Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"For the Child Taken, for the Parent Left Behind": Residential School Narratives as Acts of "Survivance"

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"For the Child Taken, for the Parent Left Behind": Residential School Narratives as Acts of "Survivance"

Article excerpt

Theories of Survivance are elusive and imprecise by definition and in translation. The practices of survivance, however, are obvious and unmistakable in native stories. The nature of survivance creates a sense of narrative resistance to absence, literary tragedy, nihility, and victimry.

Gerald Vizenor

Native Liberty

Words, language, experience, imagination: these are the elements that constitute the essential tools of the creative writer and the act of writing creatively, leading to the process of (re)visiting and analyzing one's place in the world.

Armand Garnet Ruffo

"Where the Voice was Coming From"

AGAINST THE DISEMPOWERMENT OF COLONIALISM, texts written by residential school survivors express a sense of survivance, as articulated by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor, which may also be understood in terms of agency and "imaginative sovereignty" (Justice, "Literature, Healing" 103). In spite of the dehumanization of an oppressive system that attacked individuality in an institutionalized environment in which every "Indian" child was treated the same--symbolized in Robert Alexie's image of "porcupines and china dolls" for the children's standardized haircut--those survivors who were able to resort to the "essential tools of the creative writer" represented their experiences in widely different ways. Anishinaabe scholar and poet Armand Garnet Ruffo's essay on the history of the early phase of Native literature in Canada informs my own development of a sub-genre within this field: residential school literature--memoirs, poetry, fiction, and plays that recreate the school experience through the literary imagination and that, like many other differently themed texts written by Indigenous authors, contribute to upholding the continuance of traditions against the discourses of loss and vanishing. They speak to J. Edward Chamberlin's assertion that "power--a condition of survival, if survival is to mean anything at all--is an agent of the imagination as much as a function of reality" (quoted in Ruffo 179). In tandem with the general marginalization of Native literature in English in the 1970s and 1980s, Indigenous survivors' stories were hardly noticed and not many were published. It was only with increasing public awareness about the schools, public testimonies by survivors, the emergence of an apology and reconciliation discourse, and the closing of the last school in 1996 that more attention was paid at the end of the twentieth and in the beginning of the twenty-first century to this aspect of Canada's colonial treatment of Indigenous peoples which started in the late-nineteenth century.

Given the topic of the journal issue--Childhood and Its Discontents-- this essay will mostly dwell on a selection of literary representations of actual school experiences, both from the child's and the parent's perspective, rather than on texts that address the wide-ranging legacy of these experiences. These works, while centred on one theme, offer a wide variety of aesthetic realizations, and it is those variations of a common theme that create the focus for this essay rather than an analysis of the content. Meant for publication for a broad audience, the poems, short stories, memoirs, and autobiographical fiction narratives about residential school experiences are presented, sometimes with the help of an editor, in a purposefully selected format and style, framed by prefaces, forewords, acknowledgements, dedications, and a diversity of images. At the same time, these carefully constructed and richly layered texts are also "ethical works" as Laura Beard asserts about boarding school texts in the United States, arguing with Rosi Braidotti that "ethics includes the acknowledgment of and compassion for pain, as well as the activity of working through it" (quoted in Beard 142); readers of residential school literature may even become attentive secondary witnesses of trauma, to borrow from Dominick LaCapra, opening themselves to "empathic unsettlement," which LaCapra terms "a desirable affective dimension of inquiry" (78). …

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