Wednesday, September 07, 2016

THE MASK THAT SANG by Susan Currie

Susan Currie's The Mask That Sang was released on September 6, 2016, from Second Story Press. She dedicates the book to her "birth aunt, Bev Huzzard, who handed me the gift of my own identity."

That dedication--referencing a birth aunt and identity--prompted me to visit Currie's biography at the Second Story website. There, I read that:
Susan is an adopted person who made contact with a birth aunt a few years ago and subsequently learned about her Cayuga heritage. The Mask That Sang grew out of the experience of discovering those roots, and of learning that her grandmother attended residential school. 
On goodreads "Ask the Author" page, Currie writes that:
My most recent book, "The Mask That Sang," was inspired by my own experience of learning that I was Haudenosaunee. Because I was adopted, I did not know about my roots until I went searching for answers, and made contact with a birth aunt. She shared with me about my Cayuga heritage. It changed my life!  
And on her website, Currie writes that:
An important part of my history has to do with the fact that I am adopted. I have had a wonderful upbringing with my parents, Jean and Martin, and with my two brothers, David and Mike. As an adult I felt I wanted to know more about my own unique history. Following some detective work, I made contact with my amazing birth aunt, Bev (my birth mother, Louise, had passed away). She then provided me with the great gift of my own personal history. I was astonished and thrilled to learn about my own Haudenosaunee background. I am of Cayuga descent. My grandmother, Marjorie Hill, grew up at Six Nations and attended residential school in Brantford.
My heart aches for all the Native people who were taken from their parents and communities when they were infants or children.  We don't know the details of Currie's adoption. She may not have been part of that forceful removal. We do know, however, that the governments of the United States and Canada were determined to turn Native people into White people. These governments were determined to undermine our nations and our sovereignty. Some government programs, like the boarding schools (residential schools in Canada) are becoming known.

There were other efforts, too, by which Native children were taken from their communities. Adoption and child welfare service is one by which thousands of Native children were removed from their homes. In Canada, newspapers report on the Sixties Scoop, a term used to refer to the adoption of First Nations and Métis children in Canada, from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. The reports include interviews with adults who are being reunited with their families. The accounts are searing. In Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel writes that (p. 88):
When these people want to learn more about their culture, they have to wade through so many inaccuracies that it can feel impossible at times to reconnect.
As Currie's biography indicates, she was adopted and only recently became aware of her Cayuga heritage and that her grandmother was in residential school. As I read her book, I had empathy for Cass (her main character) and the struggle she was going through, but I also feel that the parts of the story about the mask sound very much like ones written by people who aren't Native.

Here's the synopsis for the book:
Cass and her mom have always stood on their own against the world. Then Cass learns she had a grandmother, one who was never part of her life, one who has just died and left her and her mother the first house they could call their own. But with it comes more questions than answers: Why is her Mom so determined not to live there? Why was this relative kept so secret? And what is the unusual mask, forgotten in a drawer, trying to tell her? Strange dreams, strange voices, and strange incidents all lead Cass closer to solving the mystery and making connections she never dreamed she had.
Remember: The Mask That Sang is inspired by what Currie learned as an adult.

Currie said that she found out about her identity through research. Cass, however, finds out because of a mask she finds in a dresser drawer in a home that is left to her and her mom by her grandmother, who has passed away. That grandmother is likely based on Currie's own grandmother, the one who went to residential school. In The Mask That Sang, we learn that Cass's mother was abandoned by her own mother, and she ended up in the foster care system (p. 10):
My mother abandoned me as a baby, she gave me up to Children's Aid and never tried to find me. I've been in over twenty foster homes, and I've lived at about as many addresses since.
It makes me wonder if Currie herself was abandoned by her birth mother.  Currie's grandmother, at residential school, would not have been able to maintain her Cayuga ways of being. She may have lost touch with the Cayuga community. From Currie's website, we know she gave birth to Currie's mother (she is deceased) and two other children. When Currie found that birth aunt, Bev, she began learning about her Cayuga heritage from her, but I wonder what Bev's sources are? Did she reconnect with the Six Nations community? Did she relearn ways of being Cayuga?

I pose that question because of what I've read about the ways that the Haudenosaunee peoples (this includes the nations in the US and Canada) treat the masks. Back in 1991, in their I is not for Indian bibliography, Naomi Caldwell Wood and Lisa Mitten, president and secretary of the American Indian Library Association wrote about Welwyn Wilton Katz's False Face. They said:
"Katz conjures up a ridiculously evil power that is supposed to inhabit the false face mask and alter the personalities of characters who attempt to possess the mask. This personalities of characters who attempt to possess the mask. This goes beyond the wild fantasies of a creative author. False face masks are an integral part of traditional Iroquois religion practised today on the very reserve that Katz describes so well. Her description of the mask as an absolute evil amounts to religious intolerance and goes far in fostering the conception of native, non-Christian religions as savage pagan rituals. A very harmful book."
Currie does that, too. In The Mask That Sang, Cass enters the house that had belonged to her grandmother. When she goes inside she hears "a mischievous purr" (p. 23) that becomes a hum and then a song as she nears the dresser where the mask is. It seems that the song she hears tells her that she won't be lonely anymore.

When she finally opens the drawer and unwraps the mask, she screams. Mr. Gregor, a neighbor they've just met, tells them it is a false face. Cass's mom says it is an ugly face, and Mr. Gregor replies that it is an Iroquois healing mask and that there's a large Aboriginal population in their new neighborhood. He asks if they're Aboriginal and they say no, because at this point in the story, they don't know they're Native. Cass thinks, though, that she somehow feels like she recognizes the mask.

That night at bedtime, Cass opens the drawer and looks the mask in the eye, telling it that she thinks she likes it, but "let's not go too far" (p. 37). The voices in the mask sing to her:
Too late, the voice seemed to sing, filled with satisfaction at their own funny selves, pleased with the mischief they had played while hiding and being found. Now they had a new playmate, and they darted around Cass as if they were strings binding her. But friendly strings, friendlier than what waited tomorrow.
"Tomorrow" is a reference to Cass's first day of school. She's dreading it because at previous schools, she's been bullied. As she drifts off to sleep, the mask's earlier message of her not being alone, is chanting as she falls asleep and into a dream where she and others are trapped in a school "like animals" who are "being groomed for something" and who are not "free creatures anymore, because free meant wild" (p. 40). She wakes, realizing the mask is singing to the children in her dream, comforting them. They were also telling Cass to go to school, and to be brave, chanting and "looping about Cass like an incantation."

As the story continues, the voices speak to her at key moments. They tell her to stick up for Degan Hill, a Cayuga boy she meets at school. She does, and the two become friends. He tells her about his aunt, who is a healer and has dreams. He tells her that dreams, spirits, and healing are part of their traditional ways. She tells him about the mask and he tells her that his aunt says they're tricky, that they move stuff, turn lights on and off, and that the masks can go either good or bad. She takes him to her house to show it to him but it is gone. Her mother has pawned it to get money to buy a computer.

The story, from there, is about recovering the mask. Cass continues to have dreams, and, Cass and Degan use the dreams to find the mask. At one point, Cass is feeling sorry for herself and tells her mother that her life would have been better if Cass had never been born. She feels intense rage, brought on by the mask. It music is now "deadly and dangerous" (p. 120). Her dreams also include the children she saw in the first dream. One night, she sees them, trapped by fire.

The ways that Currie is writing about the masks feels wrong. Turning lights on and off? That sounds more like a poltergeist story, and the use of some words, like incantation, puts the masks--as presented by Currie--into an inappropriate framework of Eurocentric magic and supernatural stories. It reminds me of what I saw in Shadows Cast By Stars. That author, Catherine Knutsson, is similar to Currie in this way: both came to know their Native heritage as adults. Knutsson's book has paranormal qualities to, it, too that feel inappropriate. I saw similar problems with dreams in Tara White's Where I Belong.

I really want to read stories from people like Currie and Knuttson and White, who come to know their heritage, later in life, but for me, they lose their potential and value when they sound just like the stories that White people write. Their stories can inform readers about racist programs and histories, but when those stories enter this magical and mystical thread, they misinform and even denigrate the very people their stories are about. These writers have not moved beyond the inaccuracies that Vowel referenced in Indigenous Writes.

On goodreads, Currie writes that she's working on another book:
I am beginning to work on a new story exploring the residential school experience. At present, it is starting to shape into a bit of a time travel story in which two parallel events are occurring - in one timeline, we follow a young girl in residential school who is fighting to hang onto her culture, and in the other, we follow a young girl in the foster care system who is searching for her missing mother. How these two timelines come together, and how the girls become friends, is tied up in visions and magic and the power of traditions....
Seeing "magic" there points, again, to a framework that I think is Eurocentric. I do think a time travel story that explores these two different periods of time would be one I'd want to read but I hope that Currie picks up a copy of Love Beyond Space, Body, and Time to see how other Native writers write that sort of storyline. That book is exquisite. It isn't for children. Older teens, yes. The full title is Love Beyond Space, Body, and Time: An LGBT and Two-Spirit Anthology. I've not yet reviewed it for AICL, but did a Storify on it a few days ago. In fact, anyone who wants to write Native characters ought to read that book. I highly recommend it.

In sum: I do not recommend Susan Currie's The Mask That Sang.

For further reading, see:

Haudenosaunee Confederacy's policy on false face masks, published in 1995 in Akwesasne Notes. 

Cayuga Museum Receives Replica Wampum Belt for Returning Haudenosaunee Spiritual Objects, published in 2013 at Indian Country Today. 

Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel, published in 2016 by Portage & Main Press.