Tradition, Sexual Liberation, and Insanity in Anakana Schofield’s Malarky

In Malarky, Anakana Schofield shows how sexual norms are rooted in society and tradition, and she emphasizes the danger of this as Our Woman goes insane with Grief. Our Woman’s repressive marriage as well as her association of household chores with non-marital sex emphasize this societal problem. Schofield’s depiction of sexuality thus emphasizes its fluidity and its lack of inherent structure.

Our Woman’s urge to explore her sexuality is contrasted by the traditional gender roles that govern her town. Our Woman lives in an orthodox society; deviation from regularity is nothing to boast about.  Women and men have distinct social roles, and sexual peculiarity is suppressed. As is traditional of woman and men, Our Woman is devoted to the household and Himself toils the field. At home, Jimmy does not speak openly about his homosexuality. Our Woman is dedicated to her traditional role as a homemaker, but her sexual exploration with Halim provides an escape from these traditional gender constructions that surround her. Our Woman deals with this cultural expectation by exploring her sexuality. The simultaneous pressure, to both conform to society and explore her desire is what drives Our Woman mad.

Our Woman is not happy in her traditional marriage to Himself: she is dominated by her husband. Trapped in the submissive role of a housewife, she requires an escape from the society that reinforces this role of a housewife. Correspondingly, the affair she has with Halim is would be considered taboo by the locals: he is a much younger man and is of a different background.  It is precisely this unusualness that satisfies Our Woman’s desire, however. She is rebelling against female repression in Irish-Catholic society by pursuing a culturally transgressive relationship. Because of the traditional female subversion she is accustomed to, Our Woman seeks control in sex. This fact doesn’t go unnoticed, for instance, “Jimmy thought she should have overthrown his father.” (82)  Jimmy himself has also chosen to reject the traditional structure imposed on sexuality, which perhaps is what motivates Our Woman to do the same.  For instance, for Our Woman, sex in her marriage is about Himself, “too much participation from her unsettles Himself.” (87)  She seeks sexual pleasure from Halim, who, in contrast to Himself, is unusually interested in female sensuality. Halim offers a sexual escape route from the repressive sexual customs of Our Woman’s town.

Our Woman is conflicted between tradition and liberation. She starts an affair with Halim to explore her sexuality, but she still associates sex with household chores.  She feels compelled to maintain the household; yet, she also needs to escape this rigidly constructed structure that’s projected by society on sexuality. Likening strange sexual experiences to everyday household tasks provides a compromise. She parts Halim’s legs “the same way she would divide bread dough” (95),  and she notes before sex that Halim’s underwear is “so identical to her husband’s that she could easily mix them up in the wash.” (95) When Halim declares after sex, “a woman has never done that to me before” (115), Our Woman compensates the edginess of her desire by thinking “it’s the kind of compliment she’s received about her baking.” (115) When marital infidelity with Halim does result in sexual excitement, Our Woman’s mind is still on her chores. Even though she takes risks, Our Woman speaks in the language of the household, showing how deeply entrenched we all are in traditional gender roles.

This contrast between sexual tradition and the need to escape repression contributes to Our Woman’s craziness. While she desires new sexual experiences, there is still pressure to adhere to society’s conception of normal. As a result, she agonizes over “how to divide her desire between what she wants to do with her husband and her new, more unusual desires of what she must do with Halim. Overwhelmed by the disparity, I am reckless, I am now reckless, she thinks.”(100) When forced to reconcile social custom and personal desire, Our Woman despairs and turns to Grief for help. Grief understands both tradition and the need to escape it. She offers rationalization for Our Woman’s unorthodox action. To the locals, confusion is “the local term for possessed” (126), but Grief is not like the rest of society. She’s characterized as a kind lady who comforts Our Woman and is the only character to do so. She embodies Our Woman’s insanity and “wants the full extent of her confusion.” (120)

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Illusions of Whiteness in Eden Robinson’s “Traplines”

Eden Robinson’s short story “Traplines” is a modern day account of being both an Aboriginal adolescent and surrounded by white culture. Will attends a regular public school, is watched over by a white couple, and at home is exposed to white substances: alcoholism and drugs. Through Will’s story, Robinson accurately conveys many economic and social disadvantages faced by the Native population of Canada. When his English teacher, Mrs. Smythe, offers to adopt Will, he must make a choice that all Indigenous people in Canada are forced to make: either willingly embrace white culture or preserve what is left of Native tradition on the reserve. Robinson’s story shows how white culture continues to colonize the First Nations peoples of Canada. This is evident in the general dysfunction in the village that results from white influence, as well as in the Smythes’ benevolent but neo-colonial wish to improve Will’s environment through adoption.

Robinson’s depiction of life in “the village” highlights the destructive and omnipresent influence of white culture on Native peoples. Although they live in an Aboriginal community, Will and his family are far removed from a pre-colonial lifestyle. The dysfunctional aspects of the Reservation have been introduced white culture and represent ongoing oppression. For instance, Will’s brother, Eric frequently uses drugs, resulting in Will’s physical abuse. Similarly, his parents over-consume alcohol, often neglecting him. Will himself already has an addiction to Aspirin, and he eats nothing but bread and Rice-a-Roni. Significantly, all these white vices are exhausted on Christmas: Will predicts, “We’ll eat turkey. Mom and Dad will go to a lot of parties and get really drunk. Eric will go to a lot of parties and get really stoned. Maybe this year I will too” (7). Through the Reservation setting, Robinson conveys that the unhealthy Native lifestyle is attributed to the influence of white culture.

To live away from this environment would be certainly be healthier and safer for Will as an individual; but living in “the village” preserves a community of First Nations. The Reserve allows Will to go halibut fishing with his father and uncle, to catch white marten from traplines, and to breathe the “sweet, sharp smell as houses puff cedar smoke” in the winter (4). Even though it has been tainted with substance abuse introduced by colonialism, this same dysfunctional environment remains the last foothold against complete assimilation.

Karen and Craig Smythe represent white assimilation. They want the best for Will. They also believe (just as the original colonizers did) that a Native’s best chance for socioeconomic success is in the white world, in their care. Craig jokingly exclaims to Will “It’s amazing how much your father sounds like a dial tone” (13), but the truth of this remark is haunting when it’s read literally: because Will’s father is often drunk, he truly does offer as much paternal guidance as a dial tone. Craig means well by making this joke, but he inadvertently rubs in a sense of cultural superiority.  More blatantly, after asking Will if he would like to move in with them, Craig admits, “we just think you’d be safer here”(16). Living under white care has personal benefits for Will, but it perpetuates colonization. It’s not far from a new type of residential school where kids are stripped of their Native culture at a young age. Craig oversteps the line when he jumps to conclusions about Will’s parents, assuming that they beat him, when really, it is just Eric. “‘It’s okay,’ [Craig] said. ‘I wont hurt you. It’s okay.’ I put my hands down. He looked sad. That annoyed me” (13). Will doesn’t want to be pitied on the basis of being Aboriginal. The white stigmatization of Natives living on a Reserve further illustrates neo-colonialism. Like the original colonizers, the Smythes—representative of the larger white world—don’t feel the urgency to protect a dying Indigenous culture.

Will is faced with the choice of life on the reserve or a life with Smythes. He chooses the reserve. This is a microcosm of the Indigenous identity dilemma today. Robinson alludes to the white destruction of Native tradition, but she poses no solution of how to repair Native culture without assimilating to pure whiteness.  In this story as well as in “Dogs in Winter”, “Contact Sports”, and “Queen of the North”, the protagonist must face socioeconomic disadvantage or accept a demolished heritage and assume whiteness, often both. Robinson does a brilliant job of situating adolescent Aboriginal identities in a neo-colonial society. Traplines is not a call for more “help”, but it is a readerly call for recognition.

Satirizing Convention in Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers

Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is set in the 1850s and follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, brothers who are hired as hitmen by a man referred to as “the Commodore.” The Sisters travel through Oregon and California to assassinate prospector Herman Kermit Warm, who has developed a formula that allows him to discover gold with utmost ease. On the quest to murder Warm, the brothers encounter vicious whores, ruthless criminals, abandoned children, and other loose ends of American Gold-Rush era society.

            DeWitt mimics the traditional western novel with intended irony. The conventions of the Western are described by Steve McQuiddy and Forrest Pyle in the essay “Under Western Skies: Ernest Haycox and the West in Film and Fiction”. They assert that typical Westerns feature “straightforward plotting and even more straightforwardly drawn characters” (1), and that, “given the stylization of this action-adventure genre, there was little room for nuance or complication.” (1) In accordance with these conventions, deWitt puts literary emphasis on his prose style rather than character development. By elevating style over apparent depth, deWitt satirizes the corrosive and materialistic elements of contemporary North American culture. This satire of the Western convention is evident in deWitt’s employment of flat archetypal protagonists to represent Western vice, in his parody of the objectification of women, and in the text’s subtle implication that deWitt mocks the consumer of this novel.

As in typical Westerns, deWitt’s protagonists are flat, and reflect the greed and selfishness of the contemporary West. Charlie is characterized as the extreme evil of North America; the elder Sister is a violent alcoholic addicted to prostitutes and willing to kill innocent others in the name of material gain. Just like the average North American, Charlie is not bothered by his actions’ negative impact on other people. Eli is not as bloodthirsty as Charlie, but he embodies the other extreme of North American fault: cowardice and complicity with explicit violence. Eli speaks of himself as a responsible person, but this is only in comparison to his brother.  When evaluating the defects of his own personality, Eli concludes “I cannot understand the motivation of a bully, is what it is; this is the one thing that makes me unreasonable.” (106) In spite of his self-supposed gentleness, Eli accompanies his brother to commit one more murder, demonstrating the way in which North Americans naively believe they are harmless. Through these traditionally reductive protagonists, deWitt darkly parodies the active and passive forms of violence that are implicit in North American culture.

In further accordance with Western genre, deWitt depicts women through derogatory clichés to oppose the current objectification of women in Western society.  Eli narrates their encounters with women—many of which are whores, and none of whom have names—materializing them, but in a captivating prose style. For instance, Eli describes the old woman in the cabin as having “oyster flesh eyes,” (30) and skin that is “pushed in like an old piece of fruit.” (31) These descriptions are wonderfully creative as well as enjoyable to read, but they take the place of any potentially round personality traits associated with the Cabin Woman. Likewise, when Eli follows the Hotel Woman into her room, his narration is witty, but avoids any characterization of her. Eli’s emphasis on appealing narrative style rather than on personality and has the effect of reinforcing female stereotypes:

Her room was not the room I would have imagined if I had the time to image her room, which I did not. But there were no flowers and niceties, no silk or perfume, no lady things hung with a decorative hand; there were no volumes of poetry, no vanity and brush set; there were no lace edged pillows featuring heartening proverbs meant to calm the spirit in times of distress or else lead us through the monotony of endlessly redundant days with their succoring words and tones. (63)

Eli self-consciously declares he will not re-tell the female platitudes of the conventional Western, yet in getting wrapped up in stylistic witticism, Eli unconsciously replicates these very cliches. Eli’s stereotypical interpretation of women exemplifies deWitt’s deliberate but satirical conformity with the Western genre: he forgoes character development in the name of a flashy style that will deliver mass appeal.

By emphasizing style over developed characterization, deWitt extents this satire upon the mass consumer of this book. At the beginning of the novel, Eli addresses the reader, promising a more realistic narration of Western novel than traditional ones contain:

You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep… (19)

In promising a narration free of Western clichés, deWitt puts pressure on Eli to narrate a fresh Western story. DeWitt does not fulfill Eli’s promise, however. As we have seen, Eli is a flat signifier of a darkly complex culture, and he falls in to all the Western narrative traps. DeWitt thus tempts the reader into believing Eli is a fresh narrator when he is not. By innocently trusting Eli to give an narration free of Western clichés and by becoming wrapped up in deWitt’s flashy narrative style (not to mention the book’s flashy materiality) the consumer of this novel is guilty of the very thing that deWitt satirizes.

 

Clark Blaise’ The Meagre Tarmac

No discipline by itself can account for human existence. Clark Blaise’s collection of short stories The Meagre Tarmac follows the first-person thoughts of eleven loosely connected narrators as they make sense of their mixed Indian and North American identities. While the narrators are diverse, they all consider the seemingly contradictory societal values of American individualism and Indian orientation around community. The mutable but consistent narrative structure of The Meagre Tarmac mirrors the collection’s trajectory: that an individual’s life, as well as broader humanity, is not centred around any one force. There is no climax structuring of Blaise’s stories, and neither the individual stories nor the collection as a whole have a beginning or end. Instead there are shards of static quotidian energy. The collection correspondingly imparts that existence has no climax, beginning, or end; rather, it is a continuum of short and inextricably related lives. Blaise’s narrators attempt to rationalize this nature of human existence from various discourses including, sociology, math, and science –none of which considered alone can fully explain the human state of being. Through the mutable yet steady narrative structure of this collection, Blaise conveys the inexplicable phenomenon of both infinity and brevity in the narrators’ quotidian existences.

Sociology is too general a discipline to predict the life patterns of Indian immigrants. In the story “The Sociology of Love,” Anya, the honours student, has faith in the discourse:

That’s why I’m involved in sociology, she says, it’s so exciting. Sociology alone can answer the big questions, like where are we headed and what is to become of us? I offer a counter argument; perhaps computer science, or molecular biology, or astronomy, I say, might answer even larger questions. “In the here and now,” she insists, “there is only sociology. (10)

Such an avenue to understanding existence leaves her with infinite gaps. For instance, her interview with Vivik on adjustment and assimilation answers only statistical questionson his marriage, parents, job, and residential status. In asking these categorical questions, Anya does not learn anything new; in contrast, she actually reinforces the well-established American standard of success that is based on individualist values. She regards Vivek as an assimilated Indian, not as an American, which she considers herself to be (even though she is Russian as well). In this story, sociological procedures construct difference in Vivik’s experience. Contrary to Anya’s research, Vivik selects the ways in which he lives like an essentialized American: he is protective of his children as many Indians are, but he has had an affair. While he refuses to go to his father’s funeral, privileging instead his American mistress’s opinions, he regrets the family sacrifices he made for his prestigious education. Vivik’s individuality in his self-chosen values make him a very American figure without at all diminishing his Indian identity. Thus, Sociology as Anya presents it, hardly succeeds in predicting the pattern by which human beings live their lives.

As with sociology, in “In Her Prime” math similarly fails to elucidate an all-encompassing explanation of human existence. In the beginning of “In Her Prime,” Pramila intelligently dwells on both the inevitability and the sheer chance at being alive:

Life is eternal…We die and decompose….The elements keep going on, and on, and on and the recombine randomly, making birds and mice, grass and trees, and sometimes, even, every few thousand years I guess, a dog or a human being. (25)

In spite of this highly sophisticated musing for a thirteen year old, Pramilla fails to acknowledge the element of deliberate choice and personal agency in existence. Her ability in math is reflected in her personality by in she does not demonstrate the agency she is capable of. She is like a variable that is assigned a high value and then manipulated by a function: always attached to a coefficient. Applying herself flawlessly to the functions expected of her, she lets Borya do what whatever he likes to her. Likewise, when she strongly objects to moving to India, the only action she takes against her parents is a passive operation: she threatens to cease existing entirely, the same way numbers in a function seamlessly and silently cancel each other out without creating a statement. While math explains much of human existence, it fails to account for the element of personal agency, idealistically representing the world in terms of logical, equalizing flows of operations.

Through the consistently mutable narrative structure of this collection, Blaise conveys the phenomenon of both infinity and brevity in the narrators’ quotidian existence. He reveals the inability of single discourses to fully rationalize this contradiction, and by examining existence in fragments of different discourses, Blaise’s overall message is that sociology, math, science, and infinite other disciplines are not respective of each other.  The lives of individuals are correspondingly inextricable. As one of his narrators remarks, “given infinite time, every molecule in a confined space–even if the molecules represent the world’s population and the confined space is earth itself–makes contact with every other” (113).  Individuals, different discourses, and the stories of this collection are all interrelated, and by reflecting on the inadequacy of single discourses to fully approach existential reality, Blaise also implicates the failure of his own approach, the literary collection, to wholly grasp the nature of being.