In The Truth about Stories, Thomas King, a Native novelist and professor of English at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, explores creation stories, Native history, racism, and the image of the “Indian.” King is upfront with his opinion about narrative: “The truth about stories,” he claims, “is that that’s all we are” (2 and passim). We tell stories, he says, to inform ourselves about where we’re from, where we’re going, and who we are along the way. In this series of essays, originally delivered as the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto, King is funny, eclectic, smart, searching, straightforward and, I’m convinced, right: we are our stories.
However, readers looking for evidence in support of King’s claim that we narrate our lives will have to look elsewhere. The Truth about Stories is highly subjective and anecdotal, and full of bold claims like this one: “‘You can’t understand the world without telling a story,’ the Anishinabe writer Gerald Vizenor tells us. ‘There isn’t any center to the world but a story’” (32). But one only has to look just outside of literary studies (where narrative theory is weak, bound, as it is, to an antiquated misconception of identity between “plot,” “story,” and “narrative”) to find powerful support for King’s claim. Narrative, Ochs and Capps write in an interdisciplinary review of the literature on the centrality and importance of story, “is born out of experience and gives shape to experience. In this sense, narrative and self are inseparable. Self is here broadly understood to be an unfolding reflective awareness of being-in-the-world, including a sense of one’s past and future…. We come to know ourselves as we use narrative to apprehend experiences and navigate relationships with others” (Annual Review of Anthropology 1996:20-21).
It’s precisely King’s subjectivity that makes The Truth about Stories so fascinating and worthwhile. The book is, in fact, composed entirely of stories, making it not only a primer on narrative concerns within the Native community but also a more general meta-commentary on the socio-political workings of narrative. Take, for example, the story of a character King names “Charm”: she’s a sort of subatomic particle, a quark, if you will, who cooperates in the process of the creation of Earth. Charm starts off on another planet. She’s a very curious woman and one day, while looking for something new and different to eat, she pokes her head into a “hole so she could get a better view” of what might be available there (13). But, of course, she falls through the hole, and down she goes “into the sky. Uh-oh, Charm thought to herself. That wasn’t to smart” (13). She falls toward the blue-green marble that is Earth: a planet covered entirely with water. Students of Native stories will instantly recognize this story as a version of the Mud Diver creation story. For once Charm splashes down on the watery Earth, all the animals—who really love living in the water—help Charm to find some mud upon which to stand.
This creation story, King points out, stands in stark contrast to the one found in Genesis:
A theologian might argue that these two creation stories are essentially the same. Each tells about the creation of the world and the appearance of human beings. But a storyteller would tell you that these two stories are quite different, for… the elements in Genesis create a particular universe governed by a series of hierarchies… that celebrate law, order, and good government, while in our Native story, the universe is governed by a series of co-operations… that celebrate equality and balance. (23-24)
Charm “falls” to Earth, but this creation of Earth as we know it is not the “Fall” as it is in Genesis. These are both stories, and as stories they inform our way of knowing: story is all we are not only ontologically (as Ochs and Capps imply in the passage cited above) but epistemologically as well. King avoids the obvious follow-on to this insight—which world would you rather live in?—because he doesn’t want to be “Thomas King the duck-billed platitude” (27). Neither does he claim that he’s stumbled on something new and original here. The onto-epistemological centrality of narrative, he suggests throughout, is ancient news to Natives. But it may be news to Western culture, since scholars in the Western tradition (such as “cranky old Jacque Derrida” ) have made a big pile of hay out of it in recent decades.
Of course, narrative can also be deceptive. Wars are started by telling lies, a pernicious genre of story that maims and kills. Knowledge, after all, is power, and narrative is epistemological. The history of North America is awash in a sea of narrative blood—but also real blood, the blood of Natives murdered and then buried under the shifting sands of white man’s lies. In The Truth about Stories King, himself half Native and half European, is particularly concerned with “the Indian… in mind” (chapter 2). It was a painful realization, he says, to grow up not looking Native (and in California, no less, where virtually all traces of Native culture have been assimilated by the image-machine of Western culture). The image-machine mows down everything in its path and “In the end, there is no reason for the Indian to be real. The Indian simply has to exist in our imagination. But for those of us who are Indians, this disjunction between reality and imagination is akin to life and death” (54). The semiotics of identity, then, “form[s] a kind of authenticity test, a racial-realty game that contemporary Native people are forced to play” (55). King, here, isn’t in the business of proffering solutions; he’s telling us what he knows about the world by telling us his stories. For anybody who has ever wondered and struggled with cultural identity (which far too few of us have), it’s easy to step into King’s shoes and keep the story going.
Another story he tells is one that cuts right through all real and imagined cultural boundaries, and it’s one he sums up in a single fragment: “Sanctioned Addictive Drugs and Banned Addictive Drugs” (157). Why, I wonder along with this deeply thoughtful writer, is the use of alcohol—by anybody’s measure clearly a toxin—merely sanctioned (that is, for use by those over 21 except while operating heavy machinery, such as cars) while cannabis—an ancient medicine—is banned? Why does Western culture continue to tell itself so many lies? Why, to return to the contrast between Charm’s cooperative mud divers and the Book of Genesis, are we stuck with brutal, hierarchical Yahweh when we could have gentle, neighbor-loving Jesus? It would be best to weep over these questions, I think, and to taste the salt of experience before rushing forth with policy decisions in lieu of considered answers. It would be best, I think, to read along with King as he suggest that “The magic of Native literature—as with other literatures—is not in the themes of the stories—identity, isolation, loss, ceremony, community, maturation, home—it is in the way meaning is refracted by cosmology, the way understanding is shaped by cultural paradigms” (112).
Thomas King, I read you loud and clear. I hope others will take up this little book and meditate on its various implications. I hope we’ll take King’s stories and do with them what we will, but not say “in the years to come that [we] would have lived [our] lives differently if only [we] had heard [his] stories” sooner (passim). We’ve heard them now.
This review was originally published in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, vol. 6, no 2, Aug. 2005, University of Wales Aberystwyth, Dept. of Theatre, Film and Television Studies