Names such as Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Richard Wagamese and Joseph Boyden have entered the pantheon of Canadian writing in recent years. The relative absence of self-identifying female First Nations authors, with exceptions such as Eden Robinson and a few others, is unsurprising given the historical marginalization of Native women in Canadian culture and society. And if First Nations females are sparse in the country’s literary scene, Métis ones like Lisa Bird-Wilson are practically invisible. Thus a story collection like Just Pretending, which gives voice to a largely ignored aspect of the Canadian experience, has significance beyond its literary merits.
These stories tackle themes of motherhood, generational dysfunction and the double subjugation of indigenous female characters. This is a parade of victimized and marginalized individuals who are usually young and poor and thus especially vulnerable to time and society’s slippery vicissitudes as Bird-Wilson places her women outside the acceptable institutionalized structures, like family, home and secure stable relationships.
In the title story, the unnamed 14-year-old narrator describes her blended family as “a mother, a father and a sister, none of whom are real. Just like me. As if we’re all pretending.” The rebellious teen sneaks around with a pompous university boy named Joe Jackson on campus who—perhaps unaware of her young age, perhaps not—rapes her in a startling yet mundanely realistic scene. After the assault, the narrator recalls the baby goat spray-painted blue outside the student residences. A prank, no doubt, the goat is a metonym not only for the young narrator’s victimization but also for the image at the end of “Just Pretending” when the narrator deposits the incomplete fetus on her hospital cot. The almost-child and the emotions associated with the experience are vague, indistinct, as is her “inexplicable” memory of the goat on her bus ride home after her rape. Vague, too, is the figure of the unformed fetus, described as “a pale waxy shape, a suggestion of something else” in the final sentence.
Babies, both screaming and stillborn, and the heavy viscera and burden of carrying a child, not to mention the act of birth, recur in many of these stories. In “Julia and Joe,” Julia, abandoned at her immature father-in-law’s home by her husband, must endure both the birth and the death of her son alone within a 24-hour period. The hollow platitude—“babies die all the time”—uttered by her maternity nurse is oddly comforting to Julia as it distances the expectant mother from the experience.
In “Delivery,” Ruth Ann is a prisoner in her own house, as she is prevented from seeking help or calling an ambulance and is forced to give birth at home by her abusive partner, Ray, who tells her to clean up after herself after their baby is born, as if having a baby “is something foul and obscene.” We learn early in the story that Ruth Ann has already lost one child due to Ray’s cruelty and violence when he knocked the overdue placenta from her uterus’s wall, thus drowning the infant.
In “Blood Memory” the narrator’s tale begins with “every pregnant woman dreams of what her baby will be like. But babies shouldn’t have to dream of their mothers,” as she juxtaposes her own unknown mother’s experience of giving birth to her in a community of unwed mothers with her own relatively stable family situation. She is “confused and angry over the loss [of her mother]: identity, blood inheritance, to be Métis … something to pass on to my own child, who will also be blind to what ought to be hers by birth.” Interestingly, in this early story, the female infant is also described as “waxy,” although instead of being a suggestion of something else as in “Just Pretending,” this girl-child is “curled like a comma, punctuation, an exclamation: the end of a sentence, making the way for the beginning of something new.”
So what do all these dead, stillborn and fully realized “something else” babies punctuating the pages of Bird-Wilson’s work signify? And what do they indicate, specifically, about the female Métis life? Do they express the psychic limitations and entrapment of the “civ/sav” dichotomy that has plagued Métis since the Red River insurrection? Are Métis women trapped between cultures, societies, between life and death, love and indifference, cruelty and nurturing? Perhaps so, because closely linked to the images of these floating babies always lurks the theme of perpetual cruelty, as many of these babies grow up in unhealthy and dysfunctional situations and learn to survive their own tragic experiences by enacting sadism on others who are in even more compromised situations than themselves.
In “Someone’s Been Lying to You,” for example, an emotionally scorned woman labels her boyfriend “apple” (“red on the outside, white on the inside”) when he finds himself drawn to a white girl’s confidences and humanity. The spurned narrator relishes Jerry’s humiliation and confusion when he discovers that he is Métis, after he has been raised to believe he is actually French. A parallel, juvenile version of the story called “Ayekis,” reflects the same theme—sucking up to whites only to be revealed as an inferior apple. In “Ayekis,” Kyle, the narrator’s cousin, splatters a brown frog in front of the children’s newfound camping friends, which sends the horrified white children on their way. When asked why he killed the frog and sent her new companions away, Kyle shrugs and responds “why not?” His response encapsulates the thoughtless cruelty, the accidental and incidental viciousness characters in this collection enact on one another, regardless of their intimate or familial bonds.
Just Pretending is not a collection for those looking for happy endings, or quiet moments of resolution, denouement or fulfillment about the human or Native experience. While there are suspended moments of tenderness, such as the surprising moment in “Lost” when a despised stepfather carries his stepdaughter to safety, or a damaged, gang-raped teenager is able to breastfeed her son, these moments are as rare as they are fleetingly unsentimental. Powerful, troubling and painfully real, Bird-Wilson’s short fiction speaks to the emotional, cultural and geographic diaspora of an indigenous culture that is as fragmented as it is historically misunderstood.