Skip to Content

SFF: Publications : Essays

"So Long Been Dreaming: How Does the Subaltern Speak?"

Sandra Singer

"So Long Been Dreaming: How Does the Subaltern Speak?" The title of this paper, "So Long Been Dreaming: How Does the Subaltern Speak?," wants some unpacking. So Long Been Dreaming refers to a Canadian collection of short stories, published in 2004, edited by speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson and postcolonial academic Uppinder Mehan. The subtitle for their book is "Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy." Hopkinson and Mehan's edition is composed entirely "of postcolonial science fiction short stories written exclusively by people of colour" (8). While composing the exclusionary anthology was Mehan's suggestion, Hopkinson concurred that, strategically speaking, drawing out the voices of those who have been colonized under various conditions can be productive. In her words, from the Introduction, "I... understand and believe in the importance of creating defended spaces where marginalized groups of people can discuss their own marginalization" (8). Following from this positioning of the narrative voice, the stories in So Long Been Dreaming "take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it" (9).

Hopkinson views science fiction as "mak[ing] ... it possible to think about new ways of doing things" (9), while Mehan wonders whether "the time is ripe for us to begin creatively addressing our futures" (270). Mehan proceeds from the insight revealed in Harriet Tubman's description of the unknown that must be encountered when Aboriginal, African, South Asian, or Asian colonization ends. Tubman lived from circa 1820, in antebellum United States, to 1913. A Black activist and Conductor of the Underground Railroad for delivering slaves from the American South north and into Canada, Tubman described the strangeness of her first steps upon land where she was no longer a slave:

I had crossed de line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but dere was no one to welcome me to de land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. (269)

Mehan says in the book's conclusion that he hopes postcolonial science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, which have been so adept at engaging with the past, will engage now with "that strange land of the future" (270).

So Long Been Dreaming is broken into five sections that speak to postcolonial themes in a non-prescriptive or non-teleological fashion, although always in sight of the future: (1) The Body; (2) Future Earth; (3) Allegory; (4) Encounters With the Alien; and (5) Re-Imagining the Past. In the discussion that follows, I will speak briefly of a story from (2) the Future Earth section. Although the broad themes reflected in the subject headings are one mode of organization, binary modes of constructing post-colonial existence are broadly challenged by all the works included in the anthology. In his "Final Thoughts," Mehan writes,

The simple binaries of native/alien, technologist/pastoralist, WBR colonizer/colonized are all brought into question by [these] writers who make use of both thematic and linguistic strategies that subtly subvert received language and plots. (269-70)

The subtitle of Hopkinson and Mehan's book pays atttention to postcolonial voices within writing. This article is titled "So Long Been Dreaming: How Does the Subaltern Speak?" I want to say a few words about subaltern speech. First, who is the subaltern? Subaltern studies, which flourished in academic journals of the 1980s, considered especially structurally disempowered segments and classes of Indian society. Subsequently the field has been augmented by Gramsci's insight that subordinated groups participate in their own subjection (Guha and Spivak). Now the term is more generally applied to refer to individuals who are linked together on the basis of their affiliation within a dominated group.

So "How" does one speak under conditions of structural control and subordination? Answering the "How" question is both about (1) the characteristics and perhaps limits of the speech that is articulated and about (2) the social conditions which frame the subaltern's speech. In my discussion, I consider Eden Robinson, a contributor to So Long Been Dreaming, as offering an example of such individual speech. Mehan aptly described defining characteristics of her narrative, among others included in the short story collection. In his words:

One of the key strategies employed by these writers is to radically shift the perspective of the narrator from the supposed rightful heir of contemporary technologically advanced cultures to those of us whose cultures have had their technology destroyed and stunted. The narrators and characters in these stories make the language of the colonizer their own by reflecting it back but using it to speak unpleasant truths, by expanding its vocabulary and changing its syntax to better accommodate their different worldviews, and by ironically appropriating its terms for themselves and their lives. Postcolonial visions are both a questioning of colonial/imperialist practices and conceptions of the native or the colonized, and an attempt to represent the complexities of identity that terms such as "native" and "colonized" tend to simplify. (270)

Let us tease out some of the characteristics that join together the narrative and thematic representation which, as Mehan's remarks reveal, are a process of ironic appropriation of colonizing voices. Thematic aspects concerning power, race, gender and class, and place (or what constitutes home) are conveyed by writing that manipulates existing models of writing and the values that have been invested historically in them. The novel and short story in English, for instance, are widely understood as flourishing during the age of British imperial reign and as having played an important cultural part in the production and maintenance of subaltern classes of indigenous individuals. The golden age of science fiction writing occurred in mostly American fan magazines and paperbacks of the 30s to the 60s, decades of accelerated scientific and space exploration. So, in reference to both the traditions of short story writing and science fiction writing, Hopkinson says, "I don't want to destroy [massa/master's house] ... so much as I want to undertake massive renovations - they [massa's tools of narrative] build me a house of my own" (8).

The textual narrative of Eden Robinson's "Terminal Avenue" is a hybrid form. Robinson uses techniques of native oral storytelling in her mixed genre of Haisla and European fictional modes. Using traditional archetypal and native storytelling, her fictional dreaming concerns the aspirations of two brothers. Seeking legendary status, Wil, the younger brother and main protagonist, as a child, play-acts the role of an astronaut. His older brother, Kevin, is later figured also as an astronaut when he becomes a police officer with a visor and shiny uniform. The fiction is told in the format of a written science fiction short story of eight pages. "The thought experiment, the 'what if?' (which Darko Suvin calls the novum)" is the dreaming of a future world where native culture is segregated and suppressed (James and Mendlesohn 4). "What if" all native ceremonies like the potlatch were under surveillance from planes in the sky?

The biographical blurb on Eden Robinson highlights her situatedness between two cultures in conflict:

Eden Robinson wrote "Terminal Avenue" in Vancouver, Canada on the number 9 Broadway bus between Commercial and the University of British Columbia over a period of two months. It was the third anniversary of the Oka Uprising [in Quebec, an armed incident, leading to death, over native land rights and a government approved golf course plan], the salmon wars [in B.C.] had just heated up, and the B.C. television helicopters were scanning the Fraser River looking to catch native fishermen "illegally" fishing. (Hopkinson and Mehan 62)

Mehan says that subaltern writers speak "unpleasant truths" by expanding the colonizers' vocabulary and syntax to better accommodate their world views. Eden Robinson expands colonial vocabulary and syntax by highlighting a series of cultural binaries interpenetrating one another in this futurist tale. These dichotomies occur in locations known to Robinson's reader from her other fiction, such as the ethnographic novel Monkey Beach and the short fiction collection, Traplines. Binaries in "Terminal Avenue" include the First Nations protagonist, the only "real living Indian" in the fiction and the predominantly white SM club he frequents (67). Here the opposition is white versus Indian and the many versus the one solitary native person. The police officers ironically also termed Peace Officers, another cultural binary in the native tale representing mainstream Canadian justice, assault First Nations individuals, including the protagonist's father. Some of the officers in the story are actual police; others dress up as officers in a slightly modified uniform while working in the SM club. Finally Eden Robinson the author of "Terminal Avenue" plays with the meaning of the word "club": the symbol of the club as an institution is compared to the club as a weapon used to inflict pain and obedience. Club signifies the police weapon that in actuality beats upon Wil in the text, and his lover's establishment where he is beat also in organized sadomasochistic pleasure.

Within this fictionalized future, suppressed native culture is evinced primarily by the eroticization of the protagonist's body in the SM club. Here Wil's earlier memories of Reservation life resurface within his heightened consciousness at the erotic club. For example, the colonization of the body is revealed in Wil's understanding:

He knows that he is a novelty item, a real living Indian: that is why his prices are so inflated. He knows there will come a time when he is yesterday's condom. (67)

Exotic in a different way from Wil, the other sex-workers at the SM club dress up as police/Peace Officers. As part of the politics of anarchy, the uniform worn by a figure in the story whom he calls his "lover" "has an inverted black triangle on the left side, just over her heart: asocialism, she says with a laugh" (64, 65).

Other vestiges of suppressed native culture, perhaps best remembered by Wil in SM performance, include the First Nations language, the secretive repeated ceremony of the potlatch, a discussion of First Nations/police conflicts historically, including the Oka standoff and crisis of summer 1990. It was on the basis of the violent Oka standoff that Wil's brother Kevin "adjusted" to changes between Canadian authorities and the First Nations by becoming a police officer (66). Finally First Nations locations within nature, such as Monkey Beach for fishing, are named.

In terms of cultural binaries, if Wil represents the embodied native person in the story, the real police officers in their uniforms are asexual, robotic, and are configured by Wil as astronauts. Wil had considered the possibility of his becoming an astronaut; even while he had been an academic success in school, when he received his father's ceremonial button blanket during his funeral potlatch ceremony, "[t]he dark wool held his [father's] smell. Wil knew then that he would never be an astronaut" (66). For the reader attuned to the repetitions in Robinson's work and particularly within this story, astronaut of the '60s, like the western cowboy of the '50s, signifies metaphorically the controlling agenda of the dominant, repressive culture. "In full body-armour, the five Peace Officers are sexless and anonymous. With their visors down, they look like old-fashioned astronauts" (63). Not only are they associated with the colonization of space, but also with its social and scientific machinery. For instance, "The Peace Officers begin to match strides until they move like a machine. This is an intimidation tactic that works, is working on him even though he knows what it is" (63). The "machine[ry]" based on control of his flesh is felt doubly in the intimate games with handcuffs at the SM club on Terminal Avenue.

Turning to social conditions in the text, Mehan and Hopkinson describe this story as about the forced "apartheid" of the First Nations on a racialized basis (61). Segregation is carried out most graphically for the reader on Terminal Avenue, which is both the beginning point and ending point of the story. The story's title - or beginning point - is Terminal Avenue. The story ends with the police beating of the protagonist at Surreycentral station, where he was en route to Terminal Avenue. This street name echoes the North American Termination legislation which Thomas King has described. Under termination laws, one loses the privileges of a Status Indian, including band rights, monetary benefits, and cancellation of government taxes. Termination of Canadian Native status under the 1985 Bill C-31 happened, for example, without the possibility of reversal on the basis of intermarriage over two generations.

When First Nations members move off the Reservation to find employment, there is a much greater possibility of marrying a spouse who is not a Status Indian. King develops the argument that, in a few generations, there will still be Native Reservations, but with ever smaller populations. Correspondingly native land claims could dissipate from being a constant issue in the present Canadian political landscape. In King's words, "legislation, in relation to Native people, has had two basic goals. One, to relieve us of our land, and two, to legalize us out of existence ... newer offerings ask the ... modern question, 'Whom will we allow to be an Indian?'" (130, 139). Robinson's story occurs during a time in the near future, which is defined by purity laws. King's prognosis is that, based on the legal definition of purity of First Nations, the Indian on the Canadian reservation will disappear within foreseeable generations. King speculates within 50 to 75 years (144).

Robinson's fiction is about native memory without the presence of an ancestral land - memory as solace, knowledge, and wisdom. "Terminal Avenue" begins and ends with memory that holds the past as a counterpoint to the present (62, 67, 69). In all cases, the past includes cherished First Nations experiences that are shared within the tribal family. "Until that moment [of stepping into his lover's club], he is living inside his head, lost in memories" (67). On the fringes of society at the club, Wil arguably discovers the truth-in-pain depicted in other spheres of our contemporary thought, echoed by Jean Baudrillard or Slavoj Zizek, for example, in The Desert of the Real. Turning away from the repressive justice evidenced by purity laws and police officers, Wil learns about a sort of religious liberation through pain, from his unnamed lover, whom he views as "his high priestess ... [overseeing] her temple of discipline" (Hopkinson and Mehan 67).

In this futurological world, the Native is not only socially segregated, but also legally segregated. Here socio-historical communities are contrasted based on power and affect. The "sexless" astronaut-like police move in upon Wil in actuality "like a machine." Wil has penetrated the protective cover of the authorities' brutal and illusory power by getting into the SM club, in which police uniforms purchased on the black market are worn. It was thought that "[n]o one from the Vancouver Urban Reserve #2 ... [could] get into Terminal Avenue. They don't have the money or the connections" (67), but Wil has managed to puncture through the images of power and discover in the brutal intimacy of the club the social logic that "to do terrible things to another person ... could give pleasure. It could give power" (65). In defiance of the purity laws, "he gets hurt and gives hurt" (67).

As social reality, the contrast between illusion and lived experience configures the difference between mainstream and native cultures. Wil remembers his mother made up as a film star seducing his father: "She is wearing a blue scarf and black sunglasses and red lipstick.... She looks like a movie star" (68). In contrast to her polished appearance, his father looks to Wil like an otter, aboard the boat moving toward the secretive potlatch on Monkey Beach where they bid farewell to the native community of Kitamaat for Vancouver. Wil recognizes that his father's desire for his mother, adorned as a Western media star, implies "rules ... breaking,... risks ... taking," for which "the price ... will [be] pa[id]" (69). Wil becomes "embarrassed, wishing his father were more reserved" (69). The use of the descriptor "reserved" as something Wil's father is not places him outside Kitamaat, where he becomes "a whirling shadow against the sun" (69). As a mainstream Western indulgence, science fiction is similarly about fractured reality and estrangement. It is invested in illusory, but amazing futures.

The title "Terminal Avenue" indicates a possible ending of Canadian First Nations Reservation life. If the Termination legislation is to protect native property rights, it is a ruse or illusion. As an illustration, in the tale, Wil leaves Kitamaat with his family and moves to an urban reserve in Vancouver; then he leaves this reserve for the club on Terminal Avenue. For Wil, native culture is a memory only, not part of a creative lived experience. The process of leaving implies moving away from traditional rituals and practices. Similarly Wil's brother leaves native culture behind when he becomes a police officer, metaphorically "doing the unforgivable" by crossing-over the Reservation borderline to the colonizer's other side (64). Accordingly Kevin is seen as working indirectly for the colonizers.

Robinson's futurist vision in this story is dystopian, so far as the outcome of First Nations traditional cultural practice is viewed. Wil's brother Kevin facilitates an "[a]djustment" after the native insurrection at Oka by joining the police. In contrast Wil goes "the way of the the dodo bird" (66). Wil is "lost in memories," but becomes re-centred and aware of his past under the effects of the club (67). In this somewhat private space between worlds, Wil is capable of grasping the dark irony that it could be his own brother hidden behind the police protective gear, astronaut-like, who is among the group encircling him, "doom coming towards him in formation" (64), and bringing down a club against him. If this is futurist dreaming, the dreaming resembles a haunting or nightmare.

So how does the subaltern speak in Robinson's "Terminal Avenue"? Robinson spins a carefully crafted spider-like web for the reader to unwind, make sense of, and interpret. She creatively destabilizes words such as club or Peace Officer in order to demonstrate the different understanding of words in Western and Native experiences. Perhaps her writing should be considered as a complex 4D puzzle with time shifts, including flashbacks, a mixing of narrative genres, socio-historical recollections, as well as a semiotic reading of words.

Nonetheless, the land which is spoken of is not "a strange land" of new possibilities, as in Harriet Tubman's experience. Rather the land alluded to by First Nations writer Eden Robinson is a foreign, stolen land. The uncertain process of moving beyond what Mehan terms "[t]he simple binaries of native/alien, technologist/pastoralist, colonizer/colonized" occupies the mind-set in which Eden Robinson's dreaming happens.

Works Cited

Guha, Ranajit, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Selected Subaltern Studies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi, 2003.

Hopkinson, Nalo, and Uppinder Mehan, eds. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vancouver: Arsenal Press, 2004.

Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Toronto: Vintage, 2000. ---. Traplines. NY: Metropolitan, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London: Verso, 2002.