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Tomson Highway Biography

native novel toronto jeremiah

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Northwestern Manitoba, Canada, 1951. Education: Attended University of Manitoba; University of Western Ontario, B. Mus. 1975, B.A. 1977. Career: Member, De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group, West Bay, Ontario; artistic director, Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., Toronto, Ontario, until 1992; associated with numerous Native support groups; playwright. Awards: Chalmers Award, 1986; Dora Mavor Moore Award, 1987-88; The Rez Sisters was selected to represent Canada at Edinburgh Festival, 1988; four Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including one for best play, 1989-90; Wang Festival Award, 1989.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Kiss of the Fur Queen. Toronto, Doubleday Canada, 1998

Plays

The Rez Sisters: A Play in Two Acts. Toronto, Native CanadianCentre, 1986; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Fifth House, 1988.

Aria (monologues). Toronto, Makka Kleist Annex Theatre, 1987.

New Song … New Dance (multimedia dance production, with ReneHighway), 1987.

Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (also known as The Red Brothers). Toronto, Theatre Passe Muraille, 1989; Saskatoon, Saskachewan, Fifth House, 1989; also appeared in Modern Canadian Plays, edited by Jerry Wasserman, Vancouver, British Columbia, Talon Books, 1993.

The Sage, the Dancer, and the Fool (with Rene Highway and BillMerasty). Toronto, Native Canadian Centre, 1989.

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Critical Studies:

Aboriginal Voices: Amerindian, Inuit, and Sami Theatre by William Morgan. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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Tomson Highway is best known as the author of two award-winning plays. The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing focus, respectively, on the lives of seven Native-Canadian women and seven Native-Canadian men from the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Reservation in northern Ontario. The plays, part of a projected seven-play cycle that has prompted comparisons with the work of Michel Tremblay (whom Highway counts as a major influence) and James Reaney (with whom Highway studied at the University of Western Ontario), announce most of the major themes and aesthetic practices that Highway has pursued in all of his writing: the sexual and racial apartheid wrought upon First Nations communities in North America as a result of the colonial encounter with white Europeans; the attendant clash between Native and Christian mythologies; a preoccupation with the shape-shifting, gender-bending figure of the trickster Nanabush; and a wickedly irreverent humor that is as much scatological as it is eschatological.

Highway has said that he only seriously turned to novel writing (having already published several shorter fictional pieces) when he couldn't get the third installment of his "Rez cycle" produced. The musical Rose brings together both the Wasy Hill men and women from the first two plays; but major Canadian producers balked at the cast size and logistical constraints of the staging. (The play, workshopped across the country, has since received a full-scale amateur staging at the University of Toronto.) This setback for theater-goers has, however, been a boon for readers of fiction. For out of his frustration at failing to get his play produced, Highway composed his first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (in which the Wasy Hill Reserve makes a brief but pivotal appearance).

The novel recounts the story of the Okimasis brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel, from their births in a tent on their parents' trapline in northern Manitoba, through their forced relocation to a Catholic residential school in the south (where both boys are physically and sexually abused), and on to their respective sexual awakenings and initial artistic successes (Jeremiah as a pianist and Gabriel as a dancer). Along the way, the brothers, who had always been extremely close, become estranged, in part because of their differing responses to the pressures of cultural assimilation, and in part because of Jeremiah's uneasiness with Gabriel's emerging homosexuality. With Gabriel's death from AIDS-related complications imminent, the brothers are reunited at the end of the novel, collaborating artistically on a play that Jeremiah has written, Ulysses Thunderchild, a Joycean exploration of one day in the life of a Cree man in Toronto.

The reference to Joyce is telling, for it is an indication of how successfully Highway has fused in Kiss of the Fur Queen modernist narrative techniques with traditional Native oratory and storytelling practices. While the novel can certainly be read as a dual Küntslerroman, progressing linearly from their idyllic childhood in a seeming arctic paradise on to the later painful lessons of life and art learned by Jeremiah and Gabriel in the urban centres of Winnipeg and Toronto, Highway's is nevertheless very much a Cree "Portrait of the Artist." The novel constantly circles back upon itself, employing repetition, embedded narrative, much dialogue, unglossed Cree phrases, and other stylistic features in order to bind together speaker/writer and listener/reader in a negotiated performance of both a literate narrative and an oral storytelling event. Central to this endeavor is, once again, the figure of Nanabush, who for Highway is not simply a magical gender-transgressive character (here incarnated variously as the spirit of the Fur Queen herself and as a breathy, cigarette-smoking, torch song-singing arctic fox named Maggie Sees) who knows all, but also a discursive trope or textual device that allows him to manipulate, rearrange, and reorder his story. Unlike the dispassionate God paring his fingernails in James Joyce's Portrait, Highway's Fur Queen and Miss Maggie actively interrupt and interfere with Jeremiah, encouraging him to mix things up even further. Linked to this is a larger concern that runs throughout the novel, namely Highway's conscious construction of Native mythology as matrilineal. As Maggie puts it to Jeremiah, "Show me the bastard who come up with this notion that who's running the goddamn show is some grumpy, embittered, sexually frustrated old fart with a long white beard hiding like a gutless coward behind some puffed-up cloud and I'll slice his goddamn balls off."

Kiss of the Fur Queen is very much an autobiographical novel. One must, of course, be wary of conflating the fictional Jeremiah with his author, but it is nevertheless worth pointing out that Highway began his artistic career as a pianist, and that his younger brother, René, was also a dancer, collaborating with Tomson on his plays (he danced the role of Nanabush in The Rez Sisters and choreographed Dry Lips) before succumbing to AIDS in 1990. And yet, while there is undoubtedly a very personal story that Highway is telling in this novel, he is also concerned with addressing and redressing a larger political issue, recovering the lost stories of a lost generation of Native children in Canada who, during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, were forcibly removed from their families, denied the right to communicate in their own language, and compelled to undergo a frequently violent process of acculturation to dominant white society. Kiss of the Fur Queen speaks eloquently and powerfully to the decades-old silence surrounding this dark chapter in Canadian history.

—Peter Dickinson

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