Sunday, February 07, 2010

Tony Hillerman

I had an email earlier today, asking if I recommend Tony Hillerman's books.  I've skimmed some of them and didn't like what I read. Though I've not analyzed them, I do not recommend them.

Larry Emerson, Dine (Navajo) said this about Hillerman:

"Tony Hillerman privileged & authorized himself to write about Navajos & in doing so appropriated, re-imagined, and recreated "Hillerman Navajos" at the expense of Diné realities. Hillerman created a new domain [read dominion] of knowledge while cashing in at the same time."
I met Larry a few years ago when he was a post doctoral fellow here with us (American Indian Studies, University of Illinois).  Consider his words " the expense of Dine realities."  Hillerman wrote mysteries that sold well, but what do his books do for the people he wrote about? Glancing at the titles, it is clear he liked writing about sacred aspects of the Dine people, but what are the Dine realities Emerson refers to?  You might read Navajo news media to get a sense of their realities, the things they contend with. Here's some sites to read:

Navajo Nation (tribal website)
Navajo Times.
Navajo Hopi Observer


OrganicSchool said...

This posting helped me a lot! As I've been looking over your recommended titles and wondering what your standards of selection are, I couldn't pinpoint any specific aesthetic, genre, or literary convention that consistently earns your approval. But in this posting you asked of Hillerman "what do his books do for the people he wrote about?" So the social benefits that result from publication--those are the things you look for in a book before recommending it?

Debbie Reese said...

Welcome back, OrganicSchool. (In January, OrganicSchool commented on "Kenneth Thomasma's books" located here:

When I study a book, top of the list for me is whether or not the author has accurately portrayed the nation(s) or tribe(s) he/she is writing about. When I write about a book, I point out those errors.

It does not matter to me, for example, if the author has done a beautiful job of writing a particular story. Any beauty it may have is lost if there are misrepresentations and/or biased portrayals of American Indians.

American's love to love American Indians, but most of what they "love" is a fiction. A romantic, heroic, tragic image that was, generally speaking, created by a white writer.

In the development of those images, stories and characters, the realities of who American Indians were, and are, is lost or omitted.

People love American Indian folktales and historical fiction. Both confine American Indians to a long-ago time period, allowing readers to love Indians from a distance. Instead, I'd much prefer you read books about today's American Indians, written by Native writers. What do they want to tell you about? What do they deem most important?

Instead of giving your children Kenneth Thomasma's books, why not give them something by Joseph Bruchac or Cynthia Leitich Smith? If you want to give them historical fiction, give them Louise Erdrich's BIRCHBARK HOUSE.

For yourself, instead of Hillerman's mystery books, read Laura Tohe's work. Or Esther Belin. I was at a poetry reading on Friday night and heard both women read. Their writing is powerful. Take a look at it.

OrganicSchool said...

Thanks for the title suggestions--and yes, I'm trying to get my children interested in other books. But I struggle with the whole "Mom--this book is BORING!" issue. If Kenneth Thomasma gets them reading, I think "Yay! They're reading!" but then feel guilty after reading your blog, like I'm creating racially insensitive students because they read bad white man books. Certainly *I* have a more holistic approach to reading, but with the kids, I'm just happy to see them not using the TV! So do I force them to stop reading Thomasma (by giving away the books and replacing them with your recommendations), or do I tell them how wrong Thomasma was and just hope that they will abandon him on their own?

Ugh--as you can see, we parent educators have it pretty hard. Dilemmas, decisions, guilt! Would probably be easier if I just stuck them in public school, where they'll read "Holes" and "Bridge to Terabithia" like everyone else, but darn it, I'm trying to NOT go that way!

Felix Zamora said...