Away: Not a Postcolonial Novel
Away: Not a Postcolonial Novel
Submitted by: Colin Cameron
Dr. Smaro Kamboureli
7 April 2003
Jane Urquhart’s novel Away has been presented as an example of a postcolonial novel (Wyile, 1999). A close examination of the novel reveals that this is not so. The novel is a historic novel and the historical events that it relates are those of the colonizers. Also, and more importantly, the novel only contains one First Nations character. As the only First Nations character, one cannot overlook Exodus Crow for evidence of postcolonialism. Urquhart’s treatment of Exodus Crow as ‘other’ is the most poignant point that quells arguments advocating Away as postcolonial.
Urquhart’s Portrayal of History
Away has been included in many different genres, but it must always, at least in part, be considered a historical novel because it recounts historical events. It is through the account of the historical events in the novel that it loses its credibility as a postcolonial novel. One of the tenets of postcolonialism is that “literature is often evasively and crucially silent on matters concerned with colonialism and imperialism” (Barry, 1995). Although Away cannot be said to be completely silent regarding colonialist matters, the historical events that serve as a backdrop for the story are presented from a colonialist viewpoint. It is in this way that Away serves to perpetuate colonialist attitude.
The historical evens in Away are written in a neutral tone. That is to say that they are presented in a straightforward manner as a backdrop to the story. This offhand way in which the events are told conveys a sense of truth. This truth is based on a Euro centric sense of universalism, and conveys the idea that historical events can be told objectively. The sense of truth is produced from the omniscient narration of the story. The story is the memory of Esther, but told from an omniscient third person as Esther’s character is part of the narrative. The omniscient narrator conveys a sense of universal truth. This is inconsistent with the postcolonial notion that seek to “reject the claims to universalism made on behalf of canonical Western literature and seek to show its limitations of outlook, especially its general inability to empathize across boundaries of cultural and ethnic difference” (Barry, 1995). The outlook of history in Away is unable to empathize with the indigenous First Nations culture. When the O’Malley family comes to Canada to claim their “free land grant” there is no sense that people already live on the land. The novel perpetuates this ignorance and therefore falls short of postcolonial goals. This colonialist attitude is what postcolonialism intends to look beyond. By presenting history in this way Urquhart only adds to the colonialist discourse and the oppression it spawns.
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The novel is presented as a romantic history. It is the memory of a dying woman, a record of the story of her family. Esther’s memories contribute to the national image because they have been recorded. That they are her memories and she is merely remembering them adds to the novel as a romantic history, but they are words on the page, and therefore contribute to the discourse of colonialism.
Herb Wyile argues that Away is a postcolonial novel (1999). He focuses on the language and the genre of the novel and comes to the conclusion that it is writing a new history that incorporates magic realism and therefore rewrites a history that is acknowledges the power of myth on the national imaginary. He says that “Away lacks the discursive heterogeneity and interrogativeness typical of the historiographical metafiction so prevalent in recent English-Canadian literature” (Wyile, 1999). However, this does not seem to be the case. The record of history in Away can not be dispelled. Wyile acknowledges that “relatively detailed and specific historical events indeed provide the larger canvas to the O’Malley family saga” (Wyile, 1999). Merely stating that the novel is less of a historical novel than a romance cannot overlook the backdrop of historical events. Because the novel contains lyric, poetic language does not write out the historical aspects of the novel. Merely labeling a book as something else does not imply that it no longer contains elements of the label it previously fell under. It contains elements of the historical novel and those elements must be reviewed for the colonialist discourse that they proliferate. The novel does very little to the history of Canada as something other than Canadian. There is no attempt to rewrite a history or to include the history of the people whose land was being taken. The historical events that are recorded are Euro-centred, both in their nature and the perspective that they are presented.
Part of the postcolonial stance is that the colonized people attempt to “write their way back into a history” (Culler, 131). Away presents quite the opposite history. It reports a European history of colonization without questioning the ethics of those events. The assassination of D’Arcy McGee is the highlighted as the major political event of the time. The treatment of the indigenous peoples, although alluded to, underplays the importance of the Irish struggle in Canada. Postcolonialism is about overcoming this narrow view of history, not perpetuating it. As such the history in the book is consistent with the colonialist discourse and therefore perpetuates the oppression established by the empirical government.
As a historical novel Away is a novel that focuses on the European colonization of Canada. When considering Away as a postcolonial novel it is vital that the perspective of the colonized people is acknowledged. Exodus Crow is the only First Nations character in the novel. As such he serves as the archetype of the other First Nations people. It is he “who walked in front of the others” when we are first introduced to the indigenous people in the book (Urquhart, 1993). He stands out as the typical indigenous person that early colonists could expect to meet. As an archetype Exodus Crow is not longer merely an indigenous person, he is portrayed as what Daniel Francis refers to as the imaginary Indian. The Indian, according to Daniel, is a European construction (1992). Exodus Crow is not only a construction of Jane Urquhart, but of Esther, the woman who tells the story.
The first account of Exodus Crow is upon his arrival at the O’Malley homestead. He is described as having with long braids, wearing a buckskin suit covered in beads, and having bare hands despite the frigid temperature (Urquhart, 1993, 172). This is the image that Liam, the first to spot him, is presented with. The details that Urquhart chooses to highlight are one that denotes him as ‘other.’ Exodus crow is clearly not of European descent. He is defined as that which is not European. His clothes, while “the cut of his coat was exactly like that of an English gentleman,” it is quite clearly unlike that of an English gentleman. He is compared to the colonizers, but distinguished as the different (Urquhart, 1993). The portrayal of the Other in colonialism serves to perpetuate the stereotype and the oppression of colonized peoples. This description of Exodus Crow maintains the stereotype and therefore cannot be seen as a postcolonial rendition of First Nations people in Canada.
Daniel Francis distinguishes between First Nations people and Indians. “The Indian,” he says, “began as the White man’s mistake, and became a White man’s fantasy” (1992, 5). Exodus Crow is an image of the Indian delivered to us by a white woman. He is her fantasy, and embodies the vision of the noble savage that is typical of the European image of the Indian. Only Exodus Crow can sense the Manitou and truly understand Moira. He is the image of the exotic ‘other,’ despite attempts to present him as First Nations people really are. But, even this attempt to portray First Nations people as they really are is a rouse. Urquhart refers to Exodus Crow, not as an Indian, but an Ojibway. This, albeit well intended, portrayal is consistent with other image-makers. Those who constructed the imaginary Indian “displayed [their images] as actual representations of the way Indians really were” (Francis, 1992, 43). The Indian as intuitive and spiritual is a European notion. Again, this is a constructed stereotype, not a way to know First Nations people.
Another European view of First Nations people is to effeminize the colonized people in order to put them down. Only the women of the O’Malley family are touched with spiritual insight. It is Eileen who knows of his impending arrival and who can speak with him through his animal spirit. Liam, who represents the capitalist colonizer, does not believe her. This bond between the women and the only First Nations character is consistent with the feminization of First Nations people that served to present them as inferior to the viral European and justify their oppression. Such a view does not challenge the colonial view of the indigenous people, it reinforces it. As such this portrayal of Exodus Crow cannot be viewed as postcolonial.
It is the goal of the postcolonial critic to observe instances in which the colonized people attempt to “write their way back into a history” (Culler, 1997). In this case it is another instance where the history of a First Nations person is presented as serving the story, and the therefore the history, of a white family. The proliferation of the history of white people is not postcolonialist.
Although Away produces an awareness of the issues of colonialism in its marriage of magic realism, myth and history, it cannot be definitively described as a postcolonial novel. The way it presents historical events and its treatment of indigenous peoples is not consistent with postcolonial ideals. It perpetuates the ideology and attitude of the colonizing peoples. Postcolonialism is more than just a temporal separation of colonialism; it is a change in the attitudes that contributed to oppression. The contribution of Away to the national imaginary in Canada gestures towards a better society, but falls short of initiating that change.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. 191-201.
Culler, Jonathon. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian. Vancouver; Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992.
Murfin, Ross & Supriya, M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical And Literary Terms. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.
Urquhart, Jane. Away. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993.
Wyile, Herb. “ ‘The Opposite of History is Forgetfulness’: Myth, History, and the New Dominion in Jane Urquhart’s Away”. Studies In Canadian Literature. Vol. 24, Number1. Fredricton, New Brunswick: 1999.