One wrong sound and you’re shelved in the Native literature section.
A Really Good Brown Girl is a victory over language as a tool of oppression. “Cree Language Structures and Common Errors in English book-end my life,” says Dumont. And as she chronicles the experience of growing up, neither white nor Native, “in a town just south of the Aryan nations,” she defiantly shows a mastery of the English language while embracing the Cree culture of the “Devil’s language” many of her ancestors were forbidden to speak.
“I learned to follow really very well,” says Dumont in a prose memoir of her school experience. She recalls:
I am in a university classroom, an English professor corrects my spoken English in front of the class. I say “really good.” He says, “you mean, really well, don’t you?” I glare at him and say emphatically, “No, I mean really good.”
And so the title A Really Good Brown Girl contains, as does the collection, a skilful blend of irony and defiance.
I (white, Anglo Saxon), struggled with this collection at times. On first reading, the title poem in the Squaw Poems section, “The White Judges,” seems too blanket a condemnation. The aside in “Memoirs of a Really Good Brown Girl” – “[I have learned that when whites smile that fathomless smile its best to be wary]” seems racist. Perhaps it is. But it is also fitting in the context of a collection that grapples with the idea of belonging and the hard and fast rules designed to exclude. The fathomless smile in that instance was on the face of a teacher charged with the responsibility of changing the child in front of her into a more reasonable facsimile of herself.
At a recent reading at Orlando Books, Dumont paused for a moment deciding what to read next, several voices joined to request “Leather and Naugahyde.” It’s a bitterly funny poem about a full-blooded Indian, a potential boyfriend, who discreetly asks after the character’s status and, when he finds out she’s Metis, looks at her as if to say “he’s leather and I’m naugahyde.” Dumont delivers it from memory, her voice a patois lilt.
I worried about the popularity of this poem – the single poem that points to her lack of full acceptance in the Native community in a book that deals so sharply with white oppression. Are we seeking some comic relief, to be let off the hook? I worry many of my favourites in the collection deal with Native experience. Am I shelving Dumont in the Native literature section?
The fact I’m bothered about this, worried, speaks to the power of this collection. I’m supposed to be uneasy, questioning. Dumont grapples with this question herself. In “Circle the Wagons” she says, “There are times when I feel that if I don’t have a circle or the number four or legend in my poetry, I am lost, just a fading urban Indian caught…”
Some of Dumont’s poems, like “Helen Betty Osborne,” scream a pain exclusive to groups marginalized by society. But in writing about exclusive experience, she transcends to the universal. Her giggling grandmothers in “Fireflies” belong to all of us. We all carry Acimowina everyday stories left around the house by grandmothers. “Let the Ponies Out” is a poignant and spiritual prayer for a papa bedridden. It’s a prayer muttered in all languages, but seldom written so well.
This book deserves to be shelved in the powerful poetry section. A Really Good Brown Girl is a really good collection of poems by a poet who writes very well.