The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Inconvenient IndianThomas King explains in the Prologue called Warm Toast and Porcupines that “the underlying narrative is a series of conversations and arguments that I have been having with myself and others for most of my adult life, and if there is any methodology in my approach to the subject, it draws more on storytelling techniques than historiography. A good historian would have tried to keep biases under control. A good historian would have tried to keep personal anecdotes in check. A good historian would have provided footnotes.

I have not.”

He continues: “And, while I’m making excuses, I suppose I should apologize if my views cause anyone undue distress. But I hope we can agree that any discussion of Indians in North America is likely to conjure up a certain amount of rage. And sorrow. Along with moments of irony and humour.”

I love it that he puts the “u” in humour!

Also in the Prologue there follows an interesting discussion about terminology and in particular about the word “Indian”. King says he doesn’t “see that one term is much better or worse than another” and that he is fond of “First Nations” (“the current term of choice in Canada”) and “Native Americans” (“the fashionable preference in the United States”). His conclusion? “For all its faults and problems – especially in Canada – “Indian,”as a general designation, remains for me, at least, the North American default.” This neat clarification of issues of terminology sets the stage nicely for a discussion in which every one knows where the author stands and, I think, very successfully and cleverly defuses the likelihood of arousing ire that clouds the much bigger issues/questions to be considered.

Then he goes on to clarify a much more important matter: “While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”

The final point clarified in the Prologue is an interesting one: why did King decide to “to take on both Canada and the United States at the same time.” This is what he has to say: “For most Aboriginal people, that line doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of someone else’s imagination. Historical figures such as Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull and Louis Riel moved back and forth between the two countries, and while they understood the importance of that border to Whites, there is nothing to indicate that they believed in its legitimacy.

I get stopped every time I try to cross that border, but stories go wherever they please.”

Chapter One(Forget Columbus) starts out with a quotation from a work by Jeanette Armstrong which is particulary well chosen for this work:

Out of the belly of Christopher’s shipKing #2
a mob bursts
Running in all directions
Pulling furs off animals
Shooting buffalo
Shooting each other

Pioneers and traders
bring gifts
Smallpox, Seagrams
and rice krispies
Civilization has reached
the promised land.

My apologies if that’s too many quotations so far: I really do believe the words of the author and the work of others he or she chooses to include speaks strongly about the character of the book itself so you need to sample those two things much more than you need to listen to me . Like his definition of history: “History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.
And we’re not easily embarrassed.”

King suggests we forget about Columbus and start our historical account in Almo, Idaho. He’s never been there he says and neither has Christopher Columbus nor Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortes. He thinks Sacajewea along with Lewis and Clark might have passed through the area but the town wasn’t yet built. All Almo is famous for, he writes, is an Indian massacre in which almost 300 westward bound immigrants were killed. A plaque commemorates the event. More statistics are presented about massacres and these are followed by some figures for massacres which were not about Indians doing the killing including one in 1598 in New Mexico in which 800 Acoma and the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five was cut off. These are extremely sobering statistics.

Oh and yes, apparently the Almo massacre never happened. What do you mean you say? Well, you can check it out in The Inconvenient Indian, pages 4 to 6 in the hard cover version.

The book is packed full of interesting data such as history of the Wild West show, the story of the twentieth century’s most famous Indian image, James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture The End of the Trail, the image of Indians in the movies, relocation programs of the Mi’kmaq and many others, extermination and assimilation policies, apologies for deplorable practices in residential school etc.

Then there is the matter of Prime Minister Harper’s statement at the G20 Summit in Philadelphia that blatantly stated that Canadians “have no history of colonialism.”  WHAT! Where on earth is the man’s head and what qualifies him to represent all Canadians?  How shameful!

I could go on and on but I won’t. You probably need to read this for yourself. And while you are at it do gather some of Thomas King’s fine fiction and prepare to kick off your shoes and laugh heartily.King #3King #4King#1

Back of the Turtle

behind the beautiful forevers by Katherine Boo

The book jacket introduces this work as “a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the behind the beautiful foreversdramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities”. The subtitle of the book is “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. The copyright date is 2012 and the biographical data given for Katherine Boo is: “a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book.”

The book begins with a prologue describing a dramatic event in the life of one of the main protagonists, Abdul. It is dated July 17, 2008 and the first paragraph is:
“Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.”

Abdul was between sixteen and nineteen years of age. He was small and jumpy and saw himself as a coward. “He knew all about trash. For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.” Abdul understood the need to run but beyond that he was unable to see a course of action so he returned home and hid in his garbage that was stored in a lopsided shed adjacent to their family hut.

This storeroom – “His storeroom – 120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoons, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies.”

Eventually Abdul got himself hidden inside his piles of trash against one wall of the shed where he laid down. He would be bitten by mosquitoes and the edges of clamshell packaging would cut into the backs of his thighs but he felt safer there than anywhere else.

And so begins our journey through life in Mumbai’s slums. “Only six of the slum’s three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.)” The slum was named Annawadi and “sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road”. “Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.” It had been settled by construction workers in 1991 from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. “Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks.”

Abdul’s brother Mirchi had a friend named Rahul and Rahul’s mother, Asha, was “a kindergarten teacher with mysterious connections to local politicians and the police.” These connections sometimes got Rahul temporary work at the Intercontinental Hotel across the sewage lake from Annawadi. Such exposure convinced Mirchi that he would not ever want to be a garbage picker like his brother Abdul. Mirchi was in ninth grade at a third-rate Urdu-language private school for which his parents paid three hundred rupees a year. Mirchi’s choices were to study or help Abdul.

Asha, the kindergarten teacher, was 39 years old and aspired to the position of slumlord, a person who ran the slum according to the authorities’ interests. Her husband was an alcohlic and she had raised three children. Her daughter, Manju, did most of the actual teaching. Asha had no schooling past seventh grade and her position was obtained through the present slumlord known as the Corporator. She delivered voters(i.e. votes)to the polls and gathered participants for protests and was now being asked to solve disputes inside the slum. She thought about money all the time and was a shrewd negotiator between her fellow slum dwellers and the authorities. An entrepreneur.

“A government-sponsored women’s self-help group looked somewhat promising, now that she knew how to game it. The program was supposed to encourage financially vulnerable women to pool their savings and make low-interest loans to one another in times of need. But Asha’s self-help group preferred to lend the pooled money at high interest to poorer women who they’d excluded from the collective – the old sewer cleaner who had brought her a sari, for instance.”

Abdul’s father Karem, had tuberculosis. “The concrete plant and all the other construction brought more work to this airport boom-town. Bad lungs were a toll you paid to live near progress.”

Karem and Zehrunisa were about to “make their first deposit on a twelve-hundred-square-foot plot of land in a quiet community in Vasai, just outside the city, where Muslim recyclers predominated. If life and global markets kept going their way, they would soon be landowners, not squatters, in a place where Abdul was pretty sure no one would call him garbage.”

The above barely touches the surface of what is told and what is exposed about life in one of Mumbai’s slums early in this century. If you have read anything about Mumbai in the newspapers or on the net or elsewhere, you need to read this book. You need to meet Abdul and his friends, his parents and his neighbours including the one-leg whom Abdul will be accused of assaulting and worse. Katherine Boo will make you care about each and every one of these people. You need to know what Asha tells her daughter Manju, who is about to become a college graduate:

“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much”…Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems – poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor – were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.”

This is a beautifully sad and informative book with wonderfully real and courageous people you will be proud and honoured to meet.