Reading Group report for Walking the Clouds

[Image: Cover art of Walking the Clouds by Elizabeth Lameman and is entitled Above the Clouds. Image is of a figure standing on orange dunes near to a long, brown canoe against a sandy yellow backdrop next to the words "An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace Dillon.]
[Image: Cover art of Walking the Clouds by Elizabeth Lameman and is entitled Above the Clouds. Image is of a figure standing on orange dunes near to a long, brown canoe against a sandy yellow backdrop next to the words “An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace Dillon.]

On the evening of Monday 1st of June, we met for a reading group session focussing on Walking the Clouds (2012), an anthology of Indigenous science fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon (Anishinaabe). For the third month in a row we met online on Zoom, rather than our accustomed room at Birkbeck.

We picked out four texts for particular attention: ‘Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters’ by Diane Glancy (Cherokee), in which an Indigenous woman, Aunt Parnetta, is haunted by a new fridge; ‘Men on the Moon’ by Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), relates the experience of an Indigenous grandfather watching the Apollo Moon landing; ‘When the World is All on Fire’ by William Sanders, follows an Indigenous police officer’s interaction with white migrants during a near future world of intensifying ecological catastrophe; and an excerpt from The Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), which follows the proceedings of an Indigenous healers international conference. We also suggested that participants read Dillon’s excellent introduction ‘Imagining Indigenous Futurisms.’ Our especial thanks go to our co-directors Katie Stone and Rachel Hill for their recommendations of texts to read from the anthology.

We began the session by framing our discussion within the ongoing protests in the US against the murder of George Floyd, a man of African American descent, by white police officers. We wanted to stress our solidarity with the protesters in America in their fight against the continuing structural and physical racism of both the white supremacist state and law enforcement.

The protests in the US should not, however, blind us to the racist policing in the UK; it should instead open our eyes to the possibilities for resistance. People of colour in Britain are disproportionately harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and murdered by both the police and border agencies. Racialised borders are everywhere violently imposed, both internally by policing, prisons, and detention centres, and externally at the physical borders of the nation. Finally, as has been seen in so many cases in the US and the UK, historically and in our present moment, the result has been the policing of the border between those who live and those who die, or what Achille Mbembe has termed Necropolitics. It seems trite to remark on the importance of our year’s theme of the violence of borders in the face of such overwhelming racism. We hope, though, that our group can in some way contribute to highlighting the violence of racism and colonialism, both through our discussions and events, and through solidarity and support for those currently engaged in the struggle for change.

After a heavy start we began our discussion with ‘Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters’ before moving on to each of the four texts in turn. Below is a partial summary of some of the themes that were touched upon during the session. Unfortunately I had to leave the session early, meaning that I missed the discussions of some of the stories.

Science/Knowledge

Much of the discussion of the different texts centred around the challenge of Indigenous knowledge practices to the notion of Western techno-science. Grace Dillon suggests in the introduction that Indigenous science fiction in no way rejects science, but fundamentally asks us to rethink its boundaries.

Technology in ‘Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters’ is associated with the imposition of white science upon the lives of Indigenous people. The salesperson who sells Parnetta the troublesome fridge is symbolically referred to as Custer, the infamous U.S. general defeated by the combined force of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (known as the Battle of Greasy Grass by the Lakota peoples) in 1876. White technology and economic systems are foregrounded as infiltrating and controlling Indigenous lives.

In ‘Men on the Moon’ the grandfather figure challenges the aims of Western techno-science, by questioning the need to go to the moon to find knowledge. It was pointed out that this is in keeping with Indigenous knowledge practices which are tied to land commons and life systems. This resistance to the image of heroic white astronauts was linked to Gil Scott-Heron’s poem/track ‘Whitey on the Moon’ (1970).

Domestic Space

It was noted that the boundary between the domestic and non-domestic space was porous in these stories, challenging the Western division of interior and exterior, the artificial and the natural.

In ‘Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters’, for example, the fridge is seen as redundant during the winter months as food can be kept in the snow outside, while Parnetta’s sleeping arrangements change between her bedroom in her house and tent outside. The continuous space of the domestic in the story was contrasted interestingly with ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, by Pamela Zoline (1967). In Zoline’s story the domestic is a sealed container, both excluding and representing a microcosm of the outside world. In Glancy’s story, the domestic is a part of the world as much as the world enters the domestic.

In ‘Men on the Moon’, the grandfather is not isolated within his home, passively receiving images of the outside on his new TV, but moves between interior and exterior, between the domestic space and surrounding nature. He is therefore able to connect with the Moon as a part of his world, a time-keeping device, and light with which to see, rather than as an abstract idea or set of images.

Time

The concept of time, it was suggested, was notably different to the sequential  chronology of Western perception. Rather there is non-hierarchy of moments, past, present, and future flowing into each other.

The appearance of Custer in ‘Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters’, shows the power of past events and trauma seeping into the present, while the futurity and hype of the Moon Landings is absorbed into the everyday events of the moment in ‘Men on the Moon.’

Estrangement

Science fictional thinking was recognised in a number of the stories, specifically the attribute of estrangement of the everyday that sits at the heart of the genre. However, rather than some futuristic object making the everyday seem strange, it was more often than not, an Indegenous perspective that made us see the familiar in new ways.

For instance, in ‘Men on the Moon’ it is the very domestic object of the Television that is estranged by the narrative view point of the Indigenous grandfather, to whom the object is strange. Similarly, in ‘Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters’, the familiar fridge is freighted with an overdetermined set of meanings by Parnetta. At once the fridge symbolises white technology, white death, a wild boar representing nature, Parnetta’s body, and finally her soul as she comes to terms with the Great Spirit.

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