Thursday, September 25, 2014

Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden's UNSTRUNG

In 2009, Neal Shusterman launched the first of his "Unwind Dystology" series. The first book is Unwind. Published by Simon and Schuster, here's the synopsis provided at Amazon:
In America after the Second Civil War, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies came to an agreement: The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, a parent may choose to retroactively get rid of a child through a process called "unwinding." Unwinding ensures that the child's life doesn’t “technically” end by transplanting all the organs in the child's body to various recipients. Now a common and accepted practice in society, troublesome or unwanted teens are able to easily be unwound.
With breathtaking suspense, this book follows three teens who all become runaway Unwinds: Connor, a rebel whose parents have ordered his unwinding; Risa, a ward of the state who is to be unwound due to cost-cutting; and Lev, his parents' tenth child whose unwinding has been planned since birth as a religious tithing. As their paths intersect and lives hang in the balance, Shusterman examines serious moral issues in a way that will keep readers turning the pages to see if Connor, Risa, and Lev avoid meeting their untimely ends.

Unstrung: An Unwind Story came out in 2012. It is a short story. Here's what Amazon says about it:

How did Lev Calder move from an unwillingly escaped Tithe to a clapper? In this revealing short story, Neal Shusterman opens a window on Lev’s adventures between the time he left CyFi and showed up at the Graveyard.
Pulling elements from Neal Shusterman’s critically acclaimed Unwind and giving hints about what is to come in the riveting sequel, UnWholly, this short story is not to be missed.

As Unstrung opens, Lev is waking up after escaping from bad guys who were gonna do that unwinding thing to him. He's an AWOL. The place he ran to? A "rez" -- or, reservation. There, he figured he'd be safe. Indians of the future, it turns out, are exempt from unwinding. The family helping Lev recover is going to petition the Tribal Council to let him stay. As he opens his eyes, he seems a woman with a square jaw, black hair, and bronze skin. He blurts out
"SlotMonger!"
Lev is immediately embarrassed for using that word. See--in this future world Shusterman created, Indians aren't called Indians anymore. The woman responds (Note: I'm reading an ebook and can't give you page numbers):
"Old words die hard," she tells him with infinite understanding. "We were called Indians long after it was obvious we weren't from India. And 'Native American' was always a bit too condescending for my taste." 
"ChanceFolk," Lev says, hoping that his SlotMonger slur will quickly be forgotten.
"Yes," the woman says. "People of Chance. Of course the casinos are long gone, but I suppose the name still has enough resonance to stick." 

Dear! Well, that's not what I said when I read that part. If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that sometimes, I curse at things I read.

Moving on...

The People of Chance family has a boy. He's three years older than Lev. His name is Wil. That's short for Chowilawu. We don't know what language that is, or what tribe these people belong to. Later on, we do get some clues about their location, though! They're in what we know today as Colorado, and they live in an incredibly opulent city with cliff dwellings on the canyon sides.

Do you know who lived at Mesa Verde? Chaco Canyon? Bandelier? Pueblo people! So, I take it that the People of Chance are somehow based on Pueblo Indians. Yikes!

Let's meet Wil.

Wil has a gift. When he plays his guitar, who or whatever hears his music, is transfixed. Just Wil's presence can calm people. But that guitar playing... well, it is such a gift that he/it is used to help the dying tribal members transition more easily into death itself. Wil doesn't like that gift, because his grandfather is dying. The people expect him to go play for his grandpa but he doesn't want to. When the story opens, Wil plays his guitar for Lev. He does that by sitting cross-legged on a mountain lion skin. Yep. Cross-legged. Cuz why?! (Answer: Indians sit cross-legged. You learned that at camp, right? Or maybe kindergarten? Or maybe your teacher knew better than to introduce that stereotype to you.)

Lev recovers a bit, and he and Wil go out into the city. Lev has a question:
"Is it true that reservations are safe for AWOLs?" he asks. "Is it true that People of Chance don't unwind?"
Wil nods. "We never signed the Unwind Accord. So not only don't we unwind, we also can't use unwound parts."
Lev mulls that over, baffled at how a society could work without harvesting organs. "So...where do you get parts?"
"Nature provides," Wil says. "Sometimes."
Nature provides! How does that work, you might wonder? Meet Wil's uncle, Pivane. Wil introduces Lev to him. He's wearing deerskins, but he's also got a Swiss watch on. And, Lev thinks, his rifle is probably custom-made. Pivane has been out hunting for a mountain lion. They need the heart of a male mountain lion. Pivane thinks they'll find one at Cash Out Gulch. (Reading "Cash Out Gulch" was another WTF moment for me.)

Here's where we get a picture of this place where the People of Chance live:
...red cliff homes, the whitewashed adobes, and the sidewalks of rich mahogany planks. Although the place appears at first to be primitive, Lev knows upper crust when he sees it, from the luxury cars parked on the side streets to the gold plaques embedded in the adobe walls. Men and women wear business suits that are clearly Chance-Folk in style, yet finer than the best designer fashions."
Lev asks Wil what the people do (for a living) and Wil says:
"When my grandfather was a kid, the rez made a bundle--not just from gaming, but from some lawsuits over land usage, a water treatment plant, a wind farm that went haywire, and casinos we didn't want but got stuck with when another tribe rolled on us." He shrugs uncomfortably. "Luck of the draw. We've got it better than some tribes."
Lev looks down the street, where the curbs gleam with gold. "Way better, by the look of it."
"Yah," says Wil, looking both embarrassed and proud at the same time. "Some tribes did wise investing with their casino cash; others squandered it. Then, when the virtual casinos got ritzier than the real ones and it all came crashing down, tribes like ours did very well. We're a Hi-Rez. You're lucky you didn't jump the wall of a Low-Rez. They're much more likely to sell AWOLs to parts pirates."
Lev has heard about the rich tribes and the poor ones. Wil continues:
"Anyway," says Wil, "my tribe knows the law and how to use it. In fact my dad's a lawyer, and has done pretty well for our family. My mom runs the pediatrics lodge in the medical warren and is well respected. We get rich tribal kids from all over North America coming here for healing."
I was doing a lot of eye rolling and cursing as I read all of that! I certainly want writers to move away from narrow depictions of the professions Native people are in, but the rest of what Shusterman did is so bad that I can't give the lawyer-dad or doctor-mom characters a good read! Let's back up, though to that info about how the People of Chance tribe (I wonder what the Lo-Rez tribe names are?!) got their money: casinos, and good lawyers. I'm wondering about Shusterman's source material for all that lawyering. Where is he from? Is he living nearby a tribal nation that has been successfully winning legal cases over water rights? Or wind farms? Is he from Massachusetts? In 2011, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head filed a lawsuit over a wind farm project off Cape Cod. The For Mojave Indian tribe sued a California agency over a water treatment plant that was desecrating sacred land. I'm guessing that Shusterman did some research and found these news stories. And as the wealth of the People of Chance indicates, they won big time! Doesn't matter, I suppose, that those two particular tribal nations are at opposite ends of the country. With a made-up nation, you can do whatever you want!

Well, let's move on. The People of Chance have animal spirit guides. If/when they're sick, that particular animal can be killed and its body part(s) used to heal the human. Do you recall that Pivane is looking for the heart of a mountain lion? A mountain lion is the spirit guide of Wil's grandfather. His heart is bad. He needs a new one. Pavine finds one, but Wil's grandfather wants to give it to a young woman who needs it more than he does. Wil argues with him about that decision. But guess what! Lev gets asked for advice. Outsiders have perspectives, you see, that can help people make important decisions. Lev's advice is to respect the wishes of Wil's grandpa. Such wisdom from the white outsider! Of course, the heart goes to the woman, and Wil's grandpa dies.

Wil is gonna die, too. No... that's not right. He's going to be killed. No... that's not right either...

Wil has taken Lev and a bunch of kids out on a vision quest to find their spirit guides. Some of those parts pirates have gotten over the rez wall, too. Turns out, there's a black market for People of Chance body parts because they have special skills. To save the children, Wil takes out that guitar and demonstrates his gift. He bargains with the parts pirates. They take him and let the children go. I gotta say... this is so unsettling. Does Shusterman know Native bodies were butchered and parts taken from them as trophies? Has he not read about Sand Creek?! How 'bout his editor? Does he/she know? Do they know and not care? Or maybe they don't imagine Native people as readers of Unstrung?

Well. Towards the end of the story, the tribal council denies the petition to adopt Lev. He leaves. And what about Wil? We find him again, on a surgical table. A woman with a slight British accent tells him:
"We have been searching for the right Person of Chance for a very long time. You will be part of a spectacular experiment. One that will change the future." 
Pretty sick, isn't it? In the end, Wil's family and girlfriend find out that he's been unwound...
Not through smoke signals.
Not through the intricate legal investigations of the Council.
Not through the tribal nations' security task force, put in place after the parts pirates took him.
In the end, the rez finds out Wil is no more when his guitar is delivered with no note and no return address. 
Another WTF. Smoke signals?! Mr. Shusterman: this is a very messed up story. I regret having read it.

Update, September 28, 7:48 PM

Mr. Shusterman submitted the following comment. As has been the case with previous authors who respond to a review I've done on AICL, I'm adding the response to the body of the blog post to allow readers to more easily read the response. Mr. Shusterman said:

I wanted to personally apologize for anything in UnStrung that you found offensive. Both Michelle Knowlden and I wanted you to know that in writing the story we took great cares to be respectful, and sensitive. We also were wary of “political correctness,” which is just as offensive as stereotypes.

The story takes place in a dystopian future – and we were attempting to extrapolate where one tribe might find themselves within that exaggerated dystopian world. It could not be immune to the dark turn society has taken. Our take was that this particular tribe had become affluent, and increasingly isolationist – to protect itself ideologically from the rest of America, which had become a pretty unpleasant place. We tried to take tradition, and marry it to futurism. We actively worked to shatter stereotypes, breaking them open to show something real, and honest.

Huge amount of thought went into every choice, so to be called out for insensitivity warrants the opening of a dialogue. I have a reputation for being culturally fair, and on-target in my books – so if I’ve missed the mark here, it’s important to me to know how, and how to improve it.

I do want to point out that some things you found were stretches. A kid sitting cross-legged on the floor was just a kid sitting cross-legged on the floor. That’s how my daughter plays guiter, so that’s where that came from. It was not a racial stereotype.

It’s important to note that socially and culturally, American Indians are the heroes of the story. They are the only cultural group that collectively fights against the heinous practice of Unwinding, and maintains a high moral and ethical bar, that the rest of society has lost. The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action in the face of a world mired in inaction.

UnStrung will be rewritten for inclusion in a collection of novellas in the Unwind world. We would love to discuss with you what changes will make it not only more palatable, but a positive experience for Indian readers. I can be reached at storymanweb@gmail.com. Thank you.


Debbie's response:

Mr. Shusterman,

Thank you for responding to my concerns. I am traveling this week and next and can't give your comment the attention it deserves. A quick note for now: I read a lot of children's and young adult books with Native characters. You'd be surprised, perhaps, to know how many of them sit cross-legged. Other characters in the book don't. They just sit. How they sit isn't generally noted. More, later, when I've had time to think about your comments. 
Update, Tuesday, Sept 30 2014

My review reflects my incredulous reaction as I read your book. You said it is important to know how you missed the mark, and how you can improve the story. I hope you'll find time to go back and re-read my review. I think I've clearly laid out examples in which you've missed the mark.

It is the overall premise, however, that is deeply flawed. You said that (quoting from your comment),
"American Indians are the heroes of the story... They maintain a high moral and ethical bar... The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action..."
See that? You think you've done a good thing, making American Indians the heroes. You meant well... You are just like all those people/places/organizations that use American Indian something-or-other as an ideal to strive for. Big case in the news right now is the Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington DC pro football team. Are you following that at all? From my perspective, you sound an awful lot like Dan Snyder and you sound like a thousand people who've told me and other Native people "but you don't understand. I'm trying to honor you."

In her excellent piece for writers, Cynthia Leitich Smith posed a few questions that authors can use when reflecting on the Native characters they create. I'm modifying them a bit:

Is Wil a magical character? My answer: Yes, he has a musical gift. It is so magical that it will be taken from him to serve the greater good. Who is taking it? A British/American surgeon.

Does Wil die first? My answer: Yes. Lev lives on. Wil does not.

Are Wil's people the model minority? My answer: Yes. This is a bit more nuanced, but they've had great success economically and professionally.

Does his heritage inform his character?  My answer: Yes, and a bit complicated because his heritage is your creation and rests on stereotypical ways of thinking about Native peoples. It is, in other words, an outsider's take on Native culture, so it is hard for me to say that his heritage is, in fact, Native. It isn't. In her post, Smith also asks if non-Native readers will notice problems like this. Her answer is, "maybe." Mine? From what I've seen online, nobody noticed. Smith asks if Native readers will notice. My answer: Not necessarily, but most of them will. I think a good many Native readers will do a WTF. In fact, Native people with whom I've shared the review are also expressing incredulity.

What will your readers think of Wil and his people? My answer: Most of your readers will (and do) love Wil and his people. In her post, Smith goes on to say that sometimes, writers "get so wrapped up in our own intent, however benevolent, that we forget to consider impact." Clearly, you meant well. You had good intentions. But the impact of those good intentions? You're using your conception of Native people to save the world. In so doing, you affirm stereotypical ideas that are already deeply embedded in the world.


What did you read prior to creating this tribe and people? Your turn. What did you read? And, I invite your answers to the question above, too. I know you're doing a Q&A at Goodreads this week and may not have time to come back to AICL for the dialog you asked me for, but I do hope you come back as soon as you can. Your fellow writers, and my fellow reviewers, can gain a great deal by reading our dialog.



Update, Saturday, October 4, 2014

Neal Shusterman's reply, submitted at 11:05 PM October 3 2013:

Debbie – thank you for your detailed response. I appreciate the time you took to really analyze the story. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s questions are right on target.

Perhaps I overstated it when I said that the Indians are the heroes of the book series. The Indian characters are as flawed as everyone else, and struggle with their own moral dilemmas and ethical demons. I do not feel that any of my characters are stereotypes, regardless of their cultural background. As a group, the fictional tribe in the book makes both poor decisions, and good decisions. Ultimately they are one of many factors that changes the world for the better by the end of the book series. 

I do need to emphasize the fictional nature of the tribe. It is not intended to reflect current Indian culture. It is an exaggeration seen through a very specific future lens, just like every other culture portrayed in the book. Everything is painted in unsettling shades of gray -- the reader is supposed to have mixed feelings about everything and everyone. We should see the best and the worst of ourselves in the characters, and cultures.


You mentioned that other people had the same reaction you did when they read your review. I imagine so. A review is like the prosecution’s case in a trial. It’s all very cut and dry if you don’t hear the defense. The defense is the actual work, and I stand behind my work. That said, there are some things I would, and will change, however, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.



3 comments:

Neal Shusterman said...

I wanted to personally apologize for anything in UnStrung that you found offensive. Both Michelle Knowlden and I wanted you to know that in writing the story we took great cares to be respectful, and sensitive. We also were wary of “political correctness,” which is just as offensive as stereotypes.
The story takes place in a dystopian future – and we were attempting to extrapolate where one tribe might find themselves within that exaggerated dystopian world. It could not be immune to the dark turn society has taken. Our take was that this particular tribe had become affluent, and increasingly isolationist – to protect itself ideologically from the rest of America, which had become a pretty unpleasant place. We tried to take tradition, and marry it to futurism. We actively worked to shatter stereotypes, breaking them open to show something real, and honest.
Huge amount of thought went into every choice, so to be called out for insensitivity warrants the opening of a dialogue. I have a reputation for being culturally fair, and on-target in my books – so if I’ve missed the mark here, it’s important to me to know how, and how to improve it.
I do want to point out that some things you found were stretches. A kid sitting cross-legged on the floor was just a kid sitting cross-legged on the floor. That’s how my daughter plays guiter, so that’s where that came from. It was not a racial stereotype.
It’s important to note that socially and culturally, American Indians are the heroes of the story. They are the only cultural group that collectively fights against the heinous practice of Unwinding, and maintains a high moral and ethical bar, that the rest of society has lost. The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action in the face of a world mired in inaction.
UnStrung will be rewritten for inclusion in a collection of novellas in the Unwind world. We would love to discuss with you what changes will make it not only more palatable, but a positive experience for Indian readers. I can be reached at storymanweb@gmail.com. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Neal Shusterman

Anonymous said...

Just to add a bit of context to the story that you may not know if you haven't read the other books in the series: Wil is far from being the only person with "magical" gifts that were taken away. Camus received Wil's hands and the neural connections required for his musical gift, and the rest of Camus is made up of the parts of other gifted individuals of all backgrounds. Meeting Wil's family and friends does help Camus to realize that his creation actually hurt a lot of people whose loved ones were unwound.

Reservations and their unique relation to US law are also part of Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson. Have you read it?

Neal Shusterman said...

Debbie – thank you for your detailed response. I appreciate the time you took to really analyze the story. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s questions are right on target.

Perhaps I overstated it when I said that the Indians are the heroes of the book series. The Indian characters are as flawed as everyone else, and struggle with their own moral dilemmas and ethical demons. I do not feel that any of my characters are stereotypes, regardless of their cultural background. As a group, the fictional tribe in the book makes both poor decisions, and good decisions. Ultimately they are one of many factors that changes the world for the better by the end of the book series.

I do need to emphasize the fictional nature of the tribe. It is not intended to reflect current Indian culture. It is an exaggeration seen through a very specific future lens, just like every other culture portrayed in the book. Everything is painted in unsettling shades of gray -- the reader is supposed to have mixed feelings about everything and everyone. We should see the best and the worst of ourselves in the characters, and cultures.

You mentioned that other people had the same reaction you did when they read your review. I imagine so. A review is like the prosecution’s case in a trial. It’s all very cut and dry if you don’t hear the defense. The defense is the actual work, and I stand behind my work. That said, there are some things I would, and will change, however, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.