Friday, July 20, 2007

Beverly Slapin's "How to Turn a Traditional Indian Story into a Children's Book (For Fun and Profit)

Today's post is a provocative essay by my friend and colleague, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

A lot of you may take issue with it. I ask you to consider how it might feel if it were your specific culture, ethnic group, church group, family, whose stories were being turned into a children's book....

And that this practice was happening for--literally--hundreds of years....

And that this was being done without your knowledge or input...

And that those who were doing it were trivializing your most fundamental ways of thinking about the world...

And that through these books, literally (again) millions of children were "learning" about who you are...

And that "learning" led people to love, cherish, honor, respect and emulate you and your ways.

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How to Turn a Traditional Indian Story into a Children’s Book (for fun and profit)

1. Go to a special collections library and peruse the traditional Indian stories told to and written down by non-Indian anthropologists. Don’t worry about asking anyone’s permission to use or change the stories you discover—Indians may consider many of them sacred, but according to copyright law, they are public domain and yours for the taking.


2. Choose a particular story that resonates with you. Carefully extricate all of its cultural markers. Be sure to remain oblivious to the language and lives of the people whose story you hold in your hands. That way, you can be more objective.


3. Magnify the details you think are important—and get rid of everything else. Cut out all references to violence, sex, bodily functions, spiritual beliefs, or anything else you don’t particularly like or understand.


4. Belabor the prose to make it seem more authentic. For instance, if the story reads, “There was no fire here then, only far upriver at world’s end,” change it to: “Long ago, the animal people had no fire. Day and night, they huddled in their houses in the dark, and ate their food uncooked. In the winter, they were so cold, icicles hung from their fur. Oh, they were miserable!”


5. Improve on the dialogue. Let your imagination run wild. If the story reads, “I am going!”, change it to: “Farewell, my parents, and do not grieve. I have another home under the sea and I’m going there!”


6. Find a talented illustrator who is good at copying artifacts in a museum. Make sure he has seen “Dances With Wolves.” Or, forget about authenticity altogether—find an artist whose imagination is as fanciful as yours. In any event, make sure that the illustrations match your interpretation—your vision, if you will—of your story.


7. Have your manuscript and illustrations vetted by several non-Indian anthros. Make sure to thank them in the introduction. Call up an Indian, too—any Indian. Even if she hangs up on you, you can thank her in your introduction. After all, she picked up the phone when you called.


8. Think up an imaginative title that will make a publisher see in­come potential. Calling your story a Coyote story is good. Publishers like things called Coyote stories, even if they’re not. If the publisher bites, you can always make your story a Coyote story.


9. Remember to write under your title the phrases, “a Native American legend” (or “myth”) and “retold by” (you).


10. After your manuscript and illustrations are complete, write a short preface about the Indians who “told” this “myth” or “legend.” (Remember to discuss them in the past tense.) Also make sure to refer to Indian spiritual beliefs (even if you don’t really know anything about them) as “superstitions.”


11. Done! Now sit back and collect your awards. Be well praised by reviewers for your warm, sensitive, storytelling and the sympathetic voice you have given to “America’s first people.”


12. Be prepared to sit on multicultural panels throughout the country, educating and enlightening the thousands of eager teachers and librarians who thirst for your knowledge.


(Thank-you to Clara Yen and Katy Horning.)

© 2007 Beverly Slapin

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5 comments:

k8 said...

That is beautiful! And hilarious and sad at the same time, of course.

Ellen said...

You say..."A lot of you may take issue with it. I ask you to consider how it might feel if it were your specific culture, ethnic group, church group, family, whose stories were being turned into a children's book...."
I feel sad and jealous sometimes when I read your blog because I feel a sense of loss that I don't have this wonderful culture to draw on and to have as part of my life. I can't identify with a specific culture, ethnic group, etc., even though I recognize that I was raised in a particular way that grounds and shapes how I view the world, because I was raised in a particular social environment. I feel very generic in my background-a confused mess of white European heritages. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult for people like me to comprehend how Native Americans feel about the appropriation of stories. My heritage and ethnicity is so generic, that it is being used all the time in stories.
I do appreciate this blog, because it opens me to new ways of thinking about the books I read.

Mindy said...

Ellen Said..."I feel very generic in my background-a confused mess of white European heritages. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult for people like me to comprehend how Native Americans feel about the appropriation of stories."

That is exactly how I feel. I don't understand what it would be like to have my culture's stories turned into a children's book because I feel like I have no meaningful culture or ethnic group. I don't even have any stories for people to take. I am simply a white person. What does THAT even mean? Then I feel bad complaining about my lack of heritage when compared to a lot of people with "real" cultures, I've had it pretty easy. At least they have something to be proud of and something to fight for. The more I learn about "white people" the more I am shouldered with guilt that was never personally mine.

Definitely a good blog though. I never thought about the thoughtlessness of some writers. Another proud moment of "white" culture, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

ellen and mindy,

people are not completely defined by their ethnicity. find something that is sacred to you. find something to believe in.

Anonymous said...

This article is SO perfect, I must bookmark it and share it with some of the writers I'm friends with. Thanks for the very NOT-OFFENSIVE sarcasm/irony.

And to Ellen and Mindy, you DO have unique heritage(s) to seek out--but part of suppressing the voices of the people who have been subjugated is to make the voices of "our" culture into an inexorable monolith.

I knap stone blades and people often ask me about my "Native American" hobby. I'm quick to correct them: my ancestors, Northern Europeans of several specific point-origins, were not born with steel cutlery sets tied to their umbilical cords. ALL people held some technologies in common. In pursuing better skill at knapping, I examine the techniques specific to the part of the world now known as Germany.