Violence structures our lives, was how I opened my class a few nights ago. An unsettling way to begin a term – unsettling even to me, even as I was saying it.
But such a beginning felt inevitable – especially in a law school setting. To engage in the study of Canadian law must necessarily be to concede – implicitly or otherwise, reluctantly or otherwise –the foundational violence of Canada’s creation. And then there are the other violences that weave through our everyday, the organising and the ranking of our relations to each other along that familiar shopping list of vectors – race, gender, class, ability, status, the many inequities named and unnamed.
So, like Sonia and Hadley, part of what resonated with me in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House was how it engaged with the question of violence. The issue was particularly alive for me because I had (unrelatedly) just read Lee Maracle’s 2014 novel, Celia’s Song and had watched Jeff Barnaby’s 2013 film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Each text is unflinching not only in its depiction of the interplay between colonial and sexual violence, but also in its insistence that protagonists engage actively in messy ethics of being violent.
I watched Rhymes for Young Ghouls first. It planted many of the questions that would colour my reading of the novels. I won’t describe the film here in any great deal, because I strongly recommend watching it, but there is a moment in the film when a singularly sympathetic character commits an act of stark and irrevocable violence.
And, as blood dripped down the screen, the theatre in which I watched this film erupted into spontaneous cheers. I can’t begrudge my colleagues their fearsome vindication – my own heart had given a terrible, joyfully angry leap at the scene. The buildup had been so irrepressible and the act so life-saving that to cheer on our mutual friend felt only human.
So I have been thinking since then about the ways that narrative/storytelling can extend to us a different vocabulary from law for thinking about violence, a vocabulary that does not stop at the border of right and wrong, but that instead delves into the murkier question of morality, which of course is the question that animates Joe’s and Basil’s different quests for a difficult justice.
My other preoccupation is borders, which of course serve a critical plot point in Erdrich’s book. I write this piece in Windsor, on the lands of the Caldwell First Nation, an Anishinaabe First Nation that comprises the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwa peoples. You should also know that Windsor is a border town, and there are specific violences that attend with lying so snug against the Detroit River.
As I begin writing this piece, news breaks out that a possibly armed man has been spotted running across campus. He is pursued by police as he heads for the bridge that separates us from the USA. A weird calm settles inside me, an awful waiting that unravels oilily through my gut as I sit it out in my office. In a stilted conversation that follows, someone says, as though to reassure me, “Windsor has lots of border-runners.”
I have never heard the self-explanatory term before. It is awfully evocative and it gives me pause. In my few months in Windsor, I have already encountered stories of people drowning while trying to cross to asylum.
The Detroit River is a slender, slow-moving strait, concealing deadly powerful currents. You can see the water from the law school. As we wait for news of safety, I can’t help but think of the muddled sea that separates North Africa from Europe, how it is at once passage and death for thousands of migrants every year.
Windsor is a border town, and it seems to me that the border lies in jagged ways on people’s skins here. The border here is neither a neat line, nor the river’s soft bend. Here, the border is an entanglement of knots, ensnaring our stories and our relationships. It lies on our skins like scars. I won’t write here about what I am learning in the sparseness of Windsor’s grocery stores about the impoverishment of domestic colonisation, but I will note that neighbouring Leamington, home seasonally to thousands of migrant farm workers, was also the site of Idle No More actions.
So I am preoccupied as I write this with how a relationship to land, to the land, to a map’s coordinates, affects one’s sense of self – how even as a lone man runs directly towards armed policeman, on this side of the border and then on that, pleading that they shoot him – that not even then is the language of tragedy sufficient.
And this is a lesson that I think was reaffirmed by the small constellation of stories that is these books and film: that violence is not a date stamp on a chronology of events, nor is it an act with a clean beginning and end. I think what I am thinking through is the possibility that violence is its own language. Like any language, perhaps what it provides is not answer or a fact, but a terrain for interpretation, resistance, and resilience. Like any language, perhaps what it equips us with us is tools to seize some dignity from the grip of history’s maws.
I recall here my favourite Round House line: to be afraid of entering the cemetery by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried there by the gut kick of our history. If the violence of Joe’s history does not end his ancestors’ embrace, if the violence of Joe’s history does not prevent him from loving the many reaches of his family, then is it not possible that the violence of Joe and Cappy’s killing Lark opens up something? And indeed the novel posits that Lark’s death is redemptive, even as Lark’s killing is accounted for, as Dayna suggests, with Joe’s propulsion into adulthood and with Cappy’s death. How does this novel help us reconceptualise what we mean by violence? Could the English language be stretched to allow for a more granular taxonomy for the various forms and causes of violence, thus clarifying our relationship to it? What debt do we owe the violences we commit? I am grateful here for Erdrich’s sharing of the legal concept of wetiko and Hadley’s explication of it.
I am struggling through these vague thoughts with little grace and great need, and, as a settler, with a deep gratitude for stories such as these and the storytellers who share them, who help bring me nearer to a vocabulary that can give me hope, when to speak of violence is to otherwise prompt an irrepressible, everyday horror. Many thanks also to Sonia for inviting me into this series! And of course, all errors are mine.
Fathima Cader teaches at the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor. She was called to the Ontario bar in 2014, after completing her articles at Parkdale Community Legal Services, where she represented clients on a wide range of poverty law issues. She earned her Juris Doctor at the University of British Columbia, she was awarded the Alexander J. Cohen Memorial Award for legal research and the Marlee G. Kline Essay Award for public interest research. She holds a Master of Arts in English from the University of Toronto. Her legal and research interests lie in the area of state and police abuse of power. Her most recent poem, “The Vulture is a Patient Bird,” appeared in 2014 in Apogee Journal. She is on twitter at @ficader.