Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Humor and Resistance in Modern Native Nonfiction

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Humor and Resistance in Modern Native Nonfiction

Article excerpt

This article reviews recent Native nonfiction to illustrate how modern Native essayists use humor as a mode of anti-colonial critique. It examines how anti-colonial politics find expression in the various types of rhetorical humor that are employed in Jim Northrup's Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers and Birch Bark Baskets (1999), Thomas King's The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (2005), and Paul Chaat Smith's Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong (2009). In particular, the article explores the storytelling conventions and orality that define these nonfiction books and the broader tradition of comic techniques associated with Gerald Vizenor. These works participate in a literary tradition that contribute to what Robert Warrior describes as the "intellectual sovereignty" of Native self-representation.

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In the past twenty years, the categories of "Native North American literature" and "Native American Studies" (alternately known as "American Indian" literature and Studies) have become entrenched in academic curricula, bookstore shelves, and publishers' taxonomies. Concurrent with the growth of Native literature, my preferred term for this ultimately indefinable cluster of "Indian" writing, has been the development of a large and sophisticated Native critical apparatus. While various traditions of critical thought have long been present in Native communities, a tremendous interest has developed in the past two decades in Native literature as a scholarly venture. The resultant critical output has been extensive and highly varied in terms of its ethical and esthetic commitments. Fiction and poetry comprise the majority of the subject matter of Native literary criticism, but some recent work has examined a rich and complex nexus of Native nonfiction as both a literary and political genre. In this article, I will explore three nonfiction books: Jim Northrup's Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers, and Birch Bark Baskets (1999), Thomas King's The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (2005), and Paul Chaat Smith's Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong (2009). In particular, I will explore how each author employs humor and comedy as a mode of critiquing the colonial state (Canada and the United States). Each author's use of humorous and comic devices is comparable but also distinct. In keeping with the work of previous critics of Native nonfiction, I conceptualize "comedy" (or the comic) as a broad literary structure that enables distinct social, political, economic, and cultural critique and "humor" as the actual performance of that structure through various literary, rhetorical, and temporal devices. (1) I will assess these nuanced rhetorical techniques to show how each author ultimately produces a damning indictment of the continuing policies of Canadian and American colonization, and how they collectively support, and, in turn, help create a space for the participation of diverse Indigenous voices.

The three books contain a few notable shared features. None is a memoir or autobiography, though all three are consistently autobiographical. None is cohesive or chronological according to the traditional conventions of personal storytelling in Western literature. All use sarcasm to great effect. All are deeply compassionate despite being outwardly sardonic. All use humor to mitigate and deliver what in corporate American politics would be considered radical points of view (but that are perfectly mainstream in Native intellectual and literary communities). All are deeply committed to traditional Indigenous visions of communal life. None is satisfied with the reductionist and romantic images of Native peoples common in the United States and around the world. The goal of this article is not to conflate the three books and illuminate their similarities, but to use three comparable but different books to assess some of the political dynamics, rhetorical choices, and esthetic techniques of a class of Native nonfiction writing that has become common enough to be considered discrete. …

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