Friday, November 21, 2014

TEEN SPIRIT by Francesca Lia Block

I'll start with this: I think Francesca Lia Block likes Indians.

I'm just not sure what she knows about us. I kinda think she doesn't know a Native person.

By that, I mean one who is on-the-ground Native, as in living on the reservation, or hanging with the Native community in whatever city or suburb they're in, or, if they're in a part of the country where there is not a Native community, then, one who goes home to that community and/or talks to people from there a lot.

That on-the-ground identity is in stark contrast to the person who has a family story where a great great ancestor was Native. This group tends to romanticize who Native people are, and it comes out in dreadful ways. Case in point: mystical Indians. With powers.

Let's talk about Francesca Lia Block's Teen Spirit, published by HarperCollins. I'll start with the synopsis (pasted here from Amazon):

Francesca Lia Block, critically acclaimed author of Weetzie Bat, brings this eerie and redemptive ghost story to life with her signature, poetic prose. It's perfect for fans of supernatural stories with a touch of romance like the Beautiful Creatures series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

After Julie's grandmother passes away, she is forced to move across town to the not-so-fancy end of Beverly Hills and start over at a new school. The only silver lining to the perpetual dark cloud that seems to be following her? Clark—a die-hard fan ofBuffy and all things Joss Whedon, who is just as awkward and damaged as she is. Her kindred spirit.

When the two try to contact Julie's grandmother with a Ouija board, they make contact with a different spirit altogether. The real kind. And this ghost will do whatever it takes to come back to the world of the living.

Francesca Lia Block's latest young adult novel is a haunting work about family, loss, love, and redemption.

Block has tons of fans. You can go to Goodreads and read all the things people like about her book. I'm giving you my view on what she does with Native content.

In the first chapter, Julie is with her grandma. First clue that you gotta pay attention to is that her grandma is wearing "Native American turquoise" (p. 13). That's fine. I hope it was the real thing, though, made by a Native person.

Hitting the pause button: did you know it is against the law to sell something as though it is Native if it isn't? Go read the text of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. My best guess, given what Block did in the Weetzie Bat books and in Teen Spirit, is that she doesn't know about that law because she doesn't know much about us at all. Somehow, I think that she has some image in her head, some super cool image of who she thinks we are, and that is what shapes what she does when she writes us into her books.

Back to Teen Spirit.

Julie is living with her grandma and her mom. But, alas, Julie's grandma dies suddenly. Right there in front of her. As she is dying, she tells Julie she has something to tell her but doesn't get it out. Looking at her lifeless body, Julie sees "a pale lavender radiance" (p. 14) hovering over her body and she hears some "baroque and strange, otherworldly" music playing, too. She doesn't tell her mom about it. With grandma dead, there's other things to worry about.

As that chapter closes, we learn about Julie's dad. She never met him. Julie was an in vitro baby. All her mom told her about him is (p. 18):
"that he was over six feet tall, full-blooded Cherokee, and had a master's degree in psychology."
And that he was a sperm donor.

Let's hit that pause button again. That bit of info raised all kinds of questions for me that I kinda doubt even occurred to Block. I went to a donor site online to see what I might learn. I wondered, for example, how they know a person is "full blooded Cherokee" or "Blackfoot." On one site, a chat window popped up immediately. I asked my "how do you know" question and they answer was that it is self-reported. I asked about tribal ID and learned they don't ask for it. Those questions matter, in light of another law (that I'm guessing Block doesn't know about): the Indian Child Welfare Act. It was passed in 1978, to keep Native children within Native communities. I could do some research to see if there have been any cases in which a sperm donor sought information about his child and how that would play out in a courtroom. But, I'll set that aside and get back to Teen Spirit. 

Why did Block go with a "full blooded Cherokee" sperm donor? Asking that question makes me think that maybe she knows that claiming a great great Cherokee grandma wouldn't cut it. If she has Julie's dad be Cherokee, for real, does that mean we're to believe that Julie's ability to see those lights around her grandma are legitimized by the sperm donor? Scary thought! Scary because it isn't any better. It is STILL mystical Indian stuff that does not work.

In the next chapters, Julie and her mom move across town, she gets a job in a dress shop that sells vintage clothes, and she meets a guy named Clark (his aura is green) at her new school. She also finds a Ouija board in the dresser drawer in her new room. She is intrigued by it, wondering if she can use it to talk with her grandma. Clark is freaked by it. Later, she meets another guy. His name is Grant (his aura is red), and though he tells her he is Clark's twin, we're going to learn that Grant IS Clark's twin, but that he died a year ago and that his spirit has entered Clark and takes over Clark's body from time to time.

So. Julie finds a card that a lady at an occult store had given her, to a place in Chinatown called Black Jade. Julie and Clark go there and learn from the lady there that Julie is "an intuitive" and that she probably got that gift from her dad. She gives them some treatments and tells them to see Tatiana Gonzales to get rose petals they need for a tea she wants them to use.

They call Tatiana Gonzales and then go to her house. There, they see milagros embedded in the outer adobe walls of her house. Tatiana greets them (her aura is indigo). She has powers, too (of course). She's petite, black curls "adorned with fresh gardenias and cascading to her minuscule waist" (p. 151). She tells Julia that her ability to see auras can be developed with practice.

Back at her house, Julia picks up a book with a poem by Emily Dickinson. She'd been reading aloud from it to her grandmother when she died. A piece of paper falls out of it. It is an advertisement for a store called Ed Rainwater Designs. It sells figures carved of bone, dream catchers, jewelry, and sage. Since sage is one of the things that they need, Julie and Clark go to that store (p. 166):
When we walk in we see an extravagantly tall man in sunglasses, sitting on a stool behind a counter. At his side was a three-legged dog that resembled a coyote. Both of them shone with almost blinding white light in spit of the dimness of the room.
They tell him they need sage for a ritual. He asks them (p. 167):
"Looking for some kicks? Some native enlightenment?"
Julie replies:
"No, sir," I said. "With all respect, we take this seriously. And even though I don't know anything about it, I'm half Cherokee."
Ed looks them over and then takes them out back. He gives them some special sage he grows and tells her to burn it, and that she'll know when the time to do that is right. Like the others, he tells her to develop her skills. Clark asks if he means the ability to see the auras, and Ed replies:
"More than that. Your friend has a gift that can magnetize certain spirits."
Enter another character! Amrita (her aura is metallic gold). She has very long black hair, wears a bunch of gold bracelets, and looks (p. 70):
"like a Hindu goddess statue. I wouldn't have have been surprised if she was hiding a few extra arms behind her back."
A Hindu goddess. Are you groaning? Or shaking your head? Or your fist, perhaps?! Ed and Amrita invite Julie and Clark to stay for dinner. Amrita teaches Julie how to meditate and then it is time for a sweat.

Pause button! I gotta get up and walk around a bit. Shake off some of this nonsense.



Inside, Ed pours water on rocks that are on top of coals. They sweat. Ed prays. They come out feeling great (sigh).

Things eventually get resolved for both, Julie and Clark. And of course, they figure out that Ed is her father. She thinks she'll go visit him sometime. For now, she's gonna explore her relationship with Clark.


I hope that is the end. I hope Block isn't going to go from this to a book where Julie's "powers" are more developed. My overall sense is that Block is really taken with "other." She likes not-white peoples. She's put them in this book and in Weetzie Bat, too. People obviously love her writing. I wish she'd stay away from this kind of writing, though.

In a twitter exchange earlier this month, she apologized for the problems I described in Weetzie Bat. I thought it was a sincere apology, but she didn't say a word about Teen Spirit. I wish she would. Without addressing it, her apology rings very hollow. Very hollow, indeed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Francesca Lia Block apologized for Native stereotyping in WEETZIE BAT (but see update)

Editor's note: I added "but see update" to the title of this post because after reading Block's Teen Spirit the apology rang hollow.

On November 11, 2014, the We Need Diverse Books campaign hosted a twitter chat about LGBTQ literature. During that chat, Emily Campbell (@Ms_Librarian) tweeted that Francesca Lia Block's book, Baby Bebop, was important to her. She included Block in the tweet. I replied, saying "The Native content in her bks is stereotyping 101." Here's a screencap:

Campbell asked for more information, and I sent her a link to my analysis of Weetzie Bat. The next day, November 12, Block replied to me and Campbell, saying "No offense meant. My apologies. All respect for all." Here's that screencap:

I thanked her, saying "Most ppl mean well but lack awareness, esp of Native ppl & how culture is used/misused." Here's the screencap of that; I don't know why its font is larger than the others:

She replied again, saying "I would like to learn and grow, until I am no longer alive." And I thanked her again, saying "Your voice as ally pushing back on broad/deep misrepresentations of Native ppl is important." Here's the screencap of that exchange:

I don't know what, if anything, Francesca Lia Block has said or done about this since then. Most authors who respond to my critiques of their work are defensive. Her response was different, and I appreciate that, but I wonder if she's said anything more about my critique, elsewhere, to friends, perhaps?

Block's apology came up this morning in a tweet exchange I had with a colleague about Daniel Handler, the author of Lemony Snicket books who made several racist remarks last night (November 19) at the National Book Awards. He called them "ill conceived humor" in an apology he tweeted today (November 20). His remarks weren't "ill conceived." They were racist.

Block and Handler are key figures in children's and young adult literature. They are authors of best selling books. They could change a lot of hearts and minds if they'd say more than either has said so far.

Update, November 20

There I was (above) thinking well of Block and that exchange, feeling optimistic about her response and the possibilities for change. But then I heard from a colleague about her new book. It came out this year. The title, Teen Spirit. And the spirit? Cherokee.

How to interpret her apology, now?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mass Media Fail(s): Describing Indian man's singing as "chants" and "yowls" and "wails"

Yowls? Chant? Wail?!! This is a wild guess, but I wonder...

When they were kids, did Dina Capiello of the Associated Press, Andrew Kirell of Mediaite, and the nameless person who posted a video at CNN read children's books like Little House on the Prairie that told them that Native people "yowl" or "chant" or "wail"?!

While any person might do any of those things for one reason or another, those words are not what took place in the Senate Gallery yesterday. Something happened when the Senate voted down the Keystone pipeline bill.

Greg Grey Cloud sang a song.

Grey Cloud is an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and co-founder of Wica Agli, an organization dedicated to helping men and boys create communities that value self, family, and community. That work includes protesting the Keystone pipeline, and that is why Greg Grey Cloud was in the Senate gallery yesterday. The bill being voted down marked a victory for the protest work he and Native people have been doing.

So Greg Grey Cloud sang a song, but the three news media I noted at the top of this post didn't call it a song. The first news source I read about the vote was Mediaite. Initially, their headline was "Native American Chant Interrupts Senate as Keystone Vote Fails." The word "chant" bothered me and I set about to create a graphic that corrected the use of "chant." As I did that, a colleague said it was a Victory song, so I added that to the correction I made. This is what I came up with (it needed another correction, as you'll see later):

This morning, I saw that CNN called it wailing:

And, I saw that the AP reporter used "yowls" in the final paragraph of her report:

In getting this blog post ready, I went back to the Mediate article and saw that they had changed the wording in their headline. The new one is on the left. My edited one is on the right. I am glad they changed their headline, and I imagine that those involved in that change will not make that mistake again!

As it turns out, my corrections needed a correction, too! In an interview today, Grey Cloud said he was overcome with joy at the outcome of the vote:

I looked down and thought we need to honor these Senators for having the courage to make the right decision, for not only Indian country but for America as a whole. As a singer, I know only one way to honor someone, and that’s to sing. I didn’t mean to disrupt the Senate, only to honor the conviction shown by the Senators.

Grey Cloud was singing in his language. Here's the Lakota words, and the English translation (provided to Grey Cloud by Pat Bad Hand Sr., of the Sicangu Oyate. Grey Cloud stated that Mr. Bad Hand is a renowned hoka wicasa (keeper of songs):

Lakota language for Unci Maka Olowan song: “Tunkasila wamayanka yo, le miye ca tehiya nawazin yelo. unci maka nawacincina wowahwala wa yuha waun welo”

English translation Grandmother Earth song: “Grandfather look at me, I am standing here struggling, I am defending grandmother earth and I am chasing peace.”
And here's the video of that moment in the Senate:

Though that language and style of singing may be unfamiliar to most people, the words in the song are ones spoken by a people who is Indigenous to this land, and whose culture has been misrepresented and marginalized so much that those three reporters, and perhaps most of the people there, did not recognize it for what it is.

That has to change. That means replacing books that misrepresent Native peoples with books that don't have problems of misrepresentation. Please let go of those classics. They have not served us well. Choose, instead, books that present all peoples as people. Start with the books on AICL's Best Books list.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Pukawiss the Outcast by Jay Jordan Hawke is an unusual book. The protagonist--Joshua--is a 14 year old teen who is gay. Because his mother is a fundamentalist Christian, he has not shared that identity with anyone. The story is set in the June of 1999, when President Clinton issued a proclamation naming June as Gay and Lesbian Pride month.

What makes the book unusual is not that he is gay, but that Joshua is Native.

Joshua's mother is white, and his father is Ojibwe. They met when his mother went to his father's reservation to do missionary work. They fell in love, but she was sure he was going to hell for his Ojibwe beliefs. He had to choose between her and his Ojibwe identity. He chose her, but struggled with that choice. He eventually became an alcoholic.

Joshua wasn't raised Ojibwe, nor did he visit the reservation, which is an hour from his mom and dad's house.

But when his dad leaves and his mom needs time to sort things out, she drops him off at the home of "Gentle Eagle" -- his grandfather -- on the reservation.

Joshua meets several teens who work at Wiigwaas, a recreated village Gentle Eagle established to help the Ojibwe people remember and learn their heritage.

Among the teens who work at the village are "Mokwa" and "Little Deer." Mokwa means angry bear, we're told in the book. Information shared about the names of the characters follows pop culture ideas about how Native names are given. Pop culture, I hasten to add, that doesn't reflect how Native names are given. "Gentle Eagle" is a gentle elder who everyone turns to for guidance. "Mokwa" is called that because he fought some older boys who were bullying "Little Deer" who is quiet and skittish. Later in the book is a new character, Black Crow, who is a loud-mouthed bully.

Naming figures prominently in the story. Joshua wants an Indian name. He's got a crush on Mokwa, who he hangs out with a lot at the village. Mokwa gives him a nickname: Pukawiss.

According to Mokwa, Pukawiss is a manitou who was an outcast because he didn't do what was expected of him (hunt and fish). Instead, he watched animals and mimicked their movements. His mimicry gave birth to "the art of dancing." He also gave the people Fancy Dance and powwows. The latter is definitely not accurate. Both are contemporary or modern in nature, rather than traditional ceremonies/dances that have been done for a very long time.

Later, Mokwa tells Joshua that he thinks Pukawiss was gay because when he went from village to village teaching the dances, women threw themselves at him and he ignored them. And, because he "loved bright-colored clothing." Mokwa's says "I think he was gay. It makes sense to me." Those two sentences function as a disclaimer, I think, for what the author is telling us via Mokwa.

I haven't found anything from Ojibwe writers or scholars that says Pukawiss was gay. It seems to me that the author--an outsider to Ojibwe culture--is putting this interpretation onto Pukawiss. I find that rather troubling, given that the author is not Native. He is also using markers (colored clothing) that fits in the framework of gay-people-as-flamboyant that Malinda Lo notes as a mixed blessing in terms of characters who are portrayed that way.

There are other problems... Mokwa does the Fancy Dance at powwows. He's taught Joshua how to do that dance. Joshua practices it and does it at the village for the tourists. Near the end of the book they all go to a powwow at Bay Mills where Mokwa is competing. During the dance, Mokwa sprains his ankle. He finishes the dance well enough to be selected as a finalist who has to dance again. He tells Joshua to take his place. He quickly takes off all his regalia and Joshua puts it on. That doesn't sound plausible. Regalia doesn't go on and off quickly. There's a lot of parts, each one requiring care in terms of the item itself but also regarding how it is put on.

Joshua is worried everyone will know he isn't Mokwa because he is shorter than Mokwa, but Mokwa thinks nobody will notice. They grab a porcupine roach and put it on Joshua to hide the fact that he doesn't have a Mohawk haircut like Mokwa does. Off he goes to dance, and, nobody notices the substitution. I found that switcheroo troubling, and, taking of the roach, too. That sort of thing just isn't done.

Another point that didn't ring true for me was the use of the word "chanting" to describe the drumming and singing. There's a lot more in my notes but I think I'll stop and say this:

I wish Hawke's book didn't have these problems. We need books about Native youth who are gay. Though a gay identity is shown as positive in this book, that positive note is greatly overshadowed by the amount of misinformation about Ojibwe people that is in this book.

Within children's and young adult literature, a book like this is about intersections of two or more identities. We need those books, but it is unacceptable for one identity to be misrepresented. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Pukawiss the Outcast. It was published in 2014 by Harmony Ink Press.

Note: November 17, 4:45
There is a great deal of LGBTQ writing in Native Studies. A recent book is Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti.