Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Native Perspective on Francesca Lia Block's CHEROKEE BAT AND THE GOAT GUYS

Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat is a much acclaimed book. When published in 1989, it was hailed as groundbreaking, primarily for its inclusion of a gay teen relationship. I had not read it until a few days ago. While I agree that its LGBTQ content was something to celebrate, that content is overshadowed by Block's depiction of Weetzie as someone who is "into Indians." To demonstrate being "into Indians," Weetzie makes and wears headdresses for herself and later, for her baby.

Pink Smog, published in 2012, is set in the years prior to Weetzie Bat. Over a decade had elapsed since Weetzie Bat was published. I'd hoped that Pink Smog might give us the back story for why Weetzie was "into Indians" but what I got instead was more problematic content. In Pink Smog, Block called Cher (the singer) an "Indian American." That is problematic because, to my knowledge, Cher herself never said she was "Indian American." Perhaps Block meant "American Indian" but I don't know that Cher ever said she was Native, either. Surely Block knows there is a difference between "Indian American" and "American Indian."

Two days ago, I read Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. I've got post-it notes sticking out all over because its got a lot more Native content than Weetzie Bat or Pink Smog. 

Characters in the book are:

  • Cherokee Bat, daughter of Weetzie Bat and My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck (yeah, it is never clear who the father is... Weetzie slept with all three)
  • Raphael, son of Weetzie's friends. Raphael's dad is a Rastafarian named Valentine Jah-Love and Raphael's mom is a Chinese woman named Ping Chong
  • Witch Baby, daughter of My Secret Agent Lover Man is half-sister to Cherokee.
  • Angel Juan (more about him later)

In Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, high-schoolers Cherokee and her peers are living alone while their parents are out of the country, making a movie.

Cherokee Bat has five chapters: Wings, Haunches, Horns, Hooves, and Home. Each chapter is prefaced with a poem (I use that word with some trepidation because Native expressions such as these are not necessarily poems) and a personal letter by, or to, Cherokee. Each poem is credited to Native people.  On the page opposite the dedication (front of the book), Block tells us that one of the poems came from Ruth Underhill's Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona and the others came from John Bierhorst's In the Trail of the Wind. (Note: I haven't studied Underhill or Bierhorsts books and can't say that I'd recommend them.)

The Wings chapter begins with "Wind Song" credited as "Pima Indian."

The Haunches chapter begins with "Song of Encouragement" credited as "Papago Indian."

The Horns chapter begins with "Song of the Fallen Deer" credited as "Pima Indian."

The Hooves chapter begins with "Omen" credited as "Aztec Indian."

The Home chapter begins with "Dream Song" credited as "Wintu Indian."

I provide those details because Block provided them.

It seems to me that Block knew it is important to be specific.... to be tribally specific in how she presented the poems.

Seeing her attention to that detail makes me wonder where that attention went when she developed the character of Coyote, an "Indian" man who figures prominently in Cherokee Bat. A friend of Cherokee's parents, he is, more-or-less, supposed to keep an eye on Cherokee while her parents are gone. On the hill where his house is located, Coyote chants, dances, and does ceremonies. And, he's got powers.

But what tribe does Coyote belong to?!

Block doesn't tell us. Coyote does all sorts of "Indian" things---or at least the sort of "Indian" things that new-age folks do. New age practices are highly suspect and pretty soundly denounced by Native people who view new age practices as misguided appropriation of Native spiritualities.

Let's take a closer look at Coyote.

On page 16, Cherokee goes to him for help. Witch Baby (her half-sister) is burying herself in mud. It isn't clear to me why she is doing that, but clearly, she is not well. Coyote and Cherokee stand together chanting:
"Wind, bring us the feathers that birds no longer need," Coyote chanted. "Hawk and dove. Tarred feathers of the gull. Shimmer peacock plumes. Jewel green of parrots and other kept birds. Witch Baby needs help leaving the mud."
The wind picks up, full of feathers. Cherokee gathers them and Coyote tells her to make wings for Witch Baby. She makes the wings and plans to give them to Witch Baby at her birthday party. They make salsa and hang pinatas all over but Witch Baby won't come out of the shack she's hiding in, covered with mud. Suddenly, "Angel Juan" enters the party:
He was carrying a bass guitar and was dressed in baggy black pants, a white shirt buttoned to the collar and thick black shoes.
Angel Juan is an old friend they lost track of years before. Raphael asks where he's been:
"Mexico," said Angel Juan. "I've been playing music there since my family and I were sent back." 
While I'm glad that Block acknowledges the experience of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, I think her writing is very superficial. Mexicans/Mexican Americans and American Indians are superficially and stereotypically present in her books. I think I could say the same about Rastafarians and Chinese.

Using that content in that way is precisely what makes it possible for some people to think they're knowledgeable about 'other,' when they aren't. It is what makes it possible for people to embrace and honor American Indians with stereotypical mascots. It is what makes it possible for people to think it is cool to have Tacos and Tequila parties where they don sombreros, eat tortilla chips, and drink margaritas.

Block has a legion of fans, many of whom came to her through the Weetzie Bat books. They're vehement in their defense of her work. Maybe they're guilty of the same sort of ignorance about other that she displays in her work. Maybe her depictions mirror theirs, and my criticism of her depictions is taken (as it should be) as a criticism of their ignorance.

As I said before, I understand that Weetzie Bat was important because of its inclusion of a gay relationship, but I can't see myself recommending the books to anyone. They are an affront to people whose culture is stereotyped. Left unchecked, they reify and affirm those stereotypes as valid depictions of the people who they misrepresent.

Here's some other gems (not) from the book:

p. 38
At Christmas, Witch Baby and Cherokee decorated a tree:
with feathers, beads, and miniature globes; Kachina, Barbie, and Japanese baby dolls; and Mexican skeletons.
Their gifts from Coyote?
"Indian birth charts for everyone--Cherokee the deer, Witch Baby the raven, Raphael and Angel Juan the elks.
WTF is an Indian birth chart?!

p. 55
"Coyote told me about Indian women who fell in love with men because of their flute playing and got nosebleeds when they heard the music because they were so excited," Cherokee said.

p. 67
Cherokee goes running with Coyote:
She glanced over at his profile--the proud nose, the flat dreamy eyelids, the trail of blue-black hair.

p. 67-68
Here's more info about Coyote:
Coyote was tall. He never smiled. He had chosen to live alone, to work and mourn and see visions, in a nest above the smog. The animals came to him when he spoke their names. He was full of grace, wisdom and mystery. He had seen his people die, wasted on their lost lands.
Wait wait wait... is he one of those last surviving Indians? The last of his tribe? (I'm being snarky.) And what the f*** is that last bit about?

p. 69
Coyote says:
"My people are great runners, Cherokee. They go on ritual runs. Before these they abstain from eating fatty meat and from sexual relations. These things can drain us."
Another WTF moment. WHO ARE HIS PEOPLE? Without the info, there's little to do with regard to verifying the prep for "ritual runs."

And towards the end, things have gotten so bad with Cherokee and the Goat Guys that Coyote has to help them out with a "healing circle" where they say their names out loud "so that our ancestor spirits will come and join us" (p. 108). They do this by candlelight. Then, they do "sacred dances" in which Coyote jumps into the air and plays his drum. They join him, jumping and leaping as high as they can. And then! Then Coyote tells them they have to "dance our animal spirit" (p. 109). Coyote crouched, hunched his shoulders... his eyes flash and his face becomes lean and secretive. The others change, too. Ravens fly, deer prance, and "obsidian elks" dream.


Monday, May 06, 2013

"Indian American" in Francesca Lia Block's PINK SMOG

A few days ago, I wrote about Francesca Lia Block's now-classic Weetzie Bat. Although I appreciate that the gay relationship in it was groundbreaking in 1989 when it was published, I can't--and won't--move past Block's portrayal of American Indians. Or, I should say, her MISportrayal of Native culture.

I started reading Pink Smog this evening. Ping Smog is new. Published in 2012, it is billed as a prequel to Weetzie Bat. It is about Weetzie in junior high school in L.A.  It is easier to read than Weetzie Bat, which is filled with oddly named characters right away. I stumbled each time I had to read and write out the name of Weetzie's boyfriend, My Secret Agent Lover Man.


Imagine me on my couch, reading Pink Smog.

Now, imagine me reading at the top of page 27, where Weetzie is talking about Cher:
Sometimes she'd be an Indian American with feathers, straddling a horse, and sometimes she'd be a showgirl with feathers.
Now imagine me rolling my eyes.

Indian American? Really?! Surely Block knows that "Indian American" is commonly used to refer to Indians from India who live in the United States and identify as Indian and American!

Ok, well, maybe she does NOT know that... Maybe it isn't that widely known. But what about her editor? Doesn't her editor know the difference?

Based on the excerpts of Editorial Reviews on the Amazon page, people think Pink Smog is "intoxicating" and "sparkles." Obviously it does for some people, but for me--a Native reader--the "Indian American" shatters anything I might call sparkly about the story. And I'm guessing that Indian American readers might have that same feeling of being yanked out of the story by the author's ignorance.

Ah well.

Just for kicks, here's Cher in the feathers, on the horse:

Do I want to look up Cher's identity? Is she Native? I don't think so, but I'm calling it a night. Not looking up Cher.

I read Pink Smog thinking that it might shed some light on why Weetzie is "into Indians" (in Weetzie Bat), but other than the reference to Cher, the "Indian American," there's nothing about Native people or culture.

Next up? I've got copies of Baby BeBop and Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys... What will I find in them?