Sunday, June 3, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Translating Captivity

Non-fiction remains a never-drying well of story. I've been reading Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America, by Christina Snyder, and thinking that we're overdue for a revival of the captivity narrative in YA literature. It used to be a staple, but nowadays - when the illumination an honest and evenhanded fiction could cast on a host of modern realities should be particularly relevant - they've vanished.

And it's true that a lot of the true captivity stories an author can research among are cut off in their prime, as a lot of high-profile cases died young. But consider this early example:

Thirteen-year-old Hernando de Escalente Fontaneda...was on his way to be educated in Spain when his ship sank off the coast of Florida around 1550. The Calusa chief, called "Carlos" by the Spaniards, dispatched forty-two of the ship's crew, killing some immediately and reserving the deaths of others for special ceremonial occasions. He spared Fontaneda, perhaps because of the captive's youth. Fontaneda learned the Calusa language as well as three other Native Floridian tongues. The young linguist became very useful to Chief Carlos, who had grown frustrated with Spanish captives who could not understand his commands. He retained Fontaneda as a translator, and the Spaniard remained among the Calusas until he was ransomed at the age of 30.

As dust jacket copy, that needs spicing up, but as a summary of a YA plot it covers the bases. Except the romantic one, but that's easily dealt with after a little research. Chief Carlos can easily become an ambiguous villain/mentor/father figure. Fontaneda is placed in a hellishly ambivalent position regarding his (older) fellow captives, and grows up in a liminal space - more privileged and powerful than his fellow slaves due to his ability to communicate between them and his masters, but powerless to do anyone but himself much good.

An author uncomfortable with dealing with the sore points of history underlying modern racial conflicts, or anxious to conform to current literary fashion, could easily translate this plot into science fiction (with Chief Carlos as leader of indigenous aliens on a planet earth is trying to colonize) or fantasy (with Carlos as elf-, dwarf-, or goblin-king); but honestly I think current literary fashions are too wussy on this topic. Nobody's not going to recognize the Indian/European metaphor, and using aliens or fantasy races as stand-ins for The Human Other is not only an over-used tactic, it's one that obscures the core problem more than it enables healing of it. All human cultures are both intrinsically valid and capable of routinely doing morally indefensible things and defending them with moral and practical arguments. It's time we dealt with that instead of pussyfooting around it all the time.

P.S. The arm is much better. I can still feel it, but I slept without pain pills last night and dressed myself this morning!

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