Drew Hayden Taylor subverts native legend in his new novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass
In Ojibway legends, Nanabush the trickster is a shape-shifting charmer and sometimes con man. The son of a mortal woman and the west wind, he names all the plants and animals, the mountains and lakes, but isn't above a rumble with raccoons.
Most of Taylor's work deals with the tensions in native culture between history and modernity, assimilation and tradition.
He's the kind of guy who sweetly offers rabbits roses to eat, only to prick them with thorns to warn them not to be greedy. Both vain and noble, heroic and hilarious, he's an irresistible literary device. According to playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor, he has almost become a cliché.
"When native literature came into vogue in the 1980s and '90s," Taylor says, "everything was filtered through the image of the trickster. A native play or novel wasn't considered legit unless you could spot a trickster in the story. When I started writing, I swore that I'd never ever write about a trickster."
So then what are we to make of the hero in Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, Taylor's new novel? He's a magical-powered white guy who rides into a Northern Ontario reserve on a vintage Indian Chief motorcycle to seduce Chief Maggie Second with his rock-hard abs, fluent Anishnawbe (Ojibway) and hazel (and sometimes green and sometimes amber) eyes.
"I also swore to never say never," Taylor explains.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Taylor would write a Nanabush story. He compares his own job to that of a trickster — "I tell lies for living" — and the one-time standup comedian narrates his biography with a ba-da-bump delivery. "I'm half Ojibway and half Caucasian," he says. "I like to call myself an Occasion."
Cracking jokes and drumming his fingers on a boardroom table at his publisher's office in Toronto, Taylor has a multitasker's manic buzz. Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is his 21stbook and second novel. He got his start in the 1980s writing for the CBC series The Beachcombers; since then, his plays have been performed across the country and abroad. His journalism and essays have been published in newspapers, magazines and in a series of anthologies. After living in Toronto for a number of years, he's currently based in Curve Lake First Nation, near Peterborough, Ont., but he spends much of his time traveling around the world to lecture on native literature and culture.
Most of Taylor's work deals with the tensions between history and modernity, assimilation and tradition. Motorcycles & Sweetgrass begins with the passing of Maggie's mother, Lillian Benojee, an elder who embraced ancient stories as much as she did the Bible. It's her deathbed prayer to Nanabush that brings him into town in the form of a cute young white guy who dances by the moonlight and goes by a series of aliases — John Smith, John Richardson, John Tanner, and John Clayton. (The names are Taylor's own act of trickery.)
Lillian is one of the last of the true believers — the only other is residential school survivor Sam Aandeg, an alcoholic who recites Shakespeare in Anishnawbe in perfect iambic pentameter. All Lillian wants is to bring a little magic back to the reserve. But in invoking Nanabush, she unleashes a bunch of mischief.
John distracts workaholic Maggie from a land dispute; Maggie's lonely teenaged son, Virgil, suspects the mystery man might be up to no good, and recruits his eccentric uncle Wayne, the master of a unique form of Anishnawbe martial arts, to help him find out John's real identity. Then there's the gang of raccoons hell-bent on exacting revenge for Nanabush's earlier acts of aggression on their species.
"With this book, I wasn't sure anyone would be interested in my brand of silliness," Taylor says. "And it was really against my own will that I began to write this story. Then at one point, I spoke to a traditional storyteller about it and she said that we need new stories just as much as we need the old ones. That's when I began to think of it as a contemporary legend, with all the humour and magic, but in a modern setting."
Though it touches on a couple of hot-button issues — native ownership of traditional land, the legacy of residential schools — at its heart, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is a novel about reconciliation. As a person from two cultures, Taylor says he's fascinated with combining opposing ideas in his work. His first novel, a young adult book called The Night Wanderer, was a vampire tale set on a native reserve.
"I really liked the idea of culturally appropriating and indigenizing a European legend. I always want to find out what happens when two cultures come together, or when the silly is mixed together with the serious."
Late in Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, John meets Jesus in a dream. Along with a debate about free will and forgiveness, there's a little smack talk. John says to Jesus, "You're shorter than I thought," and Jesus shoots back, "You're whiter than I thought." Finally, they reach a kind of truce. As Jesus explains to John, "If a woman like Lillian can hold the both of us in her heart, we can't be that far apart."
Taylor calls himself "a big fan of faith," but adds that he's no fundamentalist. "I like to pick and choose from all belief systems. In fact, one day I hope to start my own religion. I guess we'll see what happens from there."
Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is published by Knopf Canada and is in stores now.
Rachel Giese is a writer based in Toronto.