More on Juxtaposition

By John Harris | November 25, 2009

My editors suggested that I add a paragraph to my review of Cecil Giscombe’s Prairie Style saying who Giscombe is and explaining his connection to me, Prince George and the readership.

At first this stymied me. Giscombe’s connection to me is that he wrote a good book and it’s my job to prove that fact (to the limited extent that aesthetic judgments can be proven) to the sophisticated and international readership of When I did Jane Urquhart I said nothing about who she is apart from being a massively overestimated novelist. And I’d already, on 3 August 2001, posted a review of another book by Giscombe that described him briefly and in connection with Prince George. Were the editors asking me to give Giscombe some kind of special biographical treatment? And if so, why?

Next, I worried that they were merely responding to my picky foisting of edits upon them, getting me out of their faces by giving me something else to do. As it turned out, having posted my review of Prairie Style, I subsequently complained that my longer quotations lacked indentation, making it difficult for the reader to see when the quote was over. A day later I informed my editors that I had described, in my third paragraph, the “poems” in the book as being set up like prose with justified left margins. Naturally I meant right margins, since prose as well as most poetry uses justified left margins. I apologized for this gaffe, attributing it to the onset of Alzheimer’s, and then informed them that in my first paragraph the phrase “the second-largest quantity of rhetorical units” was also Alzheimeric. I advised a slight change to “the most conspicuous rhetorical units.”

Naturally all this would have been irritating.

The matter of Prince George was especially puzzling. Why would anyone want to know, in connection with Prairie Style, about Giscombe’s connection to my hometown?

Then it dawned on me. My incisive editors, made suspicious by the fact that I have never before separately reviewed two books by the same writer, must have recalled that I, though I did not mention the fact in my review, am a character in Dislocation. I’m the person in Prince George from whom Giscombe rented a house while on his quest for his famous namesake and (maybe) relative, John R Giscome, after whom the Giscome Portage, north of town, is named. Not only that, but as the book shows I became an eager, indeed irrepressible, indeed unavoidable participant in that quest, cycling with Giscombe, walking the Portage with him, facilitating his canoe trip with my wife Viv (I can’t swim) along the Nechako River, and, finally, suggesting, in print, avenues of research that I thought he should consider.

In short, my editors realized that I’ve long been fascinated with Giscombe’s work. Obviously I regard it as more than just entertaining. I regard it as important. They want me to say why.

I have to admit that I haven’t entirely figured that out yet, and maybe that’s because figuring it out is fraught with danger. I see Giscombe exploring racial myths and generalizations as problems of epistemology and linguistics. Naturally a white guy would want to read a black guy in that way. I entitled my review of Dislocation “Uncle John’s Cabin,” indicating an awareness that John R, and Cecil himself, could, if my interpretation of the book proved convincing, be seen by African Americans (not to mention feminists, gay rights activists, and pomo theorists) as sell-outs.

What Giscombe says about me participating in his research is this: “In 1934 Ella Cooness [John R.’s Victoria landlady and the sole beneficiary of his substantial will] died. In an article in B.C. Bookworld, John Harris points out the oddness of her name, that one has to read it and think or hear “she-coon,” the diminutive — like “hostess” or “poetess” or, of course “Negress” — of the old racist appellation; John’s a short-story writer but oh he thinks like a poet. Some things are inescapable.”

Inescapable especially to a purveyor of “ethnic humor” (albeit always of the most tasteful sort), and here nervously perhaps, under the cover of scholarly research. Cecil was being kind. Imagine! Me a poet! But how likely is it that Ella’s name could be a clue to the personality of John R, even though he was, among many other things, a man of words and a trickster? She would have had to have chosen her name on coming to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century as a joke on immigration officials, thus attracting John R, or John R would’ve had to have given her the name just as he gave her all his money. Later I sent Cecil a clipping from Geist 59, an article “Coonass Going Home,” by National Post reporter Mary Vallis, in Louisiana at the time writing dispatches about Hurricane Rita. She heard the term “coonass” used by a local, and she looked it up (the sort of thing Cecil is always doing in Prairie Style). She says, “it is a derogatory term meaning ‘ignorant, backwards Cajun,’ although some people use it with pride.”

Really, I simply felt that Cecil would find all this interesting, even if it was irrelevant. He thinks about things like this. When someone calls you a “coonass” you can go up to Canada, either the Central Interior like John R. or Salt Spring Island like Ella, where such things are somewhat less likely to happen. Cecil says about this, “there are a lot of ways to take the fall, a lot of places to land and find yourself outside history.” He notes how his family for generations acquired professions — how status and money puts you outside history. He notes how his family gravitates to the north, in at least two cases and three if you count him, to Canada. Maybe white Canadians are not so racially prejudiced. Maybe they are, but focus that prejudice mostly on aboriginal people.

Another thing you can do, or can do as well as heading for Canada, is adopt the derogatory name and “use it with pride.” Irony is another place outside history.

This I think is what interests me about Giscombe. He is inclined to see things, like racism, from the perspective of an individual, not a group. He has been faulted — or at least questioned — for this. In my review of Dislocation I quoted another review by Kalaumu ya Salaam, moderator of CyberDrum, a list of over 500 black writers. He says, “Giscombe treats his blackness like a wound one takes morbid delight in ‘worrying’ over. Even as he celebrates being different, being a loner, being an intellectual, being unbound by race, it is not too long before his finger scratches the scab and the discussion returns to race . . . . Why would someone who values being able to ‘forget about being black’ choose to live in a mainly nonblack environment, one that is inevitably always reminding one of one’s blackness — an existence too often negatively defined by nonblacks?”

Probably Pomo (and feminist etc) theorists too would similarly object to or wonder at Giscombe. With Pomos (in Canada Roy Miki, Fred Wah etc) the strategy is to emphasize your marginality, your victimhood, as a member of a certain group, and to play down your individual connection to the mainstream (your university professorship and the salary attached to it, your cross-cultural friendships and associations, your acceptance of basic mainstream values), to pick away at your “hybridity” as a “problematic,” in order to hold the mainstream to account. The result is that you function as a kind licensed conscience, the absolutely worst thing that a writer can try to be.

In a November 2002 Harper’s article, “The Age of White Guilt and the Disappearance of the Black Individual,” Shelby Steele puts it this way: “Now our group identity has absolutely no other purpose than to collect the fruits of white guilt . . . . Today the angry rap singer and Jesse Jackson and the black studies professor are all joined by an unexamined devotion to white guilt . . . . the idea that individuals are the source of group strength is dead in black groups.” In order to collect the fruits of white guilt, the group has to cling to the idea of systemic prejudice. This means that any successful individual in the group has to cling to that idea, cannot question it, has to use success as a platform for protest.

Steele uses James Baldwin as an example of this. He went to Europe, wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain, came back famous, “and soon, in blatant contradiction of his own powerful arguments against protest writing, he became a protest writer.” Ralph Ellison, on the other hand, rejected protest but “showed a far deeper understanding of black culture than Baldwin’s.”

In Prairie Style as in Dislocation, Giscombe’s irony and his insistence on suspending judgment and investigating the history of racial myths, indicates a courageous affirmation of individuality. Others, confronted with racism, seek to affirm their status as victims, which requires identification with the victimized group and the denial of individuality. Such a denial characterizes Puritanism, fanaticism and theory. Irony and humor are definitely out. Considerations of epistemology and psychology are out. As a result, good writing is out.

Giscombe on the other hand indulges and seeks out his individuality. He picks away at “certainties” of all kinds. His hero, John R, is a “singularity, an anomaly, the thing that Giscombes, if I understand my family, tend to become as we age.”

This, I think, is why he’s a good writer, an increasingly better writer, and why he’s important.

1619 words: November 25, 2009


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