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.
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.