"Stories are wondrous things," award-winning author and scholar Thomas King declares in his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures. "And they are dangerous."
Beginning with a traditional Native oral story, King weaves his way through literature and history, religion and politics, popular culture and social protest, gracefully elucidating North America's relationship with its Native peoples.
Native culture has deep ties to storytelling, and yet no other North American culture has been the subject of more erroneous stories. The Indian of fact, as King says, bears little resemblance to the literary Indian, the dying Indian, the construct so powerfully and often destructively projected by White North America. With keen perception and wit, King illustrates that stories are the key to, and only hope for, human understanding. He compels us to listen well.
Thomas King was born in 1943 in Sacramento, California and is of Cherokee, Greek and German descent. He obtained his PhD from the University of Utah in 1986. He is known for works in which he addresses the marginalization of American Indians, delineates "pan-Indian" concerns and histories, and attempts to abolish common stereotypes about Native Americans. He taught Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, and at the University of Minnesota. He is currently a Professor of English at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. King has become one of the foremost writers of fiction about Canada's Native people.
“There is a story I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes.” - Thomas King, The Truth About Stories
I realized that I had read a few of these CBC Massey lectures in a college lit class that focused on Native Canadian and American literature. It was really rewarding to re-read them after a relatively long interval as I have learned more Native Canadian history in the interim (residential schools, Idle no More movement, etc.).
The lectures were brilliant. King manages to be witty, snarky, sarcastic and informative all in one. He exhorts “the story,” and I must say that even as a reader I hadn’t really considered the real significance of the story. As King said, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”King talks about the importance of oral storytelling, a dying art and one that often isn’t respected. He talks about the importance of decolonizing stories, and the need to place equal importance on all stories, regardless of origin.
“You’re Not the Indian I had in Mind” was probably the most interesting lecture to me, talking about the stereotypical Indian and questions Indian identity:
“For to be seen as “real,” for people to “imagine” us as Indians, we must be “authentic.”
Jul 16, noon-thirty ~~ I have been trying to think of what to say about this book since I finished. I am still stuck for coherent thoughts, though. I'll just start off and see what happens.
"This book comprises the 2003 Massey Lectures, 'The Truth About Stories', broadcast in November 2003 as part of CBC Radio's Ideas series."
There are five chapters here, so one might think it will be a short quick read. But King is tricky, that one. He packs enough deep thoughts into these pages for a dozen books.
About stories. About White versus Indian. About perceptions. About the environment. About many things that in 2003 were urgent to many people and sadly are even more urgent nearly 20 years later because nothing much has changed.
Why do we keep having to have the same conversations over and over? That is not just a question of mine, it is a topic touched on in the book.
I will certainly have to read this again to grasp everything King brings up. I may not have caught it all this time around, but I came close enough to feel the edges.
An intriguing insight into the concept of storytelling and how imaginative and manipulative stories can be. More specifically, the book provides a profound insight into how stories have shaped the mythology surrounding North American Indians – for better or for worse.
I was of course familiar with some of the historical aspects; how North American Indians have been the victims of a crime against humanity that was, and to some extent still is, so heinous that it doesn’t bear thinking about (if it wasn’t for the fact that we need awareness of it). Thomas King illustrates how some of these crimes were legitimized according to the white colonizers’ own distorted view of the world and how the stories surrounding North American Indians – created by both the Whites and the Indians themselves – have built the images of the Indians that we have met and to a large extent accepted over the years.
I come away from this book illuminated but also intensely saddened. A necessary book of stories.
Here are stories tumbled out variously conversational, oratory and literary. King hands them over, generously, and reminds me that they cannot be unread; they go with me now, marks on my chest. I feel them swirl about me like a cloak, keeping out no weather, but turning back temptations to hard-heartedness and despair
He starts by comparing a Native creation myth, which presents a universe governed by co-operations that celebrate equality and balance, with the one in Genesis, which offers a universe of hierarchies and celebrates law, order, power and obediance. You've heard this before? King tells it better. If you see the world as the Bible paints it, he points out, you can't see the other version, where the good/evil binary, the deviance of woman, the subjugation of the Other, just make no sense.
Not spoiler but long optional digression!
Indigenous activist organiser and writer Andrea Smith points out in this essay that one of the logics of white supremacy is the genocide of indigenous people: the original inhabitants of colonised lands must disappear to make space for the colonisers. King has so many stories that bear this out, long and short, sad and enraging, told with a lightness that only makes them more weighty. Laws, wars, broken promises, and above all colonial myth-making (scientific racism, and the constructed tragic, noble, vanishing Indian) are marshalled against First Nation people. In this context even to stay alive is an act of resistance. And to tell your tale much more so...
If King is right then how you live, how you treat people, depends on the stories you believe. While I was in the middle of the book I heard a talk on the radio about the stories of refugees. Agnes Woolley points out that often the life-chances and even the survival of such people depends on their ability 'to tell a good story'. But she also says that we need other stories than the bearing-witness to trauma that mediates survival: we also need the ones that make life worth living.
I heard a story about a migrant on the radio another time. It was about a young man who fell from an aeroplane when the wheel compartment he was hiding in opened before landing. He was probably dead from cold before he fell. The neighbourhood where his body was found was moved; they laid flowers, told his story, found his former partner, learned about his life. Looking at the British newspapers, the irony of this is agonising: what would the reaction have been if he had arrived alive? King wonders aloud (as Baldwin did in The Fire Next Time) why North Americans fail to live the ethics they espouse, except on rare occasions when a story captures their imaginations. The British are just the same.
This review is a ramble. I'm trying not to say the crass cheesy thing I should have said, which is Read This. Because it just might change your life.
At every encounter, King has knocked me off my feet. I was tickled up and down my sides by my first introduction to Coyote, in Green Grass Running Water. I lost my breath as I blathered through our first meeting in Eden Mills. And a lump caught in my throat, with warm little tears in my eyes, as I read The Truth About Stories. Politically charged and beautifully woven, King provides personal and national accounts of the ways in which stories have affected Canadians lives. Peoples lives. Native lives. Only King can teach legislation not just effectively and fluently, but he brings us to the point of universal understanding, in just a few short essays. Sorry. Stories. I recommend this book for everyone who has ever read or recounted a story.
This is probably my favorite book that I have been required to read for school. Thomas King is clearly a born storyteller. He weaves sarcasm, criticism, optimism and personality into what is truly a work of art. Every chapter of this book left me speechless at the end, and it took me a while to really take in the stories that he told. 'The Truth About Stories' dives into subjects that are often left alone and pushed away for other easier topics. King approaches things like racism and discrimination in an honest and straight forward way that I think a lot of people are scared to do. By telling stories about his own experiences as well as stories of other peoples experiences, King shows us what the world is really like, and he gets us to take a step back and think about what our impact really is. Everyone is something, and everything does something in this world. We need to choose what this is. King includes this one sentence at the beginning of each chapter in his book, and I think it is one that I will ponder over and carry with me forever: "The truth about stories is that that's all we are." This can mean many different things, and King tries to get his readers to think about stories and how they change us, but also make us.
This is a re-read for me. There are a few books that I want to re-read even as I read it, and this is one of them. Such a quick read (or listen), but packed with so much, both about racism and Native history as well as the nature of storytelling.
Stories are fundamental to how we see ourselves and how we see the world we inhabit. Most often, we do not recognize the stories we tell ourselves. We cannot see them; we are blind to them. Only stories that we see can help teach us what we need to learn.
This is a series of stories within stories, presented with humour, satire, and pathos, by a skilled storyteller. The truth about stories is that we need stories, and use stories, and rely on stories, we build our world from stories, but do not always see the stories we rely on.
We swim in a sea of story, but like fish we cannot see the water that is our universe.
I listened to the actual lecture the book is a transcript of. And considering the content, I think that's the best way to consume these stories. I did, however, read the story at the end: the one King intended to be read and not listened to. I think King did a fantastic job narrating the stories in his lecture. He makes great points about differing Indigenous cultures, as well as those cultures compared to Western/Christian cultures. It was also refreshing to see a man's perspective on women that isn't awful. King is funny and respectful, but he's also honest. And it was incredibly refreshing. 5/5 stars
Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories is a narrative of Native stories, told from a Native American perspective. The book is a collection of stories told in part, from a mythological view, which is overlayed with historical and social content. The stories include humour to help alleviate the terrible injustices that occurred during the colonial period . King opens each chapter with an anecdote of his travels around America as an Indigenous academic. He narrates the Native American Creation story to the audience which then turns into another story, and then into another, in much the same way as Leslie Marmon Silko does in her approach to writing and storytelling. I am reminded here of Silko’s description that “storytelling is an ongoing process, working on many different levels.” (Silko, Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective. 2001, p161) Some of King’s stories are personal, some are literary, while others are historical. He compares one Creation story of the Coyote with the Indian Removal Act 1830, and the General Allotment Act. The comparison being that no matter what, or how much one has, they will inevitably want more. In this instance they refer to the colonisers of North America. He includes anecdotes by other Native American writers including Diane Glancy, Silko, Louise Erdrich and N. Scott Momaday. In this way he celebrates all Indigenous writers and their contribution to Indigenous Writing in English. I found this book to be quite complex, while at the same a very accessible read.
5.0 Culture, stories, history, Native Americans, philosophy and self-reflection: this book had so many things I absolutely love. I enjoyed the author's voice, clever literary devices, sarcasm, and his weaving of the struggles of Native American identity with the telling of stories. Ultimately King outlined how the idea of telling stories helps explain the creation of our world's acceptance of its own moral corruption. The last chapter was so personal, unexpected, heartbreaking and so true. His criticism of alcohol and tobacco, selfishness and the destruction of the environment might put off some people, but for me it was so refreshing and on point. Of course there will be many people who will disagree and as the author so eloquently says, "The only difference between them is the stories we tell." This is a book I thought I would enjoy, but it really blew me away at the end and will be a book I reflect on the rest of my life's story.
One of the greatest accomplishments in the book is that King is able to effectively and beautifully weave together different times, settings, people and stories with Native culture. He explores different "truths" and "stories" about Native peoples and brilliantly shows how these stories affect the perception others have of them. King covers a range of topics such as creation stories, family, self- and cultural-identity, the portrayal of Native peoples as entertainment and also their representation in media, and most importantly oral storytelling.
I could not sing (or croak out, in my case) enough praises for The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King. It's honestly one of the best things I HAVE EVER READ!
Check out a full Book Review on the Maniacal Book Unicorn Blog here
READ THIS BOOK. RIGHT NOW. GET YOUR ASS OUT OF YOUR CHAIR AND FIND IT. really.
i'm having the most amazing, fortuitous confluence of literature in my life lately. i read this in way less than a day. it's short, colloquial, and paced the way many oral stories are. king is a brilliant man, a brilliant storyteller; and it helps that he's an interesting man with interesting experiences and interesting ideas.
WHY AREN'T YOU READING THIS FOR YOURSELF YET?
there's no way for me to adequately express here the ways this book touches me. i'm not even going to try. i will certainly be purchasing this book. if for no reason other than to have it to loan out.
My late father was an Anishnaabe/Swiss son of a war bride and a native soldier. He was a schoolteacher who was a great father, role model and mentor. After he passed, my siblings and I cleaned out his personal affects and we came across a near complete collection of Thomas King books. After reading this short volume I can see why my father was a fan of this work. King has done a wonderful job of sharing his insights on the nature and scope of storytelling. I can’t wait to read the rest of the collection.
I had to read this in university when I was like 21 and I most definitely did not "get" it. Loved the reread, as I am becoming a big Thomas King fan 15 years later. His style in general is always to not completely spell things out for the reader which is probably one of the reasons I didn't really understand it much back then, and even now, I wasn't always totally sure what he was getting at but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have loved to attend one of these as a Massey lecture. I think overall the lectures would work better as lectures rather than just read off a page (as they should). Older book but definitely still relevant to today's issues.
Wasn't going to mark this as read, since it isn't really a book (I listened to the lectures; this is a transcription of those lectures, minus King's voice, which I imagine leads to some confusion in parts if you're just reading this, because tone is important, and King references this importance), but there is a print-only afterword that changed my mind.
Early in his CBC Massey lectures, King writes, “So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves towards harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by cooperation” (25).
King is writing about the difference between creation stories – but after the events of Jan 5, 2021 it is hard not to see politics reflected in that was well.
King’s extended essay/lecture is about stories, about how we change and adapt stories to suit our needs and our expectations. Hence, the story that colonizers tell about Native Americans is radically different than the story that Native Americans tell.
This extends to stories as well – is a written story any more or less important than oral storytelling? Isn’t oral storytelling just a valid way of story telling? And what do the types of stories that we tell actually say about ourselves?
It is partly an expanding of the idea that to kill a culture, you destroy the literature. Whether or not that literature is written or oral is besides the point. King makes a good point when he contends that both the destruction of Alexandria and Tenochtitlan where both vast losses in terms of literature. Today, we could also count the pandemic of COVID 19.
He also focuses on Native literature and not so much the style but the various settings, and like most good books about books, you will come away with a much longer reading list.
Brilliant. There’s no one like King for being able to tell the hard truth about Indigenous lives with a sardonic humour that makes us listen. But he has a bigger purpose in this published version his 2003 Massey Lectures, and that is to make us think about how much our understanding of the world, and of our own lives, is shaped by the stories we are told. Much food for thought here.
I read the book, five essays based on the Massey Lectures 2003, at the time of publication. Listening now, in 2020, to Thomas King's lectures is like a new experience. So much more powerful and engaging than I remember. Probably or most likely, I have changed as a listener and I have much more about the issues he addresses in his lectures.
skillful storytelling with characteristics of oral tradition, no neat black/white dichotomies or clean endings, critical view of religion and government dealings with native peoples, dignified portraits of the "indians" that non-natives try so hard to define and control. an important perspective.
Avec pertinence et ironie, l'auteur nous invite, avec cet essai, à se questionner sur les histoires qu'on a entendues avant et à s'intéresser aux différentes façons de raconter une histoire qui pourraient influencer son opinion d'une manière ou d'une autre.