Monday, March 29, 2010


I recently read a galley copy of Nancy Bo Flood's Warriors in the Crossfire (Front Street, 2010). Flood is a gifted writer. Her book is a page-turner and a quick read. 

There are, however, specific parts of the book that give me pause. One example is her descriptions of a dance that Joseph (the main character) does. Given my study of the (inaccurate/romanticized/stereotypical) ways that American Indians are portrayed in most children's and young adult literature, I wondered if Flood's portrayals of the Chamoru (also spelled Chamorro) and Carolinian people---from their dance to their stories---was accurate.

As of this writing (March 29, 2010), reviews from two journals are available. Kirkus gave the book a favorable review, saying
"The understated design, which includes Japanese characters in the chapter titles and brief, impressionistic poems as chapter lead-ins, makes this volume stand out. An important and little-known perspective on World War II." 
while the review in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books was more qualified:
The narration, however, rings with the formal, stilted cadence generally associated with Hollywood portrayals of cultural outsiders in films of decades past: “‘Kento, I must carry my father to the sea. I cannot carry my father alone.’ Kento did not look up. ‘I am sorry, Joseph. I cannot help you’; “You have turned your back on us. . . . You have become . . . Japanese.” Nonetheless, readers who can visualize the living, breathing characters behind the awkwardly mannered voices will be rewarded with a heart-pounding reimagining of desperate times. A historical note is appended Review Code: Ad -- Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. 
The Bulletin's reviewer zeroed in on cadence, referencing Hollywood portrayals of cultural outsiders. That is similar to my concerns with the ways that Flood describes dance (p. 40):
“I had learned from my father the ancient words of the chants and the ancient movements–the leaping, twisting, striking stick against stick. Gleaming with sweat and coconut oil, we danced, beating the rhythm faster and louder. Slapping, whirling, chanting our battle cries, we called to our ancestors. Guide us! Give us strength to leap, to fly, to defeat our enemies.” 
"Leaping", and "twisting" and "faster and "louder"...  Flood's words and image sound a lot like outsider description. In a lot of children’s and YA lit, outsiders describing Native dance say that Native people “stomp” and “leap” and “hop.” See, as one example, page 8 of Sign of the Beaver, or, the illustrations of dance in Dancing with the Indians, or Peter Pan, or, Little House on the Prairie, or, Touching Spirit Bear, or Walk Two Moons, or.... (you get the picture).

I've seen videos of the stick dancing Flood is describing, and it doesn't match with her description. Maybe it is not the same dance.  Still, though, I can't imagine an indigenous person describing dance quite that way. That whole section of her book could have been done differently. She could have had Joseph telling the reader how the Japanese describe the indigenous dances. She does this a little bit on page 32, when she writes "But to the Japanese, we are all the same, we are natives, barbaric outsiders, gai-jin."

Like Lyn Miller-Lachman, Warriors in the Crossfire inspired me to learn more about WWII, Saipan, the indigenous peoples of Saipan, Japanese occupation of Saipan, and, the samurai.

I have a copy of Chamoru Childhood, a collection of stories written by Chamoru people. I wrote about it a few months ago here. Knowing Keith Camacho, one of the Chamoru authors in the book, also figures prominently in how I'm responding to Flood's book.

From Keith, I learned about We Drank Our Tears: Memories of the Battles for Saipan and Tinian. The latter is a collection of stories told by men and women who lived through the invasion of Saipan. If you wish, you can go here and see a little of what the book contains. The page includes a bit of info about Benita Borja Cepeda's story, as told to her granddaughter, Madisa Lisa Messo Omni. There are photographs of both, and, the art at the bottom of the page is done by Madisa. Here's an excerpt about the book:
A project of the Pacific STAR Young Writers Foundation under the direction of Katharyn Tuten-Puckett, this new book is a moving collection of stories told to CNMI school children by their elders who experienced the war when they, themselves, were children. Each of the 74 stories, related by the students and accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations and photographs of the students and the elder who's story is being told, is a unique and memorable experience. No one who reads these stories can help but be struck with a profound sense of awe, respect and admiration for these families who's courage and perseverance brought them through the war.

We Drank Our Tears is important as a history. But perhaps its greater value is in the sharing of the collective experiences that define modern-day Chamorros and Refalawash people. Whether you live on-island or off, this book belongs on your shelf and in the hands of young readers who can only benefit from knowing something of the recent past that had such a profound affect on their parents and grandparents who lived it. It can go a long way toward bridging the generation gap with appreciation and understanding.
I've ordered a copy of We Drank Our Tears and look forward to it. 

In the meantime, I'll work on my analysis of Warriors in the Crossfire. I've got lots of questions. Like on page 39, the Emperor has ordered a victory celebration, and Japanese officials command the men and women of the village to perform. They do "sacred warrior dances." The Japanese men and women sit in chairs and watch the dance. I'd like to know more about that command to dance.

Update, March 30, 6:52 PM
To see a previous discussion of tribal protocols on intellectual property, go here.


Debbie Reese said...

A few days ago, Flood's marketing assistant sent an email invitation asking 30 or so people to visit Julie Larios blog, where Flood was being interviewed.

I joined the discussion, but sent to many comments. Larios decided to delete one of my comments, and not approve the others for upload. She asked her readers to come to my site to see what I had to say.

I reciprocate by providing the link to her blog and interview of Flood.

There, as here, I suggested that indigenous people of Saipan might feel the same way about dance as I do. Ms. Larios asked if my suggestion might be stereotypical, that I am lumping all indigenous people together. It is a fair question.

I made the suggestion, knowing that occupying forces treat indigenous peoples much the same. Wherever we are, we are called pagan or heathen. We are seen as "uncivilized" and there were concerted efforts to persecute us for conducting our ceremonies.

Because of all that persecution, indigenous peoples took those practices underground, guarding them carefully from outsiders. Many ethnographers and early anthropologists used underhanded and devious tactics to gain information that indigenous people did not want to share.

But back to Julie's question... did the indigenous people of Saipan guard their stories and dance?

I'm digging in, reading articles about Micronesia. Here's some of what I've read. This is from "Microneasian World War II Songs and Chants" by Tammy Duchesne. The article is in the MICRONESIAN JOURNAL OF THE HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCE, available online here:

"While doing research on Kapingamarangi, Kenneth Emory realized that many informants were reluctant or unwilling to let him have access to their knowledge and history."

Later in the article is this:

"While most Micronesian indigenous history is treated as intellectual property, carefully guarded and transmitted only under restricted conditions, stories of the war are largely free of these constraints."

Situating Flood's book in this context is interesting. She's telling a war story, which they do want told. But, she's also telling sacred story and describing sacred dance, which they do NOT want to happen.

Debbie Reese said...

In my post, I noted that I want to know more about Joseph's people being commanded to dance.

In the article I noted in the comment above, there is this:

"While in many cases song, dance, fiestas, feasts, or speaking the native language were prohibited, when they could get away with it, Micronesians subversively practiced their traditional culture to maintain normalcy and familiarity."


"Although often prohibited, many Micronesians found ways to practice dance, song, (and love) discreetly and were eager to do so when they could."

Macey Flood said...

Okay, I know it is unusual and unorthodox to post a comment about your mother's book, but I grew up on Saipan. Nancy Bo Flood is my mother and I spent my formative years in the Northern Marianas Islands, having frequent contact with the very culture that is currently undergoing a bout of literary tug-of-war.

Having been raised in the South Pacific, I have long wondered about the concept of cultural credentials or copyrighting. Does culture reside in our skin color? Our ethnic background? Our place of birth? Does the Ojibwa child born and raised in Minneapolis more entitled to his or her culture than an Anglo child raised on a reservation? What about people who have parents from different cultures? Am I relegated to be classified as a Colorado-an alone, my birthplace?

If the issue at hand is Nancy Bo Flood’s South Pacific cultural credentials, then there is in no contest as to her suitability as an authoress. Her closest friends included the previously mentioned “keeper of the dance”, Felipe Ruak, and his son Joseph. My father was one of the first (and few) Caucasian-Americans to be included on a traditional (i.e., sans compass, maps, and motor) canoe voyage from the island of Polowat to Saipan. He wasn’t invited as a tourist. Nancy was recognized by the people of Saipan, the CNMI Humanities Council, a council whose leadership is entirely local, for her work in recording traditional legends, compiling a book of local voices, and developing the first Pacific Native Literature course for the college. I sensed satisfaction in her work in promoting these little-recognized cultural masterpieces – the song, dance, and stories of the Pacific Islanders. These people are proud of their heritage, happy to have it translated for an English speaking audience through the empathy and careful research of Nancy Flood. I believe she has made clear that she was in accord with the wishes of Felipe Ruak in writing about the dance. For more information about the Rapagnor/Rufalawasch people and their history, I direct you to “Leiweila”, a documentary co-directed by a Caucasian-American poetess who also lived on Saipan for a long time.

Of course indigenous peoples do not wish to see their birthrights trampled on by the often blatant stereotypes that seem to plague children’s literature. By all means, please, tell the stories of your people. But I agree with Julie in that storytelling has always been a place for humans to stretch from everyday experience into the imagination. And this must be done with respect, empathy, and above all, honesty. I believe my mother has fulfilled these requirements, and through them has crafted a beautiful, rich, and important work.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Macey,

I want to be clear on one thing: I don't think your mother was devious, underhanded, or deceptive, and I don't think she is being dishonest, either. I believe the statements she made at Julie Larios blog, where she wrote:

I worked for a number of years with Joseph Ruak, the current "keeper of the dance" on Saipan. Joseph was my cultural guide many times. His family is dear to me. His father, Filipe, to whom the book, Warriors in the Crossfire, is dedicated, and his mother, Rufina, are amazing people who survived the war, survived the long years of rebuilding afterwards."

I don't question the relationship she has with the Ruak family.

Where I disagree with her is on what she does with the stories.

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie -

Thanks for raising an interesting discussion. What I found troubling about the comments on Larios' blog is the implication that it is an author's inherent right to portray other cultures and ideas from other cultures. Why would being a writer (or artist photographer, etc.) give someone this right? I lived for three years in Nepal, and I wouldn't begin to assume that I have enough knowledge or understanding to write a children's book about any of the diverse cultures there. Even if I did, I wouldn't write such a book because I believe it should be written by a Nepali, not me. I found Larios' comparison to Paul Farmer strange, because my understanding of Farmer's work is that having Partners in Health be primarily Haitian run is a key component. But an outsider writing a portrayal doesn't seem like an accurate comparison; I would think that the comparison would be an outsider encouraging local people to write their own stories, right?

Debbie Reese said...


On Larios blog, Flood said that she hopes people will see

"the Rafalawash and Rapaganor people not as past tense, not as stereotypes, but know they exist and their children 'stare at the stars and reach for the moon.'"

She has good intentions, but, the writing itself does not do what she wants it to do. She affirms stereotypical and exotic "other" ideas about indigenous dance and people.

One of the most powerful stereotypes around is about how Indian people dance. It is generally portrayed as a frenzied, wild sort of thing. In my blog post above I provided an excerpt from page 40. Here's more (page 41):

"Usually when my father danced, he laughed and joked, urging us to dance faster, sing louder. He would leap high into the air, twisting and spinning, sweat flying from his wild black hair."

"wild black hair"---See what I mean?

And in that excerpt from page 40 "gleaming with sweat and coconut oil" and on page 74, Joseph's father's dark skin "glistened with oil." That is the exotic other.