Saturday, March 07, 2015

David Arnold's Cherokee protagonist in MOSQUITOLAND

Note: Please scroll down to see David Arnold's response to this review. See Open Letter, too, which also has a response from David Arnold. 

Some weeks ago, I saw a screencapture (that's it to the right) from the video trailer for David Arnold's Mosquitoland. In it, his protagonist, Mim (her given name is Mary), is putting on her "war paint." (If you're unfamiliar with the book, read the synopsis for Mosquitoland at the author's website.)

About one third of the way into the book, we learn that Mim thinks of herself as Cherokee. Her mom, we learn, is the source of her Cherokee identity. In a letter to her aunt Isabel, Mim tells Isabel that her mom told her to (Kindle Location 1161)*:
“Have a vision, Mary, unclouded by fear.”
That, we read, is an old Cherokee proverb (Kindle Locations 1163-1164):
that her mom told her, and hers before that, and so on and so forth, all the way back to the original Cherokee woman who coined the phrase.
An old Cherokee proverb? Where, I wondered, did the author find that proverb? Why, and what, does he know about Cherokees? I did a search and found "Have a vision not clouded by fear" on several websites of "inspirational stories" and books of that genre. I've traced it to A Cherokee Feast of Days: Daily Meditations by Joyce Sequichie Hifler. She attributes the proverb to "a Cherokee leader." The title suggests that the meditations are Cherokee but some of them are from people of other tribal nations. Sometimes Hifler includes that nation, sometimes she doesn't. Did Arnold read Hifler's book, I wonder? Or did he find it elsewhere? If you're reading this, Mr. Arnold, please let us know.

Mim tells Isabel (in the letter) that she's so proud of her Cherokee heritage that she (Kindle Location 1166-1170):
started lying about the degree of Cherokee blood in my veins. I was something like one-sixteenth, but honestly, who wasn’t, right? So I claimed one quarter. It just sounded more legit. I was young, still in middle school, so I went with it the way kids that age do. The more admiration this garnered from teachers and friends, the closer I felt to my ancient ancestry, my kinswomen, my tribe. But the truth will out, as they say. In my case, this outing took on the sound of my mother’s unending laughter in the face of my principal, when he told her the school was going to present me with a plaque of merit at the next pep rally: the Native American Achievement Award. 
There's a lot to unpack in that passage. Mim clearly knows something about blood quantum, and "who wasn't, right?" tells us that she knows that a lot of people say they're Cherokee. So, she thinks it sounds "more legit" if she says she's "one quarter" rather than "one-sixteenth." That tells us that she is not, in fact, knowledgeable about Cherokee citizenship. Here's the fact: on the Cherokee Nation website's page about citizenship, the very first line is this:
Cherokee Nation citizenship does not require a specific blood quantum.
Mim is, in fact, one of the "who" in "who wasn't [part Cherokee], right?" She is one of the many who make that claim without knowing what it means.

Because her mom laughed at the principal when he wanted to present Mim with the Native American Achievement Award, my guess is that her mom is laughing at the principal and maybe Mim, too, for thinking Mim has Cherokee ancestry.

That Mim would feel close to her "ancient ancestry" suggests to me that she is operating with a romantic idea of "Cherokee" identity. She could have said Ojibwe. Or, Pueblo. The tribe itself doesn't matter. And why did her mom laugh? Was she laughing at the principal for thinking Mim had done something worthy of an award? Or was she laughing that the principal believed Mim's claim of one-quarter Cherokee blood?

Mim continues in her letter (Kindle Locations 1171-1173):
Needless to say, I never received the award. But even today, there are times— most notably when I wear my war paint— when I really feel that Cherokee blood coursing through my veins, no matter its percentage of purity. So from whatever minutia of my heart that pumps authentic Cherokee blood, I pass this phrase along to you: have a vision, unclouded by fear.
Her words tell us that she makes a connection between Cherokee blood and that phrase.  Cherokee blood and courage go together. Or as I said earlier, the Cherokee part doesn't matter. It could be a different tribe. It doesn't matter, because in her mind, Indians and courage and war paint go together.

Mim's letter continues (Kindle Locations 1174-1175):
Not sure what made me think of all this Cherokee stuff. Maybe it’s the plethora of cowboy hats and boots I’ve seen today. Politically correct? Probably not. BUT I’M ONE-SIXTEENTH CHEROKEE, SO SUCK IT.
I assume her "politically correct" question is there for someone who would say 'hold on there' to all that she's shared about her Cherokee identity. She seems to be wondering if what she shared is/is not "politically correct" but the capitalized text tells us that because she is 1/16 Cherokee, she can say whatever she wants. She closes her letter to Isabel by sharing another "Cherokee proverb" (Kindle Locations 1177-1178):
When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries while you rejoice.
I found that "proverb" in Who Will Cry When You Die by Robin Sharma. In that book, it is described as being an "Ancient Sanskrit saying." Sharma also describes it as something his father said to him. I don't find the phrase anywhere as something said by a Cherokee. So again, I wonder where David Arnold found that phrase? Surely he is aware that the Cherokee people do not speak Sanskrit (Sanskrit is an official language spoken in India).

Mim signs her letter as "Chieftess Iris Malone." Later, she calls herself a "War-Crazed Cherokee Chieftess." And then towards the end of the book she's in her mother's bedroom. She picks up the lipstick and wonders (Kindle Locations 3397-3403):
What would it be like if she walked in the room right now? If she found me painting my face like some politically incorrect Cherokee chieftess? What would I tell her? The truth, I hope. That in my longing for originality and relational honesty and a hundred other I-don’t-know-whats, this action, while strange and socially awkward, makes more sense than just about anything else in my world. And even though it’s cryptic and more than a little odd, sometimes cryptic and odd are better than lying down for the Man. Maybe I would tell her how the war paint helped get me through a time when I felt like no one else cared about what I wanted, or who I was. Maybe I could muster the courage to speak those words so few people are able to say: I don’t know why I do the things I do. It’s like that sometimes.
Mim knows that what she's been doing with the lipstick is not ok. She tells us that the war paint she does is cryptic and odd, but that it has helped her when she felt alone. Does the strength she gains from doing that justify it?

As I write, Arnold's Mosquitoland is listed as a bestseller in three categories at Amazon: Marriage and Divorce (in the teen category and the children's books category, too) and it is listed in the #2 spot for Depression & Mental Illness.

No doubt, its publisher, editor, and author are delighted. I would love to join them in that delight, but I can't. Arnold's book is touching the hearts of many readers, but it is also adding to, or affirming their misunderstandings of who Cherokee people are. Or, maybe they recognize that the Cherokee parts are not ok but they see something of themselves in Mim, so they're willing to look away from the Cherokee parts.

It is troubling to me that, in a book about young people who struggle with mental health, people are willing to look away from the problematic Cherokee parts in Mosquitoland. Would they do that if they knew that Native youth commit suicide at higher rates than any other group in the country? I am not saying books like Mosquitoland that misrepresent Native life are causes of suicide, but surely, misrepresentations don't help anyone feel good about themselves, do they?

In an interview about his book, the reporter asked him about criticism "from at least one Native American on Twitter" about the war paint. I assume the reporter had my earlier critique in mind. Arnold says that the criticism kept him up at night, but that he stands by the book, "for many reasons." Those reasons aren't included in the interview. He also says that:
" this broader conversation about diversity in literature, as a straight, white male, oftentimes it's going to be my role to sit down, to be quiet, to listen and to learn. If there are things I can learn from people I've offended, that's exactly what I want to do. I want to be a better writer and I want to be a more sensitive human. I'm completely willing to have these conversations, for sure. Mim makes a lot of questionable decisions, but across the board I felt the need to be completely authentic to her character."
What he says about being willing to have conversations is puzzling to me. On January 26, I tweeted at him:

I also tweeted this:

Soon after I sent those tweets, I was asked if he'd replied to me. I went to his Twitter page and saw this:

The tiny print says "You are blocked from following @roofbeam and viewing @roofbeam's Tweets." I was surprised. Why did he do that? Was it my use of "WTF" in that second tweet? Or, was it that there were two tweets? Or three? A couple of days later, I read @donalynbooks tweet (she praised Mosquitoland) and I tweeted at her (and Arnold), asking her if she had any thoughts on the warpaint in the book. She didn't reply.

I posted my initial post on Mosquitoland to my Facebook wall. Here's a sampling of the comments.

A Native poet said:
That "warpaint" idea is kind of appalling and creeped me out.
A Cherokee writer/storyteller said:
Sigh. Just once I wish they would pick on someone else!
A Cherokee librarian wrote:
slowly bangs head against desktop...
A Cherokee writer said:
Part Cherokee, huh? Which part?

I think any of those individuals, in addition to myself, would be interested in having that conversation you referenced in the interview, Mr. Arnold. I can't tweet this to you (because I'm blocked) but I trust that someone will share this post with you.


*I used the cut/paste option in Kindle for excerpts I used in this post. Each time I did it, an automatic citation was generated. Here is the citation: Arnold, David (2015-03-03). Mosquitoland. Penguin Young Readers Group. Kindle Edition.

See my post comparing review excerpts for Mosquitoland on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites. Amazon is selective in not-helpful ways.

The Cherokee Nation has a TV station online. Watch it and think about the people you meet there, versus the ones you read about in books like Mosquitoland. 


Update, March 9, 2015
David Arnold submitted a comment. For your convenience, I am pasting his comment here:

Hi Dr. Reese,
I appreciate your analysis of my novel; your honest, personal assessment has provoked reflection on my part, truly.
While writing Mosquitoland, my priority was the absolute authenticity of Mim’s character. In her own words, “Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multi-dimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.” Among other things, writing Mim was my attempt to embody the notion that a smart, self-reliant protagonist might make a slew of emotional leaps and questionable decisions over the course of a novel. As much as I would have loved to apply my own adult clarity to her blurred lens, I did not feel it was honest to her character to do so. 
When I read a book, the last thing I want is the author leaning over my shoulder, telling me all the things he or she meant. In turn, I balk at the idea of trying to explain my own intentions to readers. I will say that our interpretations of Mim’s reasoning—given the entire context of the book—are very different. I tried my best to walk the line of character authenticity and author responsibility; from reading your posts, it’s clear you believe I failed in this regard. I want you to know I hear you, and I appreciate your point of view.
Please know that your evaluation of my book has shed new light on some important issues for me, and moving forward, I will strive to be more aware.
David Arnold

Update: Monday, March 9 2015

Thank you, Mr. Arnold, for your response.

It reminds me of some of the conversations I've had elsewhere, like with Roger Sutton, about how a character is portrayed. With Roger, the discussion was about white children who were playing Indian. In a review I worked on for Horn Book years ago, I called that activity stereotypical. He disagreed--and disagrees--with my use of that word. Horn Book is more interested in "how well" an author develops something rather than what their character says or does. I think both are important, especially given the extreme whiteness of the industry in the past---and the present, too, and a concerted effort to address diversity in children's literature.

Mim is playing Indian. She is your creation. I think you had her doing that to accomplish a specific goal related to her emotions/emotional well-being. In that regard, you/she are a lot like the mascots created by white people. They suit a white person's purpose. They're a device. A means to a goal.

To you and the readers who are praising your novel, the means doesn't matter. To me and a lot of Native people, the means does, in fact, matter a great deal. In one of his poems, Simon Ortiz wrote that Indians sure are handy (to white people). Someday, that will end.

Perhaps you can help us bring that to an end, by engaging fellow writers in discussions about things like this. I imagine that you've already had conversations with your editor about it, and I hope you find a way to talk about it with others. I realize it is hard. It is, after all, your book. Your creation. As such, it is dear to you. Our kids, though, are dear to us. I hope you let that thought--of Native kids who may read this book, or will be treated in certain ways by others who read this book--foremost in your mind.


Updates: March 13

I now have access to Mr. Arnold's page on Twitter.

I've written an open letter to Mr. Arnold, based on the USA Today's review of his book.