After taking more time to ruminate on the reviews I had read for Celia’s Song, I have been thinking a lot about Nolan and bad medicine. More specifically, can ‘positive’ reviews be bad medicine if they praise the author and the book but seem to completely miss the implications of Indigenous literature on settler society and representation of narratives and histories? It wasn’t something I had considered when all of the bad reviews were so obviously bad. I often think of subtlety and insidious nature of ongoing colonial violence and the ‘soft assimilation’ policies that the canadian govt. traded for residential school and cultural bans / restrictions to voting. Why should seemingly positive reviews not be subject to the same careful critique that I apply to speech habits, ‘progressive’ legislation and reconciliation efforts? The answer is, I now believe, that they shouldn’t be.
I am not upset about the positivity that Maracle has the ability to attract from popular media and from such a varied set of reviewers. Only, I am suspect of taking positive reviews and praise at their face value and am interested in the ways that positivity and approval can act as veiled colonial violence or white / settler narcissism (popularly called ‘white guilt’).
I’ll post links from some of the reviews I read, excepts I found relevant, and some thoughts on the implications.
- “Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song well worth hearing… While Maracle invokes many voices in telling her tale, the mythic Mink and the conflicted Celia, torn between her awakening powers to see hidden realities and her discomfort with the harsh responsibilities imposed by what she sees, are the lead singers in a book that is like an intricate communal song, recording the storms of colonialism, racism, and residential school abuse that have swept through her community and the consequences of those storms in the lives of her family and village.” – Tom Sandborn
If I can use the vernacular of our time, this reviewer seemed to be the most ‘woke’ in terms of reading and reviewing Indigenous literature. He recognized the impacts of settler colonialism throughout his review and used diction common to the field (ex. “in what settler’s call B.C.” ) and even spoke to the gendered way that colonialism disproportionately favored Indigenous men when it came time to start publishing Indigenous authors. This was one of the better, more productive reviews I have read during my time in our class.
- “In gentle yet powerful prose, Maracle underscores the horrifying impact of the Residential School System, the ongoing problem of suicide, and the loss of tradition that continue to plague First Nations communities. She also suggests that alongside death and destruction there is hope for new beginnings.” – Dana Hansen
So, on the surface I guess there is nothing really wrong with this article. But this is what I was referring to in my introduction to the reviews. It pretty consistently uses past tense verbs, which is a not-so-subtle way of telling the reader / audience that these issues are of the past – even as Maracle is writing about them. It is also more focused than many of the others on the aspect of reconciliation, healing, and moving forward from these traumas and ongoing colonial imposition. This seems to be a popular narrative for white settlers; they’d rather Indigenous folks on the land ‘forget about it,’ or at least be responsible for their own fast healing practices. Settler society – white or otherwise – must not turn away from the hard and harsh aspects of healing. We are all implicated in the colonial present and community healing must involve all the inhabitants of the land – even if that healing means that settlers will see some harsh truths and have to face their own involvement in and benefit from colonial violence. It’s almost like this article is lauding Maracle for offering a narrative of a family and community who have gone through terrible trauma and heal despite it, because of it. This narrative of healing is a powerful and necessary one, but not to be interpreted as proof that Indigenous folks can ‘get over’ colonialism or that they shouldn’t still be fighting, along with their allies, for liberation from the colonial system that continues to ensnare us all.
- “Reading Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song feels like the best breathing I’ve ever done…Maracle includes a funny chapter in which a group of white marine biologists see a mysterious shadow on a film – the serpent. Their argument for what it could be reflects the limitations of Western empirical thought.” – Lynne C. Martin
This review, while again very positive, seems to be the type of review that could have the most potential insidious damage. This reviewer is expounding upon her personal revelation that the novel gave her and her relateability to Celia based on her womanhood. I’m sure we are all aware of the shortcomings of the type of feminism that calls for ‘universal sisterhood’ and unity while ignoring intersectionality, inherent privilege and the complexity of social justice issues. To drive this home, the reviewer mentions how happy she is that Maracle included white characters as part of Celia’s chosen family (reminding me of Grand Mamas) and doesn’t dehumanize the abuser of the story. I get the sense from this review that the reviewer is of a group of people who want absolution of their possible ancestral involvement with colonial violence while ignoring that they are taking part in the ongoing violence of colonialism; not being personally racist or violent herself. It is ok to stand with Indigenous folks, but not to watch and listen and then hope for your involvement to end once you decry the colonial system and the violence it perpetuates. As we spoke about in class witnessing and deconstructing the colonial power structure is an active and an ongoing procedure for Native and non-Native folks and any allies to the causes of social justice.
There are many more reviews of not only Celia’s Song but all of Maracle’s work and I would recommend, if you want more examples to comb through and critique, reading through them to see more of this subtle bad medicine at work.
I’ll post here one of the questions I had wanted to ask at the end of this presentation but didn’t get the chance to:
- How does Maracle use storytelling differently than performance based artists? What are some of the different advantages and disadvantages to producing varied types of media?
– i ask this because of some negative comments i have heard about written texts: stories are alive and should change to reflect the audience, the situation, the time, etc. theatrical productions, through the work of dramaturgy, can be and often is a living and changing piece of artwork. dances tell specific stories or phenomenon, etc. although i will say, that for any who have seen Maracle speak, i think its fair to conclude that if she were the one reading the written texts would be as fluid and situation specific as a story that is being told through memory.