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  • “And Here’s How it happened”: Trickster Discourse in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water

Louis Owens has observed that contemporary Native American writers are often members of a literate elite, “possessing as they do a consistently high level of education [. . .] and mastery of English, a fact that certainly adds complexity to the overarching question of cultural identity” (7). Their familiarity with different kinds of privileged discourse is reflected, and sometimes placed in question, in their fiction. Indeed, a distinctive feature of some contemporary Native novels is the persona of the scholar-narrator, a narrator who addresses a range of historical and aesthetic issues and whose scope of cultural knowledge—encompassing both the arcane and the popular—augments his or her authority to represent the community. This kind of narrator functions as a repository of collective history, less defined by particularities of geography and time than by knowledge of assimilated communal experience, across time. The scholar-narrator speaks in the voice of a broadly educated member of a collective, with cultural knowledge that encompasses and exceeds the knowledge of individual characters. [End Page 212]

We encounter scholar-narrators in such texts as N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child as well as Gerald Vizenor’s Griever and The Heirs of Columbus. The narrator of The Ancient Child provides epigraphs from Kiowa, Navajo, and Sioux oral texts as well as from Jorge Luis Borges, Yvor Winters, and an ethnographic dictionary of the Navajo language. At the core of the novel is the Kiowa story of Tsoai, but embedded within the narrative are lines from Emily Dickinson’s work, lines from Bizet’s Carmen, and references to Kafka as well as to Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite. The English-language text is laced with Spanish, French, and diné bizaad, the Navajo language. Vizenor’s Griever draws upon popular and scholarly sources dealing with Chinese history and literature. In The Heirs of Columbus, Vizenor incorporates tribal history and narrative, quotations from such diverse sources as Samuel Pepys’ diary and Albert Hyamson’s history The Sephardim of England, and references to the music of Dvor(breve)ák. In both Griever and The Heirs of Columbus, Vizenor appends an epilogue that details sources for the narrative; in Heirs, the epilogue succeeds the narrative text with no break in the third-person narration.

I borrow the term “literati narrator” to link the task undertaken by scholar-narrators in these contemporary Native American novels with that of writers in another nonwestern tradition, the literati or scholar novelists of classical Chinese prose fiction. Studies by Andrew H. Plaks, Anthony C. Yu, and C. T. Hsia of the literati novelists in China in the period from the late fifteenth through the sixteenth century foreground three characteristics that resonate with the narrative persona developed in contemporary Native American fiction: their emergence in the context of broad cultural ferment, their sense of responsibility to the traditions from which they drew, and their self-conscious attention to form (Plaks 25–36). The literati novelists wrote at the interface of oral and written narrative traditions. Each of the long masterworks of Ming narrative had an extensive history in folklore and oral tradition, as well as antecedent written sources. 1 The scholar novelists of the period were conscious of their responsibilities to well-developed artistic and popular legacies, as well as to new and diverse audiences. According to Plaks, the narrative patterns of the Ming masterworks reflect the “burden of culture” felt by their authors, who shared a commitment to the “struggle to define the relationship of the latter-day artist to his ancient heritage” (50). As a result, their [End Page 213] works exhibit a high degree of experimentation and a distinctive narrative surface in which genres blend and the voice of the literati narrator is often elided with that of the implied author.

The cultural concerns and the narrative strategies of these sixteenth-century writers parallel those of contemporary ethnic novelists, particularly writers in the borderlands where alternative cultural traditions interact. The narrators of the Ming texts exhibit a combination of “high wit and deep seriousness” (Plaks 25). Issues engaged in the text are philosophically and...

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