“Healin’ is a journey”
By Kim Suvan
On Oct. 15 author Robert Arthur Alexie, former chief of one of the most northernly aboriginal peoples living on the North American continent, will be bringing his tale of the hearts and lives of characters affected by residential school abuse to Mount Royal University.
Alexie is a former Gwich’in Chief of the Fort McPherson Tetlit and two-term Vice President of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. His novel Porcupines and China Dolls is a harsh, powerful book that explores the effects of residential schools and sexual abuse on a group of Aboriginal individuals and the community they live in. The title refers to the haircuts Aboriginal children were given after they entered residential school. Boys’ hair was cut so short it made them look like porcupines from a distance. Girls’ long plaits were transformed into pageboy cuts, which resembled the style on China dolls.
“You know that movie, Good Will Hunting? When at the end the psychologist (Robin Williams) pushes the math genius/janitor (Matt Damon) to come to terms with his abuse? Damon cries for a couple of minutes and the healing is done? Then he drives off into the sunset to the woman of his dreams?”
Alexie pauses for a moment, his voice coming to over a long-distance phone call from his home in Inuvik. N.W.T. “It doesn’t work like that.”
In the first half of the book, Alexie doesn’t paint a satisfying picture of the residents in a fictional northern town. Characters drink themselves into stupors; lose time at the bar; stagger into one-night-stands; drive drunkenly; obsess over suicide; and forget about love.
Yes, the world might look awful, but when didn’t it? A sentence that recurs throughout the book, often after a litany of terrible observations, is “Things were normal.”
That version of “normal” is underlain by the tragedy of sexual abuse. When asked how it felt to tackle such a controversial problem so bluntly, Alexie sighed.
“It was very, very difficult. I wanted to gloss over it. But I realized if I was going to tell the story, I had to tell it how it happened for a lot of people. I had to go back many times, and reword, and go deeper with what the characters were feeling,” Alexie said.
When the action in Porcupines and China Dolls peaks with a healing workshop at the community centre, even just by reading it, one can feel the floor shaking.
“Two hundred people witnessed James Nathan meet his demons, dreams and nightmares with nothing but grim determination in his soul and vengeance in his heart. He waded into battle seeking nothing more than total victory and freedom.”
Victory, however, is not achieved in one day. Like the character Jake says, “Healin’ is a journey — there is no end!” Alexie explained that healing can be messy. As soon as one problem is addressed and stripped away, another one is often revealed. For instance, several generations of Aboriginal children were raised in residential schools without parental role models. A huge gulf was created by the lack of learned parenting skills. This lack has been passed on to the next generation.
More cases of student-to-student sexual abuse are also becoming public. Add that to problems with substance abuse, violence and depression, and the road stretches on.
Alexie chronicles that complicated healing journey in his novel. Characters fall off the wagon, make mistakes, and break each other’s hearts. But in the end, some of them learn how to love, and even more importantly, to accept love in return.
In terms of how his community reacted to Porcupines and China Dolls, Alexie explained that most people support him and applaud his courage, but some aren’t ready to face their demons. There’s also the problem of speaking about abuse at the hands of church workers.
“A lot of our people don’t like the idea of talking, mentioning things, because it’s like you’re against the church. That’s not the case, but they still see it that way,” Alexie said.
In the real-life world of Aboriginal communities, people wait for a federal truth and reconciliation commission to arrive. This commission was created as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, signed in 2005. The settlement agreement provides survivors with compensation based on the number of years spent in residential school. An independent assessment process (IAP) is available for individuals who suffered sexual abuse. Alexie hears of more and more people filing IAP claims. He knows they will have a long, hard journey ahead of them.
Alexie doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. In Porcupines and China Dolls, however, he offers understanding and compassion for the continued struggle of those who rebuild from the ashes of abuse.
Join Robert Arthur Alexie to hear him read from Porcupines and China Dolls in the Nickle Theatre on Oct. 15 at 2:00 p.m.