Ashley Brown reviews LeAnne Howe

9 November 2006

1844710629.jpgEvidence of Red by LeAnne Howe
Salt Publishing, 2005

Huksuba, or chaos occurs when Indians and Non-Indians bang their heads together in search of cross-cultural understanding. The sound is often a dull thud, and the lesson leaves us all with a bad headache.

So begins the second section of Choctaw American poet LeAnne Howe's fourth collection Evidence of Red. Within its one hundred and one pages, which have already won a number of major awards such as the Oklahoma Book Award earlier this year, this book incorporates many literary mediums such as poetry, theatre, prose, character dialogue and adapted transcript. The various genres combine to tell a poetically concise, causal and impassioned account of a history and some of the current dilemmas in the lives of Native Americans.

Being chronologically sound, the book starts with the foundation of Native American mythology and the first section is aptly titled 'Creation'. Howe brings succinctness to this genre of material even if some of it may seem like well-worn territory. The first piece of this section, 'IT [Indian Territory] Geography', describes the primary energy and breath that emerge in the bodies of the Native Americans themselves in the second piece, 'Evidence of Red'. From a narrative perspective, this second piece is quite innovative and intriguing: it initially describes a Native American version of Genesis and then proceeds to fast-forward a few millennia to relate an account tinged with retrospection:

Finally when the stranger's arms
reached to strangle the West,
Grandmother eavesdropped
on the three-faced deity
who said that chaos was coming.

The play entitled 'The Unknown Women' presents a contextual turning point. This four-woman play features figures from Native American mythology, such as The Spirit, as well as a new character, Red Woman, who puts a sarcastic, contemporary angle on The Spirit's ethereal dialogue – “God damn her, I hate that New Age shit!/Who does she think she is?” Within a few lines, Red Woman brings the mythologies and mysticism of the first parts of the book into the firing line of present-day cynicism, and this attitude persists for the remainder of the book. Although the play ends with a surprisingly Hollywood-esque happy ending, it paves the way for the second section of the text, 'Chaos', which propels the reader from the dawn of Native American time to life in contemporary society.

This section begins with rather surreal and subtly symbolic episodes such as an ironically humorous account of the first trading between the Native Americans and the French, and a frog character that brings to mind Mugwump from David Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch. The triptych of stories 'The Red Wars' is a revealing depiction of the attitudes of present-day Native Americans towards each other. This expositional approach extends into many of the pieces in the remaining sections of the book that, arguably, paint a confronting picture of both the author as well as her subject:

Rage, rage, rage.
Indians are not a corporation.

Rage, rage, rage.
Indians will not die so we can be well thought of. So we can become part of a travelling museum exhibit at Southern Methodist University.

Rage, rage, rage.
I will castrate this man,
this cultural eunuch with my hands,
with my head, with my body.
I will emasculate him in the name of Red Rights.

Such passionate vitriol has echoes in the wider cultural landscape; and, for instance, brings to mind the lyrics of Zach de la Rocha, the ex-front-man of the American rock band Rage Against The Machine, himself from a ethnic minority background. Howe's poetry, like de la Rocha's song lyrics, seethes at the commerce-blinded apathy that is threatening to envelop an ancestral culture.

In the last three sections of the book, the author uses realism, humour and anecdotes to further convey her discontentment. The humour is most notable in the eleven-part series of poems and dialogues concerning 'Noble Savage' and 'Indian Mascot'. The nature of these characters are fairly self-explanatory via their names – the former is the mythic brave Indian warrior from the Romantic past, and the latter is the shallow, stereotypical caricature that modern Western society has created of him. These two are, by definition, dichotomous, but what could have been written as another caustic schism is instead presented as almost sitcom-esque parody.

In one of the funniest such moments, Howe reminds us of the token Indian in the band The Village People, singing “YMCA, YMCA. Young Men's Christian Association. Yeah, some decades are more ironic than others”.

Contemporary pertinence, which improves both the importance and readability of the book, also manifests in two other ways: 20th/21st century vernacular, and the concept of universality. The former is displayed vividly in 'Still Code Talking', which is a manipulated transcript of a speech form 1843, telling of how White people had not honoured the promises made in a treaty with Native Americans. The language of this piece is quite beautifully poetic, telling how the speaker's ancestor's “tears came in raindrops, and their voices in the wailing wind, but the pale faces knew it not”. The last line of this piece, however, conveys Howe's (rather more subjective) current interpretation of these words:

Lemme see if I can translate:
You fucked us and we ain't never gonna forget it. Not now, not in ten thousand years, not ever.

It could be argued that this discourse spits vehemently in the face of any manner of reconciliation. Indeed, most of the book expresses bewilderment, regret and anger at contemporary society's attitudes towards indigenous peoples and multiculturalism, and even the passages inviting acceptance and change are often seemingly written from a resigned standpoint. However, the universality of the final passage of 'Choctalking on Other Realities' suggests the notion that however much remorse or frustration Howe feels regarding her ancestor's past, she is, at the very least, far from alone in history. At the end of a long section of prose, she uses the same sentence structure – “Save her. She is the Jewish woman shot to death by the Germans at Babi Yar” – as a refrain to point out that ethnic and racial conflicts, massacres and displacements have happened many times in recorded history:

“Save her. She is the Black women shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.”
“Save her. She is The People, our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, our ancestors, ourselves.
“Save us.”

I believe that, all in all, Howe, as with all Native Americans, does have ample validity for feeling that her culture has been severely short-changed. Quite often, the only realistic way to counter these feelings on a personal level is through artistic catharsis, regardless of the medium, and this has been done by millions of people in hundreds of cultures, and this practice will continue far beyond this or any other generation. For these purposes, and also for eloquently conveying contemporary feelings toward a cultural problem that Western society tries its hardest to sweep under its overcrowded carpet, Evidence of Red succeeds laudably. This book has bite.

Ashley Brown is an arts journalist and editor who holds degrees in publishing and music. He has had his works published by numerous papers, magazines and websites. He is the editor of the Melbourne-based literary journal The Recessive Type.

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