Identity Joyriding with the Trickster in Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles & Sweetgrass

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  • Maryann Henck
“A magician is an actor impersonating a magician.”
- Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin

In his numerous plays, short stories, essays, and novels, acclaimed Canadian/ Anishnawbe author Drew Hayden Taylor revels in toying with notions of identity construction, negotiation, and performance not only related to Natives and non-Natives but also to himself. In fact, those so-called fake identities in the form of imposters, con artists, and wannabes that populate his works can be viewed as recurring themes in the ongoing search for identity as well as authenticity. Initially, selecting a suitable character as my object of academic inquiry proved to be no easy task – until the trickster magically appeared. Or should I say reappeared?

In Taylor’s most recent novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass (2010), the author makes little effort to obscure the return of the once ubiquitous trickster, previously known as “chief troublemaker and champion of Canada’s Native people,” but now a mere shadow of his former self in a world no longer filled with magic. Instead of reviving the trickster of yore, Taylor offers us a contemporary take on that fabled “fake,” who appears out of the blue and literally as well as figuratively unleashes a storm upon Otter Lake, a sleepy reserve in Ontario where apparently nothing noteworthy ever happens. At least that’s what the author would have us think at the beginning of his tumultuous tale; however, nothing is ever as it seems. In fact, that Sleeping Beauty of a reserve is just waiting for a wake-up-kiss from none other than this mysterious stranger who makes his grand entrance – not as Prince Charming on a white horse – but as a beguiling blond-haired biker on a 1953 Indian Chief motorcycle. The ever-changing identities of this mystery man begin to unfold rapidly as he embarks on joyride upon joyride on and off the reserve, changing his name as well as his game to suit the situation. As a result, he means different things to different people. Is he a good friend or an erotic drifter? Is he a duplicitous con man or a long-awaited savior? Can he possess a multitude of identities and still be authentic?

In order to delve more deeply into these issues, Western society’s notions of truth and authenticity first need to be addressed. Secondly, the construction, negotiation, and performance of this “fake’s” multiple identities will be investigated from a psychological point-of-view, including an analysis of diverse aspects of imposture such as verbal mimicry and fluency, excessive expression of limited empathy as well a heightened sense of reality. Additionally, the con man’s use of choreographed performances and identity management in confidence games will be contrasted against the expectations and beliefs of his marks, i.e. the unwitting people with whom he interacts. Finally, I will assess to what extent the ambiguous archetype of the trickster – simultaneously a boundary crosser and boundary creator – could function as a go-between to offer new perspectives for delineating identity and redefining authenticity as well as to impart lessons about this very gray area in a dichotomy-focused society.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFake Identity? : The Impostor Narrative in North American Culture
EditorsCaroline Rosenthal, Stefanie Schäfer
Number of pages16
Place of PublicationFrankfurt
PublisherCampus Verlag
Publication date2014
ISBN (Print)978-3-593-50101-7, 3-593-50101-5
Publication statusPublished - 2014

    Research areas

  • North American Studies - Nordamerikastudien, North American Studies, Impostors, Trickster/Nanabush, Authenticity, Canadian literature, Identity Construction, Anishnawbe Cosmology, Erving Goffman, Helene Deutsch, Psychoanalytical Theory