Imagine This Text as a Living Room

February 18, 2011

I recently wrote a review essay for e-misférica, an online academic journal, for a special issue on Truth Commissions (forthcoming). (UPDATE: The issue is now online. Click here: After Truth.) My review focuses on three books: Julia Emberley’s, Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada; Jo-Ann Episkenew. Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing; and Gregory Younging, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagné (eds.) Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey.

So I was pleased to see that the recently published special edition of Topia, on The Cultures of Militarization included a special section for discussion on Emberley’s Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal. The section includes essays written by a number of respondents, and Emberley contributes to the discussion as well. One author in particular, Deana Reder, uses an interesting form of engagement. She asks the reader to imagine Emberley’s text as a living room. Because Emberely gives a series of readings of images, books, films and texts, Reder is able conjure a room filled with framed photographs, manuscripts and knick knacks that represent the various components of Emberley’s work.

“Given the premise that Emberley’s text can be imagined as a living room, we can imagine on the feature wall a fireplace, fueled by gas, ignited by the flick of a switch. There are the typical furnishing and knick-knacks that do not seem ill-placed unless more closely inspected. For example, as you enter, some of the first objects noticed are the somewhat charming picture frames perched on the mantle of the fireplace – with images first of a woman with a baby and second of a mother and child. But these are not family photographs of people with names and histories. If you peer closely at the photos you will see that both are of Indigenous people and that they been damaged through scratches inscribed upon them: the first is titled “Indian Woman with Papooose” and the second bears the title “The Indian Madonna,” even though the woman with the relaxed and sunny smile bears little resemblance to the icon in European paintings” (407).

Reder goes on to draw on the work of other authors, such as Carol Williams, Mique’l Askren and Michelle Raheja, to suggest other interpretations of the photographs Emberley reads.

Although Reder recognizes Emberley’s work as innovative and critically generative, she also notes that the “living room” constructed through her work is “haunted by indigenous absence” (413). The exercise of imaging a text as a space filled with objects struck me as an interesting exercise in working through the connections between the objects of the text and the way they are represented. I’m storing this technique in my reserve for future reading.

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