Pep Talk

Tomson Highway reveals the animation of his native tongue

This book is a trick window. Tomson Highway, as we will see, is a Trickster and a window installer.

Highway’s favourite character and metaphysical persona is “a cosmic clown, as he/she has been called, a merry-maker called the Trickster, Weesageechaak in Cree, Nanabush in Ojibway, Glooscap in Mi’kmaq, Iktomi in Lakota, Coyote on the plains, Raven on the west coast.” The Trickster shows up in Highway’s plays, male in the all-female The Rez Sisters, female in the all-male Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, in each case taking shapes of different people, tricking and being tricked. The Trickster is like the spirit of thought being pinned by pen to paper.

Consider: Highway wrote his plays first in English. In them he also has words of Cree and Ojibwa, with English translations included for the reader. They are transcribed not in the Cree syllabic alphabet, and not in the international phonetic style usually used for representing Cree in the Latin alphabet, but in spellings that follow English’s centuries-old trick, with the long version of the “i” sound written as ee, the long version of the “u” sound written as oo, and so on. But wait! In 2010 Highway brought out entirely Cree versions of his first two plays. Translations? No, he said. The new versions, he explained in a CBC interview, “are actually the original versions. As it turns out, the original ones that came out 20 years ago were the translation.”

What else would we expect? As Highway says in A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance, Cree is the Trickster language, the laughter of the cosmic clown: “Cree has got to be the world’s funniest language. I lie not when I say that each syllable is a kick in the pants, a poke in the bum.” How is it funny? It just is. He gives us a phrase as illustration: “neeeeeeee, awinak awa oota kaapeepeeitgweet? In Cree, it’s hysterical. We laugh and laugh and laugh when we say it when, in fact, all I’m saying translates into English as, ‘Hey, who just came in the door?’” A language, we see, is a window into a culture.

Highway’s English words are also a window that gives a tricky, distorted view to provoke laughter. “My dialect of the language also happens to be the fastest of any dialect of any language anywhere on the planet,” he tells us, and describes the Hail Mary contests in Brochet, the small town in far northwestern Manitoba where he spent his earliest years. Everyone in the town would kneel in a row on the main street with their rosaries. The priest would fire a gun: BANG! And they’re off. The text of the Hail Mary, as written out by Highway, is 29 long words, seven and a half lines of text: “Kitatamiskaatin Marie, seeya kaskiniskaakooyaan manto–saakeehitoowin, kitiheek ayow K’simanto…” Highway says it in seven seconds, to laughter and applause.

Says it? Yes. This book is words written to be spoken, then printed to be read by more people than hear it. It was the annual Canadian Literature Centre Henry Kreisel Lecture, delivered in Edmonton on April 17, 2012. The whole speech is on YouTube. You can watch or listen—but not both at the same time; the video is a second or so out of sync with the audio. This Trickster is a slippery character.

A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance is reminiscences, stories, biography, assertions, exhortations, all to fit within an hour. Its most important point is this: “Speaking one language, I submit, is like living in a house with one window only; all you see is that one perspective when, in point of fact, dozens, hundreds, of other perspectives exist and one must, at the very least, heed them, see them, hear them.”

These perspectives can trick us. “European languages,” Highway says, “are obsessed by the question of gender. They divide the universe into that which is male and that which is female.” (He makes no mention of the third gender, neuter, although Latin was his first non-aboriginal language and it, like several others, has neuter.) “Aboriginal languages, on the other hand, divide their universe not into genders but into that which is animate and that which is inanimate—things, that is, that have a soul and things that do not.” (He makes no mention of those aboriginal languages that do not make this a grammatical distinction.) European languages give us a male God; Cree gives us a male, female and laughing creation. What is animate, what has a soul? A man, a woman, a cow, a tree, a rock. Among body parts, only the vagina, the uterus and the anus have souls—not the penis, the hands or any other part.

We learn from Highway that animate things transform, and inanimate things are the results of transformations. A human, animate, transforms to a corpse, inanimate; the spirit of the human persists in the cycle of life. This is how a tree (ana seeti) and a rock (ana asini) are animate: “The dead tree is made into a chair (anima teetapoowin), making that chair a tree without a soul; … the rock is crushed into cement and made into a sidewalk transforming that sidewalk (anima meeskanow) into a rock without a soul—the operative word in all this being the article anima.”

Anima. In Cree, the definite article for things that have a spirit is ana, and the definite article for things that do not have a spirit is anima. Highway, who learned Latin as a choirboy in a residential school, must see the irony that the Latin (and feminine) word for spirit is the Cree article for things that have no spirit, but he leaves it to us to see the trick.

And do words have spirits? Does language? Highway does not say so, so I had to look it up: in Cree, both language (and a specific language, such as Cree) and individual words do not have spirit. They are the results of transformations. A book is like a sidewalk. Or a highway.

Or music. Highway is a world-class pianist, along with being a composer and author, and music is, for him, “the original and only universal language, the only one understood and spoken in all 195 countries on this planet.” Is that really true? Highway talks about how he learned to understand Ravel and Brahms and Beethoven. But not everyone who likes or learns music learns the western classical tradition; not everyone who learns the classical tradition understands other traditions. Highway’s point is that music is yet another window, but we see that it, too, gives a view of a culture—it is many windows, or at least one window with many panes. Still, almost everyone seems to have a window of this kind, even if they do not all know how to look through it well.

But here is the trick(ster) question that the book leaves us with: Tomson Highway, whose first language is Cree and who also spoke Dene as a child, who learned Latin, then English, then French, and later Spanish, and who knows music so well, has written this book in standard English, with some French and some musical notes and a sprinkling of Cree and Dene, but the Cree and Dene are rendered in an English-spelling–style transliteration using the Latin alphabet. What cultures does this consummate window installer have windows open to? Can we see through all of them? Are they trick windows?