Books·First Look

Tomson Highway's Laughing with the Trickster uses humour to tackle life's big questions — read an excerpt now

Indigenous playwright, novelist, and children's author Tomson Highway will be delivering the 2022 Massey Lectures. The accompanying book, Laughing with the Trickster, will be available on Sept. 27, 2022.

See the cover and read an excerpt. Laughing with the Trickster will be available on Sept. 27, 2022

Tomson Highway is a Cree novelist, children's author, playwright and musician. (Sean Howard)

Laughing with the Trickster is the latest book by Cree artist Tomson Highway.

In Laughing with the TricksterHighway explores some of the fundamental questions of human existence through the lens of Indigenous mythologies, in contrast with the ideas from ancient Greece and Christianity. 

Laughing with the Trickster is the book version of his 2022 CBC Massey Lecture series. The lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS and CBC Listen in November.

Highway is an acclaimed Cree novelist, children's author, playwright and musician. His work includes Canadian theatre classics The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, the novel Kiss of the Fur Queen and children's novels Caribou SongDragon Fly Kites and Fox on the Ice

He was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 2021 for his contribution to theatre and Canadian culture and his memoir Permanent Astonishment won the 2021 Writers' Trust Hilary Weston Prize and is a finalist for the 2022 Evergreen Award.

Laughing with the Trickster will be available on Sept. 27, 2022.

You can read an excerpt from Laughing with the Trickster below.


On Language

Cree was the lingua franca in the Highway household when I was growing up. It was only with later generations that it started fading. The cause? Electricity and its most subversive offspring, television — and later, the internet. The very first victim of this "offspring" was our language and, in fact, all Native languages across this country. Television ushered in the era of their gradual erasure. The first casualty of this linguistic loss? Laughter. For if Cree is the world's fastest language, it is [surely] also its funniest. The reason? A clown god motors our Native languages, making them doubly spectacular, doubly joyful. It certainly does with Cree. A laughing deity virtually governs the way our tongues move, the way our blood flows, the way our lungs pump, the way our brains pop, dance, and sizzle.

'Without that language,' the Trickster might very well say, 'laughter dies.'

Called Weesaa-geechaak in Cree, Nanabush in Ojibway, Glooscap in Mi'kmaq, Coyote in British Columbia's southern interior, Raven on its coast, Iktomi — a being half-human and half-spider — among the Lakota and the Dakota of southern Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan, and the Dakotas of the northern US, that being is known in English as the Trickster. So when the generation that followed mine stopped speaking Cree, half their sense of humour disappeared. It got watered down by the English language. Fortunately for me, electricity didn't arrive in my hometown of old Brochet until the summer of 1973, when I was twenty-one, too late for me to lose my language, which is how and why my Cree survived unscathed.

Ooski-p'mat-sak (the new livers, i.e. the next generation) were not so lucky. So they laughed with half our usual gusto. They chuckled, yes, once every Tuesday when the priests wasn't looking. They chortled, they giggled, they snickered, they snorted, they squeaked, they squawked, keegi-thagi-pathi-wak, keewee-cheegi-pathi-wak, but guffaw robustly until they farted they did not. All of a sudden, farting was criminal, a capital offence for which one could spend a year in prison. The nerve! "Without that language," the Trickster might very well say, "laughter dies."

Like bird song, languages make our planet a beautiful place, a fascinating place — indeed, a miraculous place — to live on.

As for all the languages the whole world over, they are so different one from the other that the result, if they were spoken all at once, would be a cacophony, a dreadful clattering of wayward consonants. Still, all are here for a reason. Each has its genius, its strength, its applicability. Most pointedly, if botanists tell us that the Amazon jungle has plants and herbs that number in the millions, each of which holds the key to a possible cure for physical ailments, illness, and disease, then languages function likewise. The difference is that the ailments they address are not so much physical as emotional, psychological, and spiritual, ailments that can be just as debilitating, just as lethal.

Without languages we would be lost, directionless, even suicidal. Life on Earth would be static; it would have no meaning. Like bird song, languages make our planet a beautiful place, a fascinating place — indeed, a miraculous place — to live on.


Excerpted from Laughing with the Trickster: On Sex, Death, and Accordions by Tomson Highway ©2022 Tomson Highway. Published by House of Anansi Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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