Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

One year ago this week, the members of my promotion appeal panel wrote up their final decision: in their view, my file (“with its heavy reliance on non-peer-reviewed on-line venues”) had not met the requisite standard and therefore “promotion to full professor is not merited at this time.” Though they claimed to “see merit in reaching beyond the confines of the academy,” overall they confirmed what President Florizone’s earlier letter had told me: if I wanted professional advancement, I needed to “focus [my] efforts on seeking peer-review of [my] work.” In other words, as I wrote at the time, I needed to “get back in the box.”

Well, I have not taken their advice–not just because I still believe they and the others along the way who insisted on the primacy of peer review were at best misrepresenting and at worst disregarding explicit university policies, but also because, inadvertently, they, and the whole unpleasant process, helped clarify something for me. I don’t want professional advancement. Or at least I don’t want it more than I want to keep trying to succeed on the terms I have set for myself. I was (unfortunately) seeking validation, but I wasn’t asking permission–and the doubts about my abilities, accomplishments, and prospects that were sown in my mind over that grimly discouraging 18 months are finally being overcome by my growing confidence about and satisfaction with my work as a literary critic on my own terms.

It’s still a slow and incremental process: I have more than once, in conversation, compared my efforts to build up my portfolio of work and thus my credibility in that role (for which my academic credentials mean relatively little) as being on a hamster wheel. I am very fortunate in that I do not need to depend on the results financially–but at the same time that also means I am doing this work alongside the other demands of my job. I’m increasingly happy with the results, though, especially now that they include a couple of pieces that reflect me more personally–that came out of my own strong interests and let me show a bit more of my own style and personality as a writer.

One of these is coming out in the next issue of Tin House: for their regular “Lost & Found” feature, I wrote about Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic in the context of my experiences as a student at UBC and my interest in the gendered relationship between history and fiction. The other is my appreciation of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which was published in this week’s issue of the TLS. I’ve written a lot of things over the past decade that I am proud of, many of them in Open Letters Monthly but also here on my blog and in a range of other publications on and off-line. What’s especially gratifying about these two recent pieces is that they are essays, rather than reviews, that I successfully pitched them to these well-respected and widely-read venues, and that both I and my editors are very pleased with how they turned out. I realize that this doesn’t guarantee anything about what will come of the next idea I have for something to pitch, but it does give me courage to keep looking for ways and places to write that let me express myself more as a reader and critic.

In other words, a year after a fairly crushing blow to my career and (not incidentally) my self-esteem, I’m doing OK, even well. (Today was certainly an excellent day! There’s nothing like being included in the TLS’s podcast to make you feel like you really are participating in the “wider conversation about books.”) Soon after receiving the letter telling me that my appeal had been denied, I resolved to stay on the path I had chosen, even if it meant the end of any lingering academic ambition: as I said in my post last year, “an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?” In the last 12 months I think I have actually done more to advance both the university’s profile and its central mission–“the increase of knowledge and understanding”–by doing what I have done than I would have by devoting myself to the kind of research and writing that would (eventually) lead to peer-reviewed publication. So I don’t feel that I am being unprofessional! I’m just not limiting myself to the rigid, narrow-minded, and insular definition of my profession that was advanced and enforced by the university’s gatekeepers. They can keep their “past practice”: as Aurora Leigh says, “I too have my vocation–work to do”–and books to read, and criticism to write, and also, most important of all, classes to teach.

And with that, I’d best get back to it: I’ve got another 1600 words due on two books about Golden Age crime fiction in a week or so, not to mention the rest of both Middlemarch and North and South to reread for next week.

Posted in Academia, Personal | 6 Comments

“Resurrection of the Ordinary”: Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

So the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary.

I was actually tempted to take my title and epigraph, not from Housekeeping, but from Middlemarch:  “It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” Because the awkward truth is that while throughout my reading of Housekeeping I could tell that it is very fine, I could not feel that about it at all: for whatever reason (“It must be my own dullness,” as Dorothea says), though I was struck again and again by the beauty or resonance of a moment or a sentence in the novel, as a whole it left me unmoved, disengaged.

The title I did choose for the post reflects what I took to be one of the novel’s central impulses, one that becomes increasingly explicit towards the end as the rhetoric rises (and becomes more overtly religious). The story and its people are so odd, though, that I am not entirely convinced that they and their lives count as “ordinary,” or as “fragments of the quotidian,” to use another of Robinson’s nice phrases. The novel is more a study in eccentricity–though perhaps to see it that way is to be too much like Lucille, the sister who strives for normalcy, who sacrifices family for order and conventionality. Maybe in trying to read it as a novel about the grace to be found in the everyday I was making a category mistake, thinking it belonged with, say, Kent Haruf’s Benediction rather than with … what?

That I thought Housekeeping was meticulously and often beautifully written became (and here I flaunt my own eccentricity, I suppose) an annoyance rather than a compensation. It felt too written, too self-conscious, and fell (I thought) into portentousness, rather than profundity, in its epigrammatic perfection: “Perhaps memory is the seat not only of prophecy but of miracle as well”; “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow”; “By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it.” Wise? or just oracular?

The house, the lake, the bridge: I glimpsed their symbolic potency, but they did not converge for me into a thrilling whole. I felt the tragedy of Ruthie’s losses, and the truth of Sylvie’s argument that Ruthie “should be sad,” and that therefore they should stay together, not be “helped” by separation: “There is no other help. Ruthie and I have trouble enough with the ones we’ve already lost.” I was never there with them in the moment, though. I was reading the wrong book, I think, looking for something that was simply not what Robinson was offering me. My disappointment–my loss, perhaps.

Posted in Marilynne Robinson | 7 Comments

This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

I am, mostly, but today I had my doubts about my students, many of whom seemed pretty tired and some of whom I’m reasonably certain were also (probably not unrelatedly) too behind on the reading to have anything to say in class.

That’s OK: it happens, especially around this time of term. It is startling to realize how far through the term we are, actually. We had an unusually warm October, and I think all the pleasant, sunny weather contributed to the sense that we were still in the opening phases. But here we are on November 1, and by the time we get back from our protracted study break (all of next week, plus the following Monday ‘in lieu of Remembrance Day’) we will be hurtling towards the end of it.

So what are we keeping up with? Well, in Close Reading we are working our way through Middlemarch. By today’s class everyone was supposed to have read to the end of Book V, which includes my favorite chapter (42) as well as the chapter in which Casaubon asks Dorothea to promise that if he dies, she will “carry out my wishes … avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” It’s a painful moment for Dorothea, who is confronted with an impossible moral choice. (See for here for a more detailed commentary on that choice and its tangled ethics.)

I was worried going into class this morning because I spent most of Monday’s class talking at the students instead of with them. Sometimes when I’m teaching this novel, which I love so much and know so well, I have trouble getting out of my way — and out of theirs! I had been fretting, leading up to Monday’s class, because of the long break we’re going to have before we come back and finish our work on the novel, and I overcompensated. (In my defense, I think I did a pretty good job explaining the novel’s intricate structure with the help of my “Skwish” toy.) Today, however, I asked them to generate topics for discussion and then we just worked through the ones we had time for, with some left over for Friday’s class. One of the things we talked about was that terrible promise and why she should or shouldn’t (or, must or must not) say yes to it; one of the things I was asked to do next time was explain the Raffles connection, which I will certainly do.

So that class went better than expected, but then my afternoon class went a bit worse: participation was pretty minimal (though everything that was proffered was really useful) and there was a lot of that whole “look down intently at your book every time she asks a question” thing that clearly signals “don’t ask me! don’t even look at me!” Again, that’s fine–up to a point! Everyone’s busy and reading for my class can’t always be everyone’s top priority, even if it is North and South. I was disappointed, though, because usually it’s a class favorite and today’s was a good installment, taking us right through the strike to the remarkable scene on the steps of Marlborough Mill:

Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop — at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot — reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:’

‘For God’s sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.’ She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton’s shoulder.

We didn’t actually discuss that scene today, partly because it was clear a lot of them weren’t ready, but we did lay the groundwork, talking about Margaret’s character and her difficult transition from her idyllic country home to the bustle and jostle of Milton-Northern, and about her ability, as a sympathetic outsider, to bridge the gap between the classes caused by misunderstanding and (as they see it) antagonistic interests. She’s not perfect herself, so we are looking at how her Milton experience begins to change her from someone who takes her own preeminence for granted and disdains “shoppy people” to someone eager to be engaged with the industrial world that initially horrifies her. The reeducation is mutual, of course, so eventually (when everyone’s caught up) we will also talk about the changes wrought in Mr. Thornton by Margaret’s influence.

This is just our classroom work, of course. For all of us there are also papers and midterms, and we’re getting into reference letter season, and I’m reading a PhD thesis chapter, and there are committee meetings … I admit I was a bit scornful about having a fall reading week when it was first discussed, but I’m looking forward to the break in the routine, not least because on top of everything else I have some writing deadlines coming up! It’s busy, but mostly it’s a good kind of busy.

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“Detaching the Threads”: May Sarton, A Reckoning

sarton-reckoningYes, Laura thought, it’s like a web. Whatever the secret, the real connections, we are inextricably woven into a huge web together, and detaching the threads, one by one, is hideously painful. As long as one still feels the tug, one is not ready to die.

I don’t think May Sarton is a very good novelist, and yet I seem to keep coming back to her fiction. Like the other novels of hers that I’ve read, A Reckoning has moments of tender, meditative loveliness–and yet (also like the others) it is curiously artless, even occasionally clunky. For all its faults, I was engrossed and moved by it, perhaps because (again, also like the others) it is palpably sincere, and also questing. I don’t know if this will make sense, but there’s something very human about Sarton’s novels: they seem very much the product of a person thinking things through. If her results were more aesthetically impressive or perfected, they might be better novels in some sense, but I’m not sure that would be an improvement–at least, not for me.

A Reckoning is the story of Laura Spelman’s death. When the novel begins, she has just been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. She is only 60, but she doesn’t really feel robbed of time: in fact, she thinks she has lived a full and complete life. What she wants now is to live through her dying on her own terms, which at first she thinks means without involving anyone else; soon, however, it becomes clear that this plan was misguided, partly because she quickly becomes too weak to care for herself, but also because she realizes that her death is not exclusively her own event. It inevitably affects everyone else in her life, from her children and grandchildren to the young woman whose novel she has been working on for her job as an editor at Houghton Mifflin.

“It is then to be a reckoning,” Laura thinks to herself in Chapter 1: with the time she has left, she wants to focus on what really matters, which means thinking about her life and the people in it and trying to figure out “the real connections.” As Laura sees it, it’s not a time for making amends or healing wounds: she is not sorry to leave her mother behind, for example. In her reveries, she ends up focusing particularly on women–those she has known and loved, especially her childhood friend Ella, but also women in the abstract, as she muses on the difficulties they face and the new opportunities she now sees for “sisterhood” (the novel was first published in 1978). Thinking about her sister Jo, who loved another woman but decided it was “more than I could handle ever again … and in my world too dangerous,” Lauren observes,

‘What I begin to see–Jo’s visit somehow clinched it for me–is that women have been in a queer way locked away from one another in a man’s world. The perspective has been from there. Jo thinks of herself as a man. All that is changing and perhaps women will be able to give one another a great deal more than before.’

She doesn’t mean sexually, though a recurring element of the novel is that times are changing for gay people in particular (the novel she’s editing is a “coming out” novel, and Laura continues working with its anxious author after leaving her job because she thinks it’s an important book). More generally, she thinks women no longer see each other primarily as rivals, and that this frees them up to be friends in an empowering and comforting way. “I think this whole journey towards death has been in a way joining myself up with women, with all women,” she tells Ella, whose visit finally releases Laura from the tug of life.

There are lots of small interesting things along the way to Laura’s death, many of them spinning off from this attention to women’s relationships, but also comments about families and marriage and, of course, about dying. Sarton shows Laura gradually receding from the world around her. It’s not portrayed sentimentally or euphemistically, but for all the details about nausea and coughing up blood, it’s also not a catalog of medical horrors. Laura is very aware of her illness as a physical encroachment on her body, but Sarton gives us the story of her death primarily as a mental and emotional journey. “It seems as though a person dies when he is ready,” the caregiver Laura hires explains to her when Laura asks her to share what she knows about death. A Reckoning follows Laura as she readies herself. More touching and, I thought, more profound than the goodbyes to other people are the moments in the novel that are just about Laura taking a few last opportunities simply to be herself (an ongoing theme of Sarton’s writing), listening to the music she loves, drinking in the beauty of spring flowers:

It had smitten her like love, with a poignant ache in all her being. She turned her head so she could see the light shining through the daffodils and watched it turning the petal’s flesh to a transparency, more alive than stained glass. Brahms and daffodils–life–life.

We know from Sarton’s memoirs and diaries that this is where she too found life, and no doubt that is why she writes about it so well on Laura’s behalf as she lies facing death and listening to Mozart:

Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. What had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervour to the very end.

Posted in Sarton, May | 2 Comments

“The Game Is Up”: Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck

The moment when the dashing, exceedingly well-dressed, but annoyingly remote Earl of Worth declares “The game is up!” is the moment I finally understood fully that the reason I hadn’t liked him much throughout the rest of the novel is that he’s both the romantic lead and a detective hero–part Regency rake and part Sherlock Holmes.

I had realized before that point (which is very near the end of the novel) that a mystery plot–or at any rate a “someone’s up to no good” plot–was unfolding alongside the romance plot, and that Worth had an instrumental part in it. It’s also not that subtle who he suspects and why: I haven’t read any of Heyer’s actual mysteries, but I hope they are more, well, mysterious! But here it’s the central relationship between the hero and the heroine, Lord Worth’s ward Judith Taverner, that is the real impetus for the novel, not clever clues, red herrings, or other detective devices.

The problem is that a detective plot does by its nature require a fair amount of withholding, both from the reader and from other characters, and the potential problems of this approach to a romantic hero are compounded in Regency Buck by Worth’s individual character. From the beginning of the novel, he is arrogant and controlling, and one of the first things he does early in his acquaintance with Judith is kiss her, against all rules of propriety and, much more important, completely against her will:

Miss Taverner’s hands clenched into two admirable fists, but she controlled an unladylike impulse, and kept them in her lap. She was both shaken and enraged by the kiss, and hardly knew where to look.

Considering that one of the pivotal scenes later in is one in which she is sexually harassed and at risk of much worse from another man who is depicted as very much the villain of that moment, it’s uncomfortable, to say the least, that the eventual hero himself doesn’t show much more respect for her. Then there’s this little speech of his:

‘Do not look daggers at me: I am wholly impervious to displays of that kind. Your tantrums may do very well at home, but they arouse in me nothing more than a desire to beat you soundly. And that, Miss Taverner, if ever I do marry you, is precisely what I shall do.’

If he clearly renounced this intention later on, maybe we could write it off as an unfortunate fit of temper on his part, but not only is he cool (as always) when he says it, but given the opportunity to apologize, instead he doubles down — and this is once they are in fact engaged:

‘I am as disagreeable as you are,’ [Miss Taverner says]. ‘You would like to beat me. You told me you would once, and I believe you meant it!’

‘If I only said it once I am astonished at my own forbearance. I have wanted to beat you at least a dozen times, and came very near doing it once … But I still think you adorable.’

Judith is not in fact particularly “adorable”: she’s feisty even for a Heyer heroine, strong-willed and independent. She’s an excellent driver, preferring to hold the reins herself (clearly symbolic!). She even takes snuff! But because Worth keeps her in the dark about what is really unfolding around her, she is put in a position of relative weakness. He even exploits her vulnerability, “allowing” her to be carried off by the villain as part of Worth’s great scheme for making the case against him.

There are definitely charming aspects of their relationship. Their verbal sparring is often fun, though I didn’t often find it flat out funny, which was a disappointment: usually Heyer makes me laugh more. Overall, in fact, I’d say Regency Buck is one of the darker Heyers I’ve read, with more anger, violence, and threat, including, again, the overt sexual threats against Judith. It also had more, or at least more conspicuous, “period” detail in the form of both literary allusions and references to or parts played by actual people, including Byron, “Monk” Lewis, and the famous dandy Beau Brummell:

The exigencies of his toilet occupied several hours; he had been known to spend as many as two on the nice arrangement of his clothes, to which, however, he gave not another thought once he had left his dressing-room. Unlike most of the dandies he was never seen to cast an anxious glance at a mirror, to adjust his cravat, nor to smooth wrinkles from his coat. When he left his room he was, and knew himself to be, a finished work of art, perfect in every detail from his beautifully laundered linen to his highly polished boots.

We even meet the Prince Regent himself, who is in some sense the eponymous hero of all “Regency” romances. He is a bit in decline by the time of the novel, but “there were still some traces to be found of the Prince Florizel who had captivated the world thirty-odd years before.”

But to get back to Lord Worth, he is in some ways a typical alpha hero. I was hoping his desire to dominate would be blown away by the end of the novel, but Judith is no Mary Challoner. For the reasons I’ve given, I didn’t find him a very satisfactory romance character, and I don’t think Regency Buck is likely to become a favorite of mine.  But Worth is a pretty good detective, at least if you like the Sherlock Holmes “I’m much smarter than you and have everything well in hand” kind. The scene in which he finally confronts the villain is a classic “reveal” scene: Worth goes back over everything that has happened and explains what he knew or suspected and how he found it all out. As I said, the case is not particularly subtle, but Judith at least is wholly taken aback by his revelations, and then reassured by his Holmes-like promise that “there will be no scandal.” I just wish that he’d also promised there would be no beatings.

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This Week In My Classes: Erring Women

In both of my classes this week we are focusing on young women making mistakes. It’s interesting for me (and I hope also for the students who are in both classes) to compare the very different ways their novels approach their rather different errors.

Both of them do wrong things for right reasons. Jane Eyre, for starters, is angry, rebellious, vengeful, even violent, in her early days at Gateshead Hall, but she is this way because she is miserable and unfairly treated and yearns for both justice and love. When she gets to Lowood, she continues to resist injustice and insist on her right to strike back against her oppressors: “you are good to those who are good to you,” she tells her new friend Helen Burns,

It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.

But Helen counsels her to “read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.” “You will change your mind, I hope, when you grow older,” she tells Jane; “as yet you are but a little untaught girl.” Jane never does stop fighting for what she thinks is right, but she learns to control (or repress) her anger, and we know she takes Helen’s lesson to heart when adult Jane describes Helen’s grave: “now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word ‘Resurgam.'” One formal aspect of the novel that is easy to miss on a first reading, because the narrative of her childhood is so gripping and feels so immediate, is precisely that retrospective aspect: it would be our mistake to identify too completely with young Jane, to think she’s in the right–just as we would be replicating Jane’s own error if we didn’t see, well before she flees Thornfield, that her (initial) relationship with Mr. Rochester is all kinds of wrong. (If she read more novels, she too would quickly recognize the split chestnut tree as a warning sign!)

Dorothea Brooke’s errors are easier to spot, because George Eliot gives us not just Dorothea’s perspective but that of everyone around her and, most important, of the narrator. It mystifies every person in the novel that Dorothea chooses to marry Mr. Casaubon: they all believe that it’s a terrible mistake. We understand why she marries him, though, because we know all about her, meaning not just her desire to lead a spiritually significant life but also her impetuous nature and her tendency to interpret things according to her own desires. Of course, that last bit is at once her greatest failing and the one thing we all have in common with her, as the narrator will take pains to teach us. We are given more information in Middlemarch, but we are also kept at more of an emotional distance–both formal choices that serve the novel’s larger purposes.

In my experience, students sometimes find it frustrating that Dorothea is not more “relatable”: the things she wants are strange to them, and thus her decision to marry Mr. Casaubon just seems perverse, rather than something to sympathize with or pity her for. Also (and they aren’t wrong about this) they find her annoying–inconsistent, prone to displays of superiority (“How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?”). Working through this initial response is usually good for helping students see some key things about reading the novel–for instance, that you aren’t supposed to sympathize only with people you like, or who are like you, and that Dorothea too has some work to do, especially in learning to understand and sympathize with Mr. Casaubon. Like Jane, she will grow into greater wisdom. Also, as the students read on they will probably come to see her strangeness as a good thing. It is not actually better to be Celia and fit in than it is to be Dorothea and stand out, even though Celia never makes mistakes (not even when she gets the shocking news of Dorothea’s engagement–“The paper man she was making would have had his leg injured, but for her habitual care of whatever she held in her hands”) and Dorothea makes a lot of them.

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Education and Failure: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers

“To understand the stories of the seven lost students who are the subjects of this book,” Tanya Talaga begins her devastating, angry, and thought-provoking book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City,

you must understand Thunder Bay’s past, how the seeds of division, of acrimony and distaste, of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding were planted in those early days, and how they were watered and nourished with misunderstanding and ambivalence. And you must understand how the government of Canada has historically underfunded education and health services for Indigenous children, providing consistently lower levels of support than for non-Indigenous kids, and how it continues to do so to this day.

Seven Fallen Feathers provides a lot of that necessary context, beginning with a summary of the history of the area on the norther shores of Lake Superior that was once a meeting place for the Indigenous people of the area, then became “the hub of the fur trade,” and then saw the development of the modern city with its “two faces”: “the Port Arthur side is the white face and the Fort William side is the red face.”

Throughout the book, more general historical background is interwoven with the stories of the seven students. Their deaths eventually prompted an inquest intended both to probe what happened and to issue recommendations to improve conditions for and better protect other students who, like them, traveled to Thunder Bay to attend high school. By addressing each student’s case separately, Talaga is able to emphasize their individuality: their personalities, their family situations, the specific conditions of their lives, hopes, struggles, and premature deaths. By presenting them collectively, as the inquest also finally did, she is also able to highlight the common systemic factors that contributed to their deaths: the devastation wrought on their families and communities by the residential school system; the restricted opportunities that forced them to travel far from home to a hostile city to continue their educations; the abuse and racism they faced in Thunder Bay both from residents and from the police, who were slow to investigate when they disappeared and then quick to blame the victims.

Talaga is a good storyteller; her anger and grief are often obvious, but the emotional undercurrents reinforce the book’s purpose, which is not just to inform but to motivate. “Can the settlers and the Indigenous people come together as one and move forward in harmony?” she asks in the Epilogue. This is clearly one of the most important questions currently being raised in “the country that we call Canada”; her book offers, as the subtitle says, “hard truths,” ones that are necessary to face before the next stage, reconciliation, can really be contemplated.

Seven Fallen Feathers left me with a lot to think about. Some of my lingering questions are historical or sociological; more reading, presumably, is the next step there. On a more personal level, the book prompted me to reflect uncomfortably on my own education in the B.C. public schools in the 1970s and early 1980s. If you’d asked me then, I would probably have said that we did pay attention to Indigenous history. Mostly, as far as I recall, this took the form of visiting museums with exhibits that included First Nations art, clothing, and tools — the kind of things always on display at the Museum of Vancouver, for example. We made regular trips to the Museum of Anthropology, too, where we saw the art and artifacts, looked with awe at the vast carvings in the great hall, and wandered through the Haida houses on the grounds. I was used to seeing totem poles on display, in parks as well as in museums, and I always found them impressive but didn’t really inquire into their meaning or how they were being used.

Back then, I would probably have explained all of this as a benign part of Canada’s larger commitment to multiculturalism: to me it was positive and interesting, but also remote from my own life in present-day Canada. I don’t recall ever hearing the terms “residential school” or “sixties scoop,” or learning anything specific about treaties, land claims, or anything else related to the current political or social situation of Canada’s Indigenous population. We took trips to Fort Langley and took away square nails as souvenirs — but the idea that we are still in some sense settlers, that colonialism is an ongoing process, not just something to be reenacted by guides in “period” costumes, would have been wholly unfamiliar to me.

In retrospect, I still think some of this early experience was benign: it’s good that I took for granted the interest and value of Indigenous art and culture, for instance, seeing them as as part of my own national habitus. It’s thought-provoking, however, to consider how the whole idea of multiculturalism, with its celebratory overtones, might have contributed to a certain kind of complacency: for me, as far as I even thought about it self-consciously, looking at Haida carvings and going to Greek Day were about on a par as ways of appreciating “other” cultures.

Though to some extent I do blame public schools that surely should have made the history and politics of my own country seem more urgent to me, my comfortable oblivion to grimmer contexts was certainly, as I got older, partly my own fault. I was never particularly interested in politics, or in Canadian history, so when I got old enough to look outside the school curriculum, I was going in different directions. I almost never read the newspaper as a teenager–though if I had, I wonder if I would have seen anything, in those years, that would have shown me the part of Canada’s history that Talaga’s book addresses, or shown it in the light she does. That I am learning more about it only so belatedly is itself a symptom of educational failures, some of them my own but some of them also systemic, part of the same large and uneven patterns of race and privilege, knowledge and power, that Talaga’s book indicts. Now at least I can see something my childhood self couldn’t: that my ignorance was a luxury her seven subjects never had.

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