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Canadian Review of American Studies 34.2 (2004) 205-220

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The Forty-Ninth Parallel and Other Borders:

Recent Directions in Native North American Literary Criticism

Davidson, Arnold, Priscilla Walton, and Jennifer Andrews. Border Crossings: Thomas King's Cultural Inversions. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2003.
Hoy, Helen. How Should I Read These? Native Women's Writing in Canada. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2001.
Ruffo, Armand, ed. (Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures. Penticton, BC: Theytus, 2001.

The Canada-US border has long been considered a soft border, more a state of mind than a physical presence. However, for Aboriginal peoples, the border is a constant reminder of colonial history. It is an enduring scar that not only obscures the violent appropriation of Aboriginal territories over the past four-hundred years but also effaces older maps of Native North American nations. Three recent books in Aboriginal literary studies—Arnold Davidson, Priscilla Walton, and Jennifer Andrews's Border Crossings, Armand Ruffo's edited collection of essays (Ad)dressing Our Words, and Helen Hoy's How Should I Read These?—engage with the problem of borders: territorial, ideological, disciplinary, and subjective. All three express a deep yearning to cross borders, to imagine new forms of cross-cultural understanding, and to articulate more flexible notions of identity and difference. However, these texts are not always in [End Page 205] agreement about whose borders ought to be respected and whose should be transgressed. Each text imagines borders in different ways, both constructing and deconstructing borders strategically. The differences in the texts' conceptualization of borders are indications of three distinct strains in contemporary Aboriginal critical debates.

Broadly speaking, Border Crossings takes a post-structuralist/postcolonial approach, analysing the strategies of subversion and resistance that a single Native author (Thomas King) deploys in inverting the narratives of nation in North America. (Ad)dressing Our Words is generally more anti-colonial than postcolonial (a difference I will elaborate upon), exploring new directions in Aboriginal studies that focus on self-determination, sovereignty, and nation-to-nation relations. While Border Crossings emphasizes how King undermines the persistent divide between Euro-American and Aboriginal perspectives, the critics in (Ad)dressing Our Words explore the particularities of ethnic, linguistic, national, regional, gender, and sexual differences within Aboriginal traditions of storytelling and cultural expression. Helen Hoy's goal in How Should I Read These? is to reflect upon the pitfalls and possibilities of both poststructuralist and culturally particularist approaches. As the title suggests, Hoy is concerned with the "how" of reading, teaching, and interpreting Native texts, especially in light of debates over the appropriation of voice and the politics of representation that continue to shape Aboriginal literary studies. Hoy does not prescriptively assign "correct" ways of reading but rather moves dialectically through a range of possible reading strategies (at points, a bewildering number), all of which have their limitations. Together, these three texts suggest that Aboriginal literary criticism is itself deeply divided, full of borders and incommensurate perspectives that replicate the divided social spaces in Canada and the United States.

Davidson, Walton, and Andrews, the authors of Border Crossings, show that the question of borders is central to King's work and life. Thomas King, Canadian citizen, born in Sacramento, California, to a Cherokee father and a German-Greek mother, cannot be claimed exclusively as a "Canadian," "American," or "Native American" writer. King is inexorably shaped by a condition of "in-betweenness"—racially, culturally, and nationally. His work constantly seeks out the rifts in borders, and his last novel, Truth and Bright Water, is set directly upon the forty-ninth parallel. In an interview with Constance Rooke, King underlines the artificiality of the division [End Page 206] between Canada and the United States: "I guess I'm supposed to say that I believe in the line that exists between the US and Canada, but for me it's an imaginary line. It's a line from somebody else's imagination" (qtd. on 13, 125-6). King's post-nationalist...


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