Wednesday, August 8, 2007

More Truth About Stories

I've just finished this book ( The Truth About Stories ). There was a bit of discussion about written and oral literature. After listing statistics about Canadians' reading habits, Thomas King writes:

What's curious is that there are no statistics for oral literature. When I raised this question at a scholarly conference once, I was told that the reason we pay attention to written literature is that books are quantifiable, whereas oral literature is not. How can you quantify something that has sound but no physical form, a colleague wanted to know, something that exists only in the imagination of the storyteller, cultural ephemera [a curious phrase]that is always at the whim of memory, something that needs to be written down to be.....whole?

I understand the assumptions: first, that stories, in order to be complete, must be written down, an easy error to make, an ethnocentric stumble that imagines all literature in the Americas to have been oral, when in fact, pictographic systems (petroglyphs, pictographs, and hieroglyphics) were used by a great many tribes to commemorate events and to record stories, while in the valley of Mexico, the Aztecs maintained a large library of written works that may well have been the rival of the Royal Library at Alexandria. Written and oral. Side by side. [Is this library, I wonder, mentioned in the classes on history of the library?]

In the end, though, neither fared any better than the other. While European diseases and conflicts with explorers and settlers led to the death and displacement of a great many Native storytellers, superstitious Spanish priests, keen on saving the Aztecs from themselves, burned the library at Tenochtitlan to the ground, an event as devastating as the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

In each case, at Tenochtitlan and at Alexandria, stories were lost. And in the end, it didn't matter whether these stories were oral or written.

So much for dependability. So much for permanence.

Though it doesn't take a disaster to destroy a literature. If we stopped telling the stories and reading the books, we would discover that neglect is as powerful an agent as war and fire.
(pages 96-97)

The comments in brackets are mine.

And a couple of personal notes about this book.

When I read this book, I can hear my grandmother. She made wry comments like this author does, points that were sharp but tempered with humor that poked fun at oneself.

There is also a reference to another book I've added to my reading list: Robert Alexie's novel Porcupines and China Dolls.
It's the story of two children who return from Aberdeen residential school

...where the girls had been scrubbed and powdered [with delousing powder] to look like china dolls and the boys had been scrubbed and sheared to look like porcupines, and where each night, when the children cried in their beds, the sound was like a million porcupines crying in the dark. (page 116)

And I found that Robert Alexie has written another book, The Pale Indian . More information, including the entire first chapter, can be found here .