Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont (2011)

Looking for an indigenous book or author who makes you laugh instead of cry? Who is able to poke fun at herself, her family, and life on the Reserve while at the same time so obviously showing her love and pride for the same things? This book quickly wormed its way into my heart and onto my best-of list for the year.

I thought this book was going to be fictional, but it’s actually about Dawn Dumont’s life growing up on the Okanese First Nation; her parents, her siblings, her many relatives, and Bingo.

Dumont’s father is an alcoholic, and it wasn’t uncommon for her mother to gather up the kids in the night and leave. Then days or weeks later, there would be a knock at the door, hushed discussions in the kitchen and their father would be reinstated at the head of the table.

Mom was a new woman, an independent woman. And why shouldn’t she be? Times were a’ changing. It wasn’t the seventies anymore when women took shit. It was the eighties. Women didn’t need to stick around and get beaten by their husbands; they had choices. Hadn’t Mary Tyler Moore proven this? Sure Mary wasn’t a single mother burdened by the demands of looking after four children under the age of eleven, and true, she didn’t have to contend with racism, but the message was the same: women could do things on their own.

There were a lot of nostalgic moments for me reading this book, despite the fact that I grew up in different circumstances on almost opposite sides of a big country. But it was the seventies and eighties, a time of drawing floor maps of one’s future home, dangerous outdoor games, and wood-paneled station wagons.

We loved our orange and brown wood paneled station wagon. It wasn’t just a mode of transportation: it was a bedroom, kitchen and playground. As Mom drove over the highway, my siblings and I would hang backwards over the seats until the blood rushed into our heads. From this view the world rushed towards us upside down. Sadly, like most fun things, if you did it too long, you’d end up throwing up.

Like so many of us, but unlike most of her siblings and cousins, Dawn Dumont loved to read. (“They pronounced the word “read” in the same pitying tone you might describe someone with a metal brace on her leg.”)

If the Mormon lady had handed me a copy of Satan’s Bible I would have read it. If she had pressed a copy of Mein Kampf in my hands, I would have given it a go. For me, the real reward was a book to distract myself from our ever-changing landscape. No matter where we went or how we got there, I wanted to know that I could depend on a book to centre myself. Books were my cigarettes.

A few significant things about our lives differed… one being that I didn’t grow up faced with racism and discrimination.

The Nehewin’s travelling habits were curtailed when the buffalo population, once an ocean of brown on the plains, withered to a few hundred. The Canadian government stepped in and created protected reserves for the buffalo where they now grow fat but remain wild. Then they created reserves for the native people where they grew also fat and remain a little wild.

I was instantly envious of the Bill C-31s. These girls had all the rights of Indians and because they tended to be lighter, they faced less of the racism; it was the perfect deal.

When Dawn Dumont was growing up, her hero was Conan the Barbarian. Part of the reason she (and her friends) loved Conan was because “we believed he was Native”.

The story of Conan mirrored the story of native people. Conan was a descendent of the Cimmerians, a noble warrior people who made swords yet lived peaceably. They were attacked and annihilated by an imperial army who murdered the men and women and enslaved the children. Conan… was the last of his kind.  /   This was exactly like our lives! Well, except for the last of our kind business. We were very much alive and well even though others had made a concerted effort to kill us off…. In Saskatchewan, most non-Native people were very much aware that nearly a million Native people still existed, mainly to annoy them and steal their tax dollars.  /   But someone had tried to annihilate us and that was not something you got over quickly. It was too painful to look at it and accept; it was easier to examine attempted genocide indirectly. We could read about the Cimmerians and feel their pain; we could not acknowledge our own.

Another way in which the author and I differ… my mother would never have set foot in a Bingo Hall. Dumont’s mother went to Bingo every night, along with a carload of adult relatives. One of my favourite chapters of the book is the one in which Dawn’s mother takes her along to Bingo “as a reward for being a good girl“. There she gets to witness the intense competition and the nonsensical belief that anyone had any control over who wins and who doesn’t. And it’s here we get the title  for the book when Dawn starts crying over her deep desire for a bag a Cheezies, and her Aunt responds… “You’re not supposed to cry at Bingo. That big man over there will come and steal you.”

After surviving all things adolescent – awkward parties, warm beer, and frizzy hair – Dawn Dumont eventually makes it to Law School (“University was my Mecca...”). While still attending she is called on to help out when her youngest sister, Pammy, gets herself accused of witchcraft. Unlike Dawn, Pammy  “immersed herself in rez culture: the accent, the clothes, the obsession with American rap and hip-hop. And she did so without one iota of shame. Because I had tried to hide everything that connected me to the reserve, I was in awe of her choice to do the opposite.

Now, Dawn Dumont is a stand-up comedian, actor, writer, TV host, speaker, and activist. In this interview with Room, she describes her writing…

Mostly I’m trying to recreate a place that is often limited in portrayals. As a humourist, I’m going to find the funny stuff but I hope people are also seeing enough of the challenging reality of that world. I’m also hoping that they see the truth and beauty of it.

On being an activist…

I read once that to be born Indigenous is to be born an activist – just the state of being and existing is a form of resistance to oppression. It’s unfair pressure to put on people, but as an artist I can transform that injustice into something larger than myself. Being an artist and an activist is basically being an optimist.

And for Jane Austen fans, her discovery that Austen set us up for disappointment…

Before Sedaris, I was in love with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. The heroine is a pretty girl but not the prettiest and her greatest quality is her wit – c’mon what bookish girl couldn’t identify with Elizabeth Bennett? Unfortunately Austen set us up for a lifetime of disappointment – as it turns out, a great many men prefer big tits to being told off by women with intelligent eyes.

Dawn Dumont has a new book out this year called Glass Beads, as well as one from 2014 called Rose’s Run. I’m looking forward to reading them both!

 

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33 thoughts on “Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont (2011)

  1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    Glad you enjoyed the book. It is nice to know that this read is very close to your heart and evoked many nostalgic memories even though there are many dissimilarities between your life and the book.
    PS : I like that the book mentions Austen.

  2. annelogan17 says:

    I read roses run and really liked it, I’m pretty sure I did a review of it on my blog a few years ago. I love her writing, and I recommend it to people who are looking to read more indigenous writers, it’s so accessible! Great review as always 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve had my eye on Rose’s Run for a long time now, but somehow suddenly decided to pick this one up. I think I’m glad I got to read about the author’s life before reading her fiction.
      I agree… she’s a great author to recommend to just about anyone!

  3. madamebibilophile says:

    This sounds wonderful Naomi! I just looked to see if I could get it in the UK & wasn’t holding out much hope, but its available here – I’m off now to spend money… 😉

  4. The Cue Card says:

    The author sounds like a strong person, who knows herself and likes to laugh too. I just heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview podcast of Sherman Alexie this morning and he also has a memoir out, maybe slightly similar, that I want to read. Good to know about Dawn Dumont.

    • Naomi says:

      I think she’s an amazing role model – I’d love to hear her speak.
      Thanks for letting me know about Sherman Alexie’s memoir!

  5. AvalinahsBooks says:

    Wow. This falls pretty much under Interest Category #1!! Putting it on my TBR right now. How many books even are there about stuff like this? They’re so tough to find. Thanks for blogging about this one. Although I wonder if it will be kind of obscure and harder to find? I’ll go have a look anyway.

  6. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    This sounds awesome! I love the humor in the selections you shared. I totally empathized with the “Books are my cigarettes” thing. That’s pretty much how I feel about them now. I “depend on them to center myself” as well.

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    This boo sounds excellent. I think I’ve told you before that I grew up on reservation, but am not Ojibwe. Things changed so greatly when a casino was opened and then expanded. The poverty, drugs, culture, violence, clothing, attitudes….it’s ALL at full-tilt. Nothing seems half-way on the reservation I come from.

    • Naomi says:

      Because it was told from ‘young Dawn’s’ perspective, the book is mostly focused on her family and other kids around her. This probably cuts down on some of the hard-core stuff that might have been going on in the adult world. I liked hearing about it all from a girl’s point of view, rather than an adult. Considering your background, I think you’d like this book. I’d love to hear how her experiences compare with yours!

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I’ll bet there would be similarities, but I still have an outsider’s experiences. Louise Erdrich’s and Leslie Marmon Silko’s experiences would be great reads. I’ve read short non-fiction stories by both.

  8. buriedinprint says:

    I thought this was ficiton too. Or is it still actually marketed that way, but is rooted in her own experiences? Just today I came across an interesting Mavis Gallant quote about how writers’ books and their lives are like houses and their gardens, related and even connected but not the same thing exactly! This one has been on my TBR for ages and now I’m feeling exceptionally sorry about that. Also, on the topic of funny indigenous writers, of course Thomas King, but I’m just giggling my way through Eden Robinson’s latest too: so so so so funny. I want to write down so many lines!

    • Naomi says:

      Oh good, I’m happy to hear Eden Robinson’s is funny! I have it in my pile – just haven’t read it yet.
      And, yes, Thomas King always makes me smile. 🙂

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