Saturday, May 04, 2013

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block

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Years ago I started reading Weetzie Bat but put it down, in part, because of these passages in the first few pages of the first chapter (note: To write this post, I read an e-book that doesn't provide page numbers):
Sometimes she wore Levi's with white-suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress... 
'She' is Weetzie Bat. Her friend, Dirk, who has "chiseled" features compliments her outfit:
Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.
Weetzie replies:
"Thanks. I made it," she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. "I'm into Indians," she said. "They were here first and we treated them like shit." 

"Yeah," Dirk said, touching his Mohawk.
Weetzie Bat was published in 1989 and won several awards. Reading it today, what comes to mind is the hipster culture of the last few years and its appropriation of Native culture. While writing up this review, I did an image search of "Weetzie Bat." In the grid of images I got (using Google image search), the first image in the second row I got is this one:

The source for the photo is a Weetzie Bat blog post at an art blog, A Beautiful Party. Dated September 16, 2010, the post is about a screenplay of Weetzie Bat and the photo is of someone playing the part of Weetzie Bat. If I didn't know it was from Weetzie Bat, I would have thought "dang hipsters!" because I've seen a lot of photos of hipsters in headdresses, in feathered earrings, fringed clothing, or moccasins. Reading Weetzie Bat now, I wonder if it might have played a role in the 1990s emergence of hipsters and their appropriation of Native culture.

What, I wonder, was Block thinking about when she brought Native culture into her book? What did it mean to her or Weetzie Bat to say "I'm into Indians"?!

In my read of Weetzie Bat there is nothing to suggest that Block knew she was, in effect, having her characters embrace stereotypical "knowledge" about American Indians (what she does with Jamaican's gives me pause, too, but I'll stay on topic).

In the chapter titled "Jah-Love," Weetzie meets the guy who will be her boyfriend. His name is My Secret Agent Lover Man (quirky names are everywhere in the book). He makes films of her doing things, like "having a pow-wow." We aren't told what she was doing, so we don't know "having a pow-wow" means. That chapter closes with this:
And so Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Slinkster Dog and Fifi's canaries lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.
Duck is Dirk's boyfriend. Slinkster Dog is Weetzie's dog. "Jah-Love" is, I think, short for Jamaica love but I don't know what to make of it beyond that. There are, of course, blonde Indians, but the ones in Weetzie Bat are playing Indian--and doing it in stereotypical ways.

Early in the chapter "Weetzie Wants a Baby," Weetzie, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck, have finished their third film. It is called Coyote. In it, Weetzie is
a rancher's daughter who falls in love with a young Indian named Coyote and ends up helping him defend his land against her father and the rest of the town. They had filmed Coyote on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Weetzie grew her hair out, and she wore Levi's and snaky cowboy boots and turquoise. Dirt and Duck played her angry brothers...
It is no surprise that the film makes some money for them. In the story--as in real life--white people defending and rescuing Indians from whites is a sure-fire hit.

Weetzie, as the chapter title tells us, wants a baby. My Secret Agent Lover Man isn't at all interested in having a baby. He thinks the world is too messed up to bring a child into. While he's away for a few weeks, Weetzie, Dirk, and Duck decide they want a baby together. They climb into bed together and Weetzie ends up pregnant. My Secret Agent Lover Man returns, isn't happy with her decision to get pregnant, and leaves. When the baby is born, Weetzie, Dirt, and Duck decide to name the baby "Cherokee." There's no explanation for why they choose Cherokee. All we know is that they considered these names: Sweet, Fifi, Duckling, Hamachi, Teddi, and, Lambie.

At the end of the chapter, My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back. He gazes at Cherokee and asks who her father is. Weetzie says that she's got high cheekbones like Dirk, and blonde hair like Duck, but that her eyes and lips are like his.

Ah, yes. high cheekbones like Dirk. Remember---he's the guy with the Mohawk.

The last line in the chapter is:
Cherokee looked like a three-dad baby, like a peach, like a tiny moccasin, like a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons.
What does a tiny moccasin look like when you're talking about a baby?! I know the book was/is much loved but--the stereotypical othering aside--the style doesn't work for me.

In the chapter, "Chapter: Shangri-L.A.," My Secret Agent Lover Man is making another movie. This one is called Shangri-L.A. Weetzie stars in it. She wears strapless dresses and rhinestones. And,
She made fringed baby clothes and feathered headdresses for Cherokee...
Sheesh! Now there's headdresses for this baby girl?!

They can't figure out an ending for the movie, so My Secret Agent Lover Man suggests Weetzie visit her dad in New York to see if he has any ideas. While there, he takes them shopping and buys Cherokee a Pink Panther doll at F.A.O. Schwarz.

If you're buying a doll at F.A.O. Schwarz---well, if you're even INSIDE that store, you're of a certain income level. Even though Weetzie's source of money is never mentioned, the things they do suggests there's plenty of it.

While in NY, Weetzie thinks her dad isn't well. Soon after Weetzie goes back to L.A., he dies, and Weetzie struggles with her grief:
Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.
Wearing feathers. That's what Weetzie does. Nowhere do we get any sense that she (or Block) know much about the many distinctions amongst Native peoples. With the use of "papoose" we see more of that ignorance. Papoose is the word for baby in ONE language. It is not THE Indian word for papoose. With over 500 federally recognized Native Nations, there are hundreds of languages, too. The Cherokee word for baby, by the way, is not papoose.

Cat Yampbell, in "Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature" (The Lion and the Unicorn, 29(3) says:
The text of Weetzie Bat celebrates those who are torn from society, individuals who find each other and find happiness outside of the box that society defines as the norm.
Michael Cart, in "What a Wonderful World: Notes on the Evolution of GLBTQ Literature for Young Adults" (The ALAN Review, 31(2)), calls it a classic of gay fiction, and says:
its largehearted embrace of every aspect of the workings of the human heart, it demonstrates, with art and innovation, that love is love, regardless of what society chooses to label it.
Though I've not done an exhaustive look, I'm unable (thus far) to find any critical essays in which the stereotyping of American Indians is discussed. The book is much celebrated for its affirmation of people who are "outside the box" and/or gay, but I wouldn't hand it to a Native child who was outside the norm or gay. I can't elevate one part of who they are and slam another part of their identity at the same time.

Granted, some Native readers would breeze past it and shrug it off, but not all would do that, and I wonder, too, about the readers (like Yampbell? Cart?) who didn't comment on the stereotyping. Did they not see it because it reflects their "knowledge" of American Indians? Or, did they deem that content insignificant? And what does it mean to decide that one culture is insignificant?

Thinking about those questions is ironic, given what Weetzie said at the top of the story. "I'm into Indians. They were here first and we treated them like shit." Does Block realize that she's doing the same thing?

Honoring or being "into" anyone in a superficial way is, in my view, treating them like shit because it is lazy. It allows a feel-good moment to stand in for real learning, real understanding, and meaningful action that would make the world we all live in, a better world.

In doing the research for this post, I read that Block has a new book out--a prequel to Weetzie Bat. I'll pick it up next time I'm at the library.

Update, Monday May 6, 2013, 8:06 PM
See my take on Pink Smog, the prequel to Weetzie Bat, published in 2012.

Update, Friday May 10, 10:00 AM
See my essay on Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, published in 1993.

Friday, May 03, 2013


De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children is a new blog, just launched a few days ago. De Colores is moderated by Beverly Slapin. Several of her reviews have been published here, on AICL. I've just begun looking it over, but already see that teachers and librarians will find it useful.

Cinco de Mayo is coming up. Many schools will have some sort of event, but, what do we really know about Cinco de Mayo? I suggest you read Sudie Hofmann's essay, "Rethinking El Cinco de Mayo" and incorporate what she says into your planning for next year. 

Are you looking for books about Sonia Sotomayor? At De Colores, there's a tab for books about her. There are additional tabs for El Dia de los Muertos, La Llorona, Cesar Chavez, and Cinderella. 

Among the contributors to De Colores is Lyn-Miller Lachmann. Check out her review of  Under the Mesquite I'll be following De Colores because it and AICL overlap in terms of Indigenous peoples of the southwest. 

And welcome, contributors and collaborators at De Colores to the blogosphere! We need critical voices and reviews like yours.

Update, 9:43 AM, May 3rd 2013
I tweeted De Colores and want to share a twitter endorsement from Curtis Acosta. He was featured in several stories here on AICL in 2012 as AICL reported on the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson Unified School District.

I'll also take a moment to suggest you take a look at the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership. There are times when I feel pessimistic about the attacks on public education and social justice. Knowing there are people like Curtis Acosta out there lifts my pessimism. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Navajo Nation's First Poet Laureate: Luci Tapahonso

Does your library have Luci Tapahonso's Blue Horses Rush In on your YA or adult fiction or poetry shelves?

Is her Songs of Shiprock Fair on your picture book shelves?

If they're not, order them next time you're buying books. By coincidence or design, the rich covers of Blue Horses Rush In and Songs of Shiprock Fair convey the depth and brilliance of Tapahonso's writing. She writes from experience. Tapahonso is Dine (Navajo). She grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico. You can bet that the poems you read in Songs of Shiprock Fair are rooted in her actually being there--not once, or twice, but many times. She went to school at the University of New Mexico. One of my favorite stories in Blue Horses Rush In is about being a student at UNM. I went to UNM, too. I completely 'get' that story.

Tapahonso's writing has received many awards, but recognition from ones immediate community is, perhaps, the most meaningful. Tapahonso has been named as the Navajo Nation's first Poet Laureate. With affirmation from her tribal nation, you know your purchase of her books is a good choice.

Monday, April 29, 2013

GOOD MORNING WORLD by Paul Windsor (Haisla, Heiltsuk)

Spring mornings! Many of us get out of bed and feel a surge of joy at hearing birds sing and seeing the sun rise on budding trees.

With the spring sunshine streaming across the yard outside my window, Paul Windsor's Good Morning World is the perfect board book to read this morning. Windsor is Haisla and Heiltsuk (First Nations, Canada). On the back cover, he tells us:
When I was younger, I would wake up and hollar "Good Morning World!" It helped to awaken my spirit and release good energy and humour. This was the spirit behind this book: a sense of humour with a free style. The painting in this book reflect my memory and experiences of time spent on our land, and a deep connection to our traditions. Each piece offers respect and love for the animals, plants and insects, with the sun as the main character. Each sun represents the ancestors of the characters depicted on the page.

Here's the page where his main character is the sun:

I can imagine reading the book aloud to a group of children and inviting them to read it aloud, too, with me. On the next page, we greet bears, who are fishing in the river. On the next, eagles, soaring high in the sky. And then salmon, swimming up the stream. There are whales playing and singing in a pod, too, and a beaver building its dam.

Each page has a bit of info about the animal and what it does, lyrically told and beautifully illustrated. Teachers and librarians will get a lot of mileage out of this book! It calls attention to the world around us, and it provides an opportunity to tell children a little bit about Windsor's art, and the Haisla and Heiltsuk people. 

Published in 2012 by Native Northwest, I recommend you order it for your classroom, if you teach young children. If you're a librarian, I recommend ordering several copies. Seems to me that early childhood teachers might all be wanting it in the springtime.