Malahat volunteer stephen e. leckie talks with Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber about indigenous aesthetics, the rendering of character, the Gran Torino, and the dream of permanence in his nonfiction piece, "The Bowl Game."
Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber's piece is published in Issue #193, Elusive Boundaries: Mapping Creative Nonfiction in Canada, a special themed issue dedicated entirely to works of CNF, edited by Lynne Van Luven.
In terms of indigenous aesthetics, do you consider The Bowl Game part of that concept? In what ways does that concept showcase the first-person’s experience with travel and the natural world?
I would say that “The Bowl Game” is part of the concept of Indigenous aesthetics only in terms of content and experience. Indigenous aesthetics is a nebulous concept—I would even say that it’s a rather contrived idea, since there are so many diverse Indigenous cultures in Canada, let alone the U.S.A. and around the world. I could rattle on about linear or non-linear narratives—that Western narratives are more linear, while Indigenous narratives are more non-linear—but this is a specious idea based on the conceit that First Nations cultures are somehow more into “circles” than Western cultures. There has been a long-standing trend to attempt to define an Indigenous aesthetics: non-linear narrative structures, the use of trickster-transformer figures, oral writing styles, a close connection to nature, a special spiritual understanding of the world, and so on. These are all important, but I think the notion that Indigenous writers follow a certain aesthetic can be very limiting. It’s a concept based on a set of ultimately false dichotomies, which are then imposed on Indigenous writers. In my own distinct indigenous experience, I’ve tried to express a form of knowledge that includes dreaming and surreal experiences outside of the scientism of contemporary society. But that’s just me. I would encourage young First Nations and Metis and Inuit writers to write freely from their hearts on whatever moves them, and in whatever style works for them.
Do you differentiate between the writer's voice and the character's voice. That is to say, how challenging is writing yourself as a character?
Definitely, no matter how close they are together, even when they are the same person, there is always some distance between the writer’s and the character’s voice. That said, I don’t find it challenging to write myself as a character—or I should say it’s as challenging as writing is in itself, which is an immensely painstaking yet rewarding process. If anything, writing myself as a character makes the pursuit a touch more accessible, as it doesn’t require any extra research, so to speak, other than continued reflection, and I don’t have to worry if I am colouring a character too much with myself. I’ve already lived the experience; I am the experience. On the other hand, writing myself means I have to confront myself in the story. You can’t write away from your past, but rather you’re forced to look in the mirror without flinching. This can become more difficult when family figures become part of the narrative.
You travel from place to place, seemingly through the past into the present, as well as from culture to culture. What significance does the Gran Torino hold for you as a writer and as a character? Is the car an object that displaces the trip from a specific era?
The model of the car was totally whimsical, but, as it turned out, very serendipitous. The summer before I went on the road trip to Montana, I had seen Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, and I liked the film so much that I bought the car—or at least the closest model I could find. It was a great car to tour around in, and, yes, now that you mention it, the car added to that feeling of travelling back in time, especially while I was driving around Yellowstone. And I think the main reason why I was able to make it out of Custer was because of the car’s vintage age and that they are easier to fix than newer cars. The fellow who helped me had many old Ford vehicles on his acreage, and many of those old parts are still interchangeable. If I had been driving a newer car, I likely would have been stuck in Montana for a few more days. Because of all that, the car turned out to be the pivotal, inciting element of the entire experience—and that’s why in the dream sequence in the middle of the story, I had the car itself transform into the playing bowl for a moment.
How important is a veridical rendering of the people in your story? Is there a difference between what really happened and what makes great writing?
In this kind of story, a genuine portrayal of people is of the utmost importance. It’s key to the successful execution of the narrative. As the saying goes, it’s often easier to tell the truth than it is to lie. Within the confines of a short story, particularly a creative nonfiction piece, it is crucial to stay true to character, in order to keep the story from unraveling. It’s not like with a novel where you have room to spread things out and then weave the threads back together. One has to keep the story focused and woven together the whole time, and the only way to do that is to stay with what really happened. If anything, I had to leave so many details out, and not embellish or alter them, in order to maintain the focus and keep the story from becoming fantastical or contrived. But that’s just a matter of genre; in other genres, one can fly as far away from reality as befits the story. Great writing, in that sense, is about how well a story fulfills itself.
How would you elucidate “the dream of permanence” and what it may mean for identifying as a settler, or Cree, or Crow? Is your first-person speaker part of all these worlds?
In a sense, yes, the first-person speaker is part of all these worlds, though not so much a part of the Crow community as a traveller through it. My own ancestry is a mix of Metis, Cree, Scottish, and German, and my upbringing was mainly urban, in the Core neighbourhood of Regina. However, in the story, the speaker interacts with Blackfeet teachers (before the story starts) and the folks at the Crow Agency. Specifying this is really about respect, about being tribal-specific, rather than pan-Indian in the narrative. The Blackfeet and the Crow (among others) are the Indigenous peoples of the lands now called Montana, and they were the people who helped me in my travels there. Likewise with the townsfolk in Custer. At the end of the story, I acknowledge that part of my Cree heritage by referring to the original place name of Regina, as I return home. Here, the idea of “the dream of permanence” is really a philosophical point, a comment about the existential conditions all people face—all structures and borders are temporary—all eventually give way before the land. This is the epiphany the speaker has at the end.
Can you share any specifics of the bowl game? How different is the game among various peoples?
There are many variations of the bowl game across the nations of Turtle Island. The materials used can differ from wood, bone, antler, stone, and so on; the number of plays and the order of play can vary; the game’s significance also depends on the specific culture. Essentially, it’s a form of casting lots. In some cultures, it’s just a game to pass the time; in other cultures, it’s a game with profound significance, with a mythological backstory. The Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor recounts a story where the bowl game emerged at the time of Creation. The particular bowl game I learned in Montana from the Blackfeet teachers involved a backstory with the Stone People, the Grandfathers. In my story, the game becomes the guiding metaphor, because it resonates with all the chance events that happened. The bowl game, as a part of a creation myth, acknowledges a world based on chance rather than just exclusively on design. Afterwards, when I reflected on my trip, it crystallized my own experience of the game as a metaphor for all the changing figures of family and friends throughout my life. The earth is one great bowl game.
stephen e. leckie
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