“White Woman Speak Truth”: Humor in LeAnne Howe’s Choctalking on Other Realities
(San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2013. ISBN #978-1-879960-90-9)
In Langston Hughes’ famous poem I, Too, Sing America, the phrase “But I laugh” (line 5) suggests a powerful, if understated, approach to racial repression. The ability to laugh in the presence of social injustice is a quality I have never quite understood and certainly never mastered. But it is a real presence in the writing of Hughes, and a similar rhetorical strategy exists in LeAnne Howe’ latest book, Choctalking on Other Realities. Perhaps the very fact that we non-Indians from time to time need to be reminded that Indians “too” can be funny reveals an awkward, prejudicial assumption on the part of the majority. Laughter, it is falsely assumed, belongs to the mainstream, and members of the Other become culturally acceptable only when their personality is diluted into the assimilating flood of society en masse. But humor signifies personality, and a witty personae, can go a long way toward defusing cultural assumptions. Like the laughing personae in Hughes’s poem, Howe’s humorous writing disarms painful encounters, corrects our vision of history and re-establishes human dignity, one quip at a time.
Faulkner once wrote: “We have one priceless trait, we Americans. The trait is our humor. What a pity it is that it is not more prevalent in our art” (qtd in Campbell and Foster 94). Faulkner, of course, creates fictional plots and characters to provide a stage for his humor. LeAnne Howe’s humor, on display in Choctalking on Other Realities, is dramatically artistic, but arising in and commenting upon personal encounters, its presence differs from the safety afforded the fiction writer. Her humor is bare and unbridled, revealing, leaving no place for the narrator to hide. Her repartee flows naturally based on reflections of her travels. Confessions of awkward situations of her own making, as well as the deconstruction of several weird encounters loaded with assumptions about Indian identity reinforce her larger concept of tribalography while protecting and magnifying the individual personae. In this regard, then, Howe’s humor is more courageous than many authors who make use of humor. There is no fictional realm that would allow her to sublimate her motive or outcomes. Faulkner wrote from a privileged position in his society; therefore, he was safe to be affable, or darkly humorous and ironic. Though he was sometimes belittled by members of his community, nonetheless, his associative and sympathetic experience is not the quite the same as being the target of racial misunderstanding because of actual identity. In America, white authors do not embody the history of racial bigotry, and so when writers like Hughes and Howe respond with humor, more than laughter is at stake, though the laughter serves as a means to level the encounter between ignorance and truth.
In the “Introduction” to Choctalking, Dean Rader writes: “for [LeAnne] these odd moments of misunderstanding, of painful racial ignorance, elicit not anger, not reproach, but humor … in typical Howe style, she frustrates. She trades easy antagonism for a kind of wry bemusement .. this is a remarkable … aesthetic choice” (iii). Reading Howe’s collection of travel reflections confirms Rader’s point: she is very funny in ironic and meaningful ways. She is not a stand-up comedian like Sherman Alexie, but her writing vibrates wit and sarcasm. Though her use of “wry bemusement” shares some features (and certainly common unjust and ignorant sources) with Alexi, her style is unique and compliments a gracious, self-effacing and powerfully honest, charismatic writer who is more interested in creating than in castigating. The humor, a staple element to her aesthetic vision, empowers and compliments her other significant contribution to understanding Native writing and culture – tribalography, LeAnne’s term by which she means:
Native stories, no matter what form they take (novel, poem, drama, memoir, film, history) seem to pull all the elements together of the storyteller’s tribe, meaning the people, the land, multiple characters and all their manifestations and revelations, and connect these in past, present, and future milieu. Present, and future milieu means a world that includes non-Indians. (31)
Howe’s humor is more than individual personality. Like Alexie, her comic responses suggest a collective understanding, and respond on behalf of Indians everywhere, though it arises assertively from her certain and proud identity as Choctaw. Her humor must be linked to her notion of tribalography, which by definition extends beyond the individual narrator (LeAnne, and her people, the Choctaw). Her book is framed by this concept, and each episode within the frame, some funny, some sad, each contribute to her sense of collective reality. But how does tribalography function? How does one’s individual personality connect to the collective personality? I remember one moment, sitting around the table at Salon Ada (a gathering of artists and writers hosted annually by LeAnne). Many of the invited guests are significant artists and scholars in Native American issues. Most are Native Americans. The subject of a collective, tribal voice arises as we workshop creative and scholarly work that each participant presents. I am uncertain of the notion, the actuality of a collective voice. I voice my doubt explaining that the individual artist “wrote” the material, that it comes from the author’s mind, her choice of words, her selection of details, her participation in memory, and so forth. My fellow participants, however, overruled my objections. Most are friends of mine, and as friends they kindly, judiciously, but adamantly informed me, corrected my simplistic one-dimensional understanding of creativity.
I often think of that morning sitting around a long table beside such accomplished and acknowledged writers, sipping dark coffee, amber sun sneaking through the windows, shading the red walls decorated with Indian blankets, rattlesnake skins and other items that reinforce the truth that art is not a vacuous endeavor. Engendered within communal interaction, sharpened in society at large, art comes from the land, from the creatures that inhabit the land. It comes to those who acknowledge and listen to the land and to the inhabitants of space and time who precede us in the present. And in LeAnne’s emphasis, it establishes patterns for future coexistence.
Despite the fact that I come from a family and upbringing where what we termed “spirit” was believed and experienced as common, and despite my formal advanced training in religious and philosophy studies that have lead me to distrust a dualistic notion of reality, and regardless the fact that in my teaching I routinely emphasize a non-linear epistemology, value oral traditions, and even contrary to my own artistic effort (and scholarship) which is grounded in landscape and are humble attempts to listen to what Roszak calls the “Voice of the Earth,” still my reaction that morning was mixed, even suspicious, as the group so matter-of-factly spoke of a tribal voice. How easy it is to become divided between matter and spirit, and despite what we think we know, spirit is almost always relegated to second place. We, or at least I am, an unwitting product of an empirical system that over-values the individual, having attempted to baptize us all into the limited waters of the here and now, the surface of what we see and touch. Initiates emerge as thick-tongued prophets, maybe even a wannabe savior here and there, isolated in our tensions between guilt and grace, unaware of the greater presence we flippantly refer to by misusing, or at least incompletely using the term “reality.”
So I confess a divided self, and though my best work feels and moves beyond the mere empirical, I get nervous when I hear others openly talk about realms I tend to hold private. After all, there are some real wackos out there, aren’t there? But LeAnne Howe is no wacko. She is scholarly, historical (in written texts and oral traditions). She is creative in multiple genres, linguistic, culturally astute (despite her confessed failures in this book). She’s a fine teacher, mentor, analyst, and a piercing, poignant reader and editor. I trust her with my work. She is my friend; I think we are fictive kin, and I take my sisters and brothers seriously. Add to this list the fact that she is a most gracious host, and a wonderful cook (often creating a fusion of varied foods such as Ojibwe rice with Mediterranean olives, Turkish coffee, Cherokee chocolates and Oklahoma meat – a grand diversity! (Come to think of it, maybe it is the food that I like about her). A hard working, gracious host, loyal friend, magnanimous personality, and a time-traveling savant?* How to respond? What is one to do with all that? A clue may be found in her humor. She’s funny as hell! Witty, sure, but also, just good old family style bust up laughing. I like people who laugh loudly, and LeAnne laughs out loud. She’s not a stoic Indian.
LeAnne’s humor is reactionary, honest and purposeful. In the context of these travelogues, she deflects awkward encounters that serve to validate her Choctaw identity and heritage that has occasionally come under the attack of ignorance. She doesn’t create scenes so much as she interprets experiences that serve to restore order to the chaos inflicted by those making cultural asses of themselves. The encounter with a lady who insists on the character of her Choctaw dog comes to mind (68). The humor is in response to unpredictable situations; therefore, it is alive and moving. It never seems planned.
Howe’s humor also seems to arise in ways to protect her own sense of dignity despite her human failings, as in the chapter titled “I Fuck Up in Japan.” The title alone is worth the price of the book, but that chapter is revealing for its sensitivity: the shared possibility that anyone can fail to understand, how we all can injure despite intentions to do just the opposite. Her humor is not Rabelaisian. It does not display an intentional, extended bawdiness though she can use the F-word in a way that I think would make Rabelais proud. Nor is her humor purposefully satirical. Though she speaks politically as the occasion might dictate, she doesn’t set out to make a complete treatise in humor as satire demands. She does make some use of caricature (the cover of the book for instance), but usually her use of caricature functions to deflect the image of Natives who have been caricatured.
Her humor is ironic, to be sure, but the irony deconstructs presuppositions about Native people, it is not just experimental prose. Dean Rader says “much of the humor in these pieces arises out of the gaps between what people imagine about Indians, what popular culture tells them Indians are, and what they do when confronted with LeAnne” (iii). The following examples from her text illustrate Rader’s comment. Of course only a fool would try to replicate anyone’s humor in a paper, so I will proceed cautiously as I expose some of the punch lines. It is up to you to read the book and find the context that sets up these lines:
* Examining self-help books at a Barnes and Noble: “I did find Trichotillomania and You a fascinating read” (66)
* “Because I am Choctaw, and because I am from a tribal society, and I’ve had a great deal of experience with communicating the efficacy of pseudo-events, I stood up as the bus was circling the streets of San Francisco, and apologized for all the AARP members, and their voting patterns in the 2000 presidential election (et al) … and the Asian bus driver’s retort who ordered: “Sit down little big woman” (71)
* “I am ignorant of dog breeds with Mississippi Choctaw ancestral pedigrees … what kind of person makes a Choctaw dog suffer like this?” (68)
* “I was told to say that we’ve come to Romania for tourism. Tourism. I thought, WTF?!” (132)
Referring to her patient husband Jim, “’Married into a large Choctaw family’ should be a separate line on his CV” (126)
* Correcting our understanding of the origins of chocolate and informing us of the Cherokee chocolatier par excellence, Edna Sixkiller: “After 500 years it only seems right that American Indians are getting back into the chocolate business” (127)
* “For a moment I studied the portrait of Hefaz al-Assad and considered whether I could make love to such a man. (I do that with portraits of dictators). His head was misshapen with a forehead the size of a hand-mirror. Reedy lips. No I couldn’t imagine it” (151)
* On a cross-country journey in Jordan: “I’d never met anyone with twenty- five children before, yet I vowed to stay open and avoided asking questions like ‘Where do you buy their shoes?’” (162); and then
after a faux pas in Arab culture, “We’d all loosened up after the left-handed incident”(165)
These lines suggest humor even apart from their contexts. I repeat them here because I like them. I enjoy the laughter they evoke as I imagine them. But I also find it necessary to connect and to round out her fuller personality since one’s humor is at least a reflection of an interior life. One’s motive and values tend to become exposed in the use of humor. Moreover, if tribalography is efficacious, then her historical findings and cultural insights blend with her comedy to position readers to respect Natives, and paradoxically, to bring us into a more intimate, more rounded, human relationship with this particular storyteller. LeAnne quotes anthropologist Stephen Tyler: “Discourse is the maker of the world, not its mirror … The world is what we say it is and what we speak of is the world” (27). In the case of LeAnne, discourse includes humor, and humor makes the world. She laughs the world into being. Her style suggests a pride and creative vision that is endearing even as it instructs. She embodies Gerald Vizenor’s call to avoid victimry (2).
To this end, her humor powerfully merges with painful events as well. She is funny and self-effacing, but one can’t help but feel the pain that lingers. For example, several times she mentions the fact of her birth, a child of an unwed mother. With these honest reflections, readers see the way her humor interfaces within the larger concept of a tribal voice. When she speaks of her own origins, isn’t she speaking not only of herself, not only of all Indian or mixed children who never knew their mothers, and who were raised in estranged situations, but doesn’t her discourse apply to any reader who might have a similar origin? The reach of tribalography extends, as she says, to non-Indians, and I think here is a sad but profound example, one that stirs readers to empathy certainly. But given the shared connectedness that LeAnne emphasizes, we are able to consider more than empathy for a little Indian girl. The author’s vision merges with her style to direct us to know something of the human effort to become authentic, to overcome obstacles one encounters, even from the womb.
Despite lingering negative stereotypes, Native individuals, like anyone, want to be free to choose their own identity, their own expression of self, humorous or any other emotion. Tribalography empowers a paradox of sorts: one is individual, but she speaks on behalf of a culture, and a culture speaks through her. Vine Deloria Jr. says, “one of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh. Laughter encompasses the limits of the soul. In humor life is redefined and accepted” (146). In Choctalking on Other Realities, beyond the barbs, LeAnne’s use of humor offers a healthy, humble acceptance of herself. As has been explained, the barbs, the jabs, the retorts, are more than just personal ego-saving devices. In their context, they suggest a connectedness to a living past and an enduring hope for an inclusive, peaceful future. In this context, her redefining humor is most welcome. Natives and non-Natives, alike, laugh and reconsider. She laughs with us and for us. She is good people.
* For more of her time-traveling scenes, read her novels, Shellshaker and Miko Kings, both published by Aunt Lute Books, 2001 and 2007, respectively.
Campbell, Harry Modean and Ruel E. Foster. William Faulkner: A Critical Appraisal. Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1951.
Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1988.
Howe, LeAnne. Choctalking on Other Realities. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2013.
---. “Tribalography: the Power of Native Stories. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 1999, Fall 14 (1): 117-25.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf , 1994.
Nelson, Joshua B. “’Humor is my Green Card’: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.” World Literature Today. 2010, July-August 84 (4) 39-43.
Roszak, Theodore. The Voice of the Earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1992.
Vizenor,Gerald. Introduction and Edited. Native Storiers: Five Selections. Lincoln:Nebraska UP, 2009.
Reviewed by Ken Hada.
Ken is a descendant of Hungarian immigrants, Gypsy poets, barn dance aficionados, art lovers, amateur philosophers, wheat farmers, cowboys, preachers, teachers and common sense craftsmen. He has four current collections of poetry in print: The Way of the Wind (Village Books Press, 2008), Spare Parts and The River White: A Confluence of Brush & Quill (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010 and 2011) and Margaritas and Redfish (Lamar UP, 2013). His Spare Parts was awarded the “Wrangler Award” for outstanding poetry from the National Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. Poems from this collection were featured four times on Garrison Keillor’s nationally syndicated program, The Writer’s Almanac. His involvement in the poetry scene includes three presentations at the Neustadt Festival sponsored by World Literature Today. Ken is a professor in the Department of English and Languages at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma where he directs the annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival. Reviews of his work and other information may be found at www.kenhada.org