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ZIGGY, STARDUST & ME, by James Brandon--a review by Charlie, 17

This blog is for Indigo--thanks for mentoring me like a little bro. Miss you like a million--

I've done some hard reviews/essays. This may be the hardest. I'm not coming from a place of "I'm a critic and I want to cut this author." I'm not settling a score and I don't want to be unfair or hurt anyone. I'm being true to my just turned 17-Black Seminole-African American-pansexual-2SQ/Indigiqueer self. And others like me. That's all I can do.

My librarian texted me this article about ZIGGY, STARDUST AND ME author James Brandon and put the physical copy and eBook on hold for me. She wrote: "I am spotting some issues. You will see more. Read when you're ready, if at all." That was a good warning. But I am so hungry for Two-spirit relationship content in YA, I didn't take a minute.


When I picked up the book at the library, the first thing I did was read the back matter. Those are the author's notes at the back of the book. I never read back matter until I started writing for IB. There were some things there that confirmed the fears I had after reading the SLJ interview. First of all, here's a description of the story from SLJ.
It’s 1973. Soul Train and the Watergate hearings play on TV, the Vietnam War continues, and in a small Midwestern town, 16-year-old Jonathan Collins is undergoing painful electric shock treatment as conversion therapy for homosexuality, which is considered a mental illness. He finds comfort in music—Roberta Flack, Pink Floyd, and especially David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, who becomes an imagined mentor. He also finds Web, a Lakota boy who expands his world and shows him that who you love isn’t a sickness.
Some may think I'm paranoid for being nervous about such a direct description. But here's the part that rubbed me: "Web, a Lakota boy who expands his world and shows him that who you love isn't a sickness." Again, you may wonder why that made me hit the brakes. Here's the answer: it planted a worry in my mind that the character was a teacher, guide and healer for a white boy that's been messed up by his own culture. These are stereotypes, and stories like that usually benefit the white character much more than the Native one.

There is an echo of this in Brandon's back matter.
I attended my first Two-Spirit Powwow with Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) in 2015, and my life changed. I laughed, I cried, I humbly witnessed Native people and their allies coming together in harmony, peace and love....I felt a spiritual connection to being a gay man for one of the first times in my life.
                              White people reaching for "Native American spirituality"

I knew that I had to read the whole book--not putting aside my concerns or identity, but keeping an open mind. I wanted to dig deep and see what I found.

Jonathan is immediately a sympathetic character. He has asthma. He is told and believes he is sick because he is gay. In truth, the sickness of conversation therapy, the Vietnam War and other issues the book presents are a result of a settler colonizer's POV that anyone different is wrong and destruction is the answer. It isn't surprising that Jonathan who is brutalized by his fellow white men at home and in school identifies with white British icon David Bowie and his gender fluid, non-earthling character Ziggy Stardust.

                                                           "Like a leper Messiah..."

It also isn't surprising that Jonathan seeks out teens with other marginalizations for friendship. Like his best friend Starla. I like Starla, who watches Soul Train with Jonathan and marches in protests. She's not a great best girl friend, like Flo in Kacen Callender's THIS IS KIND OF AN EPIC LOVE STORY, but she has her moments--especially near the end. There are some issues with Starla. Jonathan says she "defies any gender stereotype," but that isn't really shown. When she and Web meet he asks: "You black or somethin'?" She replies: "Yeah...Dad is. Momma's white."

Whoa! Back up a bit. In my experience, this isn't how Native and Black people talk when they meet today--and I doubt it was in 1973 either. Starla most likely identifies as Black. The need for her to point out she's biracial is a clarification white folks need. She's a big time women's activist--without any awareness of the deep racism and all-white mainstream leadership of 1970s feminism. How can that be?

                                                         Where are the BIWOC?

Starla explains the Occupation of Wounded Knee to Jonathan ("Here's the skinny...") because he is totally unaware of anything going on outside his own life. Or, as the Kirkus review states:
Web... and Starla do all the heavy lifting when it comes to educating Jonathan about contemporary social justice movements that he, focused inward on his traumatic home life and own identity crisis, has remained ignorant of.
Who is Web? He's a seventeen year old Oglala Lakota teen who has suddenly left his home on Pine Ridge Reservation, traveling with some male members of his family to Missouri. He lives outside of Jonathan's flash suburb, among the nasty rednecks in a run down shack on stilts. He is described in sensual terms--his white tank top and tight blue jeans. His flowing black hair, which he sometimes wears in braids. He has "golden skin" and "thick lips." He's close to nature: "He smells like a boy who's been playing outside all day." He is likable and strong-minded and the reader wants to know more about him.

He can be funny and salty and really come to life. Like this scene in Chapter 13:

Web: "The lake. It's the shape of a broken heart."

Jonathan: "Really?" I sit up on my knees to see.

"Yeah. Some American Indian chick jumped over this cliff because of some white man--of course-breaking her heart."

"For real?"

"It caused a split in the lake."

"Where?" I'm looking but cannot see.

...

He holds my arm, points it at this barely visible crack in the middle, a darker shade of blue that curves to the edge of infinity.

"There," he whispers in my ear.

"Oh...I...see it...wow."

"They say this waterfall only appears when she's crying, her ghost jumping off the cliff, over and over in this kind of never-ending anguish."

His voice prickles my skin. "Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"How do you know this?"

"We American Indians love your legends." He falls back on the grass laughing.

Brandon has a critical eye on white culture and a sense of fun. He creates poppin' rapport between the two MCs. I breeze on this kind of passage in the book. Here's another:
...you know all those old pictures you see in your history books of Natives in headdresses riding horses and fighting the cavalry, or hunting buffalo on the Plains or whatever?...man, don't go asking me to do some crazy war-whooping, magical Indian crap for you.
 
                                                                     Lakota men

So maybe I was wrong about Web being a spiritual guide for Jonathan, right? Maybe the book won't do the characters too bad, even though there are little speed bumps early on. Like Web telling Jonathan: "You hair's so blond, man. Almost white." [Can we skip that for a long, long time?] And Web being impressed by the self-help trash in the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. [My dad said: Someone dug out that book?] Maybe (I hope) he's just pretending to think it's true because Jonathan does. And maybe Jonathan thinks it's cool because (unlike Web) he doesn't have any belief system in his family and life, aside from his fantasies about Ziggy Stardust.


Web sometimes echoes that phony stuff. "The Great Mystery. Happens when you face your fears. You were cracked open, man. It's a beautiful thing." Again--someone may ask what's wrong with this. That person wouldn't realize that the Lakota have complex, specific beliefs and values. And someone who recently witnessed a major political uprising is unlikely to be so foolish. But the novel still had me in its grip.

                                                      Dennis Banks and another AIM leader

Even with those dreaded scenes of Jonathan's shock therapy. I know Brandon must have considered this, but there were times when I wondered what teens those scenes were written for. The information we don't get is what IT is--the event that led to Jonathan's horrifying conversion "therapy" and the disgrace of his father and alienation from everyone at school.



Unfortunately, when the explanations start coming, things begin to go wrong. Very wrong, in some cases. Web has a great line: "No offense. But white people never get what's coming to them. Not ever." I thought Jonathan was absorbing this stuff and we wouldn't have to watch him make a horrible mistake concerning Web. That was optimistic. When the stupid crackers, "the Apes," first run into Jonathan and Web together, they brick a lot of ugly words at them.


The book contains the following slurs for Web: "redskin," "injun," "Chief Sissy Spirit," "faggot squaw," and others. Anyone interested in reading this book will probably know those are not good things to say, but I wish some of them were unpacked, like "squaw," because most white readers will probably not know why that's a bad word even without the "faggot" part. Brandon writes the Oglala Lakota Nation--good! But when the "Asshole Ape Brigade" say: "This is our land," there is no discussion of land rights. No discussion of Native nations and tribes in Missouri. Jonathan's feelings for Web grow, but his understanding of Native issues don't develop. In a cringe-y moment Jonathan tells Web:
I hope one day we'll all see each other without these stupid labels and instead see each other for who we really are. Starfolk.
"Yeah," he says. "One day." What else can a Lakota teen say to his Bowie obsessed white bae? Of course, he wants to get rid of labels.

While Starla is a good character and Jonathan misses his mother and even has sympathy for his psychiatrist Dr. Evelyn, I found the descriptions of other female characters offensive. It's one thing when he describes his father's girlfriend as "skinnier than me, with a big bowl of hair dripping down her tiny head and too much makeup smeared on her pinched face." Jonathan can be srsly harsh in his assessment of people he doesn't like. But I was upset when he described Bernadette as "the Madam of Trailerville. She looks like a page from a coloring book that's been scribbled all over, crumpled up, and thrown in the corner trash can." Brah--not cool.

Still, I was rolling with the book. It's written well and reads quick. It tells truths about queer teens lives. All the way up to the point where Jonathan didn't pass the true love test. You know, like the Princess Bride? The Apes catch Jonathan and Web making out.



"I panic and push Web off. "Get off me, you queer!" explodes out of me. "You...you fairy. Get off of me" I yell this so loud, it causes another rip in the lake.

Web: "Jonathan?"

Me: "Just GO!"

This is 1973. Jonathan may be queer when doctors still believed it was a disease. His dad may be a drunk since his mom died. He is cruelly bullied in school. That's 4real bad stuff. But he's white.

Jonathan says, "I hate what I did. I hate what I am. The same thing that happened to me at the lake."

But...it DIDN'T. The other boy with him was white too.

Web and his family are in danger at every moment during the story--it's institutional. When Web's grandfather says to Jonathan, "You're the white boy," it wouldn't be cute in real life. Web is carrying the legacy of genocide in his family and community. He's running away from being arrested and incarcerated and who knows what in a racist, anti-Native system. (The resolution to that plot point is too easy and unbelievable.) The whole idea of Web feeling connected to Jonathan because he senses he's different ultimately doesn't ring true for me. It's Jonathan who needs Web and his uncle and grandfather. He needs to be embraced by a family of men who don't view his queerness as sickness. And that's where the whole Two-spirit thing comes in.

                                   Brandon doesn't name this or any other TSQ resource in the back matter

Why are there two YA books by white queer authors with Two-spirit characters that include queer conversion therapy? The other is Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is such an odd coincidence. I've been thinking a lot about why these books have these same elements.



I have an idea. But first a little about Two-spirit. Brandon writes in the back matter:
Although the layers of this are much more complicated, to put it simply here: "Two-Spirit" is used by some American Indians/First Nations peoples as an umbrella term for gender and sexual orientation variance. It was coined in the early nineties by a group of Indigenous community leaders as a counterpoint to colonial terminology, created as an addition, not a replacement, for Indigenous languages that already have a work for non-binary Native people.
That's a good working definition. Brandon goes on to say: "Two-Spirit peoples played a special role in their communities as healers, balancing the masculine and feminine sides." This is a common thing people say. And it may be how some 2S folx feel--I respect that--but for me this second statement contradicts the non-binary aspect of the first. In my generation, we often say 2SQ and we prefer to identify with who we are tribally rather than on a pan-Indian level. We don't always share those names. Or we create new words. Joshua Whitehead, an Oji-Cree storyteller from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, says:
I go by both two-spirit and Indigiqueer. One to pay homage to where I come from, from Winnipeg, being kind of the birthplace of two-spirit in 1990. But I also think of Indigiqueer as the forward moving momentum for two-spiritness
                                                            <3<3<3
                                                                  

"the forward moving momentum for two-spiritness"--Yasss!!!!

I believe one reason these white queer books about conversation therapy include Two-spirit characters is because the white characters (and maybe authors) need to assure themselves that long before the US, queerness was normalized in Indigenous nations. That makes them feel less alien and alone and sick. That doesn't make me angry--I'm sad.

When Web talks to Jonathan about Two-spirit stuff, it's a surprise. For most of the book he doesn't mention it, or present as 2SQ. Remember it was Starla who Jonathan said "defies any gender stereotype." To me, Jonathan and Web read like a cisgender gay male couple. If anything, it's Jonathan who identifies with "androgynous" Bowie, while Web has a stormy masc temper and fists. I appreciate Brandon stating that all Native people don't accept queer people. It's a struggle for many, like our heart Indigo. Brandon connects this rejection as a product of colonization.

Because, even with its faults, the book seems to understand this, it's a disappointment to stumble on this statement from Web's Uncle Russell:
White men are lost little boys, scared of what they don't understand. And if it scares the hell out of  'em, they gotta get rid of it
This is what we hear after school shootings and in defense of MAGA hats. It's not a true understanding--it's an excuse. And I don't believe it. Especially from a Lakota elder's mouth.

The group Brandon is a part of, BAAITS, has a long history. But Brandon should have spoken to Two-spirit/2SQ/Indigiqueer people outside his community (especially Lakota) and found professional sensitivity readers with a overview of contemporary YA Lit. He should have read authors like Whitehead. He should read Debbie Reese about promising to donate proceeds from a "diverse" book.
                                                                                                                                                                   I'm sure Brandon is welcome in his Bay Area community. But I'm confused by his statement in the back matter:
Two-Spirit peoples are the bedrock of the LGBTQ2+ community...and their healing roles as mediators, can ultimately bring us all together, whether you identify as queer or an ally
Two-spirit, 2SQ, Indigiqueer people have to heal within ourselves and with each other and reconcile with our families, friend, nations and tribes. For those like me who are lucky to be accepted, I look to support others. That's the priority. If an individual chooses a larger leadership role that brings outsiders into the circle, that's their personal choice. I'm tired of white people learning something about a marginalization and then seeking to define it and even centering themselves as allies.

                                                                 #noDAPL

I can't recommend this book. I have no problem in people reading and having their own reactions. It's being promoted in EW and all over the place. I hope they will also seek out work by queer Native authors. We need to see more and more Own Voices stories from a diversity of 2SQ/Indigiqueer creators. I'm okay with non-queer Native authors including 2SQ/Indigiqueer secondary characters if it's done right. Native kids and teens are so lacking that rep. Sometimes they're dying for it.



BIG Thanks to Dad and Mom for giving me lots of information and supporting this review while giving me critical feedback at every step. And to Ms. Ann who cleaned up my grammar and formatting while keeping my voice.



Alt text: 17 year old Black Native Indigiqueer with a mohawk short fade and white and grey shirt. School medal around my neck.








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