“Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.”
Thomas King is one of my favourite authors and I was thrilled to learn that he was to give a reading and talk in Ottawa. On the evening of March 6th, a sold out audience of about 1,000 congregated at the Centretown United Church to listen to Mr. King read from his most recent book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada, November 2012) and to field questions from Waubgeshig Rice, author and broadcast journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and from the audience. The event was co-sponsored by a host of organizations, among others: Octopus Books one of the only remaining independent bookstores in the city; Random House of Canada; and a number of local Aboriginal organizations, including, the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health and the Odawa Native Friendship Centre.
My initiation to the work of this author, activist and academic was through his highly acclaimed novel Green Grass, Running Water (Bantam Books, 1993) and the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour a radio series that he wrote and produced, and which premiered in 1997 and ran for three consecutive years on the CBC’s Radio One. Characterised as irreverent comedy that pokes fun at Indian stereotypes, the Dead Dog Café borrows numerous elements from the novel Green Grass, Running Water, including the fictional café of the same name which is set in the equally fictional town of Blossom, Alberta, but with different characters. In Dead Dog Café, Mr. King plays himself and is the straight man and third wheel to Jasper Friendly Bear (played by Floyd Favel Starr) and Gracie Heavy Hand (played by Edna Rain). The CD box set of Dead Dog Café has become a listening staple during our annual road trips.
My next intersection with the author’s work came by way of the published version of his Massey Lectures, which he delivered in 2003. Mr. King was the first indigenous person to be invited to do so and in all he delivered five lectures under the title The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (House of Anansi Press Inc., 2003) to different audiences across Canada. In keeping with the Native oral tradition of storytelling, Mr. King begins each of the lectures with a Native creation story of a pregnant sky woman who falls to the water world and with the help of various water animals builds the earth (Turtle Island) upon which she can deliver her twins. He uses this story in each lecture to weave through his own personal history as a Native American and that of the colonization of the Americas, illuminating upon the impacts of colonization on First Nations (or Native Americans in the United States) and of Canada and the United States’ relationship with its Native peoples. The Massey Lectures are eloquently subversive and they remain my favourite body of work by this author.
Over the years I have read Mr. King’s books for my personal knowledge, understanding and growth. It was an absolute pleasure for me to attend his reading from his latest book, The Inconvenient Indian, which has been described as both “a history and the complete subversion of history” and “a critical and personal mediation…about what it means to be ‘Indian’ in North America.” In his responses to questions from Mr. Rice and the audience on his experiences as a writer and activist and his views on First Nations issues, Mr. King was quite gracious and erudite and that rye sense of humour that is woven throughout his stories comes naturally.
Thomas Hunt King was born in 1943 in Sacramento, California. His father was Cherokee and his mother Greek, and he holds dual (American/Canadian) citizenship. Mr. King received a PhD in English Literature from the University of Utah and went on to teach Native Studies at the University of Minnesota, where he became the Chair of American Indian Studies. In 1980, Mr. King emigrated to Canada which has since become his adoptive home. He has taught Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta) and Native Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Guelph (Ontario).
In addition to Green Grass, Running Water, which made a splash in Canadian literature and earned him his second Governor-General’s Award nomination, The Truth About Stories and The Inconvenient Indian, his other widely-acclaimed novels include Medicine River (Penguin Books, 1990), and A Coyote Columbus Story (Groundwood Books, 1992), a children’s book for which he received his first Governor-General’s Award nomination. He is the editor of All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) and co-editor of The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives, in the academic journal American Indian Quarterly (University of Nebraska Press, 1992).