Thomas King Biography
Nationality: Canadian citizen. Born: Sacramento, California, 1943. Career: Currently Chair of American Indian Studies, University of Minnesota.
Medicine River. Toronto, Penguin, 1989.
A Coyote Columbus Story. Toronto, Douglas and McIntyre, 1992.
Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto, HarperPerennial, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Truth and Bright Water. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.
One Good Story, That One. Toronto, HarperPerennial, 1993.
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In Canada, Thomas King is well known as an author of fiction; as the straightman side kick in a weekly radio show he also writes called "The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour" on national public radio; and as an associate professor of English literature at the University of Guelph. The three sides of Thomas King are not as far apart as they might seem: King addresses native issues through satire and humor in his novels, his radio show, and classes. Introduced in his second novel, Green Grass, Running Water, The Dead Dog Café, with a neon sign of a dog in a stewpot, is a tourist trap that capitalizes on the appetite of non-native tourists for consumption of stereotypes about indigenous peoples. In his first two novels, Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, particularly, King relies on the humor generated by the subversion of expectation to combat stereotypes and normalize the quotidian elements of life of the Native Canadian. Blanca Chester argues that ultimately, "King's novel shows how First Nations storytelling continues to theorize the world through a Native literature written in English." King retells the stories of history (through non-linear, overlapping versions of stories) from new perspectives as he attacks the cultural icons of patriarchal settler society by obliquely critiquing materialism, capitalism, and neo-imperialism. He does all this through an almost lighthearted circular storytelling style. King's writing often seems to contain a dialogue between storyteller and audience, between theories of postcoloniality and native modes of narration, and between traditional stories and popular culture. As King says of Harry Robinson's work, the stories resist being read silently. They recreate the sense of an oral storytelling in a written form.
King's fiction explores what it means to be native in a predominantly white culture. However, his writing does not simply separate native elements from a corrupt white influence or mythologize native life, strategies that tend to create dehumanizing stereotypes of indigenous peoples as members of a "vanishing race" or as "noble savages." Rather, King sees the native experience as hybrid. King himself is of Greek and Cherokee descent, and he appears to understand ethnicity as an inherently unstable set of self-created fictions, to be treated ironically rather than merely accepted. His writing is playfully satiric; with broad humor he debunks both white and native misconceptions of native life. King's native person plays a dual role, at once participant and critic, a member of mainstream society and social misfit. His satire hinges on this duality, with its troubling, comic contradictions.
In Green Grass, Running Water, more than his other novels, King engages with the myth of Canada as an empty wilderness, and the subsequent myths of the "Indians" (the term King uses so he can "talk about Native people in general") in a "Cowboy and Indian"-dominated Western landscape. One of the pivotal moments in the novel is when the ending of a popular Western film is revised so that the Indians win and kill John Wayne. The novel highlights the fact that First Nations people have often been constructed in Hollywood movies and Western books as artifacts and commodities or have been romanticized. King's satire is perhaps sharpest in the novel in the depiction of Portland, a Native man who goes to Hollywood to become an actor in Westerns but who must don a fake nose because he does not look "Indian enough." Through Portland, King tackles the notions of falsely constructed identity and performative ethnicity. Before he can act in the movies he must go through an initiation into Hollywood culture by dancing in a strip show. He dances an almost pornographic dance with Pocahontas, during which a cowboy dancer comes on stage and defeats him, the Indian. In the end, however, Portland has a moment of triumph, after several moments of humiliation, when he is transformed into the Chief who leads the Indians into victory over the cowboys in the revised film.
While King has been criticized for glossing over, or sentimentalizing, the "real" issues of native life in America and Canada instead of creating a realistic portrait of the everyday problems of alcoholism, suicide, and poverty, he argues that he is simply presenting a positive portrait of those often depicted as oppressed and down-trodden. In a sense, his work acts as a normalizing corrective to both the representation of negative stereotypes of native people and to the "issue"-dominated genre of fiction by several other Native North American writers. His characters are not drawn according to type, nor as political mouthpieces, and, indeed, they often defy both stereotype and polemics. In Medicine River, for instance, one of the central characters, Louise Heavyman, is an accountant and a single mother by choice—not by accident and not as a feminist maneuver. In the naming of Louise's daughter "South Wing," after the area in the hospital in which the child is born, we can see the humor with which King combines "Indian" and white symbolism. South Wing is a hybrid character. Like Will, the internationally acclaimed photographer and mediocre basketball player, South Wing defies categorization and expectation. The native person in King's work often acts as a detached observer, pointing with amazement and disbelief to the self-interested behavior within North American culture. Lionel James, one of many storytellers who inhabit Medicine River, is mystified by what he calls this "crazy world." He can not understand why people want to fly him to Japan to recite, and he worries about his audiences "living in the past like that," listening to other people's "old" stories instead of making up their own.
While Green Grass, Running Water is written as a story cycle in the vein of an Aboriginal oral tradition cloaked in satire, and Medicine River is a more linear satirical novel, King's subsequent novel, Truth and Bright Water, is a simpler coming-of-age tragedy. Unlike Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, in this novel the fact that the characters are native is almost incidental to the story. Set in the American border town of Truth and the Canadian town across the river, Bright Water, the novel is the story of two cousins, a dog, and an artist returning home. The boys search for the identity of a human skull found in the river between the two towns. In the process they come to terms with their own positions in the community. Perhaps the most engaging element of the novel concerns the return of Monroe Swimmer, "famous Indian artist," to Truth. He paints a church into the prairie landscape to such an extent that not even he can find its door. He also (re)populates the prairie with iron statues of buffalo. In the end, we learn that Monroe is responsible for the skull in the river as he repatriates "Indians" to the land from which they were taken. Truth and Bright Water may not have the lyricism or the magic of Green Grass, Running Water, but it does have a cast of characters who illicit strong readerly responses in their acts of betrayal and reconciliation, love and death, and an ending that will draw even skeptics to tears.
updated by Laura Moss
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