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“Written orality in Thomas King's short fiction”

Teresa Gibert


Les structures narratives orales qui caractérisent le conte traditionnel des Peuples Premiers Canadiens constituent un trait distinctif de la fiction brève de Thomas King. Sa remarque à propos du très respecté conteur Okanagan, Harry Robinson – qui maîtrise à la fois l’anglais et sa langue maternelle- peut s’appliquer aussi à lui-même : “Lorsqu’on lit Robinson, on est pratiquement forcé de le faire à voix haute, bouclant ainsi la boucle, l’oral devenant écrit qui devient oral.” Fondées en partie sur des sources orales, les nouvelles de King instaurent un dialogue constant entre les traditions orale et écrite qui parodie les grands récits et subvertit les conventions imposées par le discours dominant.
Parmi les stratégies narratives choisies par l’auteur, on notera l’emploi de certaines tournures les plus courantes des Anciens Indigènes, et l’adoption d’un style de présentation qui vise à rendre sur la page les nuances caractéristiques des cadences orales des conteurs (ex. les digressions intentionnelles, les listes et répétitions, les pauses fréquentes, l’élision des verbes, les phrases extrêmement brèves, une ponctuation et des retours à la ligne qui recréent les rythmes du conte, ainsi que la parataxe). Dans sa fiction brève King expérimente avec succès des “morceaux vocaux” et son oralité écrite devient un véritable moyen de communication qui dresse un portrait précis des membres des communautés indigènes d’aujourd’hui, affirme l’essor de leur culture et contribue au renouveau de leur identité au sein du Canada contemporain.

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Thomas King
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1In his pioneering and extremely influential study Orality and Literacy (1982), Walter J. Ong drew attention to the radical changes which are experienced by predominantly oral cultures when they develop writing and have access to print. He emphasized how the shift from “primary orality” to “secondary orality” not only implies that cultures are compelled to elaborate new rhetorical styles in order to communicate knowledge by employing a different medium; the shift also involves a major transformation of thought itself. According to Ong, orally based thought and expression are additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic; redundant, conservative, close to the human lifeworld, agonistically toned, empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced; homeostatic and situational rather than abstract (36-57).

  • 1 Since it has not been widely accepted, I am hesitant to use the word orature, coined in the 1970s (...)

2When trying to throw further light on the dichotomy between oral and literate cultures, anthropologists have often used a series of contrastive terms by which each of the two cultures has been associated to the following binary oppositions: subjectivity vs. objectivity, concreteness vs. abstract thought, immediate presence vs. historical perspective, and context dependency or closeness vs. objectivizing distance. More specifically, this list was prolonged whenever oral art forms were compared with written ones, because the former tended to be labeled primitive, old-fashioned and rural, whereas the latter were generally characterized as civilized, modern and urban. As a result, oral traditions were either excluded from the field of literature or, at best, if they were taken into account, were invariably less valued than written ones. However, current trends in literary studies are revising and questioning these distinct dichotomies, pointing out that they constitute overly simple categorizations of complex phenomena. For instance, starting in the early 1970s, Ruth Finnegan’s extensive research on African narratives, and subsequently on oral poetry worldwide, has continually rejected this kind of stereotypical thinking about the relationships between oral and written modes by systematically exposing the hybrid nature of a number of texts which resist such polarizations. A thorough analysis of the main features of contemporary works of oral literature leads to the conclusion that orality is not merely the antithesis of writing, and that both modes of communication are entwined rather than separate.1 The very notion that cultures evolve from orality to literacy, as if they were successive stages in a single path of cultural evolution, is disallowed by the plain fact that writing does not extinguish oral cultural transmission. As Walter J. Ong noted, “writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it” (9).

  • 2 Medicine River was turned into a television movie which pokes fun at stereotypical images of “Holl (...)

3Among the contemporary authors who have made significant contributions to the Orality-Literacy Debate, Thomas King deserves special recognition, for he has participated in it by dealing with these issues both theoretically and practically. Indeed, throughout his essays and lectures he devotes a great deal of attention to elucidating how the oral and the written may be fruitfully linked in literature, at the same time that his fiction provides excellent examples of written orality. Furthermore, King’s interest in the modern multi-media forms of oral cultural transmission is exemplified by his scripts for films, television and radio drama, in particular by his extensive involvement with The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, a popular CBC radio series, for which he wrote the parts played by himself and two other actors.2 This provocative and rather controversial radio program, featuring a mixture of hilarious social comedy and scathing political satire, allowed a very wide audience to listen to and be struck by King’s own powerful voice.

  • 3 Since Thomas King conceives his novels as short-story cycles, much of what is said about his short (...)

4Taken as a whole, King’s oeuvre demonstrates the falsity of certain preconceived ideas about orality, such as the assumption that it is a conservative phenomenon. In his novels, short stories, lectures, screen and radio scripts, and even in his radio-acting performances, he constantly resorts to orality in order to support progressive political views and to question reactionary ideologies. Whenever he associates the written traditions of European cultures with the discourse of the colonizer, and the Native North-American oral traditions with the discourse of the colonized, he proves that, far from being conservative, orality may be used as a liberating mode of resistance to written colonial narratives, in the sense that Homi Bhabha contended (444-45). In his fiction, King has given ample evidence of the destabilizing potential of orality to counter colonialist impositions. Partly grounded in spoken sources, King’s novels3 and short stories establish a constant dialogue between oral and textual traditions that parodies master-narratives, and subverts the conventions created by the dominant discourse. When King was interviewed by Constance Rooke in 1990, he clarified his position in this respect:

  • 4 For an analysis of the oral features of Patricia Grace’s literary production, see Peter Dickinson’ (...)

I do feel an affinity with other aboriginal people, and the Maori in New Zealand and the Aboriginal in Australia, for instance, in part because I think that our experience with colonization is similar, but more because we seem to be concerned about the same things. ... I’ve just finished [Patricia] Grace’s Potiki which is about a Maori community. It touches on some of the same things that I like to write about, and many of the storytelling techniques, the characters, and the voices are familiar.4

  • 5 Although King often shuns the role of spokesman for Native people, he is widely acclaimed as one o (...)

5Oral discursive modes have helped King not only to speak to Native communities persuasively, but also to make the voices of such communities heard by a broad non-Native audience, forcefully expressing their present-day concerns about racial discrimination and stereotyping, among many other topics that still have a bearing on modern Native life on today’s Canadian reserves and in urban centers as well.5 King himself has recently stated about the thematic focus of his storytelling that his stories are “about broken treaties, residential schools, culturally offensive movies, the appropriation of Native names, symbols, and motifs” (The Truth About Stories 62).

  • 6 When he discussed the label of “Canadian Native author,” while acknowledging that he was not born (...)

6In the discussions about orality and literacy, King aligns himself with those who emphasize continuity and blending rather than disconnection and opposition. Consequently, he rejects the notion that Native North-American oral literature exclusively pertains to the past and, on the contrary, he is particularly keen on emphasizing its present vitality. Thus, in his Introduction to All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, he remarks: “There is a misconception that Native oral literature is an artifact, something that vanished as an art form in the last [the nineteenth] century. Though virtually invisible outside a tribal setting, oral literature remains a strong tradition and is one of the major influences on many Native writers” (xii). One of such writers is precisely Thomas King, who describes himself at the end of his anthology as “a Native writer of Cherokee, Greek, and German descent” (217).6 Throughout his own novels and short stories, King has strived to make Native oral literature visible outside tribal settings, and has strengthened it by turning some traditional forms of oral storytelling into publishable written texts of modern fiction. One of his principal aims is to keep this kind of literature well alive by adapting, developing and enriching it, rather than trying to preserve it as if it were a relic. Most of his own creative efforts are directed at ensuring that the oral and the written may successfully merge in his literary works. His merit has been to achieve considerable popular and critical renown at national and international levels while always being faithful to the essence of his sources of inspiration.

7Thomas King has often referred to his lifelong interest in oral storytelling. He recalls that he was a boy who particularly liked to listen to stories when he was growing up in a small town in Northern California, within a mixed community of Cherokees, Greeks and Italians, all of whom have ancient storytelling traditions (Moore E-8). Much later, he would also listen to Blackfoot and Cree storytellers over the ten years he spent teaching in the Native Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge, which is close to the largest reserve in Canada (Gzowski 71-72). But oral storytelling has not simply been a hobby for Thomas King. Long before he settled in Canada, he began to do scholarly research on it when he was still a university student in the United States, so that eventually it became his main field of professional expertise. His PhD dissertation, which he presented in 1986 at the University of Utah, was entitled “Inventing the Indian: White Images, Native Oral Literature, and Contemporary Native Writers.” In his abstract, he pointed out that “in the second half of the twentieth century, Native writers began going to Native culture, particularly to oral literature for inspiration, drawing from the vast body of oral stories relationships that described the world as many tribes understood it” (1729). Furthermore, he alluded to “the growing awareness of the potential of oral literature in fiction and the increasing use that Native writers have made of this body of literature in their novels.”

8Curiously enough, in spite of King’s direct exposure to oral Native storytelling, his chief influence in this sense does not come from actually listening to spoken words, but from reading a transcription, a printed text. In an interview, King explained that he “was blown away” when he became acquainted with the stories of Harry Robinson, an Okanagan elder skilled both in English and in his mother tongue (Gzowski 72). It has been noted that King only read the printed version of Robinson’s stories which the ethnographer Wendy Wickwire had sent him, and that he never met the storyteller, nor did he take the audio tapes which Wickwire offered him (Chester 59). At the time, King was editing the anthology All My Relations, and was simultaneously working on what he likes to call “voice pieces,” where he, in his own words, “was trying to recreate the sense of an oral storytelling voice in a written form” (qtd. in Gzowski 72). For twelve years, Wendy Wickwire had been recording and transcribing the stories that Harry Robinson had told her in English, a selection of which she finally published in 1989 in the volume entitled Write It On Your Heart. The following year, when King brought out All My Relations, he dedicated it to Harry Robinson, who had recently passed away (1900-1990).

9Since then, King has not ceased to pay homage to the man who became inspirational for him (Gzowski 72). In his Introduction to All My Relations, King remarked that, “In a written story, you only have the word on the page. Yet Robinson is able to make the written word become the spoken word by insisting, through his use of rhythms, patterns, syntax, and sounds, that his story be read out loud, and, in so doing, the reader becomes the storyteller” (xii-xiii). The specific text chosen by King to represent Robinson’s work in the anthology (1-26) is cited in its Introduction as “a fine example of interfusional literature, literature that blends the oral and the written” (xii).

10Interfusional literature is one of the four terms which Thomas King has suggested to describe the range of Native writing in North America, together with tribal, polemical and associational. In his article “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial” (1990) he defines all four in detail, and includes under the heading of interfusional literature the narratives that are written down in English and adapted for wide circulation, but retain the typical Native voice of the storyteller as well as traditional themes and oral discursive devices. King observes that, although there are other authors (such as Dennis Tedlock, Dell Hymes and Howard Norman) whose works in translation “suggest the nature of interfusional literature,” Harry Robinson’s Write It on Your Heart is “the only complete example we have” of it (244). According to King, “The stories in Robinson’s collection are told in English and written in English, but the patterns, metaphors, structures as well as the themes and characters come primarily from oral literature” (244). King praises Robinson for being “successful in creating an oral voice,” something he does in “a rather ingenious way,” for he develops “an oral syntax that defeats readers’ efforts to read the stories silently to themselves, a syntax that encourages readers to read the stories out loud” (244). King commends Robinson’s prose for avoiding the loss of what is generally omitted when oral literature is translated, and for “re-creating at once the storyteller and the performance” (244). In “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” the last comment about interfusional literature constitutes an explicit acknowledgment of King’s literary debt to the Okanagan storyteller, for the author concludes the essay with the following statement about Robinson: “his prose has become a source of inspiration and influence for other Native writers such as Jeannette Armstrong and myself” (245).

  • 7 In his Introduction to All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, Tho (...)
  • 8 The beginning of King’s “One Good Story, That One” exemplifies some of these rhetorical strategies (...)

11King also declared his enthusiasm for Robinson’s stories during an interview held in 1990, the same year that both the anthology All My Relations and the essay “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial” were published. On this occasion, apart from reiterating the features which he found particularly attractive in Robinson’s art, King summarized the elder’s achievement with the words: “The key to Robinson’s literature is that he knows both languages and he understands storytelling” (qtd. in Rooke). This observation reveals that, although Thomas King cannot speak any Native language, he is aware of the importance of bilingualism in the shaping of contemporary Native literature.7 In fact, whenever he casts himself in the role of the traditional storyteller, he sounds as if he were bilingual, because he deliberately replicates the mother-tongue interferences that appear in the typical English speech of Native elders, paying particular attention to lexical choice. For instance, he slips in some words in Native languages, mispronounces certain English names (generally with a humorous intent), and applies the personal pronouns he, she, it, and they indiscriminately, instead of making them consistent with their antecedents. Additionally, he privileges exhortatory or phatic forms of address, by which the narrator apostrophizes readers directly, using the second person, you, as if they were a cooperative listening audience whose active participation and interaction was being encouraged, so as to give the impression that they are attending a collective performance. The author also adopts a style of presentation which is meant to render on the page the specific nuances of the Native storytellers’ common verbal rhythms. As a result, his rhetorical strategies include intentional digressions, lists and repetitions (which function as mnemonic devices), frequent pauses and hesitations (e.g. “Ummmm, ummmm, ummmm,” or “Maybe. Maybe not. Can’t say”), expressions of laughter (e.g. “Hahahahaha,” or “Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha”), elision of verbs, extremely brief sentences, punctuation and line breaks that echo storytelling cadences, together with parataxis, illustrated by a striking proliferation of juxtaposed declarative statements in contrast with an almost complete absence of subordination.8 This narrative mimicking is intended to reproduce a sense of the syntax, tone and diction that characterizes the English speech of Natives while avoiding the undesirable implications of dialect to which King alluded when he said to one of his interviewers: “I also try to stay away from dialect. Dialect creates centres ... I think of that as a responsibility not to show Native people as illiterate or stupid, because dialect has that tendency ...” (qtd. in Rooke)

  • 9 In “The One About Coyote Going West” the narrator discusses storytelling with Coyote. Among differ (...)
  • 10 Since the intercalated stories are not in the chronological order in which they appeared when they (...)
  • 11 For a more detailed analysis of how this short story comically exposes the manner in which most Na (...)
  • 12 In The Truth About Stories, King refers to the problem of authenticity within the context of Nativ (...)
  • 13 In a 1993 interview, King said: “I have no patience with the anthropological approach to literatur (...)

12Both in his novels and in his short fiction, King has resorted to imitating the narrative voices of traditional Native storytellers a number of times. However, he has been careful not to exploit this artifice too often or for too long. For instance, out of the ten short stories he included in his collection One Good Story, That One (1993), only four are told by a narrative voice which evokes those of such storytellers. They are entitled: “One Good Story, That One” (1988), “Magpies” (1989), “The One About Coyote Going West” (1989) and “A Coyote Columbus Story” (1992, 1993).9 Their placement as the first, third, sixth and ninth stories in the volume may not be purely accidental, but intended to avoid the monotony that a homogeneous distinctive voice might have caused.10 Unlike the other six stories of the collection (in which quotation marks are used to clearly indicate dialogue), these four stories are presented as if they were transcriptions intended to offer the stories exactly as told, avoiding all quotation marks. Out of the four stories, the one in which the narrative voice most resembles that of Harry Robinson is the first, and the one after which the whole volume is titled. The cheerful narrator of “One Good Story, That One” is a fictional Native storyteller who pokes fun at three anthropologists by telling them a distorted version of the biblical episode of Adam and Eve instead of the “authentic” creation story they wanted to record.11 The story exemplifies King’s use of subversive humor, which is not merely intended to amuse for the sake of provoking laughter, but handled in the sense that Paula Gunn Allen once remarked on when questioned about Native joking: “humor is the best and sharpest weapon we’ve always had against the ravages of conquest and assimilation. And while it is a tiny projectile point, it’s often sharp, true and finely crafted” (qtd. in Lincoln 7). This particular story comically deals with the controversial issues of authenticity12 and cultural appropriation by recalling how the voices of traditional storytellers have regularly been mediated in anthropological studies whose authors felt free to record and translate everything they wished, with no respect for the patrimonial restrictions of Native communities.13

13The oral discursive devices used throughout “One Good Story, That One” are not simply decorative, but perform the important functions of both characterizing its narrator as a realistically portrayed traditional Native storyteller (whose voice sounds “authentic” or genuine), and highlighting some of the most polemic matters of contention in the debates about Native oral literature. Apart from the two aspects mentioned above (authenticity and cultural appropriation), King’s mock creation story bears on the problems of authority posed by the oral vs. the written modes of expressing worldviews. The authority of the book of Genesis is irreverently challenged by King when his narrator departs from the written version by changing the well-known plot, introducing anachronisms, and mispronouncing the names of Adam and Eve, which he renders as Ah-damn and Evening. This questioning of authority is not gratuitous, but seems to be aimed at making readers understand why Native communities feel offended whenever a story they hold as sacred is treated with the same kind of carelessness, lack of respect or ineptitude by curious strangers.

  • 14 An abridged version of these lectures on audio CD has been published by the CBC (ISBN 0660190486).

14In the first of the Massey lectures, which Thomas King delivered in 2003 and later published under the title of The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative,14 he contrasted the oral with the written modes of storytelling by opposing the different strategies he employed to tell two creation stories: the story of the Woman Who Fell from the Sky and that of Adam and Eve. On this occasion he did not distort the biblical story, which he had also derided in his novel Green Grass, Running Water (38-41), but according to his own words he “tried to maintain a sense of rhetorical distance and decorum” (22). He concluded his comparison between the narrative techniques he had adopted to present the two creation stories by pointing out that “in the Native story, the conversational voice tends to highlight the exuberance of the story but diminishes its authority, while the sober voice in the Christian story makes for a formal recitation but creates a sense of veracity” (23).

  • 15 On the concept of “trickster discourse” see Gerald Vizenor.
  • 16 Stewart contends that even the so-called “silent reading” is an acoustic event, for the act of rea (...)

15When Thomas King develops trickster discourse15 throughout his fiction, he brings out a multiplicity of conversational voices that “highlight the exuberance” of his stories, avoid solemnity, and challenge monolithic authority. King’s stories are genuine “voice pieces,” that is, hybrid texts which have undergone the process of transforming oral/aural speech into the visual figuration that readers see when they look at a printed page. As a result, such stories emphasize the acoustic dimension of language, make the audience aware of the fact that sounds have been captured in print form, and call for a conscious “phonemic reading” which, according to Garrett Stewart, “has not to do with reading orally, but with aural reading” (2).16

16If writers incorporate orality into their writings, readers are expected to include aurality within their readings. The ability to easily prompt aural reading is one of the most prominent features of Thomas King’s latest collection of short fiction: A Short History of Indians in Canada (2005). Its title story—which was first published in 1997 and later chosen to represent King’s literary art when the scholarly journal Canadian Literature devoted an entire issue to the study of his oeuvre (Summer/Autumn 1999)—provides an excellent example of what a “voice piece” is. The story begins abruptly:

Can’t sleep, Bob Haynie tells the doorman at the King Edward.
Can’t sleep, can’t sleep.
First time in Toronto?
Looking for some excitement?
Bay Street, sir, says the doorman.

  • 17 Speech is the predominant narrative mode even in King’s first novel, Medicine River, where direct (...)

17In “A Short History of Indians in Canada” there is no detailed description of the setting, no authorial comment, and report is reduced to a minimum. Out of the four narrative modes, speech prevails.17 And, in spite of the absence of quotation marks, speech here is always direct speech, not reported speech. After the voices of the businessman and the doorman, whose dialogues begin and close this circular story, we also hear the voices of Bill and Rudy talking with the businessman, all three engaged in a conversation interspersed with a number of sounds which are essential to understanding the plot, and which are rendered by various kinds of onomatopoeia: “Smack!” “Whup!” “Honk!” “Flip.” In this short story, as in many others contained in the same volume, oral features function as narrative techniques that have been chosen by the author in order to deliberately promote more active, cooperative, or communal ways of reading/listening.

18The idea that orally transmitted stories are works of collective creativity produced by an expectant audience engaged in group dynamics, rather than homogeneous and static products belonging to individual authors, comes back again and again throughout King’s five Massey lectures. Each of them begins with a slightly different telling of the same story, supposedly recited within a different context, a device which draws attention to the plasticity of oral storytelling. And each of the lectures ends with a direct address by which the members of the audience are encouraged to actively do something with the stories they have received. Throughout The Truth About Stories, King declares his belief that storytellers are not alone, but in close relationship with their responsive listeners or readers, upon whom they must make an impact. This is exactly the task he decided to undertake when he adopted the oral patterns of narration which characterize traditional Native storytelling in order to write much of his short fiction. His own remark about Harry Robinson in “The Voice and the Performance of the Storyteller” can also be applied to King himself: “In reading Robinson, one is virtually forced to read the story out loud, thereby closing the circle, the oral becoming the written becoming the oral” (C-7). Since King has experimented with “voice pieces” so successfully, his written orality has become an effective tool of communication to accurately portray members of today’s Native communities, affirm their thriving cultures and contribute to the renewal of their identity in contemporary Canada.

Atwood, Margaret. “A Double-Bladed Knife. Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King.” Canadian Literature 124-125 (1990): 243-50. Rpt. Native Writers and Canadian Writing. Ed. W.H. New. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1992. 243-50.

Bhabha, Homi. “Postcolonial Criticism.” Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, and Giles Gunn. New York: Modern Language Association, 1992. 437-65.

Chester, Blanca. “Green Grass, Running Water: Theorizing the World of the Novel.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999): 44-61.

Dickinson, Peter. “‘Orality in Literacy’: Listening to Indigenous Writing.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 14.2 (1994): 319-40.​library/​cjns/​14.2/​Dickinson.pdf

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.

---. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1977. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

---. Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

---. Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection. London: Routledge, 2002.

Gibert, Teresa. “Narrative Strategies in Thomas King’s Short Stories.” Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English. Ed. Jacqueline Bardolph. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 67-76.

Gray, James Allison “Between Voice and Text: Bicultural Negotiation in the Contemporary Native American Novel (Welch, James, Silko, Leslie Marmon, King, Thomas, Vizenor, Gerald).” DAI (1995): 56-04A. 1354.

Gzowski, Peter. “Peter Gzowski Interviews Thomas King on Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999): 65-76.

Homel, David. “Teaching Dead Dog New Tricks.” The Gazette 20 Nov. 1999: J-4.

King, Thomas. “Inventing the Indian: White Images, Native Oral Literature, and Contemporary Native Writers.” Diss. U of Utah, 1986. DAI 44.05A (1986): 1729.

---, Medicine River. 1989. Toronto: Penguin, 1991.

---. Introduction. All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction. Ed. Thomas King. Toronto: McClelland, 1990. ix-xvi.

---. “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial.” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (Autumn 1990): 10-6. Rpt. New Contexts of Canadian Criticism. Ed. Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer Pennee, and J.R. (Tim) Struthers. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1997. 241-48.

---. “The Voice and the Performance of the Storyteller.” Globe and Mail 10 February 1990: C-7.

---. A Coyote Columbus Story. Toronto: Groundwood, 1992.

---. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.

---. One Good Story, That One. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.

---. Truth and Bright Water. Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 1999.

---. The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. 4 vols. CBC Audio, 1998-2001.

---. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi, 2003. Rpt. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

---. A Short History of Indians in Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Indi’n Humor. Bicultural Play in Native America. New York: OUP, 1993.

Lutz, Hartmut. Interview with Thomas King. Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991. 107-16.

Moore, John. “Talking with Thomas King.” The Vancouver Sun 16 Oct. 1999: E-8.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

Robinson, Harry. Write It On Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller. Comp. and ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks Theytus, 1989.

Rooke, Constance. “Interview with Thomas King.” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (Autumn 1990): 62-76. Rpt. Gale Literature Resource Center [online subscription database].

Stewart, Garrett. Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Vizenor, Gerald. “Trickster Discourse.” American Indian Quarterly 14 (1990): 277-88. Rpt. Narrative Chance. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Oklahoma: U of Oklahoma P, 1993. 187-211.

Weaver, Jace. “Thomas King.” Publisher’s Weekly 8 March 1993: 56-57.

Wood, Dave. “Thomas King’s Green Grass Causes a Well-Deserved Stir.” Star Tribune 2 March 1993: 1-E.

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1 Since it has not been widely accepted, I am hesitant to use the word orature, coined in the 1970s by the late Ugandan linguist and literary critic Pio Zirimu because of the oxymoronic nature of the term “oral literature.”

2 Medicine River was turned into a television movie which pokes fun at stereotypical images of “Hollywood Indians.” In the fifteen-minute radio shows of The Dead Dog Café, the roles of the two main characters, the “Indians” Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand, were played by Edna Rain and Floyd Favel Starr (a Cree playwright from the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan), while Thomas King—starring as himself— performed as the show’s “straight man” who was the constant butt of jokes from the other two. The recordings are available on audio cassettes published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

3 Since Thomas King conceives his novels as short-story cycles, much of what is said about his short fiction can also be applied to his longer works of fiction. For a detailed analysis of the dialogues between oral and textual traditions in Green Grass, Running Water, see James Allison Gray’s “Between Voice and Text.”

4 For an analysis of the oral features of Patricia Grace’s literary production, see Peter Dickinson’s “‘Orality in Literacy’: Listening to Indigenous Writing.”

5 Although King often shuns the role of spokesman for Native people, he is widely acclaimed as one of the best-known Canadian writers of Native descent, together with Tomson Highway.

6 When he discussed the label of “Canadian Native author,” while acknowledging that he was not born in Canada and that the Cherokee are not a Canadian tribe, he remarked: “I think of myself as a Native writer and a Canadian writer” (qtd. in Lutz 107). In another interview, King said about his mixed heritage: “Greek was the assumed, the given identity. Indian was the mystery, the unknown self” (qtd. in Homel J-4).

7 In his Introduction to All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, Thomas King explains how Native storytellers, by becoming bilingual, “have created both a more pan-Native as well as a non-Native audience” (ix).

8 The beginning of King’s “One Good Story, That One” exemplifies some of these rhetorical strategies: “Alright. You know, I hear this story up north. Maybe Yellowknife, that one, somewhere. I hear it maybe a long time. Old story this one. One hundred years, maybe more. Maybe not so long either, this story” (One Good Story 3).

9 In “The One About Coyote Going West” the narrator discusses storytelling with Coyote. Among differences between the two versions of “A Coyote Columbus Story,” perhaps the most striking is that the one published as a children’s book in 1992 does not present the voice of the Native traditional narrator who tells an embedded story in the version included in the collection One Good Story, That One (1993). In the second version, which is more complex than the one addressed to a young audience, King specifically uses such a voice in order to undermine the written authority of books about Christopher Columbus.

10 Since the intercalated stories are not in the chronological order in which they appeared when they were published in periodicals between 1985 and 1992, perhaps the author or the editor purposely refrained from locating them together.

11 For a more detailed analysis of how this short story comically exposes the manner in which most Native communities perceive the predatory nature of many anthropological studies, see Gibert, 71-73. On the humor of this story, see Atwood.

12 In The Truth About Stories, King refers to the problem of authenticity within the context of Native identity: “In the past authenticity was simply in the eye of the beholder. Indians who looked Indian were authentic. Authenticity only became a problem for Native people in the twentieth century” (54).

13 In a 1993 interview, King said: “I have no patience with the anthropological approach to literature” (Wood 1-E).

14 An abridged version of these lectures on audio CD has been published by the CBC (ISBN 0660190486).

15 On the concept of “trickster discourse” see Gerald Vizenor.

16 Stewart contends that even the so-called “silent reading” is an acoustic event, for the act of reading itself stresses the play between “graphotext” and “phonotext,” that is, between “the scriptive character processed by the eye and phonemic characters evoked for the inner or outer ear” (4).

17 Speech is the predominant narrative mode even in King’s first novel, Medicine River, where direct speech is indicated by a conventional use of quotation marks. King referred to his reliance on dialogue in his fiction when he told Jace Weaver: “I like to hear my characters talking. I like to hear their voices” (56-57).

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Teresa Gibert, “Written orality in Thomas King's Short Fiction”, Journal of the Short Story in English, 47, autumn 2006, 97-109.

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Teresa Gibert, « “Written orality in Thomas King's short fiction” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 47 | Autumn 2006, mis en ligne le 31 mars 2016, consulté le 04 octobre 2023. URL :

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Teresa Gibert

Teresa Gibert is Professor of English at the Spanish National University of Distance Education (UNED) in Madrid, Spain, where she is Head of the Department of Foreign Languages and teaches courses on American and Canadian literature. She is the author of American Literature to 1900 (2001) and Literatura Canadiense en Lengua Inglesa (2004). Prof. Gibert’s work on Thomas King includes the essays “Narrative Strategies in Thomas King’s Short Stories” (Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), and “Thomas King’s Reinvention of ‘Indian’ Space” (in press).

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