Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
by Thomas King
Anchor Canada, 2012
314 pages

I love Tom King's writing. It's magical. He is very funny, and very dark, and very lyrical. Poignant, clever, sharp, tender, furious, all that. Or at least, his fiction is. King writes beautiful, and beautifully necessary, fiction, and one gets the impression, while reading his fiction, that he loves to write it. This book is not fiction, and it's different. This reads like something that was burning King up inside, and not burning in a good way. This was a book Thomas King had to get off his chest.

So while this book was indeed funny, at points, and it was indeed furious, often, it wasn't quite what I'd hoped for, quite what I'd been lead to expect by the accolades it has received. It was a bit of a blunt instrument, where I was hoping for a sparkling scalpel. None of this is to say that I don't think this book is good. It's good. But I ran into a few things that I think diminished its impact on me.

King is very clear right off the top that this is not a history, in the formal sense of the word, in that he's not interested in footnotes and citations and so on; he's interested in stories. This is both a strength and a weakness. It's a strength because the book is a strangely fast read, a strangely simple read (I cannot say "easy," because it is not easy to read a lot of what King has to say.) One moves through this curious account very smoothly, because one is not hooked up on having to flip to the endnotes to see where that fact came from. It makes it easier to move through the book, less formal, and frankly has probably meant that The Inconvenient Indian has had a far wider audience than its more formal counterparts, the histories King is not claiming this book to be. Of course, for someone with a certain mindset, this is a weakness too. We have to take King at his word; we don't have his sources laid out for us. So it's not an academic read. This leads to problems when people disagree with the facts as presented. There is no way to go back to the exact source that King used, because we generally don't know what it is. This, in turn, makes it easier for those who wish to do so to dismiss each particular argument out of hand, and if they wish to do so, to throw out King's premise entirely.

To be clear: I don't. And I think the whole format actually makes an interesting point. History, as we are taught in school as kids and fed in the media as adults, is generally stories, with the same specious citation or lack thereof. How many of us looked at primary documents in elementary or high school? How many of us cite our source when stating a "known fact"? All King has done here is turn the class on its head, and presented the stories from a different perspective than the one we generally see. Was the American Indian Movement a violent terrorist organization, or a loosely (and in some cases poorly) organized group of individuals who were rightfully fed up with the garbage way their entire culture and society is treated? King argues, effectively, that we at least need to think about that question, among others.

King provides a litany, throughout the book, of the ways that Native people in North America have been cheated, abused, lied to, massacred, appropriated, rendered invisible, rendered impotent, ignored, misunderstood, and cheated and cheated again. Oh, there are so many ways. And while King's humour is present, it's not a funny book. Even the funny bits aren't really that funny. And he knows it. What it is, is an angry book. Thomas King is angry. Thomas King, one thinks, would like us to be angry too. And I think it would be a stone-cold person who wouldn't at least be a little angry, at some of the things King lists. But... lists.

And therein lies my first big issue.

This is a book of lists. There are lists of names and lists of grievances. It's a lot of lists. King even acknowledges that it's a lot of lists, and suggests that his partner Helen Hoy thought that listing isn't terribly effective. I agree with her. Lists do not an argument make. It is hard not to to feel swamped by the grievances rather than affected by them, even if King throws a bit of his sarcastic humour in there to liven things up.

My second big issue is another one King deals with by calling himself out and explaining his motives, but perfunctorily: everyone in the book who is a non-Native is White. And Whites get (justifiably) a fair bit of flack. Good enough, but the problem is, I don't see myself in that group. I don't see my own values, my own actions, or my personal history. So suddenly it's not my problem. I can be horrified by what Whites have done or haven't done without counting myself as part of that group, though King himself undoubtably would count me as part of that group. See, this is the problem with generalizing: I am no longer culpable, and there we have a big part of the problem. I don't like my government or its actions. I tend to be on the same page as King on Christianity and capitalism, which is rather a polar opposite from where our current federal government stands, but I didn't vote for them. Problem solved. I am now just another impotent cog in a wheel I didn't ask to be part of, and I don't think I am part of the problem that King's talking about. Not really.

Which is all part of the problem.

What this book does do well is make a person think. It makes one look at the issues of North American Native land, religion, culture, sovereignty, and so on, and realize it's not a single problem, but a complex of problems. Those lists are trying to articulate things that haven't necessarily been articulated to a wider audience before, or at least a wider audience that's willing to pay attention. This is an ugly situation. It's not hopeless, but it's not going away, and it's not easy. People on both sides are going to get hurt, and I might as well come right out and admit that I am of King's opinion that maybe North American Native peoples have done enough of the suffering. (Does this mean I am willing to suffer myself in order to correct those grievances - give up my family cottage on the shores of Georgian Bay, for example? Um... I probably won't surprise anyone if I suggest that I am relieved that question remains rhetorical, for now.)

What exactly can be done to stop it is a question King never answers, and that's because there is no answer; there's certainly not a singular answer. But it is clear that something has to be done, because such injustices, even (or especially) ones that have been around for so long, are not good for anyone.

Yes, probably everyone should read this book. It absolutely should be a component of high school curricula around North America. As I said, it's not a hard book to read, and it provides some badly needed perspective. It's pretty clear to me that not everyone's going to be reached by this book, though. I didn't have far to go to be convinced by King's arguments; I was already mostly there, and I read this book as an exercise in getting a better background on the issues. People who are not already somewhat interested in or sympathetic to the plight of Native North Americans are unlikely to be swayed at all by this particular book, because it's too easy for them to dismiss it as biased, angry rhetoric from someone with a vested interest. It would be a useful exercise for those people to investigate their own biases and vested interests, but this book isn't the sort of book to encourage them to do that. And that's a shame.


Cecelia said...

I see what you mean about it being an important book. It's too bad that its message suffers (or would suffer) in the hands of the wrong reader. Perhaps further context and personalization were necessary?

I've never read King, but your words of praise for his writing make me want to seek something out. Do you have a favorite title you'd recommend?

Unknown said...

Re: context and personalization - I don't think that was the issue, as there were plenty of both. It really does read quite well in that way; chatty, and there are a couple of chapters in particular that do lay things out in a creative and persuasive way. I think the issue is more the anger. Anger turns people away unless they are already angry and on the side of the author.

I highly recommend his Green Grass, Running Water... highly highly highly. Loved it. It is a book you need to be a bit patient with, but the payoff is awesome.