‘Inventing Wampanoag, 1672’ by Ben Shattuck

Shattuck, Ben 2012

Inventing Wampanoag, 1672 by Ben Shattuck, 2012

The magic trick:

Using absurdist comedy in a story about the English pillage of Native American culture

Strange story, this. It’s a tragic topic, of course: the arrival of the English in America and the subsequent corruption and destruction of the native culture. Shattuck’s Native American narrator is at once totally innocent and very wise. Strange combination. And then there is the language thing. He narrates the story with advanced English even as he details the very beginnings of his native language. It’s all very funny, very odd and very sad. And that’s quite a trick on Shattuck’s part. 

The selection:

“What if,” she started, then drifted out, “No, never mind.”

“No,” I said, “come on, let’s hear it.”  I scooped a moon jelly out of the water and laid it on her shoulder.

“Gross. Well, it might be silly, but what if,” she continued, then stopped to pick the jelly from her shoulder and tried to throw it at me only to have it separate into tiny, glowing bits in her hand. “What if conjunct endings follow, say, the stem of the word in the animate intransitive? Like,” she rubbed the glowing jellyfish hand on my bare back, “‘neanhikqueog’ –  what he did to us. The subjunctive variant would be something like ‘ayeuqueagig’ – our adversaries. I don’t know. What do you think?”


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