“Romantic” by Armand Garnet Ruffo

18Sep09

On Monday my best friend Tanya called me from Switzerland to tell me something distressing: her mom no longer thinks she’s Indian. Tanya wants to get married in Delhi next September to her fiancé Aris, who is ethnically Indian but was adopted by Swiss parents when he was a baby. Her mom is now opposed to this plan, telling Tanya that since she is marrying a (to her) non-Indian, for love and has lived with him before marriage, she is no longer Indian and therefore not entitled to a wedding in Delhi. What Tanya was calling to ask me was: what does it mean to be Indian? Is she still Indian, and therefore entitled to an Indian wedding, or not?

This is the context in which I gravitated to the poem “Romantic” by Armand Garnet Ruffo. Though it deals with the question of “Indian-ness” in a completely different sense, the issues of performativeness versus authenticity are similar. Ruffo’s poem asks the question: is romanticization okay?

The poem answers its own question indirectly. It describes romanticization as “part of the game”, “giv[ing] the public what it wants, it expects” “spread[ing] it on thick.” Romanticization is playing into the dominant culture’s expectations of what Native identity means, a kind of gaming or lying (“spreading it on thick”) that is clearly not okay. Though the poem concludes with the line “The point is/to get the message/across,/isn’t it?” we sense the irony behind this statement, not simply because of the “isn’t it?” question, but also because even at the end of the poem we don’t know for certain what “the message” is. The most likely possibility for the message of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel Last of the Mohicans is that the Mohican (or perhaps Mohegan, since Cooper confused the two) people are an extinct race. So if the purpose of romanticization is to get a message across, and the message is either lost or constitutes the premature acceptance of cultural eradication, then an “ends justify the means” argument fails here.

Romanticization is not okay because it reduces ethnicity to its most superficial aspects – “beads and braids” – and makes those aspects simply performative rather than ritualistic or spiritual or anything else. We feel that culture is more than performance and should not be reduced to that. But romanticization leaves us wondering what that deeper reality of culture is or, worse, tricks us into believing that we already understand it.

This raises the question of what culture is then – or, who is entitled to the rituals and signs, who makes them more than performances? Ruffo’s ambiguous reclamation of Archibald Belaney, the white man pretending to be part-Apache who is the speaker of the poem, as something more than an imposter problematizes the easiest answer – one’s family of origin – just as Aris’ existence has for Tanya’s mother. But Ruffo doesn’t suggest another easy answer in its place, as ultimately Belaney, bearing the message of cultural and environmental preservation, is both parable of the ills of romanticization, (the message is lost) and demonstration of the possibility of constructing a cultural identity (the message, perhaps, entitles?)

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