Green Grass Running Water
Studying Cultural Assimilation in Nervous Conditions and Green Grass, Running Water
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water both respond to the presence of white influence within native cultures. Although the King and Dangarembga focus on different ethnic groups—First Nations people in Canada and Shona people in Rhodesia—both question the it means to be a native searching for success in a Eurocentric world. Characters in both novels struggle with reconciling their cultural identity with the white world they exist in, eventually losing a part of their cultural identity in an attempt at a better life.
In both Nervous Conditions and Green Grass, Running Water, characters partly assimilate into white culture, sacrificing a part of their identity for the chance at a more successful life. In Nervous Conditions, Babamukuru’s white education causes his children to become Shona-English “hybrids” (72). Although he thought that his enhanced education would bring himself and his family prosperity, it only brings them trials. At school, Shona girls tease Nyasha because “she thinks she is white” (95). Similarly, in Green Grass, Running Water Norma accuses Eli—a retired University of Toronto professor—of wanting “to be a white man” (36). Accusations like these lead characters like Nyasha, Tambu, and Eli to confusing conclusions about their identities. Within the whiteness of their surroundings, they come to identify white values and behaviors as normal and expected, and their family’s expectations as unusual.
Although they might feel shame because of their race, the characters in both novels exploit their culture’s stereotypes to get success. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s teacher, Mr. Matimba, takes her to town to sell mealies in order to raise money for her school fees. While there, a white woman named Doris approaches them and accuses Mr. Matimba of “making [Tambu] work” instead of putting her in school (29). Dangarembga uses Doris to illustrate the ignorance white people often have toward systems that oppress people of color. Doris believes that the government “is doing a lot for the natives in the way of education,” so she doesn’t understand the normalcy of being an uneducated black girl (29). In order to solicit money from Doris, Mr. Matimba must lie to satisfy her belief that only the extremely poor Shona people are uneducated, telling her that Tambu is an orphan. Doris donates money to Tambu, and because Tambu capitalizes on white people’s perceptions of natives, she can return to school.
Thomas King’s characters similarly react to stereotypes about their culture. In Green Grass, Running Water, Latisha exploits Native American culture to transform her “nice local establishment” into a “tourist trap” (117). Because white tourists typically associate Native American culture with a kind of exotic savagery, the “Dead Dog Café” serves beef disguised as things like “Saint Bernard Swiss Melts, Doggie Doos, and Deep-Fried Puppy Whatnots” (117). The café even features servers dressed in stereotypical Native American attire, switching from “plains, southwest, and combination” costumes (116). Here, King shows Native Americans taking damaging stereotypes, and turning them into profit for themselves. Although this signifies a bit of power for the Natives because they successfully trick white people in order to make money, this also shows how Eurocentrism and cultural stereotypes lead natives to degrade their own culture in order to acquire economic gain.
King expands this idea with the character of Portland, a Native American actor who played Natives in several westerns. A western movie “wouldn’t be a western” without stereotyped depictions of Native of American culture (216). Portland exploits his own culture by being involved in the production of these movies. When Portland starts auditioning for more prominent roles, the shape of his nose becomes a problem. Even though he’s Native American, the casting directors argue that his nose isn’t “the right shape” for the stereotypical Native American roles in their movies (168). The casting directors ask Portland to wear a rubber nose while filming. When Portland wears the rubber nose he has trouble breathing, showing how stereotypes “grow and expand” to the point of suffocating Natives (170). Although Portland makes money from these movies, his role in the exploitation of Natives chips away at his identity.
While Dangarembga and King use these scenarios to illustrate how stereotypes drive natives to degrade their own culture for profit, they also use them to show the dichotomy between the way natives are and the way white people perceive them to be. In Nervous Conditions, Doris has a false perception of Shona society, leading to her accusations toward Mr. Matimba. In Green Grass, Running Water, King shows the way white people view Native Americans: dumb, savage, dog-eaters with big noses. King’s narrative creates a distinction between real Native Americans, and “Indians for the movies,” arguing that, while the natives portrayed in westerns don’t exist, the scars left from their stereotypes do (208).
Both novels also show how shifting away form one’s native culture leads to a destruction of family relationships. In Nervous Conditions, Tambu’s involvement in her white school cause her to visit her family less and less. When she finally returns home, her mother sees her not as a daughter, but as a “stranger full of white ways and white ideas” (187). Similarly, in Green Grass, Running Water, Eli puts off going home, resisting his girlfriend’s pleas to take her back to the Sun Dance. The longer he spent getting his education in Toronto, the easier it became to stay away from the reservation “until he could no longer measure the distance in miles” (317).
In the end, both Eli and Tambu learn to embrace their cultures. Eli eventually goes home, realizing that despite his academic achievements, “he had become what he had always been. An Indian” (289). Tambu makes a similar realization when she goes to a prestigious school only to find out that, no matter how intelligent she is, she is still discriminated against because of the color of her skin. Like Eli, she refuses to be allow herself to be “brainwashed” by the whiteness around her (208).
King and His Critics: Indigenous versus Non-Indigenous Commentary on Green Grass, Running Water
There are marked differences between the critiques of Thomas King’s novel Green Grass Running Water which were written for an Indigenous audience and those which were not. The main differences are in the focus and worldview of the critiques. Those which were written for Indigenous magazine articles focus on the power of stories, re-visioning the systematic oppression of Aboriginal people, and the assumption of superiority by colonizing cultures. The critiques which were written for the non-Indigenous audience focus on the environmental impact, and politics, of colonial culture, as well as discuss the oral and written traditions as if they were diametrically opposed to one another.
The critique by James Cox, which is printed in American Indian Quarterly, emphasizes the ideas of annihilation, conquest, and the survival of Native Americans. He writes that “one of the major components of European and European North American storytelling traditions about colonialism is the plot that culminates in a conquest of the Americas…[and that] the authors of these stories frequently create Native characters in order to annihilate them in their imaginations and in the texts”. Not only do these European authors create characters to annihilate but they also “enable the belief that white people have a manifest destiny to own the land and plan its future”. When writing for an Indigenous audience the power of storytelling is taken for granted and the idea of re-writing history as a way of re-visioning is deemed empowering. Cox writes that “Thomas King, for example, incorporates his critique into his story with intensive revisions and subversions of narratives that plot a Native American absence…[he]repopulates their stories with First Nations characters whose presence replots doom as survival of, and resistance to, colonial violence and domination”. This attitude towards the re-visioning of European stories is in stark contrast to Sharon Bailey’s point of view. She writes in World Literature Today that King is merely “pointing out errors in the written stories”, that he is “poking fun at what becomes the inflexibility of written text and the superiority of the more plastic oral storytelling technique,” concluding that there is a ” war of written versus oral words”. By using terms such as “war” and “superiority” Bailey encourages an “Us versus Them” dichotomy. This kind of thinking is typical in the Anglo-western world view. The main thrust of her critique focuses on the written word versus the oral tradition. She writes as if she is deeply offended by King’s ” [lampooning of] the non-Native icons of culture”. She argues that King’s novel “undermines” English/Canadian/Anglo-American ideas of truth and reality and that not only is “authority sabotaged” but that the “attack …takes on a truly ludicrous edge” as the narrator “mistreats” more tangential Christian beliefs. Bailey does not move past the argument between written word versus oral tradition. She does not read deeper into the reasons why King writes in this way nor she does not view it from an aboriginal perspective.
While Cox emphasizes the idea of the annihilation of aboriginal people and the Europeans idea that it is their manifest destiny to rule the world as supported by their written words, Cheryl Lousley, writing in Essays on Canadian Writing says “King’s comic approach to environmental politics can be read as a vision of radical democracy grounded in a commitment to justice, pluralism, and respect for one’s relations, human and nonhuman”. She extends the blanket of oppression past Indigenous peoples to also cover all people, animals, plants and the Earth. Her main focus is about environmental politics, mastery over nature as a metaphor, and “the novel’s playfully open-ended and dialogic narrative structure …as an effort in green radical democracy”. Lousley, by emphasizing the environmental aspects, broadens the idea of oppression from a purely race-based view to one which encompasses a wider point of view. She is including all peoples when she writes that ” King underscores how all our actions and ambitions take place within an unpredictable, more-than-human world that we must approach with suitable respect…[and that] dams, cars, and scientific hubris are all aspects of the same development mind-set. Interestingly, in a 1993 interview with Jace Weaver, King says, “I really don’t care about the white audience . They don’t have an understanding of the intricacies of Native life, and I don’t think they’re much interested in it, quite frankly” (qtd. in Weaver 56). So although some critics wish to extend King’s message to cover all humans I think his intention is that the message be kept firmly inside an Indigenous framework of reference.
Whereas Lousley wants to extend King’s novel to cover everybody, Carlton Smith, writing for American Indian Quarterly, brings his focus very narrowly down to the “post- modern trickster” and the importance of the trickster as a “linguistic construct sent forth to disrupt our acceptance of certain “old stories”–stories that collude in the oppression of Native Americans”. He brings his critique back to the personal and connects with the characters in the story. He narrows the focus and puts the attention on “King’s Blackfoot community [and how] stories voiced among friends thus hold the potential to intervene in a powerful way in the “writing” of their lives”. Throughout Smith’s critique maintaining the Native perspective is the focus along with recognizing the pressure of “fixed narratives”, the “poisoning” power of words and stories, as well as “the value of community and stories in imagining new possibilities for tradition”.
The main difference between those authors who are writing for Indigenous audiences and those who are not is that the Indigenous authors not only keep the attention and focus on the oppression of Aboriginal peoples but they also emphasize the very survival of their people. The non- Indigenous articles are more cerebral and less impassioned. The tone is much less immediate, less dynamic, and less personal. They approach the novel from an outsider’s perspective, either trying to fit into it and make it their own or trying to fight with it and figure out who is right and who is wrong. These four articles are a testament to the importance of acknowledging that a critique is a personal response to a text and that one must read many critiques to start to understand the depth of a piece of writing. There have been many critiques written about this novel and one can only assume there will be many more in the future each from the author’s own response to the work and personal perspective.
Bailey, Sharon M. “The Arbitrary Nature of the Story: Poking Fun at Oral and Written Authority in Thomas King’s ‘Green Grass, Running Water’ In: World Literature Today, 1/1/1999, Vol. 73, Issue 1, p. 43-52; University of Oklahoma Language: English, Database: JSTOR Journals
Cox, James H. “All This Water Imagery Must Mean Something”: Thomas King’s Revisions of Narratives of Domination and Conquest in “Green Grass, Running Water.” American Indian Quarterly. Spring 2000, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p 219-246. 28p.
Lousley, Cheryl.”Hosanna Da, Our Home on Natives’ Land”: Environmental Justice and Democracy in Thomas King’s “Green Grass, Running Water.” Essays on Canadian Writing. Winter 2004, Issue 81, p17-44. 28p.
Rodness, Roshaya .”Thomas King’s National Literary Celebrity and the Cultural Ambassadorship of a Native Canadian Writer” Canadian Literature. Spring 2014, Issue 220, p55-72. 18p
Smith, Carlton.”Coyote, Contingency, and Community: Thomas King’s “Green Grass, Running Water” and Postmodern Trickster. American Indian Quarterly. Summer 98, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p 515-534. 20p.