C Magazine


Issue 136

On Writing: Moving
by Michael Turner

…when the narrated identity is unbearable, when the boundary between subject and object is shaken, and when even the limit between inside and outside becomes uncertain, the narrative is what is challenged first1 — Julia Kristeva

I am working through my books, pulling titles from shelves, reading first lines.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,”2 writes American novelist, journalist and memoirist Joan Didion at the beginning of her highly regarded essay collection The White Album (1979).

I always get a tingle when I read that line – its economy, its assurance – but I never settle for it. For me, living is less about telling stories than exploring the narratives that order the events of our stories, our lives and how these narratives determine how we experience subsequent events.

Didion’s opening paragraph ends like this:

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Didion does not discuss the ideological forces behind this narrative line, nor does she elaborate on her “we,” though she admits that between 1966 and 1971 she “began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling.”

Is that doubt really so “common” (anymore)? Is the premise of a story constituent of a larger, more insidious narrative?

“To be an Indian is to be a man, with all a man’s needs and abilities,”3 writes Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien at the opening of his department’s Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969, also known as the “White Paper.”
What is the premise of a story that begins with a definition of a sovereign people (based on “needs and abilities”) as supplied by those who have robbed a sovereign people of their land?

“Indians are like the weather,”4 writes Standing Rock Sioux writer and activist Vine Deloria Jr. at the opening of Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969).

I tingle at this line, too, particularly after spending the past year as an uninvited guest on the land of the Syilx (Okanagan) people, a year that featured an unusually cold winter and a usually hot summer. The effect of these weather events varied.

For some, they contributed to a story of “mounting disaster;” for others, further evidence of global warming; for others still, a critique of private property.

In July 2016, I was invited by Kelowna-based writer and educator Ashok Mathur to “sit in” on the University of British Columbia Okanagan’s Summer Indigenous Intensive. Among the highlights of this extraordinary gathering of artists, writers and scholars was an introduction to Syilx cosmology by Aboriginal and Traditional Knowledge Keeper Richard Armstrong, who spoke of the land not as a surface on which to draw conclusions – “through trial and error, as the anthropologists tell us” – but as a sentient presence inextricably related to the Syilx people.

“What I have to say to you this afternoon is not found in books,” said Armstrong at the 2017 Intensive, before once again describing the land as “our parents” and “a teacher,” which only reinforced my doubts about the sustainability of our increasingly business-driven Global Art Culture, a recognition I did not find “troubling,” as Didion describes her doubt, but generative.

And so it was that the land showed me something, first through a series of heavy snowfalls that covered the ground from the first week of December to the middle of March, followed by a sudden blast of heat, when the snows melted and the lakes rose.

“Everyone knows all about the weather,” Deloria continues, “but none can change it. When storms are predicted, the sun shines. When picnic weather is announced, the rains begin.”

“The land is showing us something,” I wrote in a postcard to my mother last spring, only to cross out “showing” and “something” and replace “showing” with criticizing.

We criticize our stories in order to live. Which is to say the “we” who listen to the land and who live in history take issue with the established order of events, the narrative line that conditions both the stories people tell and the people themselves.

A consequence of this narrative conditioning can be found in what Coast Salish and Okanagan artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun refers to as “colonial stress disorder syndrome,” an affliction that results from historic exposure to imperialism, the capitalist mode of production, the scientific method, neoliberal democracies… Another consequence can be found in our ignorance of this conditioning.

“Likewise,” writes Deloria at the conclusion of his first paragraph, “if you count on the unpredictability of Indian people, you will never be sorry.”

“The land is showing criticizing us something, Mom, and no matter how many sandbags someone is paid to stack outside someone else’s lakeside mansion, they cannot stop the waters from rising beneath it.” Nor will these sandbags protect us from septic fields built too close to these now receding lakes – until what remains is not a mound of unemployed sandbags but a shit-ridden Minimalist sculpture.

Before we learned of these toxic sandbags, we were told not to take them to beaches and empty them, as people were doing, because their sand is coarser, greyer, not the soft ochre-coloured sand imported by municipalities for tourists to lie on. But why were we fed this story (based on aesthetics) when what was stewing inside these bags posed a more convincing (health) threat?

We tell ourselves stories in order to distract.

Something else the land showed me this year: a record number of wild fires. While the worst of these fires were in the Caribou, winds brought their smoke south, transforming gentle sunsets into lurid tableaux, but also, like the rising waters, turning clifftop landlords into Custers armed not with sandbags but with garden hoses. I am speaking of those in Lake Country, not far from where I began this text, and where, as an itinerant critic alert to the narrative line, I struggled with fires of my own.