Listening to Old Woman Speak: Native and alterNatives in Canadian Literature


183 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2788-5
DDC C810.9'352997




Reviewed by Joan A. Lovisek

Joan Lovisek, Ph.D., is a consulting anthropologist and ethnohistorian
in British Columbia.


Native writers are apparently frustrated by the appropriation of their
voice by non-Native writers. They view Native stories written by them as
theft, and consider the appropriation no different than stolen property.
Laura Smyth Groening investigates whether there is substance to the
seemingly acrimonious exchange between Native and non-Native writers by
researching hundreds of historical texts for evidence of Native
representation. She then analyzes the images of Natives within the
underlying theme of what Frantz Fanon has called the Manichean allegory.

According to Fanon, the negative images of the Native constrain
individual imagination, because they are part of an extensive symbolic
system embedded in the colonial cultures that created the texts. This is
part of Fanon’s much broader ideological position, which divides the
world into good and evil and associates the colonizer with good and the
Native with evil. As applied to Canadian literature, the Manichean
allegory freezes Native people into a symbolic “other” through a
discourse of absence. Native people are thereby represented as dying,
dead, or otherwise disappearing.

By applying this allegory to Canadian historical literature, Groening
makes several discoveries, such as the almost total absence of savage or
negative images of Natives in the works of women writers like Frances
Brooke, Susanna Moodie, and Anna Jameson. Groening also uncovers a
significant difference in the aesthetic approach to literature, such as
the tendency of non-Native writers to situate Natives in the past tense,
while Native writers set them in the present. Groening also asks whether
writers can write outside the cultural constraints of their imagination
without raising the spectre of censorship.

Listening to Old Woman Speak contributes to the discourse about the
appropriation of voice by providing a much-needed analysis of historical
context balanced by a sound theoretical approach. It is somewhat
surprising, however, that the book and region of Canada that sparked the
initial debate about the appropriation of voice—Anne Cameron’s
Daughters of Copper Woman—was not canvassed by Groening. It is hoped
that she will expand her excellent thesis to the historical literature
of the West.


Groening, Laura Smyth., “Listening to Old Woman Speak: Native and alterNatives in Canadian Literature,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 22, 2024,