2.3 “What did you say?”: The Transformative Power of Oral Storytelling

Question #1: Orality confounding the written word in Robinson’s text.

Stories change in the telling. Somehow, when words leap off the page in the shifting tones of speech, the narrative takes on new meanings and finds new emphasis. I have always been a great lover of the spoken word, and the difference it makes when words are spoken aloud as opposed to being kept inside one’s head never fails to astonish me. My relationship to spoken word vs. written word requires a bit of backstory, so bear with me.

When I was a much smaller creature, my parents read to myself and my siblings almost every night. My dad has the most delicious voice, deep and warm with a soft English accent, cultured from years of actor training. I cherished those storytelling sessions, in which he encouraged audience participation and never failed to do all the voices. Favourites included Roald Dahl’s The BFG, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, and a charming translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, among many other shorter books that he indulgently read to us over and over and over. There’s something special about the repetition and retelling of beloved stories: they contain gems that only reveal themselves upon repeated readings.

He would improvise stories for us, too. “Tell us a story out of your head,” we’d say. “OK, give me some ingredients,” he would say, before weaving a narrative out of the bizarre assortment of ‘ingredients’ we would provide for him.

Upon rereading The Hobbit recently, I experienced a strange meeting of familiarity and alienation. Here was the story I knew and loved, prompting déjà vu and a several conversations with my father recalling that time together, but it was different. Somehow, in its text form, I was able to gather more information, but less of the feeling of the work. I had a greater understanding of the psychology of Bilbo’s adventure, but somehow less of the sweep of the adventure itself. This is especially apparent in “Riddles in the Dark,” the chapter in which Bilbo meets Gollum. I found a recording of Tolkien himself reading the chapter, and what a difference it makes to hear it aloud, instead of in the lonely confines of one’s own head!

My father, among other things, is an actor and a performer of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. More than any other poetry I’ve ever encountered, this work begs to be heard aloud. As he has the vast majority of Hopkins’ work memorised, my father and I would go for long walks in the fields near our house in England and pick them apart line by line, discovering new meanings and connections every time. There’s something in the sweep and sound of the words in the air that brings the poetry to life. On the page, the poetry is difficult, dense, and somewhat inaccessible, but as soon as it is heard aloud, it touches something deeper than its literal meaning can ever achieve. (And yes, that’s my Dad reading the poem)
As I have continued to fall deeper in love with literature and performance, my dad and I continue to read and discuss poetry together. I took a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost last year and we read it aloud to each other over Skype, and we have plans to do the same for Dante’s Inferno.

All this brings me (finally) to Thomas King, Harry Robinson, and Coyote.


The first thing that struck me upon looking at “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” was that it has been arranged on the page like poetry, in short lines with plenty of enjambment. Immediately, I took this as a cue to slow down as I read it, to treat it as poetry wherein every word matters, every punctuation mark and every turn of phrase is significant.

As I read, however, I found myself tripping up on the unconventional use of language, the colloquial phrases and ever-shifting pronouns that sometimes make it hard to determine the subject. I had a hard time following the story, and my brain kept trying to keep track of the narrative’s inconsistent timeline and the tiny details of the story.

As soon as I read it out loud, however, and even more so when I had a friend read it to me, the words took on a new quality. All of a sudden the minute details didn’t matter so much, and the shape of the story – how it dips, loops back on itself, and develops – became clearer. Its layout on the page changes the way it is read aloud in a way that would not normally be such a significant part of textual stories, forcing more pauses and different emphasis. As Thomas King mentions in his article “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” “the patterns, metaphors, structures as well as the themes and characters” in Robinson’s text “come primarily from oral literature,” which explains why it is so much more accessible in oral form (186).

The intersection between written and spoken stories is complicated further, of course, by the story’s content. Here we are, confronted with an oral voice in text form, and, what’s more, “an oral syntax that defeats readers’ efforts to read the stories silently to themselves, a syntax that encourages readers to read the stories out loud,” telling a story that speaks of the validity of textual documents (King 186). It’s confounding to encounter a story that has orality at its core but champions the authority of the written word. The law, the “Black and White,” is official precisely because it is written in books and preserved for centuries not through words and stories passed from one generation to another in oral form, but in writing that remains unchanged and constant.

Furthermore, the unconventional use of pronouns – shifting from “he” and “they” for example – challenges the mind of a reader like myself so used to European literature and form. Perhaps, the use of “they” in reference to Coyote, the King, the Queen, God, and others, reminds us that there really is no one subject, no protagonist, and no separation between them either. The subject becomes a little more vague, but this allows a greater flexibility in which the reader can learn to understand the subject as simply a part of the whole. Coyote is God, is the Angel, is the Queen, etc. Perhaps we’re not as separate as we like to believe, perhaps the European settlers and the Indigenous people really are twins. When I encountered this in written form, it confused me. When I heard it read aloud, it took on a new meaning and I understood a new facet of the story world.

This is just one small example of the possibilities inherent in the tension between written and spoken words. One is not more affecting than the other, but they have different qualities. The written word has the power to preserve stories that would otherwise be lost, an endeavour that was extremely important to the aging Harry Robinson who “perceived his death as a blow to the process of storytelling” and who worked hard to record and translate the stories so that they were accessible to a wide audience (Robinson 29). Oral tellings, on the other hand, keep the stories fresh and current, as each telling situates them within a contemporary context, and helps to maintain the connections between past and present. Robinson’s text provides a fascinating view of the intersections between the two forms, and the practice of presenting written stories out loud and oral stories on the page opens up opportunities for finding more common ground between cultures.

Works Cited:

“Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Poetry Foundation. Web. 26 June 2014.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover.” Bartleby. Web. 27 June 2014.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “”The Windhover” read by Richard Austin.” Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hopkins/windhover3.html. Web. 27 June 2014.

“J. R. R. Tolkien reads “Riddles in the Dark” (Whole – 29:52).” Online video clip. Youtube. YouTube, 5 Feb 2013. Web. 26 June 2014.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla Vs. Post-Colonial.” Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Mississauga, ON: Broadview, 2004. 183-190. Print.

Robinson, Harry. Living By Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.


2.2 Double, Double, Binary Trouble

Question #1: Dichotomies in Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories

The prevailing organisation of King’s arguments in The Truth About Stories is in a binary structure, and this perspective always bothered me. Surely, I thought, Thomas King of all people must know better than to present such complex ideas in dichotomies. Surely he must understand that ‘us-versus-them’ structures are more often destructive and limiting than enlightening or progressive. As a feminist, I am suspicious of binary representations of complex ideas, as experience has shown me that there are always more than just two sides to any story. Just as the idea that gender and sexuality are binaries denies the experiences of LGBTQ folk and excludes their voices from the cultural conversation, so too does arranging an understanding of where we come from around a binary structure exclude and deny the very real experiences of those who identify as neither one nor the other. This is an especially important consideration in the context of colonialism. It is tempting to want to separate and preserve distinct cultures in an attempt to better understand them, but more and more, we discover that there is no “us vs. them,” and what’s more, there never really has been. Now, more than ever, with the complex systems of cultural exchange and the harmful effects of residential schools (to name one of many colonial horrors), cultures and heritages are so blended that there is no way to separate one from another. It is surprising, therefore, to encounter this very approach to these ideas espoused by such a well-educated and respected authority on the subject of Indigenous hiStories.

Leanne Simpson writes in her book Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence that creation stories are important because “everything we need to know is encoded in the structure, content and context of these stories and the relationships, ethics and responsibilities required to be our own Creation Story” (33). In this light, creation stories are especially vital because they act like DNA codes, containing the seeds for everything we need to know, and informing our cultural identity.

King presents two opposing creation stories: “one about how Charm falls from the sky pregnant with twins and creates the world out of a bit of mud with the help of all the water animals, and another about God creating heaven and earth with his words, and then Adam and Eve and the Garden” (Paterson Lesson 2:2). He intentionally presents the Biblical creation story with an authoritative voice, and the “Earth Diver” story with a much more conversational storyteller’s voice, and analyses the two stories to demonstrate that the “Earth Diver” story celebrates community and collaboration, and the Genesis story prefers the authority of a single creative will and imposed hierarchal order.

The message seems to be that there is only one story or the other. You can only believe in the validity of cooperation OR competition, equality OR hierarchy, a worldview based on oppositions and dichotomies.
As I mentioned earlier, it seems strange that King would present these stories and worldviews in such a simplistic way, considering the oft-toted problematic nature of binary systems.

Perhaps it is a simplification that allows us to better understand one another. But it seems unlikely that King would want to pander to his readership by assuming that they are incapable of understanding complexity and hybridity.

Perhaps he seeks to demonstrate the basis of different cultural worldviews in order to more clearly demonstrate the complexity of issues that arise when these different cultures intersect. But that is assuming that there were only ever two parties to begin with: Indigenous peoples in Canada, far from being one homogenised group, are composed of hundreds of different nations, all with different ceremonies, creation stories, traditions, and languages, and there were as many different perceptions of settlers as there were individuals. Settlers themselves had many different intentions in what they called the “new world,” and very different attitudes towards the people that inhabited the land before them.

It is much easier to set up an argument by identifying an opposing view, but what happens when there are more than two sides to the conversation? What happens when there are as many sides as there are individual experiences? Life is much more complex than what fits into a convenient argument.

I don’t have an answer as to why King chose to present his argument in this way. I think perhaps he seeks to establish a basic understanding of two different perspectives to set the stage for a new appreciation of the complexities of their meeting. I also think that King is clever enough to know that many of his readers will be puzzled by this overly-simplistic, two-dimensional notion of us-versus-them, and be encouraged to look further into the various stories that flesh out the realities of “first contact,” challenging them to do their own work in order to take their understanding into a more three-dimensional vision of Indigenous/settler relations.


Works Cited:

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories. Toronto: House of Anansi P, 2003. Print.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 2:2, First Stories.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies Canadian Literary Genre 98A May 2014. UBC Blogs. n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.

Simpson, Leanne. “Theorizing Resurgence From Within Nishnaabeg Thought.” Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring P, 2011. Print.

“Understanding Gender.” Gender Spectrum. n.p. n.d. Web. 23 June 2014.

2:1 Come Home With Me

Home. What a subject to ponder.

Our class has some beautiful, heartwarming, heartwrenching stories about what ‘home’ means, and it’s been such a privilege to read stories of childhood, of displacement, of longing, of confusion, of safety, of comfort, and everything in between.

I took the liberty of reading many of the blogs submitted for the last assignment, but four in particular stood out to me. As a traveller and a settler myself, with no real sense of one particular place as home, I really resonated with Bára’s craving for the “space in between,” and the sense of belonging and not-belonging all at once. Home is found as much in language as it is in space or memory, and there is something about one’s “mother tongue” that holds a certain quality of home.

I was born in Vancouver and then spent seven years in the UK, before moving back to Canada and settling on the Sunshine Coast for five years, and then back to Vancouver for university. People frequently ask me where I consider “home” to be, and I have never had a definitive answer.

In many ways, Vancouver is home because it is the first place I have made home for myself on my own terms. It’s the place where I first called an electrician, dealt with landlords, and hosted family and friends in my own space, and so for that reason the city feels ‘mine’ in that I have a personal, individual relationship to it distinct from the influence of my family. That said, I have always felt like I don’t quite fit in the city – there’s a part of me that would love to run away and live on an organic farm for the rest of my life. The rolling hills of the English countryside that were such a haven during my early adolescence, the magnificent forests and mountains of Canada’s west coast, the south bank of the river Thames, the inside of an airplane, my family’s cabin on the Winnipeg River that has been the only constant ‘home’ throughout my life – these are all homes for me.


I build homes in my community, and in the people I hold dear to me. Home is in my yoga practice, in great works of literature, in a steaming cup of fine tea, in great conversation. Laura, too, “never learned to define home as a space” as a result of being a settler from a country that no longer exists, and she also touches on the politics of sexual expression as an alienating force. I have immense privilege in that I know my own queerness would not prevent me from finding safe spaces in either England or Canada, but I resonate with the sense of otherness and alienation from mainstream community that queerness creates. As Gloria Anzaldúa notes: “as a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races;” there is togetherness in otherness. This, too, is an important part of finding home.

Home is contained in memory, in the places we leave behind, in our imaginations. Rob writes about his childhood adventures in backyards and forests and the kind of home that is located in silence and aloneness. He touches on the idea that perhaps home is something we necessarily take for granted, and we never really know home until we leave.

Kayi‘s post about the multiplicity of homes raises an interesting point: that “it is a sense of invisibility that really gives a person a sense of home […] an invisibility that allows me to blend into the crowd, to walk down the street without being scrutinized.” Part of feeling ‘at home’ is a sense of comfortability and belonging, and this “invisibility” creates a certain amount of liberty. There is comfort in anonymity just as there is comfort in being recognised.

Other blogs touched on home being located in childhood, in familiar places, in the heartbeat of a loved one, in food, in laughter, in inside jokes, and, interestingly, in the “in-betweens” – the liminal spaces that are both pregnant and empty, a space of nothingness that contains limitless potential, like the space between breaths.


(Also thanks to Laura and Kayi – I must read more of Anzaldúa’s work when I have a chance!)


Works Cited:

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Towards a New Consciousness.”Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. 1987. 99-113. Print.

Hladíková, Bára. “HOME: Bohemia, Kootenai, and in between.” Canadian Literature. UBC Blogs. 12 June 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

Mars, Laura. “Assignment 2:1.” Our Home On Native Land – English 470A. UBC Blogs. 11 June 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.

Rose, Rob. “2.1 – Home.” Here Is Somewhere Else. UBC Blogs. 11 June 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

Wong, Kayi. “2.1: Home(s).” ENGL 47oA Canadian Studies. UBC Blogs. 11 June 2014. Web. 16 June 2014.

2:1 To Build A Home

Where the doors are moaning all day long,
Where the stairs are leaning dusk ’til dawn,
Where the windows are breathing in the light,
Where the rooms are a collection of our lives

“That Home” – The Cinematic Orchestra

It’s that old house on the corner – the one with the peeling paint and the whispers clinging to the edges of the windows.
Go ahead, just up that staircase around the back of the house. It seems rickety, but it’ll hold. It gets narrower and steeper at the top, until it feels more like a ladder than a staircase, and all of a sudden you’re clinging to the side of the building, blending in with the vertical carpet of ivy that embraces the walls.
Once you find your way to the little door at the top, go ahead and let yourself in; you’re expected.
The door might need a little extra push – don’t worry, you won’t bring the walls down. That’s it.

Welcome to the attic, the haven. It’s filled from top to bottom with the most glorious light.

You’re right at the top of the house now, so the walls do double-duty and act as ceiling too, meeting in the middle to form an A-frame. On the east side the wall is sloped right down to the floor at a 45 degree angle, and features two generous skylights that look out on the terracotta roofs and function like drum skins for rain-fingers and filters for sunbeams. On the west side, about two-thirds of the wall slopes down from the centre point of the ceiling to meet the floor, and the other third of the wall comes right down vertically from the apex of the ceiling, making the room much narrower on this end.
This one vertical wall houses a glass door that leads out onto a south-facing balcony overrun by a tangled hallelujah of plants, where flowers, culinary herbs, vegetables, and vines clamour for attention.
This is the best place for thunderstorms. You can watch the lighting rip the sky open, feel the air tremble with the force of the rumbling; tip your head back in the pouring rain and wash yourself clean of everything that came before.

Come back inside for a moment, though. The kettle whistles on the gas stove, fogging up the window with all its enthusiasm. There’s a fresh pot of tea on the scrubbed wooden table, and wildflowers in a mason jar. Strung from the ceiling are rows and rows of drying herbs, and the walls are lined with jars of various teas, herbs to soothe any ailment, homemade jam, and bottles of sweet blackberry wine.

The space is small, but lived-in and comfortable. It has the quality of nestling around you in your aloneness, giving you space to breathe your solitude and delight in the sweet softness of quiet mornings, but it can also open up to house the hearts of dozens of dear ones, the rafters ringing with laughter, poetry, song, and the art of friendship.
Scraps of paper congregate on the fridge, holding snippets of poetry waiting to grow up, while scores of well-loved books and partly-finished art projects line the walls. There’s a hammock under one of the skylights for reading with a little table for your teacup, generous space on the worn hardwood for yoga, for dancing, for rolling around in fits of giggles, and a fireplace against the far wall where the stories gather.

A slender ladder leads up to a sleeping loft, built on a platform that holds a nest of feathers and pillows. Sleeping there, right under the skylight, is pretty close to sleeping under the stars – but also a lot warmer and drier for when it rains, and the pattering of water hitting glass soothes the throb of the city from the fibres of your muscles.

Welcome home. Make yourself comfortable. Rest, revive, re-inspire, replenish. This is a sacred place. A place for nourishment, for dirty jokes, for howling at the moon, for wild discoveries, for bittersweet remembrance, for community, for aloneness.

The woman who lives here might be a witch. No one seems to know for certain just how old she is, but there’s something in her patient gaze that makes you feel like she sees right down to the bottom of who you are, and loves you fiercely all the way through.
Home has always been a tricky concept for her. She moved around a lot as she grew up, crossing oceans, packing boxes; she was used to being the new kid. When her parents separated and her family broke apart, the tenuous concept of ‘home’ as a specific place dissolved entirely.
So she learned to build it herself, but not in the way you might expect. She has never settled in one place for long, and instead she builds home in people, in communities, in her own habits and patterns of being. She finds home on the yoga mat, in the stretching and strengthening of muscle and sinew, in the shower, in the forest, in the company of loved ones, in cups of tea.

She carries home with her wherever she goes. This little attic space is a distillation of all the homes in her heart, and, precious though it may be, don’t think for a moment that she wouldn’t just get up one day and leave it all behind. It is never lost, you see. The memories may be anchored in space and time but they’re safeguarded in shared experience and in art, and they work their ways into the essence of her being and come to rest like fine wrinkles on her skin, writing the map of her life across her body for anyone who takes the time to read it.


Works Cited:

The Cinematic Orchestra. That Home – Cinematic Orchestra (Extended Full Version).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 8 May 2011. Web. 8 June 2014.

The Wine Pages. “Blackberry Wine Recipe and Tips – Homemade Homebrew Blackberry Wine.” The Wine Pages. n.d. Web. 9 June 2014.

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