By Paul Seesequasis
Reviewed by May Lui
Tobacco Wars by Paul Seesequasis is a smart, fun, bawdy, sometimes gross, and thoroughly anti-colonial novella. In the opening scene, readers are greeted with a somewhat shocking image of Bear Woman doing lots of impolite bodily functions. This continues in intertwined snippets distributed throughout the main linear narrative, and serves to ground the reader in a both body/earth connection as well as the context of colonialism.
The story begins with Pocahontas and her interactions with John Rolfe, but the main story is her connection to Ben Jonson, her travels to England and her role in the tobacco trade between the “old” and “new” worlds. I put those terms in quotes since Aboriginal people lived on Turtle Island (North America) since long before first contact, and in real terms what is called European “civilization” is relatively new.
Which brings me to one of the main themes in the book, the classic binary (constructed) tension between mind (“civilization”) and body (“nature”). White European masculinity is associated with the first, through all the contradictions this entails. The second, body, associated in a pejorative way with Aboriginal people, and what’s known in these dual ways as the female, is also fraught with contradictions.
The naming, by the white characters, of the “savage” ones, is written by Seesequasis, with a full knowledgeable wink at the reader, both in jest but also with the recognition of the violence and devastation of first-hand colonialism. This is seamlessly juxtaposed with the reality of how helpless, sick and child-like the white settlers/invaders were to the Aboriginal folks who cared for them for the first few winters. This is a bittersweet anti-colonial reversal of the myths and lies that Canadians are taught in elementary and high school history about Aboriginal peoples.
Nature, often fetishized by settlers as pristine, lovely, beautiful, etc. without ugliness, is presented to the reader mostly through the character of Bear Woman. She is without artifice, without pretense, and as all-knowing as any god or spirit can be. While powerful, what with creating worlds and all, she has limits to her power, and derives both pain and humour from her various entries into the modern colonized world. I read her as a creator, beautiful in her strength and wisdom. Farts and all.
The eyes deceive whereas money moves, and is fixed.
The story of the Europeans’ arrival is told in a linear way and proceeds with the men dominating the story line for the most part. The reader gets into their heads, seeing the various racist and sexist and sex-obsessed thoughts that motivate their lives, as well as how highly they think of themselves. But there is always the knowing wink or nudge to let the reader know that the author is slanting the story in his direction to suit his agenda, which is fine by me.
The “discovery” of tobacco is mixed in with the story of Bear Woman and Wolverine having known about its effects on humans and other creatures, and having started a trade system of their own that was eventually usurped by the interlopers. The idea that newcomers could discover anything is made laughable. However, what is historically new is the trade with the royalty of England, and the immediate and eventual devastating effects on Aboriginal people.
In the mainstream North American context, the character of Pocahontas is fairly well-known. Certainly the Disney version is spread far and wide, ensuring that only one (heterocentric, sexist and racist) narrative is deemed the true story. Seesequasis’ portrayal of her is that she’s wiser, more astute and more prescient than white mainstream culture would ever give her credit for.
As the tobacco trade grows, we have access to her thoughts and fears about what this will mean for her and her people. I found the description of her time in London, starting with her facing the desperately poor while riding in the grand carriage befitting her station as the widow of a rich white man, very powerful. Civilization indeed.
Between the seams of colonial boundaries she roams.
The non-linear storyline is that of Bear Woman, who we witness creating the world, without a particular design in mind, but simply as a function of who she is and her various bodily urges and feelings. Sex for her is raw, selfish, single-minded and earthy. She exists both in a “time before” and also travels forward to more contemporary settings as a poor, likely homeless person/bear, who variously crashes the party district in Toronto, watches a strip show and is harassed by the police. Seesequasis brings all the realities of what it means to be Aboriginal in Canada, not just the prettied-up and romanticized imaginings that Canada presents to itself and others as the acceptable stories.
The final theme I’d like to share is that of art, culture and abstraction. Throughout the story, Jonson is portrayed as a bit of a pompous ass, a man too interested in his own ego and desires, and a bit puffed up with his own sense of self-importance. He was a playwright, and enjoyed writing in the current style of the day, plays performed with masks (masques), and themes of deception, innocence and simplicity. I read his obsession with his own art as pathological, an extension of ego rather than a way to portray or share his artistic vision. We are witness to the performance of one of his plays, in the presence of the king, The characters Bear and Love, demonstrate Jonson’s views very clearly, with parallels to the tobacco trade and colonialism, but with the “civilizing” role of the English, as well as the role of capital trade and profit being the driving force behind it all.
Stars clashed and the moon exploded into a thousand shards of white that fluttered down over the land.
May blogs at maysie.ca, ranting and raving at any and all injusticesand uses the f-bomb regularly.
She’s been published in the Toronto Star, Fireweed Magazine, Siren Magazine, in the anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, at section15.ca and rabble.ca. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Wednesday June 13, 2012 for an inclusive interview with Paul Seesequaisis.