It’s Massey Lecture review time again! I’m on break in Whitehorse without my own internet connection (I’m sending this from the public library), so I’ve had all the time in the world to catch up on reading the books I want to read rather than ones I have to read. It’s been a welcome change. After repeated recommendations, I’ve gotten around to reading Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories: a Native Narrative (2003). I remember listening to King when he was a cast member on The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour on CBC radio, but I missed the lecture itself, something I need to rectify by pulling it off the Ideas website in the near future.
As you might expect from the subtitle, The Truth about Stories is about the interactions and contradictions between stories about Native Americans by the settler population and those told by Native Americans about themselves. The construction of Native identity has, in no small part, been dictated from the outside, to the point where the “true Indian” of the American Romantics displaced the self-identity of Native peoples. The “dying Indian” motif wrote the living Indians out of the North American narrative, appropriated a noble past in North America for the descendants of European settlers while leaving the various groups of Native peoples with no apparent future. The figural Indian, however, has little basis in history—an entire continent worth of widely differing cultures essentialized into one single group, best exemplified by Karl May’s Apaches. May never saw a Native American, his Apaches were an amalgam of cultural markers stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, yet King recalls a German doubting if the author was a true Indian because he didn’t match May’s descriptions, eventually allowing that King was a half-breed and therefore diluted from the “real thing.”
Narrative, as we know, is a powerful thing. And King shows how Native Americans have bowed to the overwhelming presence of the narratives constructed by others, having to perform as a “true Indian” according to the dictates of someone else’s story to be recognized within American society.
King sums up his exploration of story’s importance to how humans see the world in his oft-repeated phrase: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (2). The depth of narrative thinking in the human brain attests to what seems, on the surface, a rather simple thing. In my last term at McGill, I had a course on Historiography focused on narrative theory and this point was hammered home repeatedly by thinkers from Aristotle, to Augustine, to Louis Mink, to Hayden White, to Paul Ricoeur, to Meier Sternberg, to etc. etc. But none express themselves quite as directly as the Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri (Perhaps because he is a storyteller, rather than a philosopher, though I can scarce see the difference now), whom King quotes:
In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly, in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (qtd. 154, from A Way of Being Free, 46)
King expands on this: that the fundamental stories of western civilization are destructive, and the only way to change our current sad situation is to change our governing narratives. As narratives, however unconsciously, dictate how we think, just as much as language does. The two are deeply related, after all. While stories can be dangerous, they are also wondrous, and they’re all we have. For all the bleakness of the Native American story King tells, there is also a profound sense of hope: that we can change the stories we tell; that by simply telling a story, we can also change reality for the better.
A needed message, I think. While separated by a few years, I think The Truth about Stories and Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words (2007) are best read together as companion pieces, both reflecting on the power of stories and carrying the same message.
Needless to say, I’ll be looking for more books in the Massey Lectures series when I can find them.