A short while ago the Canada Reads debates/discussions/competition took place on CBC radio and television. The five books in contention for 2014 were Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, Esi Edugyen’s Half Blood Blues, Rawi Hage’s Cockroach and Kathleen Winters’ Annabel.
The focus of this year’s Canada Reads was declared to be to find the book which would, if read by a majority of Canadians, inspire social change and/or as some of the panelists phrased it, open a dialogue that might lead to social change. I found it personally disturbing to observe the chosen focus of inspiring social change become a thinly veiled competition, with strategic voting as a component, as opposed to a well debated comparison of the titles concerned and just how effective they might be at opening a dialogue among Canadians about the issues they address.
I went looking for a book which might heal my regret and disappointment following the discussions. I looked first among works written by First Nations writers. Much was said in the panel discussions about reconciliation and strong objections were voiced about the nature of the violence presented in the “winning” book as well as its focus on the colonization of Canada.
The next paragraph contains the thoughts I would choose for my fellow Canadians to read so that they could consider what might preclude any discussions of reconciliation between First Nations people and the rest of Canadians.(The bold print is my choice and not that of the writer.)
“The winds of our fathers breathe freedom as the precondition for the burgeoning reconciliation of the body to its spirit, heart and mind. This reconciliation requires peace. The peace is carefully crafted by the nurturance of mothers, aunts and grandmothers. The men and women who were to inherit the skills of our grandmothers, mothers, fathers and uncles are all off balance. “
Lee Maracle’s book, Daughters Are Forever,
has as its protagonist a forty-five year old First Nations Woman of the Sto-Loh nation(Salish) who is experiencing a personal crisis that involves her entire life/being.
She is a social worker and the mother of two daughters now making their own way, in their own apartments and in the world of work.
The first 28 pages of the book is a poetic but still realistic history of Canada’s pre-colonial peoples. It could and should be read and reread until it is fixed fairly firmly in the reader’s mind and heart. It says things like :”Risk-takers are born of peace not war.”;
“Generation by generation, the original promise became some strange and painful foreigner.”; “We are all born screaming.”; “There has been no relief since the Turtle Island women first graced the earth with their first untimely passing.”.
Marilyn’s story begins with the death of her father, Eddy. Eddy was an alcoholic and one night “he ran from the house onto the highway and collided with a transport truck.” The driver of the transport truck babbled about what happened: “”Outta nowhere. Just ran in front of my truck. I couldn’t possibly see him,” he finished, then dropped his phone. He sat staring catatonically out the window until the ambulance came.”
Marilyn had heard a lamp hit the floor that her father had knocked over when he ran out of the house. “She thought she saw the heels of her father disappear through a wall of black night somewhere beyond the door. A quick glance around the kitchen: Daddy’s not here. Mommy’s on the floor. The images of her father’s feet fading to black and her unconscious mother unlocked a scream inside Marilyn. ” As quoted above, “We are all born screaming.” In one sense, I suppose this could be seen as Marilyn’s birthing although it would be a long and painful journey to her goal of selfhood or personhood and her reconciliation with her past.
One of her clients, Elsie, is instrumental in enabling Marilyn to get outside of herself and see more clearly into other First Nations women’s experiences and find a door that will possibly lead to the necessary healing. Re-visiting her mother’s life is also an important step for Marilyn towards understanding and healing herself. She was reminded of her mother saying: “That is just like Eddy, to leave me to raise his child alone.” And the author points out that “Ann’s phrases robbed Marilyn of the nurturing she needed to become herself. Silence filled both mother and daughter. It became their governess. Their bodies adjusted automatically to it. …This stillness surrounded them….Their muscles atrophied under the stillness of their bodies and the blindness of their skins….”Don’t move” became the command of Anne (mother) and Marilyn. Their response to all rises and irregular phenomena was slow, shallow, almost imperceptible lung movement. …Their graceful resistance to movement was mistaken for stoicism, for grace, for conservation, for wisdom, for just about everything but what it was: residual shock.” “Neither woman could have told anyone what her stillness represented. Both would have denied its odd existence.”
Much of Marilyn’s relationship with her daughters has been determined by her experiences with her mother and she becomes increasingly aware of how dysfunctional those established patterns have become as the story progresses though a journey to Toronto to speak to groups of social workers and other groups interested in issues Marilyn deals with in her daily practice. She is simultaneously preoccupied with Elsie, a twenty-three year old woman with two living children who have been removed from her care after the in-home death (pneumonia)of her 18-month old daughter and she wants her children back. As a young mother Marilyn too had experienced first-hand the threat of losing her children.
Marilyn also experienced violence in her mother’s home and perpetrated violence in her own home. Her brother Bobbie “would hit the wall in silence, land. Bobbie’s screams and begging would only start up again if Earl advanced on him for another go at the wall. Once he didn’t scream or beg at all. Marilyn only heard the thud of Bobbie’s body hitting wall after wall.” In her own home, Marilyn had shaken “with the coldness of the rage that seemed to be shooting into them (her hands) from the ball inside her belly. Her heart sped up. She watched Lindy. She saw her scurry here and there. She heard her make grunting fearful soft sounds….Marilyn swung, caught Lindy on the backside as she crawled. Lindy’s back arced under the blow. Cat rushed to save her. Marilyn swung again, catching Cat’s hands.” A brief time later…”The words in Marilyn’s head sped up. Stop. Don’t. Quit. Walk away. Put the spoon down. These are your daughters.”
It is a long process. “Filtered by thousands of experiences, the truth underneath memory sometimes cannot quite pierce through all the layers. Memory melds with the present. Past tense, future and the moment unhinge, float about ill-disciplined in the mind of those too fatigued by their emotional senselessness to decipher meaning.”
“She could not imagine the movement it would take to change the relationship with her children.” “She had so little love to share and the little she had was twisted and hidden underneath this terrible hate, which froze every morsel of affection she had for herself and her life.” “Action was a hated thing. Action brought terrible consequences. Sometimes, though, it beat the deathly stillness. Carefully, she chose those sorts of actions whose consequences were trivial or completely acceptable: cleaning, scrubbing and cooking.” This helped but was not an answer. “She was weary of making excuses, exhausted by the sound of her unanswered screams and cries day and night.” She could go no further but “the alternative seemed to be to live a life driven by guilt. Guilt is an impossible ghost to feed and satisfy.”
How will Marilyn get out of this dilemma? Is there a way out? The complications are definitely overwhelming. Knowing her history is, of course, a beginning but understanding it and then trying to find a way to change it and move forward to a life that acknowledges the pain and the guilt but sets it aside making a truly new life for herself and her grown children is the real challenge. The possibilities, however, and the directions towards reconciliation are crystal clear and the onus to change direction is shown to belong to the individual or to a group of individuals. Once that reconciliation is underway and new directions are passed to Marilyn’s children and from them to their children, doors to a wider, social reconciliation could begin to open and other changes could follow.
In my opinion, Maracle’s book not only has the potential to open a dialogue that could lead to reconciliation but, rather, it embodies a process that could ensure reconciliation and social change if it were to be heeded.
What a wonderfully enlightening book this would be for Canada to read! Won’t you join me?