Friday, May 05, 2006

Whispering in Shadows

by Jeannette Armstrong (Penticton, BC, Canada: Theytus Books, 2004)

Jeannette Armstrong is an artist, language teacher, and activist, from the Nsilx tribe of the Okanagan valley of British Columbia. I've had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the International Conference on the Gift Economy, in Las Vegas in 2004 (a speech that can be heard in full on the FIRE website: or in edited version on WINGS' web archive ). But before that, I ran across her first novel, Slash, at my Vancouver library branch. It wasn't the sort of book I usually read -- male hero -- but for some reason it went home with me and I liked it very much. It was about a young native man from Canada who is looking for himself and first gets involved in drugs, then in politics, and finally reaches some level of comfort.

This second novel of Armstrong's (she has a number of other books) features a woman character, Penny, who grows up on a reservation with some traditional experience and a love of colour and painting, then becomes a teenage mom and soon a single mom of three, then attends college and then university, then becomes a successful artist, then gets politicized as an environmentalist, then becomes an internationalist visiting other indigenous peoples and relating their situation to her own, becomes ill from taking on so much of the pain of the world, and finally returns to help preserve and renew the traditions and solidarity of her own tribe.

The work moves quickly from one stage of Penny's life to the next, but I didn't have a sense that anything was rushed through. Because of the theme of the artist's affinity for colour and light, images are memorable throughout. There are a number of spiritual experiences described -- communication with a tree, for example -- but these are grounded in reality, not metaphysically mystical. One salient feature of the main character is her essential independence in sexual relationships, sharing sex and sometimes her artistic and political experiences with men, but not giving away her power of decision-making. In the end, she realizes that the essential relationship for her is really the tribe, rather than the heterosexual dyad. I think this is a deep insight, that western culture generally slides over: the desire to be in community and in relationship to land and the rest of nature, and to contribute to the common experience and the common good. In the above-mentioned speech at the Gift Economy conference, Armstrong speaks about indigenousness as a balanced and mutually perceptive relationship with all of nature. In this book, she ends with a hopeful sense that it is not too late for peoples of the land to preserve and reinvigorate this tradition.

Outside of BC, it will be hard to find this book, probably. The publisher, Theytus Books, is Aboriginal owned and operated. You can find their website at .
For some reason, Jeannette Armstrong's name doesn't show up in their online authors list, but enter Armstrong in the Author search and you'll see five books of hers, including two children's books, and a book on The Native Creative Process.

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