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A Fight Over the 1800s in Kid Lit (Remember to Write For Native Kids & Teens)-- by Alexis, 19

To write about Native nations or tribes or not? That is the question.



If you are a non-Native author writing a US historical novel for kids or teens, there are several challenges. One is that Indigenous people have lived/are living in places you describe and called/call them home. (Notice I'm assuming that you're not writing a Native MC. Unless you are Debbie Dahl Edwardson writing MY NAME IS NOT EASY (and you're not) don't try it.) If you don't acknowledge this basic fact in our colliding, brutal histories, you are practicing erasure and will be called out for it. If you do acknowledge it, you most likely will be criticized for not getting everything right.

                                                               Great book!

That's normal--we exist in a White supremacist American society with deep rooted prejudices and stereotypes that run in every direction. We have to dig deep to pull them up. Many of us are doing this work, but we still get it wrong. I've documented some of my mistakes. Some of my fav Native authors have practiced erasure and written material that's cringe. Listening and promising to do better, instead of half-reading and angrily reacting and getting your friends to gaslight us, is the way to go.

                 The first edition of this book did not include Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer folx--Ms. Debbie and Ms. Jean listened and responded to us as equals

Like Laura JimĂ©nez said, we don't get everything 100% correct--but that should apply to outsiders writing about our marginalizations, not just us writing about them. No more *only* calling out The White Women for the same things we've been doing (see: above gaslighting). WW/femmes like Ann Clare Le Zotte, Alex Gino, K.T. Horning, Allie Jane Bruce, Sarah Hamburg and others are some of our biggest supporters. And no more ranking kinds of oppression when intersectionality exists in all our families.

                                        I learned a lot about reviewing from K.T.'s book

The LHOP (1870-1894) series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is still hugely popular. I work in a library. The books and DVDs circulate all. the. time. People like me who see no value in the work, who view it only as hateful, lying propaganda (Mom: "An anti-New Dealer would be a pro-Trumper") are enemies to many. The Black & Indigenous women scholars and writers we most admire have been publicly attacked by washed up actors and other hysterics. The Greta Gerwig adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN has created nostalgia and great love for that book written in 1868-9 and which takes place in the 1860s. I haven't read it and probably won't because I have so many books on my TBR and don't want to be infuriated by White prejudices of the time.


That "of the time" doesn't mean much to me, because the time of White supremacy is since First Contact rather than the past few decades or centuries, which seems to be how many people measure it. It also means that people in the future looking back at this time will justify some a-hole's hateful talk against transgender people because he was "of his time." Think about it.

                                                    Fact: Columbus was not First Contact!

Own Voices or Marginalized People are Starting to Write Their Own Histories

Some Native people are finally getting to tell our own histories, like Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh) & Jean Mendoza's AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE US FOR YOUNG READERS and Seminole Kevin Maillard's FRY BREAD and Christine Day's (Upper Skagit) I CAN MAKE THIS PROMISE. All award-winners. :-)


And Cherokee Andrea L. Rogers' MARY AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS: A CHEROKEE REMOVAL SURVIVAL STORY. That book takes place in 1838 and it's so good it bursts out of the GIRLS SURVIVE series that it's a part of. That book, like Louise Erdrich's (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) amazing BIRCHBARK HOUSE book series which takes place beginning in 1847, and Choctaw Tim Tingle's HOW I BECAME A GHOST and WHEN A GHOST TALKS, LISTEN, should be taught is schools and enjoyed at home.


But What About Other Marginalized Authors Who Write Stories in the 1800s and Have the Determination and Courage to Include Native Content?

Deaf author Ann Clare LeZotte's MG novel SHOW ME A SIGN takes place on Noepe or Martha's Vineyard in 1805. Though the majority of the book is about Deaf community, history and language, LeZotte addresses the White settlers' racism and the marriage of Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) women and freedmen, and the struggle for land rights that resonates today. LeZotte's strengths (besides the truly exceptional Deaf content) is in creating a loving Wampanoag family in the background. Their situation is bad, but they're not only in pain. The daughter Sally is brave, resourceful and even shares a dad joke and poop joke. The author *sometimes* writes awkwardly as an outsider. The book is *not totally free* from stereotypes. Some may nitpick it. We nitpicked it. But the author is definitely aware that her audience includes Native kids and families.

                                   Ms. Ann with Vi in Sensory Storytime a few years back

This is a *key* point to Indigo's Bookshelf. It's a make or break it.  If we sniff out that you are writing Native content to impress adult Native critics or much worse to educate White kids with the small amount you've learned about us--and it is a small amount even if you worked with sensitivity readers from the nation or tribe you're writing about (you need to do this) and you actually know and have earned the trust of your local Native nations and tribes. I don't believe there's some special magical writers' imagination that can transport you into completely understanding what it's like to be us. Many people say great lit comes from writing someone else's nation/ethnicity/culture. But Walter Dean Myers didn't write IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE and Eric Gansworth didn't write MONSTER. There are a million examples that disprove that.

                                               We really need to do a Gansworth blog!

SMAS shares a book birthday (3.10.20) with Linda Sue Park's PRAIRIE LOTUS. My mom read Park's books to me before I could read them. Park writes on her Twitter: I write to learn. I write to reach out to others. I write because words have power, and the written word has power that endures. That's something I also believe! I was so excited when I heard that Park was writing a book about "a half-Chinese girl" born in San Francisco and travelling in Dakota Territory in 1880 that was an answer to her childhood obsession with LHOP. I became a bit nervous when I saw that the book would contain references to LHOP. I thought, how will that work?

                                                    A cover that draws you in

PL is beautifully written. "Rain had rinsed the gray and beige plains, leaving behind a translucence of green that was growing denser every day." MC Hanna is immediately likable. Her interest in dressmaking is something that boys and girls will like. Her complicated relationship with her White father is painfully relatable. Her memories of her mother are heart-wrenching. ("To Mama, the fact that Hanna was half-Chinese had been the most beautiful thing in the world.") The details of Sioux life explained to young readers, like "They were not allowed to leave their land without special permission from the reservation's Indian agent," are accurate and fit in well.


[I'm writing this blog and review because the under-eighteens decided they wanted a break from public criticism--so come at me! However, several of us read and discussed PL and I was influenced by their excellent observations.]

From Park's back matter:
Had the white population in Dakota territory been interested, they could have learned that Wichapiwin and her companions were members of the Ihanktonwan tribe, Dakota speakers of the Oceti Sakowin Nation.
In Chapter 1, we are introduced to Wichapiwin and her companions. They (adult women and girls) are wrapped in faded blankets and none of them are given individual personalities or names. (Wichapiwin is named in Chapter 16.) They speak Lakota, which is written on the page without English translation. Park explains her reasons for doing this in the back matter--to honor Indigenous languages. But I can't connect with them and making it a puzzle for Hanna to figure out what the group wants centers her perceptions and abilities. (Spolier: Her appeal on their behalf to Mr. Harris is a bit savior.)

It's 1880 not 1692--the Sioux have been exposed to French, English, maybe other languages. Natives had to be quickly adaptable to survive. In Rogers' MARY AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS, one Cherokee sister knows English. In SHOW ME A SIGN, the Aquinnah Wampanoag are fluent in their White employers' Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL).


A Sisseton-Wahpeton Lake Traverse judge advised Park to have the group point with their pursed lips rather than an index finger. That may be accurate, but it falls into a common kid lit stereotype. See: AICL and wise grandfathers pointing with their chins. I'm afraid this and subsequent interactions in PL, which were well-meaning and researched, are frustrating and embarrassing to me. Who was it written for? Can Native children find pride in this representation? That's what I'm looking at and asking others to think about no matter what their backgrounds.

I'm not interested in cancelling PRAIRIE LOTUS or Linda Sue Park. Others will write their own reviews. There's a lot to admire in the book. Anyone who is retelling history from a marginalized Own Voices POV and can write like this is worth listening to. In fact, this is more relatable to me (though not about me) than the Native content.

Sometimes it seemed to her that white people were obsessed with her eyes. She couldn't even count the number of times something like this had happened. Children pulling at the corners of their own eyes to mock her. Children, even adults, calling out 'Slanty eyes!" "Slitty eyes!" "Chinaman eyes!"

Then there were those like Dolly, perhaps not meaning to be unkind, but still unthinking. Cruelty was painful. Thoughtlessness was merely exhausting.

Of course, the problem isn't that Park doesn't like or respect Indigenous people. The issue is that she's still stanning LHOP, a White colonizer classic, and putting material in PL for diehard LHOP fans. She states her intention directly. Park seems to be searching for a middle ground that doesn't exist. Mom: "It's like the bargaining stage of grief." She talks about Pa's blackface in the back matter and then has a cringe quote from Wilder about treating a Black man like a human being. Those aren't her terms to negotiate. I fear this is backsliding on hard-won, important progress that was made in recent years. It will be a relief to many, but ultimately I can't support it.

***Read/reread Debbie Reese's comprehensive #changethename blog. And Edith Campbell's "Little House, Big Mess."




Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this review and allowing me to think further about Prairie Lotus. I am wondering if I could discuss the Global Read Aloud selection of it with you? I had not read your review until after I had announced the selection but would love to run some ideas by you if you would be willing to discuss as I try to wrap my own head around the book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hiya! I'm Chodie, I've been a lurker on this blog since around beginning of January. I'm a Filipino-American who also lives in the settler colony of Florida :P You guys are really cool, and I'm glad to be following this blog.

    Thank you for writing this review. As an Asian American who also grew up loving LHOP and is now going WTF (at the series, the author, and my parents and teachers who treat this book as Great Lit), I'm more than a little wary seeing that Linda Sue Park is such a fan. More so with your review of Native rep in the book and the weird back matter stuff. Bargaining stage of grief indeed. I feel like uncritically stanning the series definitely contributed to the problem.

    You made a great point in pointing out, like, who is this written for, and can Native kids see themselves and feel pride in this representation? That's something I've gotta remember -- I'm a writer, and I've got several Native characters in my projects. As someone who grew up never being represented, it's important to me that the Filipino characters I write reflect my and other Fil-Ams' experiences *and* are relatable, fully fleshed-out characters that you actually like! And sometimes I forget that I should be in that mindset when writing other POC. Accuracy and relatability go hand in hand. Without both, it's crappy rep. I'm sorry that the Native content in Prairie Lotus was frustrating and embarrassing, that really sucks.

    Anyways, thanks for this. You brought up so many good points. I'm hoping to read Prairie Lotus soon and I'm definitely gonna check this review again to compare notes once I finish.

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