Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dear John Green: About "Columbus brought smallpox to the Natives"

Editor's note: Please read the comments. The discussion taking place there is definitely worth some thought. And please submit your own comments, too. --Debbie

Dear John Green,

Like most of the people in the land of children's and young adult literature, I took time this morning to watch the trailer for the film based on your much acclaimed book, The Fault In Our Stars. I liked the characters and decided I best read the book.

I got The Fault In Our Stars (published in 2012 by Dutton Books) in ebook a few weeks ago. I settled on my couch and started reading. It was going along ok until chapter three when Hazel's mom wakes her up and gleefully announces that it is March 29th. She goes on to say Of her mom's "celebration maximization" Hazel thinks (the text is in all caps in the book):*
I stopped reading. I'm no longer with you as you tell this story. Now I'm just doing a "WTF does he mean by including that as part of a celebration?!"

I'm wondering if anyone else noticed that line? Rather, has anyone else objected to that line? I'm finding it a lot on the Internet, as something quotable. I don't get it.

Debbie Reese

*Update: an hour and a half after posting my "Dear John Green" letter

A reader on YALSA's listserv pointed out that the passage I excerpted above is what Hazel is thinking. I made the correction (hence the strike though text above).

As Wendy noted in a comment (below), it is sarcasm. Obviously, it didn't work for me. That subject (smallpox) is just too loaded for me.


Wendy said...

It's sarcasm, Debbie.

Anonymous said...

Writing flippant remarks about the suffering and demise of a whole race of people is not sarcasm. It's inappropriate and in bad taste not to mention racist, Wendy.

Anonymous said...

Some people take themselves too seriously.

Claire said...

The point is that Hazel is unimpressed with the shitty excuse of a holiday because she doesn't believe a man who was such an asshat should be celebrated.

Anonymous said...

Arguably, though, the joke is punching up, not down. The genocide committed against the indigenous people of the Americas is one of the worst in human history, and white Americans have the nerve to give Columbus his own holiday. We are laughing at the audacity and entitlements of those in power, not the misfortune of those trod underfoot.

Anonymous said...

@ anonymous who said "Some people take themselves too seriously" would you say that to a Jewish person who had relatives killed at Auschwitz?? I think why would you think it's ok to say that to American Indians?

Anonymous said...

Heavy sigh....none of you have to explain the context of the offensive remark. That's beside the point. My point is it never should have been said in the first place. White people are exhausting.

Wendy said...

Actually someone did have to explain the context, "anonymous", because Debbie misunderstood it, as she acknowledged. There's no point in having a debate about something no one actually said in the first place. I also have issues that are too hot-button for me to see humor in. If Debbie had said "yeah, I don't think that's funny, and Columbus Day is not even in the same category as Arbor Day," I wouldn't have commented. Personally I think it's a relatively clever remark that will have some teens thinking "wait, why DO we celebrate Columbus Day?" for the first time. But I totally respect that it does not work for Debbie.

Whether or not it is inappropriate, in bad taste, or racist, it is still sarcasm. And I doubt you know the ethnic backgrounds of the commenters here.

Anonymous said...

As a fan of John Green, TFIOS and as librarian, I can see John Green's sarcasm making a comment about the ridiculous-ness of some our American holidays. Like "let's take a day to celebrate a man who really didn't 'discover' the New World, and was a pushy European who was unkind to the Native people who had already been here for 1,000s of years." I completely understand that smallpox is something to not take lightly (as there are a lot of things), but I see it more as commentary on American holidays and how we inappropriately celebrate some things.

Anonymous said...


Is this appropriate? Yes or no? It's sarcasm right?

Please stop with the context crap, no one had to explain the context to me. The context is immaterial.

So, please answer my question, is this appropriate? Yes or no?

Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

I have to admit that I loved TFIOS and was not stopped by Hazel's thoughts. The sarcasm was in character. But in thinking of it a bit deeper I am really appalled at the fact that this did not stop me. Wendy is right in that this statement might make some teens think deeper about history from a perspective new to them...BUT Anonymous is really right about this:


Is this appropriate? Yes or no? It's sarcasm right?

No. Sarcasm or not, this is rather sick and for many it would have made Hazel a far less sympathetic character had Green used it. And it is, in fact, totally in the same vein and equally as tasteless as what she actually did think. The fact that so many people can read over it and not react does not speak well for us and our understanding of our own history.

In the future I envision, we will call this a cultural artifact and it will appall people.

Wendy said...

But the difference is, Debby... and this presumably may not make a difference to you... that we do NOT have a holiday that commemorates World War II death camps. We DO have one that commemorates Columbus invading this continent. Again, I can't argue with the idea that the comment may have been flippant to the point of insensitivity or offensiveness, but that's a false comparison--and, like most internet arguments that invoke the Holocaust so quickly (I know it was someone else who brought it up originally), it is a bit simplistic ('s_law).

Anonymous said...

As someone who has close family members who survived the Holocaust, and other family members who did not, I am often frustrated by the casual way Hitler and that experience are used as a rhetorical device (this being the origin of Godwin's Law).But I don't see how that is in any way true here. The comparison is being made here to illustrate that a joke about genocide is not funny, and the fact that this particular genocide does not have the immediate cultural resonance of the Holocaust only illustrates how far we have to come.

Humor is so often used as an excuse to protect, and wield, a certain kind of power-- even if unintentionally. The fact that in this case the humor was meant to thumb its nose at a certain dominant narrative does not change the fact that *it* comes from a place of privilege. I would hope, since the intention of the passage was to poke ironic fun at a prejudice, that people would listen if in fact those words revealed a lack of understanding themselves.

Anonymous said...

@ Wendy, are you kidding me?? I'm getting a little tired of your white derailment and it makes you look ugly and desperate. I'm also tired of having to defend my position again and again. Your white entitlement is shining through and maybe Debbie needs to give you a time out. Comparing Europe's genocide to the American genocide is not simplistic, it is spot on.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the comparison to the Holocaust. That was intentional genocide. Smallpox were a unintended consequence of the Europeans coming to America.

Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

There are a few too many anonymous posters here to keep track of. :)

This anonymous comment is worth thinking about:

"Humor is so often used as an excuse to protect, and wield, a certain kind of power-- even if unintentionally. The fact that in this case the humor was meant to thumb its nose at a certain dominant narrative does not change the fact that *it* comes from a place of privilege."

This is right on. This makes me think of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie who speaks of the power structure inherent in storytelling. Her Ted talk is well worth a watch.

This Anonymous post, however, illustrates how ignorant we are of our own history:

"I don't get the comparison to the Holocaust. That was intentional genocide. Smallpox were a unintended consequence of the Europeans coming to America."

Yes, the US did practice intentional genocide against Native American peoples. We were engaged in war with the Native Peoples of this country. It was a war over territory. The US referred to it as the Indian Wars. And they most certainly did engage in biological warfare. They gave smallpox infected blankets as gifts to tribes who were freezing because they had burned them out of their homes. In my region an infected prisoner was brought to shore, taken at gunpoint from house to house and returned to ship quarantine. If he survived, he was guaranteed his freedom for his act of loyalty to his country. My late father-in-law, who survived the epidemic this initiated, witnessed this act. If this is not an intentional attempt at genocide, I guess I don't understand the definition of genocide.

But actually--back to the text at hand--Hazel was showing both her precocity in understanding anything at all about this history--most kids don't. But she was also confused in her understanding of who did what and as she is an otherwise a really gifted kid, this tells us a lot about what we don't know about our own history. And, as Edmund Burke says, "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it."

Yeah, I suppose this is simplistic, but seriously, think about it.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but you seem to be set on willfully misunderstanding this comment.

As has been said, the whole point is that Hazel is agreeing its ridiculous to celebrate someone who did horrible things, yet it happens every year. A man who slaughtered, enslaved and raped, as well as acting as a vector for a disease that killed countless, is celebrated in America even though those acts are monstrosities by any current day perspective. Hazel is absolutely rejecting and calling into question a system that fails to recognize how horrid that is. Context does matter, and to claim otherwise is absolutely ridiculous and ignorant.

Also, not that Columbus is a fantastic person, but how is smallpox a loaded topic? I mean, yes, it was a horrible terrible thing and it is awful that a group of explorers brought it over and it thus decimated populations, I'm not trying to diminish that awful or not recognize that that's what it was, but seriously?

Diseases are accidentally spread to people who are not immune to them, that is a scientifically unfortunate fact. That happens without it being meant to all the time. Columbus and his men were not running around all Typhoid-Mary and infecting native people for kicks. I don't make a pariah out of every person who accidentally passes on the flu to me each year. Does it make it any less terrible that so many lives (and potential lives) were affected and ended by Columbus being a generally selfish asshat--no it does not.

Does it make it kind of terribly offensive that people are comparing the accidental spreading of a disease with the planned, purposeful slaughter and imprisonment of millions--yes. Yes it completely does.

Hazel is making social commentary that flies in the face of years of herd-minded acceptance and ignorance. She is making it sarcastically because often times that sarcastic juxtaposition is what actually causes people to see the insanity in their initial presumptions.

You can continue to misinterpret and burn crosses over the matter or perhaps you can use your platform to better educate the exact people Hazel is trying to call out and right what is, admittedly, an absolutely ridiculous celebration of a murder, rapist and slave owner.

(My apologies if I've sent this several times, I never got any confirmation it did sent and assumed my internet was acting up).

Debbie Reese said...

Beverly Slapin could not get the comment option to work. She sent this comment to me by email and asked me to post it on her behalf:

To Anonymous #10 (and I really wish you’d all state your names): You say that “smallpox (was) an unintended consequence of the Europeans coming to America.” Not true. It is a documented fact that British Lord Jeffrey Amherst, by ordering that smallpox-infected blankets be distributed to Native people in the east, was responsible for the first use of germ warfare on this continent. The plans were widely discussed between Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet. When Bouquet suggested the distribution of blankets for the “inoculation of the Indians,” Amherst remarked that “Measures (should) be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations.” And in a journal entry, William Trent says, in part: “We gave them two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” (More information can be found at

In any event, (1) there is no excuse for genocide, (2) genocide is genocide, and (3) genocide is not funny.

Anonymous said...

White men who have tried to write stories about the Indian have either foisted on the public some blood curdling, impossible “thriller”; or, if they have been in sympathy with the Indian, have written from knowledge that was not accurate and reliable. No one is able to understand the Indian race like an Indian.
—Luther Standing Bear, 1928

I think there is some truth to this. However; whether it's men and feminism, Macklemore and homosexuals, or whites and natives, I feel that it is simple shortsightedness to outright reject the idea, that the former can indeed emphasize with, understand, and contribute to the benefit of the latter. Moreover, TIFOS this isn't a story about our people, its a story about a little girl and her trials.

That said I think we need look at this critically.

Lets say, for arguments sake lets say the comment is inappropriate.
Who is thinking it, John Green or his character?

Is it not possible that the teenage protagonist would do, say, or think things that are inappropriate or fail to see things the insensitivity of those things? Isn't it these faults that make this character so much more believable, so much more human and young? Isn't a protagonist often a person who must go trials to become a more complete person?
The answer to all of these is a resounding, “Yes!”.

To stop reading a book because of a offhanded (though insensitive) thought of a teenage fictional character is a sure sign of a person’s inability to read critical. Critical reading is a skill and must be practiced. If this was a non-fiction book and the author made remarks like this, I would agree with you. “The author is an asshat, stop reading now!” However; you must remove yourself from the book, because this isn't a story about you. You are simply watching it unfold. Rather than getting upset by this, you need to ask yourself, why would she (the fictional character) say/think these things? By doing this, you also become a better more complete person, because you also learn from the trials of the person in the story.

On a final thought; the stories of the hardships that the European invasion brought to our people, are not our stories alone. They are shared stories, share experiences of all of our forefathers, and we must all together learn from them, so that we can all better ourselves and ensure that they never happen again.

So happy to see other native Nerdfighters

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the anonymity! When I tried to comment using a name, it didn't go through. My (single) previous comment was the one about humor, and I'll sign my name at the end of this to help with clarity!

I appreciate the comment above, and agree that there's a distinction between the attitudes of a character, and those of an author. STILL-- I'm not sure this is really a place where the author intended readers to stop and consider the attitudes Hazel was expressing. Most wouldn't, and didn't, pause while reading the passage. To my reading, the passage still comes across as a well-intentioned jibe (yes, coming through, and reflective of a particular character) that unintentionally reveals the privilege of its author-- someone who does not have a direct connection to this experience, and who did not consider how this joke might read to someone outside his own experience.

I do also agree that a response shouldn't be to throw out the book or reject it based on that passage (and in general, I would always argue that discussion, rather than censorship is the best reaction to any book one objects to). But isn't that what's happening here? And isn't part of the point that those moments where a reader experiences a book as excluding her make it difficult to embrace that book?

As to the fellow Anonymous who invoked the image of "burning crosses" in a conversation about race, privilege, and sensitivity-- I don't have much to say.


Anonymous said...

Also, not to belabor the point, but I still think the humor of the passage depends on an ignorance of the history it uses. Would it read as pointed teenage irony if the passage said: "Columbus was responsible for brutal rape, torture, and mass extermination!" Or *would* the reader pause at that? I think many of us would have read that differently, and the fact that we would is telling.


Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

This has been a really interesting discussion. Thanks everyone for your thoughts. I still really like this book. My take, again, is that that fact that people can breeze over this passage without pause is telling. And I am not badmouthing anyone--I did it, too.

Hazel isn't really making social commentary here people. She's making fun of her mom's inclination to "celebrate" everything. Hazel knows, and we know, that Mom's just whistling in the dark.

In truth, though, when you really dig into it the idea behind this particular passage, it is not characteristic of either Hazel's mother, who cluelessly and rather sweetly is looking for reasons to celebrate life with her dying daughter; nor is it characteristic of Hazel, who even in her sarcasm is generally smarter than this. She is a nerd. She's really smart--but she hasn't a clue on this one.

I stand by my belief that in the future, should anyone care to look at it, this will come across as a racist cultural artifact.

My daughter says that the difference between prejudice and racism is that prejudice is personal but racism is systemic. I agree. This is not personal. It is indicative of a systemic way of looking at things that we will one day outgrow.

Debbie Reese said...

My objection to what Hazel said was also discussed on Facebook. There, someone suggested I watch one of Green's YouTube episodes in his Crash Course in history. I did.

It helped me understand what went wrong with the words he gave to Hazel.

We need allies in helping more people see the misrepresentations, bias, and racism that is directed to Native people. Sometimes that stuff (for lack of a better word) is overt. Sometimes it is hard to see, but it is there.

In recent months, there has been a lot of activity directed at the Washington football team's name. That, and my reaction to Hazel's words remind me of the work I did at U Illinois, working to get rid of its mascot. I met with a lot of well-intentioned non-Native students during those years. They were people much like what I think John Green is like. Smart. Lots of energy. A social justice orientation.

But a lot of their help in that work was fleeting, and it struck me as kind of shallow. They could carry a sign at a protest and get people riled up, but they could also put that sign down and pick up another one in an instant. And they could go out on the town later and enjoy themselves because it IS fun to be out, but also because they felt they'd done something good that day.

And, in fact, they did. Holding that protest sign was a good thing to do.

The thing is, they have the luxury of moving on to something else, or to nothing else. The work wasn't finished, but they were.

An unfortunate outcome of their work was that their clever words and signs alienated the powers-that-be such that those powers wanted nothing to do with us (Native students). And, it stirred up those who liked the mascot, making it very risky for Native students to go out and enjoy themselves.

John Green gave those words to Hazel and moved on. John Green fans read those words and love them, and then they, with John Green, move on.

It wasn't a teaching moment. It was a clever one.

There are parts (I did go on reading, eventually), where Green/his characters say something that tells me there's empathy and understanding for people with cancer. When Isaac's nurse says "see" and she leaves, Isaac says "did she really just say "see"?" And when Hazel and Augustus are getting on the plane for Amsterdam and people watch them... Hazel thinks "That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people. We were irreconcilably other."

Most people don't know what it is like to have cancer. Green is giving us a peek into that experience (though I don't know if it is accurate or not). Most people aren't Native, and they don't know what a Native life is like, from its highs to its lows. From our interactions with those who love us and want to be us (all those family stories about an Indian grandmother...), to those who revile us, and those who think we're no longer here. There is so much ignorance out there. I wish John Green had done more to help readers understand some of that experience, just like he's doing with the passages I noted above.

Without it--and this is going to sound harsh--we're kind of his and his readers mascots, but I don't think he thinks of us as his readers. We're not who he is talking to. Maybe if he imagined one of us as reading this book, he wouldn't have been quite so fleeting in his reference to smallpox--if he used it at all.

Emily DB said...

I don't think he thinks of us as his readers. We're not who he is talking to. Maybe if he imagined one of us as reading this book, he wouldn't have been quite so fleeting in his reference to smallpox--if he used it at all.

I think this is the problem with many books that are written by people outside of a group they're writing about (or in this and many other cases, mentioning). The intent isn't bad, but the (implied) intended audience is not the group being written about. The Help is a good example of a book that was highly criticized for exactly this reason.

Anonymous said...

In response to Emily--Is it fair to ask an author to consider every person who will read his book? Then most books wouldn't be written if an author had to consider everyone who would ever read it. No book will please everyone. And everyone has free choice to put a book down if they don't like it.

Anonymous said...

We also have the choice to take the author to task. Which is what we are doing now.

Anonymous said...

As an aspiring author with "a social justice orientation" I have often hoped to include themes that would bring much-needed attention to these kinds of issues. However, this thread (and many like it) have made me realize that it's probably a mistake to even try :(