Wednesday, July 15, 2015

About Jane Resh Thomas and Hamline University's Writing Program

This week, Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is holding its one week residency. On July 13th, Jane Resh Thomas gave a lecture there.

Based on what I read at On Kindness, On Intention, and On Anger in Children's Writers by V. Arrow, Thomas's remarks were primarily about race. As I read responses--online and privately--to what she said, I have several thoughts.
One: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest in the accurate representation of people who are not white.
Two: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest and commitment to publish writers who are not white.
Discussions on social media are evidence that people were clearly uncomfortable with what Thomas said. Was she, herself, uncomfortable as she delivered that lecture? Does she, today, feel unfairly criticized by what people are saying? Are you a white writer who agrees with what Thomas said? Do you think the criticism directed at her, today, is unfair? Mean, perhaps?

As a Native woman and mother, I ask that you set aside your feelings of discomfort. Instead, I'd like you to think about the millions of children of color, and Native children, who've read horrible things about themselves in the thousands of books that white writers have written.

Did you know, for example, that Little House on the Prairie has "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" in it three times? Can you imagine how a Native child feels reading that line?

Let me tell you. A few weeks ago, a young Native boy visiting me saw that book on my table. His eyes widened and his voice rose as he said:
Is that Little House on the Prairie? I had to quit that book. 
He shook his head a bit as he talked about the Indians stealing furs. And then his voice got even louder when he said
That part where it says 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian? That's when I really had to quit that book!!!
It is for that child, and millions of other children like him, that I do the work I do on my site and in my lectures and workshops.

It is uncomfortable for writers who read criticism of their work that points out that ideas and words they've carried in their head all their lives is problematic. These ideas and words appear on the page as a norm for one of their characters. For some, having it pointed out to them generates a huge feeling of embarrassment. For others, there is a defensive reaction, too.

As I read V. Arrow's post, knowing that she was in that room as a student--that she is someone who wants to be a writer of children's books--I knew that she took a great risk in writing her post. As I read through twitter conversations about what she shared, I was glad to see established writers like Anne Ursu and Laura Ruby thanking her for that post. Later, Mary Rockcastle (the director of the program) issued this statement:
Our MFAC program at Hamline is committed to creating a truly diverse and inclusive community. Where ALL of our students can create and do their best work without the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that gets in the way.
A faculty member's words yesterday sent the absolute wrong message about how we should deal with each other's anger and pain--as a community and as a culture. It is unacceptable to deny, denigrate, minimize or otherwise deepen this pain.
Our goal is to educate each student about how this happens, how we purposefully or unintentionally get it wrong, so it does not happen again. So the community we've been building learns, grows, and prevails.
I gather that everyone was required to attend Thomas's lecture and that there were others that they could choose from. I hope that the program selects someone to deliver a required lecture each residency term--a lecture that takes up this moment at Hamline. It was one moment--one hour in a day--but it was far more than that. For Hamline, the stakes are high right now. I read tweets from people who said they were crossing Hamline off the list of writing programs they're applying to.

The stakes are high for Hamline, but they're far higher for the children and young adults who will read the books Hamline students write. It is 2015. For over one hundred years, people have been objecting to the ways that people of color and American Indians are portrayed in children's books. This is not new to me and others who have studied children's literature, but to far too many people, it is a new discussion because it is beyond the spaces they spend their time in.

Hamline can bring it into that space.

Every intervention individuals and institutions make is absolutely vital so that we all get to a point in time when all children can read books that are free of the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that intentionally, or not, denies our existence and humanity.


For further reading:

MFA vs POC, by Junot Diaz, April 30 2014
On Being a Person of Color in an MFA Program, by Justine Ireland, July 13 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dear Writers Who Think You're Cherokee

Over the last few weeks, people in American Indian, Native American, or Indigenous Studies have been deeply engaged in discussions of identity, trying to help people understand what it means to be a member or citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

This discussion was prompted when the identity of a key person in this area of research and teaching was featured in an article in The Daily Beast on June 30, 2015. The person is Andrea Smith. The identity she claims is Cherokee.

Several years ago, Smith asked David Cornsilk of the Cherokee Nation to help her verify her belief that she was Cherokee. In an Open Letter at Indian Country Today Media Network, David goes into great detail on his findings (bottom line: she's not Cherokee). Many people knew about this and hoped that Smith would 1) stop saying she is Cherokee, and, 2) that she would take steps so that people would stop calling her Cherokee when they introduce her at lectures she is invited to deliver.

She didn't do either one. It was only a matter of time before her misrepresentation of her identity would become more widely known.

The article at The Daily Beast pulled heavily from a Tumblr page that documented a long history of Smith's efforts to get her claims verified. This led to many blog posts and discussions on social media and at Native news sites.

I wrote a post (on July 3, 2015), too, because lack of knowing what it means to be Cherokee results in a lot of problems in children's literature. They range from:
1) claims that are, in fact, empty (when will every copy of "Forrest Carter's" The Education of Little Tree be moved from autobiography to fiction, if not removed entirely from the shelves?).
2) ignorance in portraying Cherokee culture, as seen--for example--in David Arnold's Mosquitolandor Francesa Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series, or P.C. and Kristin Cast's House of Night series, or Gail Haley's Two Bad Boysor Martina Boone's Compulsion
3) mis-identifying people as Cherokee when they say otherwise, as was done in Alko's The Case for Loving
As I packed for a family trip to North Carolina on Thursday, July 9, 2015, my head was filled with what I'd been reading about Andrea Smith.

Our first stop was in Atlanta. Along the walls in the passageway from Terminal B to Terminal A is an exhibit of Atlanta's history. It includes panels on the Cherokee Nation. I stood there looking at the exhibit and thought about Cherokee people I know, and what their ancestors have been through. Sometimes, my Cherokee friends and colleagues are furious over another instance in which they are misrepresented or when someone on a national level (like Elizabeth Warren) says they're Cherokee. Other times, they are weary.

Like their ancestors, they persevere.

On Saturday morning, David Cornsilk was out and about in Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. Being out with family and friends in the Cherokee Nation isn't unusual for David. Later that day, he wrote about it on his Facebook page. With his permission, I share some of what he said, here:

Today seemed different though. Every Cherokee I came into contact with gave me a heightened sense of what it means to a part of the Cherokee community. At breakfast I saw cousins and old friends, all Cherokees. When I went to the estate sales I saw and visited with Cherokees. And again, at the theater, the room was filled with the people I and my family associate with, Cherokees. As I looked around the room I saw the faces of Cherokees laughing, joking and socializing. These are spaces that fill my memory from childhood to the present.
As these contacts built in my minds eye on what is just another Saturday, I was suddenly struck by a profound truth in the context of the Andrea Smith controversy. Even if she could prove some smidgen of Cherokee ancestry, of course she can't, but if she could, what I experienced today, in just four short hours, was more Cherokee community and culture than someone like Andrea will experience in a lifetime.
After the movie and the see-Ya-later hugs from my grandchildren, their innocent little Cherokee selves facing a world that wants nothing more than to take everything away from them, I became more resolved to fight harder for their future as citizens of the Cherokee Nation, to defend their tribe's sovereignty from all comers. Because like the saying we hear so often, the land is not ours, it's only borrowed from our children, so too is our sovereignty.
When someone says they are Cherokee without any concern for the rights of the tribe, they erode the sovereignty and self-determination that rightfully belongs to our children and grandchildren. As the current defenders of that sovereignty, our generation must do all we can to defend what is not really ours, but our grandchildren's.

David knows what it is to be Cherokee, what life is like for someone who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

What he shared brings me back to you, Writer Who Thinks You Are Cherokee. Are you an Andrea Smith? Did someone in your family tell you that you're Cherokee? Did you use that story to identify yourself as Cherokee? Does that identity inspire you to create stories to "honor" Cherokees? Or some other Native Nation?

If the answer to those questions is yes, hit the pause button. If you're not living life as a Cherokee, you're likely to add to the pile of misrepresentations Cherokee people contend with, day in, and day out. Do you really want to do that?

But returning to Andrea Smith, and speaking now, to my friends and colleagues in activist circles: please reconsider inviting Andrea Smith to deliver a keynote lecture at your conference or workshop. My request may sound mean-spirited or unfair to her, but consider the Cherokee Nation itself. Consider the Cherokee children David speaks of. Do you want to, as Smith is doing, thumb your nose at their sovereignty? Their rights to say who their citizens are? Do you really want to do that?