Sunday, November 24, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Free-Range Normal

So every Thanksgiving, I see the same things.

Christmas decorations.


Pilgrims and Indians.

Complaints about the historical inaccuracy and insensitivity of popular portrayals of pilgrims and Indians.

You know what I don't see?

Historically accurate portrayals of pilgrims and Indians. By which I do not mean jokes about what a bad idea it was for Native Americans to feed invading white people, which are - face it - a further reinforcement of the traditional imagery that puts nothing constructive or interesting on the table. Names like Wampanoag and Massasoit are too unfamiliar to the general public to joke with.

So isn't it time to address that?

Isn't it time for a Wampanoag-eye fictional treatment of the prototypical "first Thanksgiving?"

For that matter, isn't it way past time for the great Iroquois domestic novel? The historical romance which isn't half-European? If we must have clash-of-cultures, mixed-race romance, what on earth is wrong with a hero or heroine who is an escaping slave making a new life with the Seminole? (Hmm...the Cherokee kept slaves...) The war novel about the clashes between different tribes, with Europeans at most an annoying and trivial side presence? The story of epic technological change and cultural upheaval following the reintroduction of the horse? The pre-Columbian murder mystery? Or political novel?

The pre-Columbian anything that doesn't read like an epic fantasy, for that matter.

I told one of the other attendees at the Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference that it was my ambition to write Pleistocene domestic novels. No culture is exotic or romantic to its own members. One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows us to get out of our own points of view and experience someone else's normal. This applies at the writing end as well as the reading end. It is not true - and I have never met an author of color who thinks that it is - that white people can't write about the experience of non-white people. That's only a poor-mouthed backasswards way of saying that authors of color can't write about mainstream experience independent of race issues, which is obviously and completely wrong. My books with non-white protagonists (Margo's House, The Music Thief, and 11,000 Years Lost) have received nothing but positive support from the black and Hispanic people who have remarked on them to me. But the danger of crossing the line between inspiration and appropriation (a line that falls, I believe, exactly on the line between recognition of and assumption of privilege; if you write cross-culturally, do so with a humble heart!) is real; and it is, miserably, statistically true that it's easier for a white author to sell a cross-cultural book than for an American Indian to sell a book of any sort.

We need more writers from American Indian backgrounds, and we need them to be better known. Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, and Cyn Smith can hardly be expected to do the job of spreading normality all themselves; especially since "American Indian" and "Native American" are umbrella terms covering many different normalities which are treated as a single entity by mainstream culture. So the experience of being Indian is not the same as the experience of being Muskogee, or Navajo, or Cherokee, or -

Apart from pushing books at people, and despite writing protagonists who aren't like me, I'm limited in my ability to contribute here. And it bugs me to realize that it's not at all unlikely that someone out there will read these words and say snappishly: "I'm trying! But the damn lily-white publishing industry keeps rejecting them!" Because, yeah, even this far into the digital revolution, the publishing industry is still depressingly white. And straight. And all the rest of it.

I'm kind of hoping to be inundated with links to indies and e-publications that do everything that I suggest here isn't being done, or not done enough. That would be nice.

Happy Turkey Week, anyhow. And try to believe it's not about imperialism, but about getting a day off in the middle of the week to get together with your family, bake pies together in a nice warm kitchen, and eat yourself into a stupor.

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