Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Inconvenient Indian

Thomas King

Drama and math usually don’t have much to do with each other. But there is one formula most people connected with drama know, and it goes like this:

comedy = tragedy + distance

This formula describes our well-established proclivity to find the suffering of others funny, provided it’s presented to us in a way that removes us from the people or the pain involved. A million ten-ton Acme weights falling on a million hapless Coyotes testify to the success and ubiquity of this formula, even if they don’t necessarily rub out its ethical shadiness.

Thomas King, an author, broadcaster, professor, actor, director, and Massey Lecturer who is justifiably known for his humour and wit, is no doubt familiar with this law of human nature. But, when he doesn’t make himself the butt of his own jokes, as he so often does in CBC's Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, he tends to work the formula from a different angle, and it goes something like this:

comedy – distance = tragedy

That is, comedy and wit can induce us to move closer to issues we might not otherwise want to look at, and in his latest book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, King plays a sly, ironic, and sometimes biting Virgil to the reader’s Dante as he conducts us on a tour of how Native people have been depicted in history, film, literature, and the media. As reviews in the Star and the Globe have pointed out, there’s much to admire in King’s book: It covers a broad swath of history from Columbus to Caledonia in an engaging way that gives the reader an authoritative overview of issues and events. It incisively dissects historical efforts to erase Native people through war or education and illuminates present attempts to erase them through law or policy. It displays impressive rhetorical acumen as King argues for and against various positions on the past and present status of Aboriginal people.

But most of all, King is a master storyteller, and The Inconvenient Indian is a masterfully-told story. In his popular Massey Lecture collection The Truth About Stories, King said, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” and if stories are central to how we construe ourselves, they are even more powerful determinants in how we perceive others. King’s examination of  the narratives that have defined Native people for non-Native cultures isn’t written from on high. Rather, King gives to us the story of his own encounters with these stories in a humorous, personal, and humane way that never obscures the bitter injustices that accompanied and still accompany them. In many ways The Inconvenient Indian is an account of King’s own journey, and an invitation to walk alongside him as he takes it. You’ll rarely encounter a better travelling companion.

- Bruce Dadey

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