“‘There are no truths, Coyote,’ I says. ‘Only stories’.”
-Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water
Last October, I was lucky enough to attend a public lecture at the AGO by Thomas King. The talk coincided with the publication of the illustrated edition of The Inconvenient Indian, a special, updated version of his classic 2012 book of the same name. In about two hours, Thomas King covered everything, from Idle No More, oil pipelines, and protest movements to his work in the short film and radio industries and the status of his beloved mystery series.
After the talk, I asked myself the question: Why do I always go back to Thomas King? I first encountered his work while I was in university, and I’m a fan of Indigenous literature more generally, but I always find myself going back to his works year after year. Fiction, non-fiction, children’s book… It really doesn’t matter. I love it all. With that being said, here are four reasons that I constantly find myself re-reading Thomas King, and why you should, too!
1. The language
But beneath the bridge, trapped between the pale supports that rise out of the earth like dead trees and the tangle of rebar and wire that hangs from the girders like a web, the air is sharp, and the only thing that moves in the shadows is the wind.”
-Thomas King, Truth and Bright Water
Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a literature snob. If a book’s prose isn’t sharp and it’s language isn’t effective, you can count me out. I know, I know, I’m the worst. But, for the purpose of this post, I have to disclose that I still haven’t encountered a piece of writing by Thomas King that isn’t perfect. Truth and Bright Water or The Back of the Turtle are probably the best examples of his immense talent as a writer, but every single one of his books has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses from its readers. Whether he’s teaching us about Indigenous history or writing from the perspective of Coyote dreaming, everything is always wonderfully playful and masterfully crafted.
2. The humour
“When I announced to my family that I was going to write a book about Indians in North America, Helen said, “Just don’t start with Columbus.” She always gives me good advice. And I always give it my full consideration.
In October of 1492, Christopher Columbus came ashore somewhere in the Caribbean…”
– Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian
Making a joke work in print is no easy feat. Despite that fact, Thomas King has somehow mastered it. Rather than getting bogged down in historical facts and the seriousness of the stories he tells, King scatters jokes throughout his books to help keep things light and to keep his readers on their toes. Take the quotation above, for example. He’s just about to start writing what is arguably the most important, culturally vital, sweeping narrative of Indigenous peoples in North America, and literally the first thing we read is a joke about him, his wife, and Christopher Columbus. I’m not sure many comedians would be able to pull that one off, let alone a writer…
3. The inventiveness
“As long as the grass is green and the waters run. It was a nice phrase all right. But it didn’t mean anything. It was a metaphor.”
-Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water
Thomas King has written roughly 19 (yes, 19!) books since Medicine River was published in 1990. What could possibly be more impressive than 19 books in 28 years? Well, how about the fact that, of those 15 books, he’s covered history, mystery, literary fiction, kid’s lit, short fiction, and cultural criticism? Or, how about the fact that he did this all while writing and hosting CBC radio and television programs, writing and producing short films, editing collections of short works, running in a federal election, and teaching at the University of Guelph, amongst a host of other things?
For an author with the massive body of work that he has, you’d think things would start to get repetitive or at least a little familiar, but it’s clear at this stage in the game that King has a lot to say, and he’s going to pursue every possible avenue he can to get it out.
4. The genius
“The truth about stories is that’s all that we are.”
-Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
Thomas King is a genius. There, I said it. Glad I finally got that off my chest. I’m not sure there are many writers out there that can sustain such a long career, let alone one that has invented and reinvented itself a hundred times over. From non-fiction bestsellers to engrossing mysteries, children’s tales to beautiful short story collections, Thomas King’s talent knows no bounds, and we’re incredibly lucky that he’s shared so much with us already.
Looking to get into Thomas King’s writing? Might I suggest starting with DreadfulWater, the first in a series of murder mysteries focused on the fan-favourite Thumps DreadfulWater, a Cherokee ex-cop-turned-photographer who accidentally stumbles upon a dead body that he can’t get involved in but totally gets involved in anyways. See what I mean about his playfulness? I promise you won’t regret it.