Books · Colonisation · Political

I’ve heard it now

The Truth About Stories: A Native NarrativeThe Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are

Here are stories tumbled out variously conversational, oratory and literary. King hands them over, generously, and reminds me that they cannot be unread; they go with me now, marks on my chest. I feel them swirl about me like a cloak, keeping out no weather, but turning back temptations to hard-heartedness and despair

He starts by comparing a Native creation myth, which presents a universe governed by co-operations that celebrate equality and balance, with the one in Genesis, which offers a universe of hierarchies and celebrates law, order, power and obedience. You’ve heard this before? King tells it better. If you see the world as the Bible paints it, he points out, you can’t see the other version, where the good/evil binary, the deviance of woman, the subjugation of the Other, just make no sense.

I thought it was interesting that King didn’t talk about that other story about the creation of the world, the one from the tradition of science. (In a way he did, because he has the sea animals thinking physics. Perhaps this is a smart way of showing how scientific learning fits into story-pedagogy.) Maybe this is different, as it’s a story whose many tellers want to agree, and argue fiercely over the details, instead of just sitting back and enjoying the other version. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel C Dennett argues that the theory of evolution upended the hierarchy of mind (and God) over matter.

Ignoring its Greek pagan roots, our science mainly drew nourishment as it grew from the ‘Western’ tradition whose creation myth has one Dude in the sky making the Earth and its creatures. It has struggled to place or negate Him in its tale. In the abstract, to its proponents, it is a search for truth, correspondence, coherence… what lessons does it teach? On the one hand it presents the universe as a book open to read by anyone, yet dissent is only permissible insofar as it serves the effort to erase previous errors. At least science does not burn its heretics.

Perhaps this is all irrelevant! King’s use of physics ideas acknowledges their importance, as tools, as bits of knowledge without ethical freight. But of late I have felt that we are so often presented with an idealised conception of science, and that science is so often invoked to shield some destructive activity. I must read Bad Science.

Indigenous activist organiser and writer Andrea Smith points out in this essay that one of the logics of white supremacy is the genocide of indigenous people: the original inhabitants of colonised lands must disappear to make space for the colonisers. King has so many stories that bear this out, long and short, sad and enraging, told with a lightness that only makes them more weighty. Laws, wars, broken promises, and above all colonial myth-making (scientific racism, and the constructed tragic, noble, vanishing Indian) are marshalled against First Nation people. In this context even to stay alive is an act of resistance. And to tell your tale much more so…

If King is right then how you live, how you treat people, depends on the stories you believe. While I was in the middle of the book I heard a talk on the radio about the stories of refugees. Agnes Woolley points out that often the life-chances and even the survival of such people depends on their ability ‘to tell a good story’. But she also says that we need other stories than the bearing-witness to trauma that mediates survival: we also need the ones that make life worth living.

I heard a story about a migrant on the radio another time. It was about a young man who fell from an aeroplane when the wheel compartment he was hiding in opened before landing. He was probably dead from cold before he fell. The neighbourhood where his body was found was moved; they laid flowers, told his story, found his former partner, learned about his life. Looking at the British newspapers, the irony of this is agonising: what would the reaction have been if he had arrived alive? King wonders aloud (as Baldwin did in
The Fire Next Time
) why North Americans fail to live the ethics they espouse, except on rare occasions when a story captures their imaginations. The British are just the same.

This review is a ramble. I’m trying not to say the crass cheesy thing I should have said, which is Read This. Because it just might change your life.

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