Spring Books 2008 Writer's Profile: Lee Maracle
The surprising thing about the new anthology Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality (Douglas & McIntyre, $22.95) is that it’s so full of humour. With the intergenerational effects of the residential-school system and the sexual censure that came with European settlement, there aren’t too many topics that are more difficult to discuss—yet many of the writers in this collection have taken a comic tack.
“Have you ever been in a car accident where nobody was hurt?” asks North Vancouver–born author, poet, and editor Lee Maracle, one prominent contributor to the anthology. “You know, the cars are really bashed up, and everybody starts laughing because you’re so frickin’ relieved? There’s some of that going on here, I think.” Maracle, a member of the Sto:lo Nation, is speaking to the Straight from her office at the University College of the Fraser Valley’s Abbotsford campus, where she recently accepted a permanent faculty position.
“Aboriginal people are very fearful of our sexuality right now. Not just from the abuses of the residential-school system, but for so long our sexuality was maligned, our very moral fibre was maligned,” Maracle says. “Your sexuality is so powerful as an adult that if you have to hide from it for a century or so, the journey back to it, the unravelling, is fraught with lots of difficulty. But when you come to it, you’re left with the humour. So we’re all looking at this car wreck going, ”˜Just look where we’ve been. How the hell did we get here?’ ”
And then she laughs, a great wave of belly-busting hilarity that makes it suddenly obvious how both sex and laughter, those two things we tend to think of as entirely personal, are also such powerful political gestures: who has sex, with whom, and how; and who gets to laugh, at what, and when. With the book compiled and edited by Ojibwa playwright and all-around funny guy Drew Hayden Taylor, Me Sexy proves once again not just how subversive but how restorative laughter can be.
“Aboriginal people have found a way to laugh ourselves through just about every kind of horrific condition and survive,” Maracle says. Always an outspoken advocate of women’s and Native rights, she delivers a knockout punch with her blend of essay and short story, “First Wives Club: Salish Style”, a hilarious riff on how Salish women saved each other from a devastating flood by climbing to the top of a mountain. They knew that it would take many women—but only one man—to repopulate the village.
“The heroes in most of our flood stories are women,” Maracle writes. “Sisters who saved elders, other sisters, their children”¦the women did not generally rescue men; at least if they did rescue a man, the story did not get handed down in my family.” When a lone man paddles up to shore one day, a crafty woman lures him into her lean-to and gets pregnant, but when the paddler returns each year, she refuses to tell him where all those annoying, ugly babies are coming from. Eventually, the woman introduces her lover to the other women on the mountain and is happy to let them share their beds with him, as long as they all agree not to tell him where babies come from.
“First Wives Club” conveys the traditional power of women in Salish culture, as well as their sexual independence, but also subtly and humorously tackles present-day issues related to Native women. Maracle writes, “First Nations people, particularly 55+ women, are not billed as sexy anywhere by anyone.” Now 57, the author—who reads at a B.C. Book and Magazine Week–sponsored event at the Western Front on April 24—came to the project intending to overturn stereotypes still in play today. But both in conversation and in print, Maracle plays the trickster, offering trenchant political analysis between jokes and laughter.
“Humans are constantly reinventing themselves, but First Nations people have been less entitled than everyone else to reinvent ourselves,” she says. “We’re always being pressed to be authentic aboriginal people. But put on a bustle if you’re going to talk to me like that. In fact, in our origin story, we’re to gather new stories and create new stories. So our creation story calls upon us to constantly transform. I think that’s who we are.
“I felt after I wrote this piece that I had always wanted to write it. I was laughing and having so much fun doing it. You can’t get away from it—sex is really funny. There you are, rutting away. You’d better be able to laugh about it. Otherwise, you’re not going to get through it,” Maracle says, laughing. Laughing really hard.