Within the last 20 years, the growth in First Nations literature and theatre has been both impressive and voluminous. But I'm starting to notice a surprising trend occurring wherever scribes gather to talk about their craft. I'm sure it's unintentional, but I can't help noticing a unique form of literary segregation - and boy, am I ambivalent about it. A few months ago at the Lakefield Literary Festival, two writers and I were programmed into a discussion called First Nations Writers: Then And Now. It consisted of myself, Kateri-Akiwenzie Damm and the well-known biographer Charlotte Gray, who to the best of my knowledge is not native but had written an excellent book called Flint & Feather: The Life And Times Of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. I guess that gave Gray the necessary credentials.
Then I was invited to read at the Eden Mills Authors Festival just outside of Guelph with Tom King and many other talented aboriginal writers. We were scheduled in what was called the "aboriginal area." A non-native friend of mine who attended thought the "aboriginal area" sign suggested marginalization.
I couldn't help wondering aloud if this "apartness" is necessarily a good thing, but I also acknowledge what a confusing issue it is. I enjoy and look forward to reading and participating with aboriginal brother and sister writers since we all share many of the same origins and inspirations. But then again, are we ghettoizing ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be ghettoized?
George Elliott Clarke, one of Canada's leading black poets and authors, was also at Eden Mills, but I don't remember seeing an Afro-Canadian area. In a conversation we had some time back, he did acknowledge some Mi'kmaq blood from his Nova Scotia ancestors. Maybe he should have read with us.
Don't get me wrong. As an author I'm damn glad to be invited anywhere literature (native or non-native) is celebrated. Both festivals were fabulously run and I came away with only good memories and new friends. I should also point out the Eden Mills aboriginal area was first conceived by the town's First Nations residents who wanted to highlight and honour native voice and word. As I said, the questions get complicated, and more so for me since I have now been asked to program next year's native component.
Several years ago I was asked to read at the famous Toronto International Authors Festival. I opened for the American author E.L. Doctorow. I was just another writer hanging out with a couple other writers.
More recently, the perception of native people in the writing world has become even more complex, if that's possible. Once, not long ago, we were a tragically oppressed, depressed and suppressed minority struggling to reclaim our voice. Contracts were put out on W.P. Kinsella, and woe to the non-native person who dared to create a story in an aboriginal context. Nowa- days, the definition of native voice has become more watery.
At the Weesageechak Begins To Dance Festival last weekend, I and several other First Nations playwrights poured our hearts out at a panel entitled Dances With Mainstream. The discussion was about getting aboriginal voices out into the dominant culture.
As soon as the session ended, I immediately caught a bus to Peterborough to participate in yet another seminar, this one sponsored by Pen Canada. The subject there was Splitting Heres: Literary Elucidations Of Exile, Refuge, Voice And Identity. So if I understand this properly, in the morning, I was the expert on going mainstream, then a couple of hours later, and a hundred or so kilometres away, I represented the problems of the ethnically oppressed. How do you dress for something like that? Just make sure your shirt, made by famous Haida designer Dorothy Grant wasn't made in a Filipino sweatshop.