Content Warning: Discussions of residential schools, suicide, physical and sexual violence.
“As witnesses, then, we should not seek to become the voice of those whose stories are denied, but should work to make them more viable, more visible, more audible, and more deeply felt, on their own terms.” —Sarah Hunt1
“I humbly submit that the time has come for our communities to refuse to be complicit in our further categorization as only damaged, as only broken.” —Eve Tuck2
This academic prose piece is a small, introductory part of a larger discussion of Robert Arthur Alexie’s residential school novel, Porcupines and China Dolls. I discuss the bad feelings that the novel invokes, and I ask whether there are calls for a liveable future to be heard amid the novel’s notorious bleakness. I refer to Eve Tuck’s demand that researchers attend to desire, rather than damage in their approaches to Indigenous life. I also reflect on how my knowledge base as a Kanien’kehá:ka scholar can inform my affective reading of Alexie’s novel.
In 2022, I learned that I am of two minds when it comes to Robert Arthur Alexie’s 2002 novel Porcupines and China Dolls. The late Teetl’it Gwich’in writer and politician’s first book is a story about residential school survivors and their kin in the territory of the Blue People—or what is now called Fort MacPherson in the Northwest Territories. It is a difficult novel with a strange reputation. Speak its name and folks seem to know, whether by experience or inference, that you’re dealing with harsh medicine. When I first finished reading it in January 2016, I put the book down and sobbed for over an hour. When I wrote part of the final project for my MA on it and delivered that piece as a conference paper in 2019, I focused on the devastating implications of its use of form, namely its recursive dialogue, its italicized interior monologues, and its refusals of narrative closure. I used to read Porcupines and China Dolls as a text defined by its proximity to bad feelings—a reading borne out by one key passage in the novel’s heartbreaking final pages, in which Alexie seems to address the reader directly:
How the fuck do you describe something like this? Words can’t describe shit like this. It was like watching your children being led down a long hallway knowing their hair was going to be shaved or cut. It was knowing they were going to be stripped and their clothes were going to be burned. It was knowing their brown bodies were going to be scrubbed by white hands. It was knowing white lips were going to mutter “Dirty fuckin’ Indians” one or two million times under their breath. It was knowing they were never going to speak their language again. It was knowing they were going to be ashamed of who you are. It was knowing they were going to cry that night. It was knowing it was going to sound like a million porcupines screaming in the dark. It was knowing all this and knowing there was not a thing you can do about it. Not one fucking thing.3
The narrating voice in this moment articulates one aspect of the novel’s purpose: to convey in story (if not in words alone) the emotional toll of the residential schools across the generations. The repetition of “It was like” and “It was knowing” centres our attention on the gap between survivor and witness. As witnesses, we can only approach this awful sense of “knowing” not by way of indexical description (that the words presented to us can convey the substance of what they signify) or vicarious experience (that we can feel the storied events and that by feeling them we can come to know them as our own), but by way of imperfect analogies. The grief and despair we may feel during this summary of the novel’s saddest events—the separation of children from parents; the humiliating removal of their hair and clothes; their subjection to bodily and cultural cleansing; the ongoing erasure of their personal and historical agency—is only proximate and never adequate to the actual “knowing” thereof. It is a warning against the kind of narcissistic identification that would enable readers on the outside looking in at these experiences (I’m talking about those who, to be clear, are neither intergenerational survivors nor members of Alexie’s home community) to claim ownership of this story on the basis of having felt it. At the same time, it is also a plea to those same readers that they should feel it nonetheless, that they should continue to hear these stories. The space between survivor and witness, between speaker and listener, is one of imperfection. It is a space of imperfection which we must enter with humility.
While I still encounter Porcupines and China Dolls as a sad and often very angry book, I am also starting to appreciate more encouraging aspects of its emotional vocabulary. In my first few engagements with the novel, I was hard-pressed to draw any conclusions from it that could be called “constructive” or “positive.” It was for me then strictly a downer, albeit a necessary one with the unique power to lend urgency to the actual present-day demands of residential school survivors. In retrospect, a big part of the problem may have been that I was trying to read it through a universalist lens rather than a particular one. That I was, in simpler terms, afraid to look for answers closer to home. Rereading Porcupines and China Dolls in 2022 as a Kanien’kehá:ka scholar (and not as the more unquestioningly Eurocentrist “hungry listener” to which I was then more proximate) has, for one thing, changed my appreciation for a fact that I had previously tended to overlook: that Alexie’s novel begins and ends with an averted attempt at suicide. In a section of prose that is repeated almost verbatim in the novel’s prologue and final chapter, protagonist James Nathan drives his truck up into the Blue Mountains and tries to kill himself with the same pistol used by his former schoolmate Michael Lazarus in a suicide several years prior. On this and many other occasions throughout the novel, the gun does not fire and James’s crisis is temporarily averted thanks to mechanical, if not supernatural or divine intervention. While James “waited for his ultimate journey to hell”4 the episode continues in Chapter 32 with another intervention, this time a sonic one:
After a million years and a billion lifetimes, he heard them coming. He heard them in the wind that now sounded like a hurricane. It sounded like a million trucks tearing up the highway. He heard them screech to a halt. He heard them walking up to him. The sounds of their footsteps were magnified a billion times. He dropped the gun, closed his eyes, raised his head to the sky and surrendered to the Powers That Be. And for once in his life, he surrendered totally.
Then they spoke to him. But it was not what he expected. It was the last voice on earth he thought he’d hear. It was the voice of a reason. It was the voice of hope. “James?”5
The succession of noises that breaks through “the sound of the great silence [that] filled his head” is at first attributed to an anonymous pluralized “them,” later revealed to be the singular voice of Louise, his estranged lifelong love. The list of hyperboles elevates Louise’s presence to that of a hero and a titan. The narration encourages us to hear her arrival through James’s ears: her sound is at once like a hurricane, “a million trucks tearing up the highway” and a chorus of “footsteps magnified a billion times.” In what Jace Weaver might identify as a “synecdochic” gesture,6 Louise (and, funnily enough, her truck) sonically embodies the strength and presence of an entire community—her part invoking the whole and the whole empowering her part.
The outsized scale of the metaphors and the abrupt tonal shift from suicidal despair to cosmic romance can be off-putting, to say the least. Michelle Coupal calls the ending “tacked on” in its recourse to “healing through the love of a woman.”7 Superficially, this ending is not a far cry from the kind of improbable Hollywood ending that Alexie has already parodied by having Angie, one of James’ many jilted lovers, fantasize about him bursting into the Aberdeen Saloon and sweeping her off her feet like Richard Gere and Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman.8 (Underrated point of connection: Angie’s imagined Hollywood ending would be set to the melody of Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie’s showstopper “Up Where We Belong”). What distinguishes the novel’s actual ending from Angie’s fantasy is that Louise’s intervention flips the gender roles,9 so that James is the one being quote-unquote “rescued” with the arrival of his one true love. This inversion is characteristic of the novel’s complicated approach to Indigenous masculinities and femininities—a much bigger topic to which we’ll return, especially in connection with the scene of the “Battle for Souls.” One issue that this chapter will have to confront is that, in the novel and in Indigenous trauma work more broadly, a lot of labour gets put on the shoulders of women: to do the rescuing, to ask the difficult questions, and to absorb the difficult responses, but not necessarily to have their efforts reciprocated. In the context of the novel’s ending, though, the casting of James in the vulnerable role and Louise as the hero is not framed in terms of conflict, whether internal or external, or mutual exclusivity. Rather, Louise’s sonic intervention is presented as a vital act of care and love. It is a call back to community, back to a network of responsibilities and supports, albeit imperfect ones—ones that arguably need James’s reciprocated presence and participation in order to advance together on the path of healing. If it is an abrupt ending, then it at least opens outward into possibility and futurity instead of closure and fixity. If, for the time being, it seems to privilege James’s need for healing over Louise’s, then this opening into the future nonetheless holds the two together as a duo on equal footing—as a node within a community-in-healing in which the work of recovery is not to be undertaken alone.
As I reread the ending of Porcupines and China Dolls in my capacity as a Kanien’kehá:ka scholar, I cannot help but be reminded yet again of Aionwahtha’s crisis on the waterfront in the time of the Peacemaker’s travels through what would become Haudenosaunee territory. Like James Nathan, Aionwahtha the widower steered himself as far away from his human peers as he could and sought to end his own life. Before he could drown himself, though, Aionwahtha’s more- than-human kin had other plans for him. A gathering of nearby birds swooped in and displaced all of the water in the lake, preventing Aionwahtha from finishing the deed. Thus deterred, Aionwahtha was prompted to reflect on his own condition and, in a radical spark of empathy that I interpret as the seeds of Haudenosaunee futurity, made three promises that would form the basis of our Condolence Ceremony. Aionwahtha made a pledge to remain present in the world, ready to comfort and console anyone who would be as unfortunate as to experience the desolation of powerlessness. He promised that he would be there to clear the tears from their eyes, the dirt from their ears, and the mucus from their throats so that they could return to their communities with all of their faculties restored.
Is it a stretch to wonder, then, whether there isn’t a similar call to futurity to be heard in the sonic landscape of Porcupines and China Dolls? While much of Porcupines and China Dolls appears to be preoccupied with James Nathan’s all-too-real reasons for wanting to end his own life, the fact remains that the novel begins and ends with him not killing himself. Encircling the novel’s scenes of crushing despair and somnambulant repetitions are glimpses of hope. With that in mind, I’ve come to realize that to ignore the hope that is embedded in Alexie’s novel would be to fall back on what Unangax scholar Eve Tuck calls a damage-centred narrative. Research methodologies that position marginalized and dispossessed peoples exclusively as damaged and in need of external remed̂ iation are pervasive, so much so that the narratives that they (re)produce start to seem, according to Tuck, like “common sense.”10 These narratives sound a lot like the terminal creeds that Vizenor and Owens warned us about back in the 1990s: prescriptions of Indigenous suffering, in which pain and loss are the only currency we possess. Tuck, writing in 2009 around the same time as Porcupines’ republication, advocates instead for “desire-based research frameworks” as a generative replacement for normative damage-centred frameworks. She writes, “Desire, yes, accounts for the loss and despair, but also the hope, the visions, the wisdom of lived lives and communities. Desire is involved with the not yet and, at times, the not anymore.”11 The choice of whether to foreground damage or desire in our reading fundamentally changes the tenor of what we can then say with our research. With Aionwahtha, that decision would mean the difference between channeling grief into suicidality and instead clinging to our desire for the love of our communities. When it comes to Alexie’s characters, that decision means the difference between a dead end and a liveable future.
My core question for Alexie’s novel is an anxious one: is there a future for the Blue People in Porcupines and China Dolls? The stakes are high and the odds are certainly weighed against them, especially at the paratextual level. Alexie’s follow-up novel, The Pale Indian from 2006, is less equivocal on the topic of futurity. The latter novel takes place in the 1970s and ‘80s— chronologically before the events of Porcupines, but generationally concurrent therewith—and concludes with the horrific discovery that its young protagonists, a Gwich’in couple swept up in a whirlwind romance, are in fact half-siblings as the result of a covered-up rape in their parents’ time. Robert Arthur Alexie died on June 9th, 2014, in circumstances eerily similar to those of James Nathan at the opening of Porcupines.12 It is hard not to look at what little we can access of Alexie’s world and see anything other than an impasse.
Still, I contend that Porcupines and China Dolls, for all of its violence and despair, couples its concern for the future with a few distinct rays of hope. One final but essential clue to this effect is Alexie’s very pointed use of verb tenses across the novel’s three sections. Emily Hazlett points out that the opening chapters in the “Dream World” section, which concern the first two generations of Blue children taken away from their parents, are “narrated mainly in the future tense, making colonization not a historical fact narrated back from a point in the future but present in its effects on the contemporary characters of the novel.”13 The rest of the novel, including everything up until its final moments, is narrated in the past tense. Then, as if to lend credence to the assertion in the closing lines that “James’[s] journey had come full circle,”14 the final chapter includes the following detail:
On a cold September morning, up in the Blue Mountains, at a site that is considered special and will in years to come be considered sacred, James Nathan slowly opened his eyes expecting to see hell. What he saw was heaven on earth. What he saw was his only reason for remaining on this plane of existence.15
That the novel’s earliest and latest chronological events are narrated in a combination of the past, present, and future tenses is worth interrogating. The message, in keeping with the happy ending, is a hopeful one. While James’s actions are still held in the past tense—which makes sense if we understand those actions as belonging to him as an individual character in a distinct time and place—this passage offers a glimpse into two other timelines that reflect very different sets of possibilities. In the present tense, the Blue Mountains are, as we learn, “a site that is considered special.” In the future tense, the Blue Mountains “will in years to come be considered sacred.” Taken together, these present and future timelines make a promise that offers consolation to the reader. Things have been very ugly for James Nathan and his community, but the Blue People of the Blue Mountains are still here—when and wherever “here” may be—and will continue to hold these lands as sacred in perpetuity. The cultural resurgence that was briefly promised in the “Return of the Drum” chapter will live on, if not in the lifetimes of the novel’s characters, then definitely “in the years to come.” What is considered merely “special” at one point will be appreciated as “sacred” in due time.
- Sarah Hunt, “Researching within Relations of Violence: Witnessing as Methodology,” in Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships, ed. Deborah McGregor and Jean- Paul Restoule (Toronto and Vancouver: Canadian Scholars, 2018), 291-292.
- Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (July 2009): 422.
- Alexie, Porcupines and China Dolls, 302.
- Ibid., 2; 304.
- Ibid., 305.
- Weaver’s claim in That the People May Live is that “Native societies are synecdochic (part-to- whole), while the more Western conception is metonymic (part-to-part)”, 32.
- Michelle Coupal, “Teaching Indigenous Literature as Testimony: Porcupines and China Dolls and the Testimonial Imaginary,” in Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures, ed. Deanna Reader and Linda M. Morra (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2016), 485.
- Alexie, Porcupines and China Dolls, 193.
- Not to say that the (in)famous ending of An Officer and a Gentleman doesn’t already play around with gender roles.
- Tuck, Harvard Educational Review, 413.
- Ibid, 417.
- Coupal, Learn, Teach, Challenge, 486.
- Emily Hazlett, “Parents, their Children, and the State: Intimate Perspectives on Reconciliation in Porcupines and China Dolls,” English Studies in Canada 36, no. 4 (December 2010): 58.
- Alexie, Porcupines and China Dolls, 306.
- Ibid., 305.