Saturday, May 10, 2008

Response from Ben Mikaelsen re TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Over on the listserv for California's librarians, I posted my critique of Touching Spirit Bear. It sparked some discussion. The moderator said he thought it was getting personal in nature and that the conversation ought to be dropped. In the meantime, he said he'd ask the book's author, Ben Mikaelsen, about my concerns. Yesterday, the moderator posted a reply from Mikaelsen. The moderator said the discussion is closed, that the author should have the final word. I disagree but respect his decision and will not continue that conversation on that listserv. However, I do think further conversation is necessary, so will do that here.

A brief note for now: I understand the desire to feel sympathy for Mikaelsen, or to defend freedom of speech and his freedom to write what he wants to. My concern lies with the children who read (in this case) his books:
  • the Tlingit children who read his book and know he misrepresents their culture, and
  • the non-Tlingit children who may think they've learned something about Tlingit culture.
When I first read Mikaelsen's book a few years ago, I read somewhere (can't recall) that he had been on an airplane with a Tlingit elder who told him about the Tlingit people and their ways. At that time, I wrote to Mikaelsen (through his website) to verify that story, and someone replied (not Mikaelsen) saying that had not happened. That person did not offer any additional information.

Below is Mikaelsen's response. I invite your comments, and am working on a reply that I will post in the next few days.

From: Ben Mikaelsen []
Sent: Friday, May 09, 2008 9:09 AM
To: Pilling, George
Subject: Touching Spirit Bear

Hello George,

So nice to talk with you. Please feel free to post this on the blog if you feel it appropriate. Normally I don't feel confronting people serves much purpose. In this case, however, this lady is using her position to spread such misleading and erroneous information. Let me know what you think.

Touching Spirit Bear has not received much criticism from inside or outside the Native American or First Nation Community since publication. Most people who know me, know how thoroughly I researched the Tlingit culture. I had any number of Tlingits review the manuscript for me to make sure I had it "right." The few criticisms I have received have been from people who subscribe to the notion that unless you share a perspective, you cannot write to it. Using this logic, I could not have written my book Tree Girl because it holds a female perspective. I could not have written Petey or Stranded because they contained a disabled person's perspective. Sparrow Hawk Red, Red Midnight and Countdown would not have been valid because of the Hispanic and Maasai cultures they portrayed. The irony of Countdown is the biggest criticism I ever received on that book was from a black professor. She accused me of not being remotely accurate with my portrayal of Maasai culture. Ironically, that book has been used for years in Tanzania in their public girls' schools specifically because they like the accurate portrayal of the Maasai.

As for my accuracy in Touching Spirit Bear, I stand by what I've written and can defend every word. The Tlingit culture was peripheral to my story so there was no need to go into cultural aspects in great depth. Anybody familiar with any of the First Nation Cultures knows that their cultures are very complex and a person can spend a lifetime learning all the nuances. This was not possible or necessary for my purposes. This said, all of the healing methods portrayed, carrying the ancestor rocks, dancing the dances, carving the totems, turning the clothes inside out, soaking the ponds, breaking the sticks of anger, etc., all were shared with me by a First Nation spiritual leader. How somebody would categorically say these methods aren't used in Tlingit culture resorts to a troubling level of stereotyping.

People within any culture can be wonderfully diverse in beliefs and life styles. The reality of Circle Justice is that it has been used in different forms by First Nation people for hundreds of years. I first heard about Circle Justice from a prosecuting attorney in Minneapolis who had gone up to the Yukon with several other lawyers and judges to learn Circle Justice methods from First Nation elders there. As for banishment, that is simply one form of Circle Justice. There was a case of banishment a few years ago that did not work in Alaska because the boys thought they were movie stars with the press coming out to the islands to interview them. Nothing about that event or anything written on that event had any influence on my book. I did interview three First Nation men in Canada who had each experienced banishment for an extended period when they were younger. Two of these men were Tlingit. I did not dream up any of the methods that I portrayed in the book which makes criticism of my use of these methods even more puzzling.

I offer the following thoughts. Over the course of my career, all of my books have drawn censorship challenges for a variety of reasons. A Newberry author who I choose to leave anonymous, sat me down once and said, "Ben, knowing you and how thoroughly you research your books, don't you realize that most criticism has nothing to do with your books. Most criticism comes from fanatical zealots who are trying to forward their own agendas. They are like bugs flying to a fire. They look for someone else's limelight because they do nothing to deserve their own." I also remember that same author's next admonition. "Ben, it is simple to avoid criticism and challenges, just write bland books that don't do you or the world any good. But I never thought that was what you were about."

I will end by saying simply that I have conducted my writing career with three simple rules. Every word I write must be well researched, be for the good of a child and come from my heart. I can proudly defend every one of my novels and say that every word written in both Touching Spirit Bear and its new sequel, Ghost of Spirit Bear, has met these tests. I can only dream of a world where all criticism meets that same standard.

Warmest thoughts, Ben Mikaelsen


Roger Sutton said...

Hi Debbie--how's your chili coming along? ;-) (We were both making some this weekend, but hers sounds better.)

I haven't read the Mikaelson book so I don't have a position on it; what interests me about your post is the listserv monitor ending discussion "because the author should have the last word." I can see lots of good reasons to end a discussion (often, people just keep reiterating their positions) but this one is peculiar-- and peculiar to the children's book field, which in its culture of Newbery speeches, school visits, etc. privileges the author as the most expert witness on his or her own work. Not so--writing a book and reading that same book are completely different experiences, and the author's point of view is, understandably, hardly disinterested.

Rob said...

Mikaelson writes, "All of the healing methods portrayed, carrying the ancestor rocks, dancing the dances, carving the totems, turning the clothes inside out, soaking the ponds, breaking the sticks of anger, etc., all were shared with me by a First Nation spiritual leader." Is that it? Was this spiritual leader a Tlingit? Did Mikaelson verify these methods in written sources or with Tlingit authorities?

Not that he indicates. If we take him at his word, he got the most questionable bits in his book from exactly one source who may not have been Tlingit. If that's supposed to be persuasive, it isn't.

k8 said...

Reading his email, I was immediately struck by the way he referred to you - "this lady." He doesn't seem able to use your name to refer to you, and the somewhat oblique "her position" doesn't really acknowledge your expertise and profession, which are both very important in the conversation.

I don't get the point of closing off the discussion. I will say that I notice people wanting to do that on the listserves I'm on that include fewer academics. I'm not entirely sure why that is. Some people unaccustomed to verbal dissent seem to want to hide from it and avoid conflict. I imagine they find it impolite, but it certainly doesn't need to be. Of course, I study rhetoric - I like argumentation.

But, part of the issue seems to be that people assume that if someone disagrees with them or tells them that they did something wrong, that person is accusing the person of being "bad." I see some of that in the author's letter to the listserve. His rhetorical moves throughout the text are ripe for analysis, particularly his references to unnamed others who can vouch for his "goodness." It is an interesting document.

And Roger's right - by making the author the last word on a text, we discount readers as agents who interpret those texts. That approach dictates a passive, uncritical audience, something I certainly hate to see taught to students learning about books/texts.

Anonymous said...

The author is the only one who knows the work that went into the writing of the book and also the motivation behind the story. It makes perfect sense to have the author clear up misconceptions about his book and leave it at that.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

If the author were able to clear up misperceptions, perhaps it would make some sense to 'leave it at that'. However, the author in this case does not give a name to his single source or the assorted folks he says reviewed the book. Claiming that I did all the necessary research is not the same as supporting that claim. Mikaelson could have easily referred critics to the eldr or to written source material and avoided the 'zealous fanatic' nonsense. He chose instead to make claims with nothing behind them. I don't feel that he cleared up any 'misperceptions'.

Anonymous said...

Having once been a journalist, I understand reluctance to share the names of one’s sources, but at the very least Mikaelsen needs to establish some credibility, given the history of that 1994 case and Mikaelson’s (apparently) veneer-thin familiarity with Tlingits (who by his description sound somewhat interchangeable -- note that “any number of Tlingits” read his manuscript).

The coverage of that 1994 case highlights a question I've had for awhile: what does an author do when writing outside his/her own area of cultural knowledge to discern whether any of his/her “informants” might be playing a joke? It's happened to anthropologists; why would it not happen to children's book authors?

And worse yet, there's evidence that writers/editors/publishers often IGNORE the advice of reliable informants when that advice conflicts with the goal of getting a book published…. Maybe for the same reasons they ignore the concerns expressed by readers who are from the culture being written about?

Mikaelsen says, “The few criticisms I have received have been from people who subscribe to the notion that unless you share a perspective, you cannot write to it.” (Write “to” it??)

That’s exactly the point. He has apparently not gotten the facts right, let alone the “perspective”. As I understand it, some Tlingit people ARE objecting to the Spirit Bear books. It’s disappointing that Mikaelsen seems willing to discount insiders’ concerns about his books – notice how tidily he discounts the assertion by “a black professor” that he (Mikaelsen) got Maasai lifeways wrong in another of his books.

Miriam said...

Like k8, the way Mikaelson referred to you really jumped out at me. "This lady"? Who says that about a critic these days? Oh, right...the patronizing white guy.

I think the fundamental issue here isn't the straw man he's setting up, which is that one can only write one's own experience. It's about how much responsibility one has to do research when writing outside one's own experience - a responsibility that I think becomes exponentially greater when one is writing from within a colonizing culture, writing about the people your society has colonized. It's a responsibility I doubt Mikaelson will ever acknowledge, given that his letter, which as rob and equa yona point out doesn't actually provide actual sources, basically is a variation on "But some of my best friends are Indian!"

Jane Hathaway said...

I really don't like the tone of Ben Mikaelsen's quote re: "fanatacal zealots...looking for someone else's limelight...not deserving their own," which is (and was meant to be) insulting to us all.

How about addressing Dr. Reese's (and the other commenters') specific points, Mr. Mikaelsen, in as respectful a manner as Dr. Reese is using?

Lindsay said...

I would first like to comment that I really appreciate your blog. As a childrens bookseller and someone who works with children in other venues, I use it very often as a resource. I feel compelled to comment after reading the response from Mikaelson, because I found it so offensive. It's a really good example of things I unfortunately see in books as well as being just a pervasive attitude in general. I actually haven't read any of Mikaelson's books and now certianly won't. First of all, I wonder why he feels the need to write about such a variety of cultures about which it seems he has no personal perspective. I'm not someone who necessary feels people shouldn't do that, but why such defensiveness about it? Basically, it comes down to a sense of entitlement; he's saying he has the right to define what is culturally accurate and what is not. If he had true dedication to accuracy and sensitivity he would let go and allow for critisism, because he would understand he doesn't have the right to set those peramaters. That sense of entitlement I get from his response is what really troubles me.
Thank you for listening to my thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Hello Debbie.
I can understand that Ben Mikaelsen may be not too accurate with the information about the Tlingit, however I do not think that he meant to. The story is not about the native americans really, it is more of a story of discovering one's self and finding hope and having taking the path of healing. Before I read this book, I had gone through depression, but this book changed my view on life. So I am very upset that this book is being bashed into a pulp. If this book was never published, I don't know if I would still be on Earth right now.

Anonymous said...

i guess i dont understand why this is such a big deal. this is a good book and children gain a great amount from it so why does it matter. leave the guy alone. He researched he wrote it.

Anonymous said...

As a Native American who happens to teach English to Exceptional Children, I find this debate disappointing. Fiction can be based on facts but by definition is not factual. Even if an author does research the culture he is writing about, there is no reason that he must follow it to the letter. I believe it is called “literary license.” This book is about more than just one isolated culture. When you see the difference such a story can have on our future generations, you realize the importance of the story. Some students learn more about themselves and anger management; I have had others become more interested in Native American cultures. They then learn by researching the difference between the written word, stories that are told and what some believe is the truth. You see just like any argument there are always two sides to the story and somewhere in between is the truth. Could there be some discrepancies form the stories to the actual culture? Sure, it is fiction after all. Please remember if all you ever look for is the negative that is all you will ever found. But, if you look for the positive, you just might see the positive, why don’t you give it a try.

Debbie Reese said...

Hey Anonymous,

You note that you are Native American. Can you tell us more about that?


Quijotesca said...

Ben Mikaelson's so frustrating. He's a really interesting guy but seems to appropriate all kinds of stuff. It just kind of makes me want to write a book about a mediocre children's author who lives in the mountains with a bear and not do any research at all. I did meet him once back before I was familiar with his work so that totally makes me an expert on him, right?

(Huh. Do I just like to respond to old posts or something? Well, my excuse for this one is the new tag.)

Sam Jonson said...

IF I could, I'd say to Mikaelsen:
Are you sure you know that that Tlingit elder wasn't lying to you? Sometimes Native elders have lied when asked about what spiritual practices they have, since they don't feel comfortable sharing their secret ways with an outsider who may plagiarize them or slander their culture. They've done that with anthropologists such as Elsie Clews Parsons. And have you read this article?:
Especially this part: "The purpose of banishment is to isolate a person so that, in solitude, he can think deeply about his life and relations, and prepare to rejoin his community. When someone is banished, he is left to learn on his own whatever is to be learned." So if—when—you rewrite your book, ensure that all the rituals that Cole performs come from his own mind and memory (perhaps of reading a flawed "nonfiction" book on Tlingit ritual), rather than from Edwin's orders. Oh, and have Edwin laugh every time he sees Cole doing that stuff.