Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Biting Truth of Satire

Like in Hau’ofa’s Tales of the Tikongs, Thomas King’s short story “Borders” makes use of humor and satire to disorient and unsettle the reader. In Tales of the Tikongs, Hau’ofa satirizes both native and Western institutions and practices: his use of purposely generic titles like “Development,” “Very Important Person,” and “Appropriate Authorities” add a complex type of humor to his work. While they amuse the reader, they are also unsettling; they communicate a disconnect between traditional conceptions of peoples and places the truth – that are startlingly inaccurate and may be responsible for much harm. At the same time Hau’ofa’s satire separates truth and half-truth, it is also able to unify: the humorous portrayal of the native’s bodies is a strong reminder of the universal humanity in which we all share.
Thomas King uses humor and satire to have a similar effect in “Borders.” His satire of the bureaucratic border security system is both comical and at the same time darkly critical. The humor comes from the narrator’s mother’s constant response to the question of their citizenship: as she says numerous times, they identify themselves as “Blackfoot.” The officials know that they may be American or Canadian and that the distinction is essentially unimportant, but for political reasons cannot accept that answer. There is a darker lesson, here, however: the border security agents are content to let a native woman and her child become stranded between the two countries for several days. There is even some hint of intimidation: the narrator bothers to notice the security guard’s gun and that it looks used or at least worn (138). There is no impending sense of resolution until the arrival of a news crew. The message seems to be that humans regularly stereotype and act on those stereotypes but quickly become embarrassed when they are brought to light. This parallels the purpose of satire.
Along with individuals, King also satirizes the significance of geographic location. Laetitia successfully builds up the narrator’s hope that Salt Lake City, Utah, was an exciting and different place from home simply by trying to emphasize its difference. When the family finally visits, however, the narrator discovers that it isn’t so different from home: “After a week or so I wasn’t at all bored and wasn’t at all sad when mother said we should be heading home” (146). Their home town had everything Salt Lake had, just the narrator’s mother had remarked. Crossing the border hadn’t made a difference in the quality of their lives at all because there wasn’t a significant difference between the two locations. The border appears almost meaningless from this perspective except to enforce inaccurate conceptions of identity.

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