August 22, 2017

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TOMSON HIGHWAY TALKS TWO-SPIRITS, LOVE, AND PERFORMANCE

TOMSON HIGHWAY TALKS TWO-SPIRITS, LOVE, AND PERFORMANCE
Photo Credit To Photo: Sean Howard Photography

Photo: Sean Howard Photography

post1MM: What do you believe sparked your vision of the (Post) Mistress and how did it evolve musically? 

TH: [It was] the difference between the straight line and the circle [that inspired me]. In European cultures, the structure of life is one of a straight line, one that goes, for example, from heaven to earth to hell. According to this system, when we die, we leave earth and go to either one of the other two places. In Native culture, we stay in the circle. We go nowhere. Our energies just get translated, so to speak, to another part of the circle. That is to say, the dead are still here among us; they haven’t gone anywhere. Which is why our living space is a sacred space. And that’s the story in my play, “The (Post) Mistress.” In the story, Marie Painchaud, the post mistress, dies but is still here watching over her own, with love and bittersweet sadness. And that’s where my idea for the play came from. As to the music part of it – I was a musician way before I became a writer. Music is central to my life. Without music in my life, I would die…

MM: Uber talented singer and actor Patricia Cano embodies a strong female character in a powerful way. How did your artistic partnership evolve together? What is the significance of including powerful female roles in your stories? 

TH: I met Patty in Sudbury when she was 6 years old. My partner of 29 years is also from Sudbury. And their families knew each other. For instance, my partner’s sister lived just down the street from Patty’s so I used to see her at family gatherings and such. Then some 15 years later, I ran into her at the U of Toronto where I was teaching Aboriginal Mythology. She [was] a student in the department of drama. That department did one of my plays that year – a musical – and she played the lead role. She did such an amazing job of it that I was smitten and have been ever since. Some fifteen years later, we are still working together. Part two of my answer: European cultures are so male-based, the reason being that, in that culture, God is male. In Native culture, she is female, and for that you have to look deep into the very structure of Native languages to understand the concept implicitly. All my work, in fact, is about the renaissance of the female god, and the slow death of the male. That’s the reason, at base, as to why I write so much about women.

MM: You weave strong stories that are funny, joyful, and tragic journeys of love into your work. As you continue to create new works as a senior artist with more lived experience; in what ways have you noticed a shift or change in the stories that you are compelled to write about?   

TH: In the beginning, I had a tendency to write about the painful aspect of Native life in this country, this partly because the concept of “the Native as victim” has been so drummed into all our heads, into Canadian culture as a whole. Well, as I get older, I realize more and more that there are many, many positive things about Native culture in this country – that we are not necessarily victims and can, in fact, be winners, victors. So my stuff these days is more about positive experience. And humour, lots and lots of humour, which lies at the core of Native culture because of the presence of the Trickster in our lives, our language, our dream world. This cosmic clown who laughs and laughs and laughs. When you speak Cree, for instance, you laugh constantly. Every syllable is a kick in the pants. In English, that is not the case, far from it…

MM: Your work never shies away from themes of sexuality, including all of the positive aspects of it, but the ugliness of colonial sexual violence that can come with it. Why should we explore these dualities? 

TH: I think we just should. I mean, the role of the artist is to document the social realities he/she sees around him/her, is it not?

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MM: Do you embrace the term “two-spirited”? What is your understanding of “two-spirited-ness”?  

TH: Yes, I embrace it totally and utterly. It is a glorious, spectacular experience to be a two-spirit. I think if I were not, I’d be bored to death. It is, for one thing, an essential role in our society – in ALL societies – in the sense that there is far, far, far, far too much violence in the two-gender system of straight-male/straight-female. I mean the divorce rate in Canada is, what? 55%? Men and women are killing each other; they don’t get along. I mean, ask yourself this: why is 97% of the prison population of our country heterosexual male? What is wrong with the picture here?  And why are the rest of us who aren’t heterosexual male paying taxes to support these guys, each one of whom costs some $50,000 a year to maintain, in housing, clothing, food, health care, etc. I mean, which would you rather have? Two men loving each other to shreds? Or a man beating his wife to death? In front of their children. Or a man raping a woman? Which is more hurtful to society and which not? We need, that is to say – and we need it desperately – a buffer zone between the two warring genders of straight male and straight female. And that buffer zone is the two-spirit, i.e. the man who is male/female and the woman who is female/male. It is an absolutely essential role. Plus our parties are more fun. In fact, they are wild. Wild, wild, wild. You wanna see a good party? Come to one of ours…

MM: In what way is being connected to your family important to you? How do we grow and nurture strong families?

TH: Love. Love, and lots of it, is the only answer here. Try to love everyone you can, IF you possibly can. I know it is sometimes impossible, and sometimes very hard, but try anyway. Love turns out successful people. Love makes our world a better place to live in. Love is a miracle.

MM: How has Idle No More impacted you? Has it inspired you? 

TH: It has inspired me in the sense that the “dominant society” can no longer just sweep us under the rug. Like it or not, we are here to stay. So get over it. You may have been kicked out of your garden over there (Europe) some 400 years ago. But welcome back in. Welcome to ours. Welcome to the most spectacularly beautiful country on the face of the Earth. Welcome to the most spectacularly beautiful garden on the face of the planet! And enjoy it!

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