Salish- Métis author Lee Maracle’s 1993 novel Ravensong doesn’t centre around queerness or lesbian sexuality or two-spirit identity in the way that you might expect in a book reviewed here. It’s a beautiful and powerful novel about settler and Indigenous relations regardless, but its main character Stacey, a young Salish woman living on a reserve in the 1950s, isn’t explicitly or implicity queer (although she is potentially queer, I would say, given Maracle’s take on sexuality). There is, however, a lesbian couple who feature as secondary characters in Ravensong, and I think their inclusion is really significant, for a few reasons. Mostly, I find the way that the novel deals with queer sexuality in relation to its politics of decolonization fascinating. In fact, I think honing in on how the novel deals with queerness is a great way to understand what it’s trying to do in terms of decolonizing. The absence in Ravensong of an explicit assertion of queerness, the fact that it doesn’t “come out,” as it were, as a queer text, is no failure at all but rather indicates an entirely different method of interrogating issues of queer sexuality. Let me explain:
The main plot of Ravensong revolves around Stacey, who is a high school student in “white town” while living on her community’s reserve. Stacey is continually negotiating how to fit in and succeed in school (she hopes to attend UBC to become a teacher and would be the first Native woman to do so) and how to remain a solid member of her Indigenous community, especially in the wake of the devastating flu outbreak that is resulting in the death of many of their elders and children. On the one hand, Stacey envies the white middle class prosperity of her classmates. On the other, she often states that she doesn’t understand and abhors these people, especially in light of the abhorrently racist medical system’s response to influenza cases in Native folks.
An interracial lesbian couple living on the reserve figures crucially in Stacey’s struggle to negotiate these two places and the people and values they represent. This couple is German Judy—as the Salish community insists on calling her, highlighting her otherness—and her partner Rena, who is Salish and who has returned to her hometown after being away for years. The more I thought about Judy and Rena, the more I realized that they function as a microcosm of the struggle to communicate and connect between Indigenous and settler communities that the novel is dealing with on a larger level. They also serve as reminders that part of decolonization is interrogating sexuality. Combating homophobia and fighting for women’s sexual agency aren’t side projects to decolonization; they are an integral part of it. Sexuality, in this sense, must be decolonized.
In particular, the novel often points out how sexist and homophobic attitudes about sexuality are Western/Euro-settler in origin. The only member of the Salish community who explicitly harasses Rena and Judy (hollering ‘queers’ at their house occasionally) is a man, deeply scarred by serving in the second world war, who lived outside the community for a long time and absorbed many white values; he is eventually ostracized from the community for abusing his wife. Even Stacey at times shows the influence of settler values on her thinking about sexuality, judging her mother for what she deems her promiscuity. She has clearly learned these values by spending so much time over in white town.
Stacey’s ‘Momma’, however, is still steeped in the “old ways” that honour women’s sexuality. These ways include Salish laws and traditions governing sexuality and courtship. One of these traditions is the presence of a ‘chaperone’ when an available partner is spending time with a single woman. We see this at work when a former male lover of Stacey’s mother comes to visit; but we also see it when Stacey goes herb and berry gathering with Rena and Judy. Stacey describes the situation: “simply, in Momma’s mind this was an unchaperoned visit in the same way it would have been had two young men traipsed off up the hill with her.” Salish courtship customs matter-of-factly include non-heterosexual possibilities. While Rena’s sexuality is well-known, Stacey has not felt “desire … st[eal] upon her yet”; Momma assumes her desire might go any direction. Interestingly, when Stacey protests that Rena isn’t single, Momma replies: “[Judy’s] white and so she don’t count.” While Momma is missing some understanding here, her assumption that her daughter might be queer is quite remarkable, especially when you take into consideration the context of 50s white homophobic culture. Maracle even tells us that Momma herself has had a flirtatious relationship with a non-gender normative woman in the past.
This woman, Nora, is actually Rena’s mother, an interesting twist that suggests two-spiritedness and/or queerness is inherited. In fact, a past speaker of the community suggests that both Nora and Rena are descended from “a warrior woman of long ago,” whose “duality” of being both a mother to her children and “to the world a warrior” evoked “fear and reverence in her fellow villagers.” I find the idea that non-normative gender and sexuality can be inherited and passed down fascinating, given that the mainstream LGBTQ movement insists that queer sexuality is never learned or biologically inherited. This “born this way” kind of thinking, where folks protest that the children of queer parents are not more likely to be queer, is still playing into homophobic thinking: who cares how someone becomes/is queer when there’s nothing wrong with being queer in the first place? Maracle’s Indigenous perspective is a much-needed alternative voice on these issues, I think.
When Stacey talks about Rena and Judy’s relationship, she often looks at it as a way to imagine how Indigenous and settler communities can begin to ‘get on together.’ One of these first steps seems to be humour: Judy recounts with laughter how she couldn’t fathom how Rena didn’t have a garbage can in her house when they moved in together and Rena couldn’t imagine why on earth you would need such a thing; Rena and Stacey laugh at their ignorance about white life in Vancouver as Judy tries to explain. Eventually, “[t]he gulf between them cease[s] to be a threat,” and in this place it’s possible to cultivate understanding and learning. Moved by Rena and Judy’s laughter, Stacey thinks: “They must really love each other … to have somehow climbed the hills of complete misunderstanding.” In fact, the queer couple in the book is the only pair who begin to move toward the possibility of bridging the enormous gap, figurative and literal, between the Salish village and white town.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the cover or the novel’s synopsis, Ravensong is a really crucial and moving voice inserting itself into white and/or settler discourses and conversations about queerness in Canada. It also does a really brilliant job of weaving queerness and feminism into discussions about Indigenous rights and decolonization. In fact, it’s a brilliant novel all around, which I can’t recommend highly enough.