In her article, “Green Grass, Running Water: Theorizing the World of the Novel,” Blanca Chester observes that “the conversation that King sets up between oral creation story, biblical story, literary story, and historical story resembles the dialogues that Robinson sets up in his storytelling performances (47). She writes:
Robinson’s literary influence on King was, as King himself says, “inspirational.” When one reads King’s earlier novel, Medicine River, and compares it with Green Grass, Running Water, Robinson’s impact is obvious. Changes in the style of the dialogue, including the way King’s narrator seems to address readers and characters directly (using the first person), in the way traditional characters and stories from Native cultures (particularly Coyote) are adapted, and especially in the way that each of the distinct narrative strands in the novel contains and interconnects with every other, reflect Robinson’s storied impact. (46)
For this blog assignment I would like you to make some comparisons between Harry Robson’s writing style in “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King Of England” and King’s style in Green Grass, Running Water. What similarities can you find between the two story-telling voices?
As the quote from Chester suggests, the literary style of King’s Green Grass, Running Water is strikingly analogous to Robinson’s story-telling style recorded in Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. In particular, I noticed several similarities in style relating to prose, genre, and layout.
Photo Credit: Fotol Edhar – Fotolia. “SQ3R.” 2011. Web.
For each category, I will provide illustrative examples from both literary pieces and explain why I found these similarities significant.
Notice the use of shortened, clipped sentences and repetition in the following excerpts:
“Reserve at all time.
Can never be sold.
Can never be changed.
Can be trade.
Can be trade.
Can be surveyor, surveyor.
Can be trade, but never can be sold.” (Robinson 74)
“‘One of us could get a job.’
‘But we don’t need them.’
‘Nobody needs those things. But everyone wants them. You want them. I want them. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a tepee, do you?’” (King 86).
In both of these excerpts, the intentional prose style reflects qualities typical of oral languages. According to a Walter Ong, oral languages have built in systems, or mneumonic devices, “for retention and ready recall” (34).
In the above examples, the prose of King and Robinson include repetition, redundancy, and shortened sentences that could arguably be linked to what Ong refers to as “formulas” that “help implement rhythmic discourse and also act as mneumonic aids” (35). Ong argues that the increased sophistication of oral languages, due to embedded structures that aid memory and recall, manifests in knowledge that is communally patterned (36). Therefore, I would suggest that the similarities marking the prose in King and Robinson’s stories reflect a shared way of knowing and understanding the world.
This shared way of knowing and understanding the world is further substantiated by the way both stories merge myth with historic accounts:
“Looks like Coyote but it looks like a man.
Just kinda half-and-half” (Robinson 69).
Photo Credit: “COYOTE: Half Man Half Coyote.” Album Cover. 2012. Web.
“Ahdamn is busy. He is naming everything.
You are a microwave oven, Ahdamn tells the Elk.
Nope says the Elk. Try again.
You are a garage sale, Ahdamn tells the Bear.
We got to get you some glasses, says the Bear.
You are a telephone book, Ahdamn tells the Cedar Tree” (King 41).
Photo Credit: Scherfig, Hans. “Adam Naming the Animals.” 2008. Web.
In the first excerpt, Robinson describes Coyote as being half man and half Coyote, a creature reserved for the literary realm of fantasy. However, the story also involves a genealogy of English monarchs (76-77), dates (79-81), modern technology (73), and the names of places in British Columbia (79-81); details usually seen in works of either fiction or non-fiction about historical events. This same type of merger occurs in King’s work as he combines the Judeo-Christian story of creation with an Indigenous story about Coyote. In addition, King’s work refers to both iconic characters from fiction (Hawkeye, the Lone Ranger, and Robinson Crusoe) as well as from history (John Collier, and Henry L. Dawes). These references create a work that exists outside of traditional genre rules. Indeed, both stories seem to defy literary convention.
Lastly, both stories have a unique layout. In particular, Robinson’s story is published in the style of poetry, while King’s story is broken up by chapters, some of which are unusually truncated (214-223). The use of unusual layout sets both works apart. In my mind, the choices to publish the texts in this way challenges the reader’s literary expectations. In both cases, it drew my attention to the oral qualities of the stories; suggesting to me that Robinson and Wickwire were aware of (and intentionally fought to include) aspects of both orality and literacy in their publications.
Through the use of these literary techniques, the voice of both stories seems to transcend the confines of print culture and challenge our expectations of literature. In connection with lessons from Unit 2, I would suggest that these authors do so in order to illustrate how both orality and literacy can co-exist. Through this, the authors show how two opposing structures can be merged into a new cohesive form.
This is philosophically significant because it indicates that, perhaps, clashing ideologies do not have to end in competition. As King mentions in his Massey lecture series, our world can be “marked by competition” or by “co-operation” (25). These stories seem to suggest that co-operation and compromise are possible, indeed preferable. These stories suggest a creative solution to the clash of ideologies that plagues our world, and indeed, our country.
For Assignment 2.6, I posed the following question:
Is it even possible (both philosophically and in practice) for us to hold two different ways of knowing at the same time? (For example, to value both the Western view of historical accuracy according to verifiable evidence AND the Indigenous view of historical accuracy according to social protocol and democratic processes). What would this look like? And, more importantly, what are the implications of such a compromise?
Photo Credit: Tier by Tier. “Compromise Cake.” Web.
I think what we see through these two literary works is an example of how this compromise can be accomplished. It would require us to revisit culturally sanctioned, “normative” practices and procedures. It would require us to reinvent, merge, compromise, and create new ways of knowing, understanding, and communicating. It would involve forging a new identity for ourselves that reflects both (all?) cultures equally. It would require compromise on both (all?) sides. And it would require a focus on “finding common ground” (Chamberlin).
Literature has been, and continues to be, an art form through which authors challenge and question the status quo by introducing us to new and controversial ideas. I wonder what you think.
As I suggest here, would you agree that literature is an effective tool for modelling and fostering reconciliation and compromise; for helping us to forge a new national Canadian identity?
Chamberlin, Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: A.A. Knopf. 2003. Print.
King, Thomas. Green Grass Running Water. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1993. Print.
King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Peterbough: Anansi Press. 2003. Print.
Ong, Walter J. “Some Psychodynamics of Orality.” Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982. 31-75. Print.
Robinson, Harry. Living by Stories: a Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2005. Print.
July 10, 2016 — 9:36 pm
I want to start by saying how much I love your blog layout. I am very inspired by this post to write my own blog in a clearer way. I found this post easy to follow, well written, and the perfect length of sections broken up with pictures that helped to keep my attention.
As for the question you have posed,
I think literature can be an effective model for compromise. However, as I mentioned in a post on my own blog – Aboriginal cultures are originally oral cultures and placing their stories into literature is placing Aboriginal cultures into a Western context. I find this important to keep in mind. I wonder if, by turning the oral stories into written ones we are “Westernizing” the culture too much and not allowing for the proper expression that Aboriginal people need. What do you think about this?
July 11, 2016 — 11:33 am
Thank you for your kind compliments. 🙂
As to your comment, I agree that these are tricky waters to navigate. As I’ve thought about it, there are a couple of issues with preventing oral narratives from being entered into literature for the sake of ensuring that they are not “Westernized”.
The first is that restricting oral narratives to the oral domain stagnates the cultures they represent. It prevents these cultures from engaging in conversation with others who value the written domain more highly. I see this as being problematic, as it can lead to perpetuating an image of oral cultures as “primitive” or “less than”. By bringing oral narratives into the written domain, we allow these stories to become a part of literary dialogue. The culture gains prestige in the eyes of others who look at the world through the eyes of literacy. It brings about equality and invites innovation and new ways of thinking. Writing down stories does not prevent them from being told orally. It only serves to bring them into the literary conversations that they were previously excluded from.
The second issue, which you allude to, is that when a narrative is written down, it changes. The story is locked in time and is no longer allowed to shift and change as narratives naturally do when they are told out loud. On the other hand, when the story is written down, it is more likely to become a part of the kinds of discussions that solidify its importance.
So while I agree that writing down stories perhaps preserves them in a way that interferes with their intended purpose, I believe this is one of the only ways to bring these stories to the table in a way that can bring about acknowledgement, understanding, and respect in the long term.
I hope that answers your question. Let me know what you think! 🙂
Linda McNeilly Purcell
July 13, 2016 — 9:14 pm
I enjoyed your blog post, and I found the images you used entertaining and appropriate. I too answered this question, but I took a different approach. I appreciated how you broke your answer down into components. I think this was an effective method of evaluating the two different authors literary style.
To answer your question, I do think that literature can be an effective tool for modelling and fostering reconciliation and compromise. I also think it can be used as a method of forging a new national Canadian identity. However, in order for this to happen, it needs to become the ‘normative practice’ (to use your term). In order to create change, this new way of being needs to be accepted by the majority of people. It is like the 100 monkey syndrome – when enough individuals adopt a new idea or behavior, there occurs an ideological breakthrough that brings about a change in consciousness for the entire group. Click here for more information: http://www.context.org/iclib/ic09/myers/.
In your response to Dr. Patterson’s question #5, you show how these two authors provide a way for us to hold two different ways of knowing at the same time. You suggest that these authors illustrate how orality and literacy can co-exist, and in this way provide a compromise between two methods – oral and written literature. My questions for you are: do you believe that the melding of oral and written literature is necessary in order to model and foster reconciliation and compromise? Is this the only way to forge a new national Canadian identity, or do you feel something else is needed?
I look forward to your response,
July 15, 2016 — 1:49 pm
Thank you for your kind words about the post. I had fun picking out the images 🙂
I appreciate your input and I’ll try to answer your question.
I think the challenge with reconciliation is that it is a process by which we as a country are trying to mend the hurts that people have caused people. Yes, systems are in place that have facilitated this hurt, but at the end of the day, it is people who hurt other people and, therefore, it is people who are needed to mend this hurt. And I believe this happens through relationship. We build relationships with others through finding or creating common ground. This is what I think Robinson and King illustrate through their literature.
The interesting thing about healing and reconciliation, is that the process looks different for everyone. I have heard it said that grieving and healing are processes as unique to the individual as a fingerprint. In this way, I believe that for true reconciliation to take place, we need to seek healing through as many avenues as possible. I think that literature is an excellent tool for modelling how compromise can lead to healing. But I do not think this is the only tool we need to employ.
Since reconciliation and compromise are processes involving people and relationships, I think there needs to be a recognition that all people are unique. We all have different ways of expressing our hurt, working through our grief, and finding healing. I think if the process of reconciliation is to be successful, our methods should reflect this understanding and invite reconciliation in as many arenas as possible.
As King and Robinson illustrate, literature is one way of reaching compromise and striving for reconciliation. It is a beautiful example of what reconciliation can look like. I would hope that the example they provide encourages others to adopt similar practices and apply these principles elsewhere.
I hope that answers your question.
July 18, 2016 — 9:34 pm
As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I am going to cut right to the chase, I think that your idea about literature being the medium to begin bridging the gap between Western and First Nation ideologies is correct. Literature can take on many forms. It can be fiction or fact, or in this case it can be the ingenious blending of both. King delivers his critiques in a non-offensive light hearted manner. It is plainly obvious when he is doing so, and what he is saying, but it reads on the surface as little more than a witty book full of silly happenstance. It is works like this, at least in my opinion, that are a great starting point. A way to introduce readers to different perspective, and the ability to merge what appear to be completely contradictory ideological agendas. Authors have the freedom to express themselves in nearly infinite manners, and the power to share through story, as was notably the First Nations traditional manner, lessons and commentary that are often overlooked in day-to-day conversations.
I hope this has answered your question. Let me know what you think?
July 19, 2016 — 10:48 am
That is completely what I was getting at! Although there are many tools that can be employed to help us understand what compromise can look like and how to go about seeking reconciliation, literature has the unique position of standing at the crossroads of many disciplines. Authors have the freedom to take a multi-disciplinary approach and to speak with different voices (for example- serious or lighthearted) in order to communicate an idea.
I think King’s book is a great example of an intersection of different genres, writing styles, belief systems, and narrative voices that are all intertwined in a way to show how diversity can be knitted together to form a working community.
I’m glad you liked the post.