Funny You Don't Look Like One / Traplines

Funny You Don't Look Like One: Observations from a Blue-Eyed Ojibway
By Drew Hayden Taylor.
Theytus Books, Penticton, 129 pages, $12.95.

By Eden Robinson.
Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto, 214 pages, $26.

Beside this fall's torrent of new releases by such established CanLit names as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Guy Vanderhaeghe are surfacing the first works of a new stream of storytellers. These tributaries (to pursue the metaphor) bring to the mainstream a strange dark silt and unknown forms of life. Their writers are young, urban, and native.

Drew Hayden Taylor is best known for his work as a playwright and director. He has also written for TV shows like Street Legal and North of Sixty. Funny, You Don't Look Like One is a collection of articles published previously in newspapers and magazines on subjects as diverse as Disney's Pocahontas ("never let facts get in the way of a good story"), powwow food trends (upscale items like the "Indian burger" are emerging-"I hope made by real Indians, not from real Indians"), and the First Nations singles scene. The topics bridge aboriginal and European culture as cautiously as Taylor himself: "I've spent too many years explaining who and what I am repeatedly, so as of this moment, I officially secede from both races. I plan to start my own separate nation. Because I am half Ojibway, and half Caucasian, we will be called the Occasions. And of course, since I'm founding the new nation, I will be a Special Occasion."

Funny, You Don't Look Like One has many such humorous moments, allaying guilt on both sides of the racial coin and arguing passionately for an acceptance of all people as complex individuals, part of humanity's turbulent eddies.

Traplines, by Vancouver writer Eden Robinson, also infuses humour into the sometimes bleak native life, on and off reserve. As Taylor writes (in an essay called "North of Sixty, South of Accurate"): "Throughout the horrific times, one of the things that has allowed us to face and overcome tragedies is our sense of humour. Read the works of most Native writers, and even in the deepest darkest moments of their characters' lives there is always a flash of humour."

Robinson is such a writer. In four longish short stories she details shades of darkness ranging from a cold pitch black to, oh, a cozy warm pitch black. All four present protagonists at odds with their families, their communities, and, heartbreakingly, with what few faint glimmers of redemption or salvation exist in their desperate lives. In Traplines's title story, Will is caught between life on the reserve, living with a murderously sadistic brother and absent/abusive parents, and life in town with his well-meaning white teacher. Will's allegiances to his friends and even to his hopeless family erode his ability to embrace any escape education might offer as quickly as they abrade the last of his self-confidence. His final meeting with his teacher closes the story with the rumbling echo of a cell door locking out the light.

Like all Robinson's stories, "Traplines" denies the myth that nature, family, and spirituality will counterbalance the violence and distrust that its characters endure. The title comes from Will's trips into the bush with his father to empty their traps, and trips into the bush and traps both figure strongly as metaphors for Will's inescapable destiny.

Robinson's writing is skeletal, skinned of adjectives. She builds impossible situations out of so few words that her characters have no excess to cling to. Will describes a friend: " 'Can you imagine a townie wanting anything to do with him?' Craig says. 'She's just doing it for a joke. She's going to dump him in a week.' I see it now. There's a space around Billy. No one is going near him. He doesn't notice. Same with me. I catch some guys I used to hang out with grinning at me. When they see me looking at them, they look away."

His description echoes the empty space that keeps Robinson's every noun isolated and untouchable. Her stories are thrillingly horrible to read because every cruelty and despair is pure and sparkling.

Each of the collection's stories presents a young character (always sick, always isolated) who sees one exit after another shut: family, friends, lovers, education, drugs, suicide, religion, all reject any possibility of salvation. The net effect is admittedly depressing but, like Taylor, Robinson has laid claim to literary ground that is important and new.

- Literascape, 1996