Doubious Allies

July 8, 2016

Moderated by Waubgeshig Rice, the Indigenous Writers’ panel at the recent Canadian Writers’ Summit consisted of Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams.

As I expected, these diverse individuals had very different things to say, but the discussion often circled back to one question: “How can white people in the literary community be better allies to Aboriginal writers?” Or maybe I was just focusing in on what I wanted to know.

Tracey Lindberg took the discussion to a whole new level, speaking with deep emotion about the contrast between her accomplishments in the world and her inner feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness.

Her novel Birdie, also goes straight to the heart. Lindberg hones in on the raw nerve of what violence and oppression do to a person’s mind and body and stays right on top of that nerve for the whole arc of the narrative.

Taking to her bed upstairs from the bakery where she works, Lindberg’s heroine Bernice/Birdie takes an internal journey through her traumatic past. Her cousin Freda and aunt Valene come to watch over her. The wrongs Birdie has suffered are unfathomably deep, and Lindberg is encyclopaedic in her description of the varieties and manifestations of her pain. Birdie has — as Lindberg puts it — a “palate for pain.” She divines the painful spots in the women in her life as if reading a map.

Boundaries between people are fluid; so are boundaries between thought and action, dream and waking, real time and memory. Birdie is an expert on the ways of trauma. “After any memory, after the thinking, it could take anywhere up to a week (if then) for her to even remember the incident that triggered the emotion.”

That this is Birdie’s internal landscape is horrifying, but there is strength in her very expertise. Lindberg has created a heroine whose resilience comes from living in her pain, not walking away from it. She is a survivor, not by mastering circumstances or by being rescued from them, but by finding her true resources, her true nourishment. There is no easy resolution but she emerges fortified and ready to take up the challenges of her life.

There are white allies in Lindberg’s book. They’re not allies for saying or even doing all the right things. At their best, they provide a space for Birdie’s process. In the pages devoted to Birdie’s foster parents, the Inglesons, Lindberg captures the brew of tenderness, gratitude, resentment and guilt she feels towards these “sweet” yet heedless and unconsciously privileged people. A scene where Birdie tries to decide on a prom dress is laden with irony. Thoughts and feelings roil beneath the surface for Birdie, while her foster mother (who has won an award for her foster parenting) sweetly — and disastrously — offers both dresses. With the Inglesons, Birdie has “moments of real tranquility, pieces of peace.” Yet she is always internally working, strategizing, translating.

Another white character, Lola unquestioningly takes in Birdie’s cousin and aunt as they tend to her through her long transformative process. Ultimately, Lola develops a close relationship with Birdie’s cousin Freda yet even here, we see Freda providing her with resolution, with a happy ending where Freda herself sees ambiguity. Freda is still doing a lot of work.

Back to the panel discussion:

Kenneth Williams suggested approaching elders and asking them questions, knowing that we will get things wrong, because we will.

I thought: That’s just it. We have got things wrong. We will continue to get them wrong.

Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past, came to mind as it often has in discussions of reconcilation. He’s a completely different sort of writer, but the simultaneously delicate and relentless probing quality of his thinking reminds me of Lindberg’s work.

Schlink writes: ” … during the soccer World Cup, I was watching a match in a beer garden in Berlin. When the German team scored its first goal, a worker my age threw his arms into the air and shouted, ‘Wir sind wieder wer!’ (‘We are somebody again!’) So even this worker saw himself under the long shadow of the past and experienced this moment as a liberation, as a chance to get back into the light.”

For Schlink, “The thought that the past could and should be mastered contains not only the yearning for freedom from it; it even asserts an entitlement to such an end. As with every task, whoever works hard at it expects that the task will eventually be completed, and then demands to be released from duty once the task is finished.”

There’s a fine line between becoming a good ally and demanding to get back into the light. I wonder if it’s possible to ever truly know the difference.


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