Saturday, March 1, 2014

Joseph Boyden in Thunder Bay

This coming week Joseph Boyden will be making a number of appearances at Lakehead University. Along with being the guest speaker at a Literature of Canada's First Nations class, on Wednesday night, March 5th, he will be giving a talk "The Past and the Future are Present: Race Relations in Canada." His talk focuses on the historical research that he did for his latest book, The Orenda, which is a Canada Reads contender.
  
At Quill and Quire, Kamal Al-Solaylee summarizes the characters at the heart of The Orenda:

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois ....
The book is not without controversy. At Muskrat Magazine, Hayden King explains that although he wanted to like this book and while its three voiced multiple narrators tell the story from different points of view in hopes of achieving the effect of making ambiguous dichotomous boundaries of good guys vs bad guys, in the end, its story reinforces a narrative that is does not disrupt the familiar settler colonial story of history, hence making it palatable to Canadians:


The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined happen.
["Orenda" means, as Al-Solaylee explains, "the life force that, according to the Hurons, belongs not just to humans but to 'every last thing' in the natural world."]

Both reviewers point out the vivid descriptions of violence and torture in the book; Hayden calls the violence "excessive," and Al-Solaylee explains it  as "unspeakable cruelty and, yes, savagery – human on human, human on animal, and animal on animal" with ritualistic torture emerging as "orgiastic." Waubgeshig Rice writes that "The book is violent, with scenes of warfare and torture between the Huron and the Haudenosaunee people. Some critics take issue with Boyden’s portrayal of the latter, who are the novel’s antagonists. These issues have grown louder on social media in the lead up to Canada Reads."


I am wondering how Boyden's writing of violence and torture can be read in the context of the explicit and descriptive torture that is so central and popular today in mainstream American movies and TV shows such as Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland, and Django Unchained, all children of American torture, such as at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Black sites, and everyday military acts throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, since 9/11. Other narratives, such as the non-mainstream movie 12 Years a Slave, also make torture part of one's vicarious "entertainment" reality. Where does Boyden's narrative of extreme violence fit in this historical moment of fascination with torture? While in the dominant power relations, white men torture brown bodies (as well as some brown men taking up the military, political, and economic interests of the white dominated American corporate/government), in Boyden's novel, among the purveyors of extreme violence inflicted on others is that of brown men torturing other brown men in the context of colonialism in in that part of Turtle Island which became Canada. 

I am sure the discussion period after Boyden's talk will be lively! 

You can read chapter one here at the Penguin Canada website.

On Thursday, March 6, from 1 - 2 pm, Boyden will be the special guest at the Bannock and Tea hour at the Aboriginal Student Lounge; students are invited to drop in. I have asked my class of Anishnawbe writing students to bring their copy of his deeply inspiring and hopeful speech "Walk to Morning" which we discussed in class, and get it signed by him!

You can hear Boyden tell his "Walk to Morning" story here (10 m.) or read it here. [pdf]

Boyden uses the metaphor 'walk to morning' to mean walk towards hope; although his story is directed specifically to teens and young adults struggling with emotional distress, he  has a healing message for each reader: no matter how difficult things get, you should tell someone about your pain. Walking towards the light of morning can bring small unexpected pleasures that remind us that each day is a gift and we never know what wonders will come our way. Joseph Boyden almost walked into another history and I am not the only one who is glad that he failed at that one. You have to read or listen to his speech to find out what, thank god, he failed at.

When he first gave this speech in 2012, Boyden explained that
This is a very deeply personal thing I’m going to share with you today...It’s not an easy talk to give. I’ve reached the point in my life where I’ve been blessed with some success and I have been afforded an audience who I hope is still willing to listen to me. I don’t want to squander the opportunity to speak just because it would be easier not to. I’m one of eleven children after all and I know how easy it can be to simply fade into the background even when your gut is telling you to raise your voice. And so allow me to raise my voice this afternoon.
This short speech of his is a gift that can inspire many young people. I hope it is shared, read, and listened to widely.

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. - See more at: http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=8123#sthash.SV0WNgu0.dpuf
The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. - See more at: http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=8123#sthash.SV0WNgu0.dpuf

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. - See more at: http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=8123#sthash.SV0WNgu0.dpuf

1 comment:

Merche Pallarés said...

Very interesting. I'd love to read his book. Hugs, M.