Gender, Identity, and Community
Each woman has different ideas about the reserve life, about men, about non-Indigenous figures, about Toronto and urban life, and about what they want to do with the bingo prize money.
The women also have a wide array of experiences that deeply affected them, such as Emily’s abusive husband, Zhaboonigan’s rape, and Marie-Adele and Veronique’s contrasting experiences of fertility and infertility. These gendered perspectives illustrate different ways the women struggle to find or assert their own identities within challenging, often traumatic, and disappointing life experiences.
- How have the women’s pasts, and especially their experiences with men, influenced their present understandings of their daily lives separately and together?
- How do the road trip and the bingo game draw out these experiences and, perhaps, help the characters (and us) come to terms with their experiences and values?
- Is it significant, in light of this gendered history and community, that Nanabush is represented as a man in a cast otherwise made up of women? Why or why not?
The mythological figure of Nanabush features prominently in Nēhilawē (Cree) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway) mythology as “the caricatured representations of human nature and character in their many facets” (Basil Johnston 13). Nanabush is a tricky figure to understand because he/she/it is constantly switching between languages, embodied forms, genders, and states of being. Nanabush stories typically resist “black and white” or binary models of thinking, and in Highway’s work Nanabush and Trickster characters are frequently used to playfully highlight the ambiguity of morality, gender, and social norms. Throughout Dry Lips, Nanabush raises questions about identity and teaches the characters and the reader/viewers “about the nature and the meaning of existence” (12).
- What is the importance of the different forms Nanabush takes on during the play? How might Nanabush’s switching between languages, roles, and actions coordinate with the black and white imagery of the play?
- How does Nanabush contribute to the development of the characters throughout the play? For instance, why does Zhaboonigan seek to go with Nanabush at the end, while Marie-Adele argues against going with him for most of the play and then goes peacefully?
Nēhiyawēwin (Cree) and Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway)
The multilingualism—the shifting between the English and Indigenous languages—of this play means that many listeners and readers will need some passages translated. As well, many English speaking readers and viewers will have moments in the play where they may not quite understand everything that is going on. Denis W. Johnston observes in Canadian Literature that “Highway delights in linguistic estrangements and paradoxes” (255). Literary critics refer to such unsettling moments as points of defamilarization. Such moments can allow readers and viewers to see things like language, gender, race, and even colonialism in a new and strange light.
Writers who “write back” against colonial power use such moments to unsettle colonial norms. In reference to linguistic switching in Highway’s Dry Lips, Roberta Imboden argues in Canadian Literature that
For a non-Native reader/audience, the hearing of the Cree language is a defamiliarizing experience that causes an awareness, in an acute manner, of the absence that clings to the words, to the silence that haunts them. (122)
The politics of language in Highway’s plays is never simple and clear. The switching makes us acutely aware of language itself, and its power to shape social reality.
One of the things to consider while reading or watching this play is how having Indigenous characters on a fictional reserve speaking in Nēhiyawēwin or Anishinaabemowin represents a resistance to colonialism. The characters in The Rez Sisters have varying proficiencies with Indigenous languages and employ them differently. For instance, Marie-Adele speaks to Nanabush in Nēhiyawēwin, but Veronique can’t. In Marie-Adele’s funeral scene she converses with Nanabush in Nēhiyawēwin, but the remaining characters follow this with a funeral chant in Anishinaabemowin.
- How are these languages used strategically to highlight or disrupt the narrative?
- How might the use of language in a play like The Rez Sisters help us, as readers and viewers, understand the linguistic legacies of colonialism?
- What are the social and political implications of showing Indigenous men and women from reserve communities speaking their traditional languages?
The Rez Sisters incorporates a playful quality throughout, with regular moments of slapstick comedy and the focus on bingo. While writing on Highway’s work in Canadian Literature, Canadian drama critics Renate Usmiani and Denis W. Johnston both argue that Highway’s playfulness reflects the tension between the Nēhilawē (Cree) worldview and the dominant colonial one. The playful elements also contrast with the exploration of difficult topics such as change, trauma, sickness, and death. The playfulness suggests a way of subverting negative experiences through the affirmation of hope and resilience provided by a broader cosmological perspective.
- How might the comedy of the play celebrate and undermine colonial assumptions about order and disorder?
- How might humour work to diminish pain? How might this playfulness function to develop a social commentary?
- Highway, Tomson. The Rez Sisters. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988. Print.
- Johnston, Denis W.
Lines and Circles: TheCanadian Literature 124–25 (1990): 254–64. Print. (PDF)
RezPlays of Tomson Highway.
- Usmiani, Renate.
The Bingocentric Worlds of Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway: Les Belles-Soeurs vs. The Rez Sisters.Canadian Literature 144 (1995): 126–40. Print. (PDF)
- Imboden, Roberta. “On the Road with Tomsom Highway’s Blues Harmonica in ‘Dry Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.’” Canadian Literature 144 (1995): 113–24. Print.
- Johnston, Basil H.
One Generation From Extinction.Canadian Literature 124–25 (1990): 10–15. Print. (PDF)
- Highway, Tomson. Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989. Print.