A Clas­sic Greek Tale Re­told

An In­ter­view with Yvette No­lan, Ar­tist-in-re­si­dence

Le Délit - - Culture - Pho­to­graphs­cour­te­syof­sean Car­ney Ly­dia Bhat­ta­cha­rya

Yvette No­lan is a lea­ding Al­gon­quin play­wright, di­rec­tor, and dra­ma­turg in contem­po­ra­ry theatre. Her plays are pier­cing ef­forts to por­tray the lives of, and give a voice to, Ca­na­da’s mis­sing and mur­de­red In­di­ge­nous wo­men. Pro­ving that art and ac­ti­vism can go hand in hand, No­lan’s work has fa­ci­li­ta­ted dif­fi­cult conver­sa­tions about the mis­treat­ment of In­di­ge­nous com­mu­ni­ties and In­di­ge­nous wo­men in Ca­na­da. No­lan is Mcgill’s Mor­de­cai Ri­chler Wri­terIn-re­si­dence this se­mes­ter, and her adap­ta­tion of Aris­to­phanes’ The Birds will be run­ning un­til No­vem­ber 30. The Mcgill Dai­ly sat down with No­lan to talk about her work and the up­co­ming play. The Mcgill Dai­ly (MD): Your work is fo­cu­sed on gi­ving voices to In­di­ge­nous people and cul­tures that have other­wise been si­len­ced. The Birds seems so far re­mo­ved from what you nor­mal­ly work on, so why did you choose it? Yvette No­lan (YN): And yet it’s not. It’s about two guys lea­ving a place and going so­mew­here new in search of a pure life, and they im­me­dia­te­ly try to change it to their own image. Wow! That’s just like the co­lo­ni­za­tion sto­ry. It was so ea­sy to rein­ter­pret, and Aris­to­phanes had so ma­ny cultu­ral re­fe­rences from the time that it was ea­sy to flip them and put in re­fe­rences from our time.

Some things ne­ver change; that play is over 2,500 years old and it’s still the same old sto­ry. It was real­ly ea­sy to take it to co­lo­ni­za­tion be­cause the Greeks had their re­la­tion­ships with the gods, and we have re­la­tion­ships with di­vine cha­rac­ters and di­vi­ni­ty in this world. As an In­di­ge­nous per­son who is fair­ly tra­di­tio­nal, I de­ci­ded that we wouldn’t be tal­king about the gods, and we’ll just bring the Eagle in ins­tead. In my re­tel­ling, two men ar­rive from a place poin­ted east, and you feel as though they have lan­ded in the west. They ar­rive there and they want to find a new way of life, ex­cept that they are not com­ple­te­ly ho­nest about that, and even­tual­ly one of them tries to co­lo­nize the area. He tries to mo­ne­tize and com­mer­cia­lize the joint. That’s what we do when we find new ter­ri­to­ry: we look to see how we can make mo­ney off of it.

The birds who had ga­the­red in this place then feel in­va­ded by the two guys. They re­ject the va­lue sys­tem of the co­lo­ni­zers, but be­cause they ha­ven’t fi­gu­red out what their own va­lue sys­tem is yet, they are al­so a lit­tle bit temp­ted by what these men have to of­fer. All of this sounds ve­ry ear­nest, but it is ac­tual­ly fun­ny. Be­cause this play was a co­me­dy, and be­cause I stuck with the co­me­dy of Aris­to­phanes, the birds even­tual­ly re­claim their ter­ri­to­ry. It is a de­co­lo­ni­zing sto­ry, which is so­me­thing that we talk about in the world now. MD: How has your wri­ting chan­ged, or not chan­ged, th­rou­ghout your ca­reer? YN: I’m still wri­ting about wo­men and their place in the world; that sad­ly hasn’t chan­ged. It’s kind of sho­cking to me – I spoke with a col­league about being a se­cond­wave fe­mi­nist and the things that we fought for then that we thought we achie­ved. At least back then we could clear­ly say, “this is not fair and we need equal rights,” and we all knew that we didn’t have that.

By let­ting go of contem­po­ra­ry so­cie­ty in the play, I des­troyed the world and star­ted over again. I couldn’t see ano­ther way for­ward. That sounds aw­ful­ly bleak, but it’s not; it’s about com­mu­ni­ty, va­lues, and how we move for­ward. There is still an un­der­lying as­pect of the pa­triar­chy and po­wer that none of us are ack­now­led­ging, which is real­ly wild. We still ha­ven’t got­ten to wha­te­ver that thing is that we need to un­ra­vel or un­do; we still ha­ven’t sol­ved it. It’s a mys­te­ry to me. It’s good that it’s a long life be­cause you get to think “wow, it’s still the same fight, just in a dif­ferent form, dres­sed in a dif­ferent way.”

MD: Do you find that the per­for­ming and/or wri­ting of your work is a way for you to ans­wer ques­tions you have about things we ha­ven’t fi­gu­red out or rea­ched yet? YN: To­tal­ly. One of the rea­sons I do theatre is to put or­der around chaos, as the world is chao­tic, and we are trying to make sense of it. In theatre, we are al­so constant­ly trying out dif­ferent stuff, and we are al­lo­wed to say things with cha­rac­ters that we might not be able to say as hu­man beings, for wha­te­ver rea­son, whe­ther we are trying to be ge­ne­rous or un­ders­tan­ding of eve­ryone’s jour­ney, or we want to avoid conflict. But in the theatre you need conflict. We put people that have ve­ry dif­ferent agen­das together and then we see what hap­pens. In wat­ching their re­la­tion­ship, maybe we can crack so­me­thing open and fi­gure out what is going on. It feels safe be­cause we have agreed to sit in this room together and we don’t have to be the people on stage, but we can have ac­cess to what they’re fee­ling, and we can de­cide which one of the cha­rac­ters we see as most si­mi­lar to our­selves. Then, we can see how they in­ter­act with eve­ryone else in the sto­ry. Maybe that can shift how so­meone sees the world. I know so ma­ny plays that have shif­ted how I saw the world. They shif­ted things in ways that I didn’t even un­ders­tand in the mo­ment, but which conti­nue to in­form me as a per­son now.

MD: How do you si­tuate your­self as an In­di­ge­nous ac­ti­vist and ar­tist wor­king wi­thin a whi­te­do­mi­na­ted ins­ti­tu­tion? YN: Here in the aca­de­my, we talk about In­di­ge­ni­zing the ins­ti­tu­tions and it’s not ea­sy! There’s “in­clu­sion In­di­ge­ni­za­tion” and there’s “re­con­ci­lia­tion In­di­ge­ni­za­tion,” which trans­lates to people saying that they are sor­ry and as­king In­di­ge­nous people to par­take in the spoils, but we still have to do this un­der struc­tures. Then, there’s al­so “de­co­lo­ni­zing In­di­ge­ni­za­tion,” but no one has real­ly thought about what that is going to mean.

What would hap­pen if we real­ly chan­ged the struc­ture and the sys­tem? For me, it was in­ter­es­ting to do The Birds with a de­co­lo­ni­zing agen­da in­side of the aca­de­my and with stu­dents at one of the big uni­ver­si­ties in the coun­try. This place has pro­du­ced a lot of people who ser­ved the co­lo­ni­zing agen­da. It’s a lit­tle bit like being the sand in the oys­ter, as it’s about ques­tio­ning what real­ly people mean when they say “you guys” when tal­king about in­clu­sion in uni­ver­si­ty. We’re ha­ving this lit­tle dis­cus­sion in our play about what exact­ly that means.

MD: The Change the Name Cam­pai­gn is si­gni­fi­cant and on­going on cam­pus. What are your thoughts on it? YN: The ar­gu­ment is that the cam­pai­gn re­pre­sents “in­clu­sion In­di­ge­ni­za­tion.” They tell us that “when we said R*dmen, we we­ren’t re­fer­ring to In­di­ge­nous people; we just meant the team.” All I have to say is that I don’t care what you meant, be­cause it still hurts my fee­lings and that should be enough. They say that our fee­lings should not be hurt be­cause that’s not what they meant. But you’re not hea­ring me – my fee­lings are hurt, so now how do we move for­ward? They say, “well, don’t have hurt fee­lings.” This is as far as we’re get­ting; it’s just like the John A. Mac­do­nald sta­tue dis­cus­sion, which, if we can’t have a dis­cus­sion about John A. Mac­do­nald sta­tues wi­thout death threats and hate mail, then how do we ac­tual­ly move for­ward? Co­ming to Mcgill, I was ve­ry aware that it is ve­ry white and pri­vi­le­ged, and it has this idea of it­self, quite right­ly, as a place of po­wer and as­pi­ra­tion. This makes it a place for people to chal­lenge them­selves to be­come bet­ter, and I sup­pose that’s why it brings in people like me to be the sand in the oys­ter. But all places are white; that’s how things have been struc­tu­red.

I’m al­so pur­suing a Mas­ter’s de­gree in Sas­ka­toon in the John­son Shee­han School of Pu­blic Po­li­cy, which is al­so ex­tre­me­ly white. Part of that is his­to­ri­cal – as In­di­ge­nous people went in­to post­se­con­da­ry edu­ca­tion, they chose law, edu­ca­tion, and me­di­cine, which are places that are going to mat­ter to our people. They didn’t ne­ces­sa­ri­ly go in­to pu­blic po­li­cy. In fact, there were ma­ny places they didn’t ne­ces­sa­ri­ly go in­to be­cause we were being strea­med in­to the places where we could make changes for our people.

But, at some point, we have to be in eve­ry as­pect of so­cie­ty. So, my school, be­cause it is a young school, on­ly ten years old, it has a stra­te­gic prio­ri­ty to bring in more In­di­ge­nous people that they’ve been wor­king on. When I meet with my ad­vi­sor about my the­sis, I say that I need an In­di­ge­nous fa­cul­ty mem­ber on my com­mit­tee, and he balks and says that we don’t have any, but then we talk about ma­king that hap­pen. This is tal­ked about out loud, and that’s not to say that it is not white, as it is still ve­ry white, but it is in a ve­ry dif­ferent place of re­co­gni­zing that and un­ders­tan­ding the kind of changes re­qui­red. In one of my courses, there were five In­di­ge­nous stu­dents out of 18, and to not be the on­ly one in the room makes such a dif­fe­rence! I don’t have to re­present all In­di­ge­nous people! I’m Al­gon­quin, but she’s Cree, and he’s Cree, and she’s De­né, and she’s Me­tis, and we all have dif­ferent iden­ti­ties. That is how we be­gin to In­di­ge­nize our ti­ny class in­side our ti­ny school – th­rough our gro­wing pre­sence.

The Birds is sho­wing No­vem­ber 28 – 30 in Moyse Hall.

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