As the back-cover copy reads, Song of the Loon tells the story of “a lusty gay frontier romance . . . of Ephraim MacIver, a nineteenth-century outdoorsman, and his travels through the American wilderness, where he meets a number of men who share with him stories, wisdom, and intimate encounters.” Song of the Loon remains a somewhat underread book. My own copy is yet to be read as deeply as I might wish because of a certain amount of discomfort that I feel as I read this book. I glossed over the discomforting narrative instead of reading it closely. The book is ostensibly queer, but its queerness is uncomfortable. Actually, I am uncomfortable with its racial politics, its colonialist and primitivist implications, and its eroticization of the Indigenous body. It is not that I doubt the veracity of an erotic Indigenous body, but that I am discomforted by how the Indigenous body is eroticized for the pleasure of the settler in the narrative and more than likely the settler-reader, to whom I want to pay some attention, along with the equally problematic settler-author.
The discomfort is perhaps prefigured by the opening words of the novel, which appear, in the reprint published by Arsenal Pulp Press, before the book has even begun. I quote this section in full:
The author wishes it clearly understood that he has, unfortunately, never known or heard of a single Indian even remotely resembling, for instance, Singing Heron or Tlasohkah or Bear-who-dreams. He has taken certain very European characters from the novels of Jorge de Montemayor and Gaspar Gil Polo, painted them a gay aesthetic red, and transplanted them to the American wilderness. Anyone who wishes to read other intentions into these characterizations is willfully misunderstanding the nature of the pastoral genre, and is fervently urged not to do so. The same might be said of those who love to point out anachronisms and factual improbabilities.
Having read this book a few years ago, set it aside, and now returned to it, I can see why it has discomforted me as a reader—and perhaps even why I have been reluctant to attend to what are arguably the most pressing issues in Canadian cultural studies. Looking back at this paragraph, I can see now why I have been so troubled. For one thing, the book starts out by telling me that it is not for me (after all, I probably am guilty of reading “other intentions” into it). As a reader, I think “That might well be what you think your book is doing, but let me show you what your text is actually doing.” To speak of an author’s intentions is about as accepted an intellectual enterprise as to speak about his biography to explain those intentions.
Amory tells his readers what he is doing before they have even read a single word of Song of the Loon. He is a paranoid author. He knows that readers might protest his treatment of the Indigenous body, but he explains that this is because of “the nature of the pastoral genre,” which the reader “willfully misunderstand[s]” if he or she chooses to focus on “a gay aesthetic” painted red. But is there another way to read this book? It eroticizes the Indigenous body explicitly for the pleasure and titillation of the settler-reader. The author is interested in whitewashing a historical narrative that might or might not have truth in history (it could have happened, I suppose) so as to enable a kind of erotic fiction that negates—or at least explains itself as doing so—the racial politics of this novel.
Amory, however, is not alone in this kind of whitewashing; literary critics, especially those writing in the popular press, do the same. They wilfully attempt to erase the problematic nature of this text, yet that nature can be very productive for us—as readers—to think about, especially when negotiating the nature of eroticism in colonized spaces. In his “Reflections on Song of the Loon at Forty,” Ian Mozdzen comments thus: “Sensuous noble savages that you encounter often offer revelry, wisdom, peace, even medicine-visions,” and Song of the Loon is a “charming, delightfully queer pastoral.” Maybe I am alone, but I am struck by how “pastoral” has become a code that (wilfully) obfuscates the complexity of settler and Indigenous relations. It is as if we are supposed to believe that, since the novel is pastoral, somehow it is excused of its racist implications. Mozdzen is not alone in privileging the pastoral genre; Ken Furtado explains that “The story itself is a pastoral, consciously patterned after a popular 16th century Spanish novel.” Not to be snide, but were the Spanish not involved in one of the largest colonial projects in human history during the sixteenth century?
Accordingly, then, how can we separate the historical realities of that moment from its literary production? That is, how do we separate the narrated history from the authorial history and vice versa? What does it mean to imagine historical fiction as existing between histories, that of the author and that of the literary creation? I am postmodern enough to think that the “political unconscious” is not just a product of postmodernism and so-called late capitalism. All texts reflect the social and political unconscious of their given time.
All of this says nothing, however, of the fact that, in reflecting on Song of the Loon, Mozdzen encourages his reader to:
How can we not recognize—even in all of its pastoral glory—the colonialist implications of this novel and its reception? How do we negate the fact that Mozdzen emphasizes and privileges, as is so often the case, the phallus “push[ing] outward”? Toward what is this lengthened penis pushing and swinging? Even though Song of the Loon might be cluttered with “ugly feelings,” the bulk of which are caused by the ugliness of the subject matter, the purple prose wishes to whitewash the redness of its colonial project.
This is an extract from the chapter “Spanking Colonialism” in Jonathan A. Allan’s Reading From Behind.