Wanda Nanibush stands beside a piece done by indigenous artist Shelley Niro entitled "The Shirt" at the AGO. Photo: Nakita Krucker/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Wanda Nanibush on Diné poetry, Russian literature and Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Art Gallery of Ontario's curator of Indigenous Art is diving into two books on racism by Kendi and Sefa Dei / BY Athena McKenzie / November 1st, 2020
- What’s the best book you’ve read this year and why?
I have a lot of books and read a lot in a year so this sooo hard. But I will attempt it! I apologize to all the books that don’t get chosen. The best thing I read this year is the poetry of Esther Belin, a Diné writer from Los Angeles, Diné Yahzah, and living in Colorado. I mention these places because her work is very much about an identity that springs out of the motion of going between them. I finally read her latest book Of Cartography (2017) and reread her first award winning collection From the Belly of My Beauty (1999).
Poetry is infinite in the pleasures it can offer. I love that you can pull out a book and feast on many poems at once or savour one poem for months or come back over and over to a poem that keeps generating new pathways for you. Belin’s latest work is challenging for the reader but also challenging the form of poetry by bending, breaking, remaking, and playing with language and the space of the page. I felt at home in her deeply considered attempt to make poetry speak like it’s Diné. In a First Nations world there are differences in how we tell stories and how we perceive the world and our place in it that can get lost in the English language if you don’t do what she has done by reinventing it. Her work also speaks to the sexiness of living life on your own terms and breaking open freedom within a society that assumes it knows you as an “Indian.” It also bravely faces the real hardships of colonialism and its impact on our lives but never from the sense of victimhood but always from a place that protects our imagination, humour, and survival.
- What book can’t you wait to dive into and why?
I have just started reading two books at once: How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi (2019) and Reframing Blackness and Black Solidarities Through Anti-colonial and Decolonial Prisms by George J. Sefa Dei (2017). Kendi’s book is really accessible and a completely enjoyable read. I get my coffee in the morning, go sit on the porch and read a chapter each day. I have worked from an anti-racist standpoint for a long time but wanted to hear his story and learn from the way he breaks things down in ways that anyone can get behind. As someone who does institutional change, it’s important to have straightforward ideas and language that is not overly academic. He does a great job and tells a good yarn at the same time.
Sefa Dei is a very important Toronto-based academic who has really been shaping anti-racist thought in the field of education. This text looks at Black(ness) from the place of the African diaspora. He is really looking at African identities as being Indigenous and combining anti-colonial thought to anti-racism. This is also where I sit as an Anishinaabe woman — I can never forget colonialism and its shaping of racism in this country.
- What’s your favourite book of all time?
My favourite book of all time is really a pairing: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both I first read as a teenager and have read many times since, as well as every other book they have written. Russian literature in general I seem to feel at home in – a revolutionary yet melancholic philosophical universe. With The Death of Ivan Illych, it was the thought of looking back on one’s life at the point when your life is ending and facing regret for following the status quo. My heart really broke for Ivan and made me face my own desire to live a life without regrets or capitulations. It’s exactly like my favourite film by Akira Kurosawa called Ikiru (To Live). Again it’s a male government worker who is questioning what his good and conforming life amounts to as he faces impending death. He decides to push for a playground as a final act of making waves at work. It’s about living life without fear and in a spirit of pleasure, joy and full engagement. In a way Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is about the limits of breaking with society. Raskolnikov commits random senseless murder because he wants to, but eventually must deal with his conscience that is still present even if silenced momentarily. If society is one way we develop our conscience and moral/ethical compulsions then total alienation must be stopped. I guess I still work through this tension between breaking the bonds that keep our society from being equitable, safe and meaningful for every human within it and needing to be a part of society to keep equity, safety and meaningfulness of all humans within it the goal.
- What book completely changed your perspective?
Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre-Dames-des-Fleurs, 1943). I was drawn to Genet because he was a foster kid like me. His life was immensely difficult, but he became a writer. And he produced queer literature that was from within his own reality, not written to appease the mainstream domestication of queerness. The premise is that the writer is in jail writing about a drag queen Divine and her various lovers in order to produce erotica for his own pleasure. It completely changed my understanding of sexuality and the way certain bodies and their pleasures are automatically criminalized. He also taught me how to revel in the ways you don’t belong.
- If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I just know he would be smart, witty, flirty and fun