Review of A Really Good Brown Girl
From Michelle La Flamme , thirdspace 2/2 (March 2003)

Revisiting A Really Good Brown Girl

The focus for this review of Marilyn Dumont’s A Really Good Brown Girl (1996) is to place this writing in the context of feminist agendas, academic work, and teaching, and to explore what, if anything, it contributes to feminist scholarship. Family names reveal our histories and “Dumont” will resonate as a political name for all that recall Gabriel Dumont’s political leadership and struggles for the emancipation of the Métis people in Canada. Marilyn Dumont’s political message is more obscure and her feminist politics are not overt. A Really Good Brown Girl is a collection of poems which deals with memory, the land, the body, family, and colonial conditions in Canada for Native people but there is not a clear thread or feminist ideology linking these disparate pieces.

The title of this collection resonates with that all-too-familiar notion that there is a “good” and “bad” part of being a girl/woman in the world. Many women still reeling from the strict notions of the essential woman or girl that was institutionalized in churches and private schools will be familiar with the essentialism embedded in the provocative gendered title. The second adjective in the title draws us back to the centre of the text, as it is not just about being a good girl but also, more explicitly and precisely, about what it means to be a really good “brown girl.” While there is overlap in Native and non-Native feminist agendas in terms of the need to free girls and women from these “good girl/bad girl” constraints, there is something else in the poetry that speaks to women¹s emancipation even from within the feminist movement; that is, the position of the “really good brown girl” (my emphasis).

As we know, first wave feminism was not particularly successful in addressing the issues faced by Native women. This dearth of attention is slowly being rectified predominantly by Native women and women of colour theorists/activists/activists like Dumont whose work suggests that their versions of feminist agendas differ. Dumont’s title and the poem itself draws attention to the fact that there is something fundamentally different in one¹s need to be a good girl, a really good girl and a really good brown girl. This subtle and crucial distinction is the subtext for Dumont’s collection of poems and, through some of the poems which are articulated through the lens of the “really good brown girl,” we see some of the machinations that have been necessary for Métis women in contemporary Canada. Such machinations and insight, while linked with feminist agendas, are infused and nuanced (like the title itself) with a racialized feminist agenda.

Such a racialized feminist agenda is evident in the table of contents. The poems are divided into four sections: “Squaw poems,” “What More Than a Dance,” “White Noise,” and “Made of Water”. The table of contents reads like a short poem itself and is reminiscent of Marie Annharte Baker’s witty collection of poems entitled Being on the Moon[1] which also opens with titles that could be mistaken for a new poem altogether. Annharte Baker’s table of contents groups her poems together in the clearly womanist thirteen “Moons” with four poems to a section. Although they appear less overtly womanist, Dumont’s poems also are linked with a racialized feminist agenda.

The first section opens with a thematic element that is repeated throughout each section. “The White Judges” deals with white people’s judgements of Native people and the internalization of shame and coping mechanisms that often are the result. This thematic repetition of shame is embedded in the opening lines of “Memoirs of a Really Good Brown Girl” through the lines “You are not good enough, not good enough, obviously not good enough. The chorus is never loud or conspicuous, just there” (13). This is a recurrent motif in some of the poems in this collection. Although having such a theme at the core, it is never spoken loudly or conspicuously but rather forms the backdrop of the poems that are included in this collection.

“Memoirs of a Really Good Brown Girl” reads like a prose narrative or short story. The persona in this titular, and therefore, central poem learns to cope with the white gaze signified by the same “white judges” (11, 16) featured in the poem by the same name. Here, the persona’s reaction is more complex and versed than just shame. In response to the rejection by the white judges she tries to become invisible and also watches and follows in her attempt to blend in and be “good” or, rather in this case, “good enough.” Shifts in the narrative voice and tense suggest a duality in the narrative. We have the child and the adult self; the child self that absorbed these judgements and the adult self who challenges these assumptions. This poem identifies the multiple ways in which racism demands a repertoire of coping mechanisms and also draws attention to the ways in which these coping mechanisms can evolve over time. The poem closes with an anecdote about the older self who resisted the debilitating effects of racism by challenging whiteness/authority/white judges by using English her own way in university. In this last stanza the persona is rewriting the silent and acquiescent child-self while simultaneously defying the power of the English professor by reconstructing the conventions of “good” English. In these ways A Really Good Brown Girl challenges the notion of the static victimized position of the recipient of racism. The movement from this disempowered child place to the adult voice is a part of the poem’s structure.

Dualities appear throughout this collection of poems. Dualities between the native and non-Native world, white/brown, good/bad exist with different inflections and manifestations in Dumont’s writing. In “The Halfbreed Parade” (16) and “The Red and White” (17) hybridity is both literally visualized and themes of hybridity are developed. Later, “Half Human/Half Devil (Halfbreed) Muse” (51) also suggests the dualities surrounding Métis identity. This duality is evident in the titular poem as the persona recalls, “I lived a dual life; I had white friends and I had Indian friends and the two never mixed and that was normal” (15). This notion of duality is further inflected in the context of the “Squaw poems”(18-19) in which the virgin-whore complex is given a Native spin. The persona in this piece refers to the machinations necessary for the Native woman to become “so goddamned respectable that white people would feel slovenly in [her] presence” (18). Despite such coping mechanisms, the persona is still aware of the “squaw who hounded my every choice” (19).

Although Dumont speaks and writes from the position of the Métis writer, the move into an essential Native woman position parallels the slippage between Mulatto writers who become subsumed into the category of Black writers and write from that position. For some critics this slippage is problematic and denotes a kind of pan-Indianism despite the disparities between Métis and “full bloods.” This debate aside, in this “Squaw poem” the Native woman is presented as “always already” tainted by the colonial imaginary in much of the same way that is described in Rayna Green’s “Pocahontas Complex,”[1] namely the “savage Squaw” and the stereotype of the “Pocahontas” maiden who “rescues and helps white men.” (17) Green traces the historical manifestations of such imagery and as such Green’s essay is a useful historical guide to the images that Dumont refers to here in her poem.

Of particular use in the context of feminist education are the lines from Dumont’s “Squaw poems” – “squaw is to whore/as/Indian maiden is to virgin/squaw is to whore/as/Indian princess is to lady.” The poem moves from the squaw/maiden image to the “squawman” implying that the men are also tainted by their association with Indian women. Gender is inflected in these lines:

squawman:
a man who is seen with lives with laughs with a squaw.
‘squawman’
a man is a man is a whiteman until
he is a squaw he is a squaw he is a ‘squawman.’

Green’s essay also refers to the “squaw men” (19) who are white men who sleep with “squaws.” Green elaborates on this interracial stereotype by suggesting that the Indian man who sleeps with the squaw is the “buck” (19). Dumont’s poem suggests that the white man is not just lifted up in his association with the Pocahontas character but indelibly contaminated by the “squawman” label that Dumont refers to in her “Squaw poems.” Green’s essay focuses on the “Pocahontas perplex” as an American phenomenon and Dumont writes in Canada. This poem condenses and personalizes the kind of imagery that Green refers to in her essay in ways that suggest that these images of the “squaw/Indian princess” dualism is both contemporary and Canadian.

Both the squaw/maiden dualism and violence towards women know no borders. Dumont deals with the violence towards Native women in “Helen Betty Osborne” (20). “Blue Ribbon Children” (21) deals with the domestic ideal that is another form of violence towards women with the repetition of the lines “I was supposed to” (21) as in the poem’s representation of domesticity:

I was supposed
to be married, a wife
who cooked
large pots of potatoes… I was supposed
to prepare meals
for a man who returned
every night like
a homing pigeon… I was
supposed to balance children like
bags of flour on my hip… (21)

Resisting such restrictive categories of domesticity has been an important part of feminist agendas. Such domestic imagery regarding “really good” women mark the social and cultural expectations that bind women to their biology and a domestic ideal. The resistance to this ideal as the only possibility for a woman’s fulfilment is a theme that links Native and non-native communities. The last few poems deal with a woman’s relation to older men and the dying form of a father figure, which is also, in some ways, a universal theme of the transition from one generation to the next and emotional intimacy.

Continuing the themes of emotional intimacy, the second section of the poetry is entitled “What More Than Dance” and deals with lovers, nostalgia, children, forgiveness, mistakes and awakenings. The tone of these melancholic poems shifts to the “Not Just a Platform for My Dance”(46) which is complex, economical and ironic in tone. Through the repetition of the phrase “not just,” the poem posits what the land is through an inversion and the ironic representation of what the land is not. The tone of the poem is subtle and ironic in its criticism of the view of the land as a not being a place “to set my house my car and my fence.” The poem suggests a cosmology that is in keeping with a Pan-Indian naturalism in its evocation of the land as “prayer” “medicine” “song.” In addition, the embodiment and personification of the land, which is a crucial part of traditional indigenous cosmologies and epistemologies, is represented here in the lines, “this land is/ my tongue my eyes my mouth”.

The ironic tone in Dumont’s writing surfaces again in the third section of poems, “White Noise.” The themes of resistance to colonial oppression are presented in the ironic “Letter to Sir John A. Macdonald” (52) and “Still Unsaved Soul”(53) in which the persona writes back in response to the racist oppression experienced by Métis people and other Native “heathens.” The same satire is used in the poem “The Devil¹s Language” in which Dumont challenges the “Great White way of writing English” (54). Here the persona acknowledges the power of the “devil’s language” (literally and metaphorically her mother (‘s) tongue) to exist despite the debilitating effects of the colonizer¹s tongue. This challenge to an authentic Indian way of being is later challenged in “Circle the Wagons” (57) which deals with the essentialist idea of circles as a necessarily element of Native writing, or a litmus test for authenticity. Issues of authenticity are comically and ironically explored in “Leather and Naughahyde” (58) and “It Crosses My Mind” (59) in which the filling out of an application form or meeting a true “blood” causes an inquiry into the processes of naming and identity that are involved in determining nationhood.

“Made of Water” is the last collection of poems which deals with the themes of water and the location of the West Coast as distinct from the prairies and the changes that result from relocating. Amidst the themes of sites of identity and geography, there are two poems in this section that resonate with feminist impulses: “Acimowina” (70) which is Cree for everyday stories and “Instructions to My Mother” (71). Both poems deal with the internal histories and legacies that result from maternal influences. “Who Knew the Moons would Remember” (72) has a central images of the transitions involved being a woman, “the sharp side of [the persona’s] mind slices a woman into/trinity of/woman/girl,/baby”. Such transitions are not represented as gradual but evoke images of pain, violence and rupturing of the selves that are a part of every woman’s development. Of course, the powerful womanist symbol of the moon which has multiple layers in the Native context, is key to the depth and racialized feminism of this poem.[2] Other themes in this section include, intimacy and nature, the body, and the very familiar theme in Native writing, that of coming home. This section ends with a piece “We are Made of Water” (77) which suggests the eternal aspect of carrying the pain of another and the universality of water made flesh in humans.

While there are elements of these poems which could contribute to feminist scholarship, much of the poetry reflected here is about the Native woman (and people) resisting the effects of colonization, challenging normative standards of Native identity and reflecting on the passage of time and the erosion of memory. These issues are not limited to women and, in dealing with issues that face communities of Native people, Dumont is not specifically addressing Native women¹s status in terms of feminist agendas and struggles. These elements are infused in her work and form a component of this body of poetry that has, at its core, universal themes pertaining to intimacy and the passage of time, resonant cultural metaphors, as well as cosmologies and epistemologies of traditional indigeneity. Despite the universalisms in the bulk of this poetry, what is evoked in some of these poems is a racialized feminism; a feminism that speaks to and grapples with being a woman, being a “good” woman and being a really good brown woman.

Notes

1 While Green’s work is dated and American, the imagery which she presents resonates within the Canadian context. Her essay is useful when considering the lines referred to in this review. back

2 Notions of the “grandmother moon” and the important role of the moon lodge teachings are part of the multiple meanings attached to the notion of the woman and women in many traditional Native cosmologies. back

 

Works Cited

Baker, Marie Annharte. Being on the Moon. Vancouver: Polestar, 1990.

Dumont, Marilyn. A Really Good Brown Girl. London, ON: Brick Books, 1996

Green, Rayna “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture.” The Massachusetts Review 16/4 (Autumn 1975): 698-714.

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