling with isolation, fear, frustration and loss. Both Kerewin and Joe abuse alcohol, a coping mechanism that Simon attempts when possible. All three resort to violence - in both word (or sound, in Simon's case) and deed - when pushed too far. And yet, with a wisdom that today's more simplistic models of behaviour have forgotten, she knows that when people are badly broken, violence and pain can co-exist with love, that when people are not whole there will be much that is bitter in the midst of sweetness.

What can redeem such relationships is finding the way to heal and be whole, and Hulme gives us some ideas about how that can happen, for individuals and for a people - through finding one's roots, one's centre and one's self, through spiritual renewal and reinvigorating old traditions in newer and more inclusive ways, through ending isolation and embracing family and community.

As someone from a white settler culture living in a country where, like New Zealand, the aboriginal people have been marginalised and in many cases divided from their roots and traditions, the portrayal of the Maori peoples and their relationship to the white settler culture in this novel was of particular interest to me. Hulme, who is herself biracial and identifies with her Maori heritage while also embracing her European background, seems to me to be making a bold proposal for healing and community in settler nations - instead of assimilating aboriginal peoples into the primarily European culture of the settlers, assimilate the settlers into a vibrant and growing aboriginal culture that can incorporate both settlers and aboriginal peoples into one whole and healed community.

(For more thoughts on The Bone People, may I suggest checking out Jo Walton's review at Tor.com? http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/03/maori-fantasy-keri-hulmes-the-bone-people)

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Lately I've found myself drawn to anthologies of SFF by writers from a single country, ethnicity or geographical area. So far this year I've read three such books.


AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, Ivor W. Hartmann (ed.)

In his introduction to the anthology, editor Ivor Hartmann says: "SciFi is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective. Moreover, it does this in a way that is not purely academic and so provides a vision that is readily understandable through a fictional context. The value of this envisioning for any third-world country, or in our case continent, cannot be overstated nor negated. If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart. Thus, Science Fiction by African writers is of paramount importance to the development and future of our continent."

It's just as important for those in the first-world countries from whence the co-opting generally comes to read these African futures. To read stories set in futuristic metropolises named Lagos and Tshwane, with characters named Wangari Maathai and Julius Masemola. Stories that come from other histories and perspectives than their own, stories in which white people from Europe or North America are barely present if at all, and have no role to play in the imagined futures. I can only say thank you to Ivor Hartmann for collecting these stories and making them available.



Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain, Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan (eds.)

A very interesting and valuable survey anthology of science fiction short stories by Hispanic and Latino authors from Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and South America, from the early days of science fiction writing to modern day. The collection includes some very powerful pieces, many of which have a much stronger element of political awareness, analysis and critique than one might expect to find in a representative sampling of North American science fiction writing.



It Came from the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction, Desirina Boskovich (ed.)

An interesting collection of SFF stories from Finnish authors. After having recently read Johanna Sinisalo's Birdbrain (and before that After Sundown, published in English as Troll: A Love Story) I was perhaps primed to notice how strong a role that nature plays in many of these stories. Landscapes, geology, animals, organic growth, ecology - use of these elements seemed to be more prevalent than in collections that tend to be more focused on American and occasionally British writers.

Very much worth reading.

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Some interesting anthologies and collections of short stories came my way last year. The anthologies included two nicely edited theme anthologies by John Joseph Adams (dystopias and homages to Barsoom), a vamipre themed antholgy edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, a survey of urban fantasy edited by Peter Beagle and a dragon-themed anthology edited by Jack Dann.

Of particular interest were two volumes edited or co-edited by Connie Wilkins: the second volume in a new annual series of anthologies featuring short stories with lesbian protagonists; and an uneven but engaging selection of alternate history short stories with a focus on queer protagonists as nexi of change.

I was also delighted to be able to obtain a copy of an anthology edited by Nisi Shawl of short stories written by authors of colour who attended Clarion as Octavia E. Butler Scholars. The anthology was offered by the Carl Brandon Society for a limited time as a fund-raising project and is no longer available.

Peter Beagle (ed.), The Urban Fantasy Anthology
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Under the Moons of Mars
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Brave New Worlds
Nancy Kilpatrick (ed.), Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead
Jack Dann (ed.), The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Connie Wilkins & Steve Berman (eds.), Heiresses of Russ 2012
Connie Wilkins (ed.), Time Well-Bent: Queer Alternative Histories


I also read several collections this year, including two more volunes from PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, featuring work by and interviews with Nalo Hopkinson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Other collections of works by SFF writers included: a set of novellas from Mercedes Lackey featuring two familiar characters, Jennifer Talldeer and Diana Tregarde, and a new heroine, techno-shaman Ellen McBride; a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bear featuring forensic sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett; short stories by Maureen McHugh; and forays ibto the fantasy realm of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

In honour of Alice Munro, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, I read a collection of her more recent short stories (and plan on reading several more in the coming months - I've always loved her work and am delighted that she has been so deservedly recognised). Also worthy of note was Drew Hayden Taylor's collection of stories set among the residents of the fictional Otter Lake First Nations reserve, and Margaret Laurence's short stories set in Ghana. In the realm of historical fiction, There were stories by Margaret Frazer featuring medieval nun and master sleuth Dame Frevisse; I discovered and devoured Frazer's novels last year, and will speak of them in a later post.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike 
Nalo Hopkinson, Report from Planet Midnight
Mercedes Lackey, Trio of Sorcery
Elizabeth Bear, Garrett Investigates
Maureen McHugh, After the Apocalypse
Lloyd Alexander, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

Margaret Laurence, The Tomorrow-Tamer
Margaret Frazer, Sins of the Blood
Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

All in all, I found a wide range of short fiction to enjoy this year.

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i seem to no longer have time, strength or energy to write the kind of commentary I used to on the books I've read, but I still want to keep a record. So I guess I'll use this journal now to just list them, and perhaps write a thing or two when I can.

So, the last books from 2012 are:


Nnedi Okorafor, African Sunrise (novella)
Nnedi Okorafor, The Shadow Speaker
Diane Duane, A Wind from the South
Nalo Hopkinson, New Moon’s Arms 
Jo Walton, Lifelode
Kathy Acker, Pussycat Fever

Okorafor's visions enchanted and enlighted me.

Hopkinson's magical realities are wise and deep and true and I can't get enough of her.

Duane's fantasy novel set around the history of the birth of Swiss independance is new ground for this reader - so much European-set fantasy is modelled after places and situations in England, France, and to a lesser extent, Germany, Spain and Italy. A strong and interesting heroine. This is the first novel in a projected series, I hope Duane finds the time and reader support to write more.

Jo Walton is a magical writer. In Lifelode, as in her multiple award-winning novel Among Others, the magic is a mostly subtle thing in the beginning, but it builds and builds until you can feel its power despite its seemingly simple roots.

I'm not quite sure what to say about Kathy Acker. Read it and see what you think.

Thomas King, Medicine River
Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground
Wayson Choy, All that Matters
Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset

The Thomas King novel is a must-read. His work is a gift.

I was similarly struck by Wayson Choy's novel, his second. I must now go find and read his first, which is about the same characters - a family of Chinese immigrants living in pre-WWII Vancouver.

The Stewart and the Sutcliff are re-reads from my youth, and were enjoyed as much now as they were then. Stewart's Airs Above the Ground was a tight adventure/romance, and the relationship between the main character and her husband as they deal with danger and mystery was as egalitarian as much of whay's written today. Makes me want to go back and reaquaint myself with Stewart's other heroines to see how they meet the test of time.

I remember Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset in particular as a relatively early approach to a more realistic retelling of the Arthurian mythos. Also for Sutcliff's casual and completely non-judgemental mention of same-sex relationships between a few of Arthur's companions.
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As Constant Reader has probably noticed, I don't read a lot of mainstream fiction, but I do read some. The remaining books in this category to be recorded in my reads for 2009 are:



Tracks, Louise Erdrich - I enjoyed this thoroughly. Erdrich tells a most engaging story and writes compellingly of the circumstances of First Nations people forced to live under the oversight of white settler law and authorities.


Feminist Fables, Suniti Namjoshi - A collection of short - often very short - narrative pieces that are a combination of keen observation informed by feminist vision, and adry and delightful sense of humour.


Bird in the House, Margaret Laurence - another collection of shorter, linked narratives, set in the fictional town of Manwaka which serves as the nexus from many of the characters in Laurence's fiction.


One Good Story, That One, Thomas King - collection of short stories that explore the relationships between First Nations and settler peoples and their perceptions of each other, told with King's trademark piercing humour and truth.
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Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King

Imagine magical realism with all the satire and bite and planned absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus at its very best. Add in the best of aboriginal storytelling tradition, from some highly unusual and unlikely narrators, and a skillful examination – no, make that evisceration – of the images that white settler culture has created of, about and around aboriginal peoples in North America. And a wealth of literary, mythological, religious and historical allusions and references. Oh, and don’t forget to braid all of this together with a perfectly realistic novel about four people from the same reserve in western Canada who are each, in their own way, on the brink of major changes in their lives, and how their individual pasts, their First Nations heritage and the assumptions and actions of the white people and institutions around them have brought them to this point.

Or, as another reviewer put it:
Imagine four Indian storytellers in the best oral tradition, only with frequent interruptions (“Who, me?” says that Coyote). If I tell you that their names are the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye, you will begin to get the joke. Their stories are mashups of Native American and Western culture: Changing Woman, meet Noah. They rewrite the classics, rewrite Hollywood Westerns, rewrite Creation itself in the attempt to get it right this time. And while the novel works as a story complete in itself, the literary references, punning names, and recurring motifs are an English major’s Easter egg hunt.

Short chapters, some of them no more than a barrage of dialogue, keep the plot moving quickly. The novel does jump about: between history, myth, Hollywood, Melville, the Bible, and an actual plot, King is keeping a lot of balls in the air. Enjoy the juggling act and the wickedly dry sense of humor. You’ve never read a book about cultural (and patriarchal) oppression that’s this funny. Williamsburg Regional Library review
Then you’ll have some idea of what you’ll find in King’s Green Grass, Running Water (the very title makes reference to the terms in many treaties and agreements made between settlers and aboriginal peoples – “as long as grass grows and water runs” – that were in fact broken as quickly as ink dries).

It’s a book with the rare gift of making people of privilege see their unexamined racism, laugh at themselves – and thank the author for the pleasure of the lesson.

I’ve raved about Thomas King’s writing before, and I have every intention of doing it again, because I heartily anticipate reading everything he’s written. He’s just that good.

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Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan

This is a fascinating collection of 19 interviews with Edward W Said, conducted between 1976 and 2000 and published in a variety of scholarly and other venues. Through these interviews, it is possible to follow the development of Said’s scholarship and his political activism, as they illuminate the range, penetration and passions in Said’s intellectual and public life.

Editor Gavri Viswanathan puts it best in her introduction:
The interviews Said gave over the past three decades boldly announce that neither his own books and essays nor those written about him have the last word. The first thing to note is not only th number of interviews Said has given, both to print and broadcast media, but also the number of locations in which they took place, spanning Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe and the United States. They confirm his presence on the world stage as one of the most forceful public intellectuals of our time, a man who evokes interest in the general public for his passionate humanism, his cultivation and erudition, his provocative views and his unswerving commitment to the cause of Palestinian self-determination... Together, [these interviews] reveal a ceaselessly roving mind returning to earlier ideas in his books and novels and engaging with them anew. One measure of the fluidity and range of Said’s thought is his ability to revisit arguments made in his books and essays, not merely to defend and elaborate on them but, more important, both to mark their limits and probe their extended possibilities, especially in contexts other than those which first gave rise to them.
Said’s topics range from discourses on the development of his own work, particularly on Orientalism and post-colonial theory, to ruminations on his childhood and how it affects his sense of self in the world, to his political activism and evolving relationship with the PLO, to reflections on other authors and areas from Austen, Conrad, Naipaul and Rushdie to Derrida and Foucault.

There’s a wealth of thought in these interviews, well worth savouring.

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This is the year I discovered Thomas King. King is a First Nations author and a professor of English and Theatre at Quelph University in Canada. He has been writing since the 1990s and has produced a number of novels and several collections of short stories, and in 2003 he was the first Native Canadian to deliver the Massey Lectures, which were published under the title The Truth about Stories, which I read earlier this year.

King has said that "Tragedy is my topic. Comedy is my strategy.” He writes about the Aboriginal experience in white North America, which certainly has many of the elements of tragedy, and at the same time, his work in the short stories I have read – from the volume A Short History of Indians in Canada - is so wisely and wittily funny even as it eviscerates the assumptions, attitudes, perceptions and actions of white North Americans toward First Nations and Aboriginal peoples that this white reader can only thank King for such a happy course of instruction, correction and illumination.

Reading the stories of King the author, and then reading the lectures of King the teacher on what story is and means and does in Aboriginal tradition, has been most rewarding, and I look forward to reading more works by this person who is so kind as to use his talent to make me laugh and think and learn.


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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison

In 1990, Toni Morrison was invited to deliver the William Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. This book collects her three lectures in essay form.

The thesis of these lectures is that the fact of slavery and racism in the U.S. has had a significant impact on American literature, quite independent of whether or not a specific work is “about” issues of race or contains characters who are black. Morrison argues that what she terms “the Africanist presence” can be seen throughout the American literary canon – primarily consisting of works written by white (male) authors, for an audience assumed to be white (and predominantly male). By examining the works of writers as diverse as Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway, Morrison looks at how blackness – whether of a specific character or the sense of an ever-present and pervasive ground against which the action of white characters can be placed – has been used by American authors to create their sense of being white, and of how the consciousness of slavery has been used to create the themes of individualism and liberty that are si much a part of American literature.

I must confess that I have not read a lot of American “canon” literature, my tastes having tended to based themselves more firmly in the traditions of British and Commonwealth literature. So I am ill-prepared to comment critically on the validity of Morrison’s argument. Nonetheless, the argument is interesting, and seems to point to new perspectives on the American “canon” novels I am familiar with.

Furthermore, something that has struck me since reading these essays is how Morrison’s argument can in some ways be adapted to a consideration of the influence of Aboriginal peoples on the development of Canadian literature. (Canadian literary critics have already gotten well into the ways in which the existence of two separate linguistic and cultural colonising peoples, and the looming historical event of the conquest of Quebec, has influenced our literature in both languages.)

I’m not as well-versed in French-Canadian literature as I would like to be, but English-Canadian literature often seems to take as one of its themes survival - of the body, of the functioning structure of the mind, and of the broader functioning of society: life against death, sanity against madness, civilisation against chaos. Many have argued that this is a response to the significantly more challenging climate, but perhaps it can also be seen as a struggle for the white colonising settler cultures to justify their conquest by positioning life (among settler peoples) in Canada as a struggle to create order and civil society from savagery and chaos - which, in order to do, we (as settler peoples) must first define the Aboriginal peoples as unordered and uncivil - and by defining ourselves (the settler peoples) as civilised against the imagined picture of a people who we need to pretend are not.

Morrison’s criticism has certainly given me some interesting things to think about.

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Orientalism, Edward Said

I have, at long last, read this classic work that is considered to be one of the foundations of post-colonial studies. As I understand it, Said's underlying premise - one that is now very much a part of post-colonial criticism and political activism - is that the colonial and imperial cultures of Europe (and North America), by the very fact of their colonial and imperial position, create images of colonised nations and peoples that are not congruent with how these colonised people and nations perceive themselves, or with the realities of life and culture in these nations and among these peoples. Nonetheless, colonial powers, even after they lose direct control of colonised people, continue to impose these images from a position of assumed superiority, and this colours all discourse in colonial and former colonial powers about the colonised nations and peoples. The representation of a colonial nation in literature, art, and other cultural artefacts, becomes the nation itself, in Western eyes, and all discourse - including consideration of current economic and political policy - occurs within the framework imposed by the representation.

Said applies this premise to an examination of Orientalism - at the time of his writing (in 1978) the term used to describe the academic field of study devoted to the literature, history and culture of countries of "The Orient" - with particular focus on how Orientalists represented in their work the cultures of the Middle East.

It is a fascinating jounrney through the processes by which first, all Islamic, Arab and Middle-Eastern cultures are elided into one, and that one is represented as both oppositional and inferior to Western cultures in very specific ways.

What is particularly important about Said's argument is that he directly connects cultural representations with political ideology and goals:
Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically, innocent; it has regularly semed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me... that society and literary culture can only be understood and studies together. (p. 27)

My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting. In other words, representations have purposes, they are effective much of the time, they accomplish one or many tasks. (p. 273)
While I had gleaned many of the principles of Said's arguemnts from later discourses in both post-colonial literary criticism and political theory, it was well worth it to go back to the beginning and look at the evidence, so to speak.

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So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, (eds.) Nalo Hopkinson, Uppinder Mehan

So much of science fiction (and, sometimes less overtly, fantasy) has been, and continues to be about colonisation: colonising other planets, moulding other species into a human-led or human-structured federation or empire or whatever, aliens coming to colonise Earth, tow interstellar cultures struggling to see who gets to colonise the other/Other, noble kings or Dark Lords or good old North American spaceboys colonising other towns, cities, countries, empires, planets, galaxies, universes…

At the same time, so much of our history has been, and even in a postcolonial world (postcolonial in some places with respect to political systems, anyway - I have my doubts as to whether we’re anywhere near postcolonialism on a cultural or economic way) continues to be about the fact of, and the effects and consequences and reverberations of, colonialism and imperialism right here on Earth.

And so, it seems to make perfect sense to collect the voices of people writing out of a postcolonial personal, cultural, historical experience who are writing in, or around, or near, a genre that that’s colonisation as one of its enduring themes, and that is dominated by peoples who here on Earth – and in science fiction and fantasy visions – have been traditionally among the colonisers.

As co-editor Nalo Hopkinson notes in her introduction,
Arguably, one of the most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives, and as I’ve said elsewhere, for many of us, that’s not a thrilling adventure story; it’s non-fiction, and we are on the wrong side of the strange-looking ship that appears out of nowhere. To be a person of colour writing science fiction is to be under suspicion of having internalized one’s colonization.
Hopkinson goes on to respond to Audre Lorde’s famous dictum that “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”:
In my hands, massa’s tools don’t dismantle massa’s house – and in fact, I don’t want to destroy it so much as I want to undertake massive renovations – they build me a house of my own.
Or as co-editor Uppinder Mehan writes in his afterword,
One of the key strategies employed by these writers is to radically shift the perspective of the narrator from the supposed rightful heir of contemporary technologically advanced cultures to those of us whose cultures have had their technology destroyed and stunted. The narrators and characters in these stories make the language of the colonizer their own by reflecting it back but using it to speak unpleasant truths, by expanding its vocabulary and changing its syntax to better accommodate their different worldviews, and by ironically appropriating its terms for themselves and their lives. Postcolonial visions are both a questioning of colonial/imperialist practices and conceptions of the native or the colonized, and an attempt to represent the complexities of identity that terms such as “native” and “colonized” tend to simplify.
The postcolonial stories on offer in this volume are grouped around five themes: the body, future earth, allegory, encounters with the alien, and imagining the past.

Contributors to the collection include both those who are primarily known as writers of science fiction and fantasy, such as Karin Lowachee, Tobias S. Bucknell, Sheree R. Thomas, Larissa Lai, Greg van Eekhout, Ven Begamudré, Nisi Shawl and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and writers who are as well, or better known for their plays, poetry, literary fiction, work in other genres, or fiction that blurs the boundaries, such as Andrea Hairston, Suzette Mayr, Eden Robinson, Vandana Singh, Tamai Kobayashi, Wade Compton, Celu Amberstone, devorah major, Carole McDonnell, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Maya Khankhoje.

As a white woman of settler heritage, I found a lot in this collection to think about. As a reader, I found a great deal to enjoy, and some writers new to me whose books I’m now very eager to read.

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The sad truth I must face as someone who has tried to maintain a book journal for a year now is that I read too many books (at least for someone who wants to do something other than read, work, sleep and snuggle with my partner), which leaves me less time than most of them deserve to talk about them. Here are some very good books I read in this past year. I enjoyed and learned greatly from them all.


The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Overture and the San Domingo Revolution, C.L.R. James

This book has been called a masterpiece of Marxist historical analysis, the best account of the Haitian (San Domingo) Revolution of 1791-1803 ever written, a seminal text in the study of the African diaspora, and a good many other fine things. It is not an easy read, and it certainly helps to be familiar with the course of events of the French Revolution (as a French colony and a major link in the African slave trade for the French empire, the course of the revolution in San Domingo was inevitably affected by events within Revolutionary France and by its relationships with the United States, Britain, and Spain). But it’s a good read.


Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith

This is an immensely important book. Lest my simple words fail to express how important it is, I will instead point to some reviews.
I am most intrigued by the simplicity with which Smith links sexual violence to land to bodies to spirituality, in such a way that you can see the cause and effect of colonization on each link which then influence the other links. It is a circle that is hard-pressed to be broken or to know where to begin the healing and repair. What makes Smith's text so powerful is her illustration of a cycle of violence and genocide that has a long history and what looks like a long future, especially when colonial attitudes of violence, rape, and power are being internalized in our Native communities. "All women of color," Smith notes, "live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race." Megan L. MacDonald, American Studies Program, Purdue University

Conquest examines the relationship between the violence of state institutions and experiences of interpersonal violence. Smith argues that a culture reliant upon dominance and intimidation for social cohesion will inevitably result in violence within interpersonal relationships. Through a series of thematic chapters, Smith demonstrates how people of colour, and Aboriginal peoples specifically, have been further victimized by the state through racist and sexist policies and surveillance structures that maintain control over every aspect of their lives. Zoe Aarden and Deborah Simmons


The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, ed. Benjamin Drew

During the 1850s, the American abolitionist Benjamin Drew travelled to various communities in Upper Canada (now, roughly, southern Ontario) collecting accounts from people who had escaped slavery in the U.S. and settled in Canada to avoid being captured and returned (including Harriet Tubman). Some of these narratives discuss the conditions under which they lived prior to their escape; others simply recount the flight to Canada and their experiences on settling in a new country. The accounts are fascinating, sometimes harrowing. One element that struck me in many accounts is that the narrators did not try to pretend that they did not experience racism in Canada, but they did almost universally agree that this was not a matter of great concern to them; they appeared to believe that in Canada there were laws that would protect them – or in the worst case, allow them redress – should they suffer harm from any racist acts. Another element was the frequent insistences that virtually all the refugees they knew, including themselves, had been able to make good livings and support themselves and their families, and to live temperate and law-abiding lives. The book’s introduction suggests that the assertions of self-sufficiency may have been in part a response to various undertakings in the northern US at the time, some of them fraudulent, to collect money that would supposedly be sent to Canada to help support refugees, while both arguments could have been intended to counter racist propaganda arguments from Southern slave owners that Blacks needed the institution of slavery to protect them from themselves.


Memoirs of a Race Traitor, Mab Segrest

Recounting the experiences of a white Southern-born lesbian doing anti-racist work during the 70s and 80s in the American South, the book puts a primary focus on race issues, but doesn’t forget how gender and sexual preference issues intersect with them. An interesting and honest book, and one that I found personally interesting – as a white queer who was involved in the late 70s and early 80s in a coalition of people from both the black and queer communities fighting against one of the KKK’s perennial attempts to establish a greater presence in Nova Scotia. Very different situations, circumstances, histories and personalities involved, but just enough of a similarity that it struck me close to home at some points.


My Dangerous Desires, Amber Hollibaugh

An excellent collection of Hollibaugh's writing (with a foreword by Dorothy Allison!), with essays and interviews that address various aspects of the relationships between class, gender, sexuality, political activism, and desire from the perspective of a working-class femme lesbian activist and sex worker, among other things. Many of these essays are deeply personal, grounding the theoretical concepts she is exploring in an analysis of her own roots, influences and life journey. Some of the pieces are conversations with other writers, such as Deirdre English, Gayle Rubin, Jewelle Gomez, and Cherrie Moraga, including the groundbreaking "What We're Rollin' Around in Bed With."


Talking about a Revolution, South End Press Collective (ed.)

A collection of interviews with some of America’s truly great radical left activists and intellectuals – Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Barabara Ehrenreich, bell hooks, Peter Kwong, Winona LaDuke, Manning Marable, Urvashi Vaid and Howard Zinn – about their experiences and hopes for progressive social movements in America and about the spirit of revolution. Much food for thought if you aspire to be a revolutionary, in any sense of the word.

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Hopkinson is a brilliant and original writer, and The Salt Roads is, I think, her best work yet. Her work transcends categories - science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and in The Salt Roads she's added historical fiction to the mix. Part of what makes her voice so valuable is that she writes from her sense of self as a black woman, and in so doing, gives us stories about people who we hear far too little about, not just in mainstream literature, but also in genre fiction.

The Salt Roads takes place in three different historical periods, telling the lives of three different women, and also in the space beyond time and place, where we find the divine sense of being - here named Ezili, an African-Caribbean goddess - that links the experience of all three women, and perhaps all women - in the process of discovering herself through the lives of the women who live in time and space, who are bound to earth and water by salt, the salt of their sweat and blood and tears, the salt of the ocean across which so many black women have unwillingly crossed.

The three women of time and space are:

Mer, a healer, midwife and slave on a plantation in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) circa 1750 - the time of one of the early slave revolts leading up to the 1791 revolt that freed the peoples of Haiti;

Jeane Duval, dancer, entertainer and mistress of 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire;

Meritet, 4th century Egyptian courtesan who in Hopkinson's book becomes the African anchoress and saint, Mary of Egypt.

Each woman's story in itself is fascinating; taken all together, the book is an examination of love and sexual desire, of oppression and roads to freedom, of the interaction between mortality and divinity that exists in us all. It's a sometimes challenging book to read, not always linear, either in storytelling or in typography, but well worth it.

And then, go read Hopkinson's other books:
Brown Girl in the Ring
Midnight Robber
Skin Folk - a collection of short stories

And the anthologies she's edited:
Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction
Mojo: Conjure Stories
So Long Been Dreaming:Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy

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I've recently finished reading Dionne Brand's A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging.

Her publisher describes this book thusly:

Drawing on cartography, travels, narratives of childhood in the Caribbean, journeys across the Canadian landscape, African ancestry, histories, politics, philosophies and literature, Dionne Brand sketches the shifting borders of home and nation, the connection to place in Canada and the world beyond.

It is a profound meditation on the "sense of place" of a people who had all common ways of establishing that sense obliterated in slaving posts (like the infamous The Door of No Return on Senegal's Gorée Island) and the Middle Passage.

Most other diasporic groups know where to find their ancestral home, have some idea of how to go home again, even if the road is barred by political changes, migrations of other groups onto ancestral soil, despotic regimes, poverty, or a host of other human causes. As a member of the Hebridean diaspora, I know the lands of my ancestors have passed into other hands since they were forced out of their homes and into overcrowded boats bound for the Colonies. But I know my name and my clan. I know which island they were driven from. I could go back.

Descendants of Africans sold into slavery cannot.

I knew this intellectually before I read this book, but Brand allowed me to glimpse, as through a glass, darkly, the feeling of having been torn away from the heartroot with no chance of reconnection, and left me grateful for the lessoning of pain.

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