As a First Nations writer of fiction and non-fiction, and frequent lecturer on the university/college and conference circuit, I am commonly asked about my political persuasion. Do I swing left, right, or am I more ambidextrous?
Once, as I sat on a panel between former Prime Minister Paul Martin and former Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman, I was asked the first question of the session by a student from Lakehead University whose class was studying some of my work. Her class was trying to decide if I was intentionally a subversive writer, or was that a byproduct of my writing process, sort of developing an accidental political agenda. I guess that’s better than no political agenda.
First of all, I was flattered and surprised. I have been called many things over the years—both personally and professionally—but never a subversive writer. It’s amazing what you can achieve with a community college degree.
Looking a little broader, authors like Ralph Nader ran for president. Karl Marx, through his writing, created a whole new economic and political structure. Mao had his little red book.
Hitler had Mein Kampf. Ayn Rand used fiction to further her personal beliefs. Not a group of authors I am normally associated with, but as usual, I am probably overreacting.
My usual response to queries like this is to point out that I don’t believe I am intentionally trying to change the world. I just want to tell stories about the world that created me and that I live in, the good and the bad parts of that society. I have been known to respond “I am not political by choice. I am political by nature. Being born Native in this country is a political act or statement in itself. The majority of what I write is merely reacting to my environment.”
Most of the time that will suffice, because there are many other better educated and intelligent Native authors out there that are far more controversial and openly opinionated. They enjoy rocking the canoe. Me, I just want to tell a good story. And like all good stories, some have a strong point of view that highlight uncomfortable issues, and some are just a tale worth telling, to make you laugh or cry.
Recently, I was taken to task for that attitude. It happened in an Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto over dinner. I remember the night specifically. It was late spring. The temperature was around 15 degrees. The sky was clear. The Maple Leafs were playing the Rangers. I had $53 in my pocket and a subway token. My socks actually matched.
I was having dinner with my girlfriend and two friends who had brought with them a noted and respected author, all from India. Technically, we were a table of Indians. The author’s name was Sharankumar Limbale. He was one of India’s foremost Dalit writers.
‘Dalit’ refers to writers from India’s untouchable and Indigenous communities. The word actually means “crushed” or “ground under” and they are at the bottom of the caste system.
Understandably, he writes about their conditions and experiences. I have been told his writings are very much affected by his political understandings of history, location and current reality of India’s Dalit community. His work is critical and aggressive.
Immediately he wanted to talk turkey, though we were not having turkey. He had been previously informed that I was a novelist and playwright, and immediately asked if I was a political writer, one who wrote about the status and issues of my people. I responded with my ‘not political by choice’ argument, and, for a moment, he actually looked perplexed. That rationale did not hold with him. To be honest, I am certain he felt my explanation was a cop-out.
His first comment was to ask about my ‘commitment’, I assume, to the ‘cause’. I do not think he believed in accidental subversives. Either you are or you aren’t. Cultural and social commentary should not be a mere consequence of writing.
From there I countered with my argument that I have always considered myself to be a contemporary storyteller. Once again he looked perplexed before saying to my friend “he tells… folk tales?” That seemed to be the only two ends of the spectrum.
In Canada, and, specifically, in the First Nations’ community, there seems to be all different ways and manners to affect change in this world. In some cases you can scream about the evils of the world standing on a soap box, or you can subtly craft a story that will influence people without them knowing.
There’s more than one way to ruin dinner. (A new metaphor I am trying to start).
After all, it’s a complex world.