Thursday, April 23, 2015


Willa Strayhorn's The Way We Bared Our Souls opens with a deeply problematic scene. The characters in the story are inside a "ceremonial kiva" (p. 1). Chronologically, this scene is from the last part of the story Strayhorn tells.

Told from the viewpoint of Consuelo (called Lo for short), an "Anglo, not Hispanic" (p. 11) character, she is in this "ceremonial kiva" with three others. Missing is Kaya, "the girl who felt no pain" (p. 1).

Kaya, we learn later, is "Pueblo on her mom's side and Navajo on her dad's" (p. 66). Of course, she's got high cheekbones. She's not in that opening scene, because by the end of the story she's dead.

These teens go to Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I'm from Nambe Pueblo, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. It is where we went, as teens, to see a movie, eat out, etc. There's a lot of things in the novel that don't jib with the Santa Fe that I know, like the part where Consuelo sees the school mascot at a party (Santa Fe High's mascot is a demon, not a buffalo) and the part where Consuelo and Ellen are at the train depot and Ellen talks about wanting to hop a train to parts unknown (there's been no train service like that in Santa Fe for a very, very long time; the only train in recent times is the Railrunner, which is a commuter train that runs from Santa Fe to Albuquerque). There's other things, too, that yank me out of the story, but I want to focus on what Strayhorn does with Native culture.

They're in this kiva because of Consuelo. A week prior to that opening scene, she'd been to the doctor. Her likely diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. Understandably upset, she's gone for a drive. A coyote runs out in front of her car. She pulls over and is approached by a guy with "silky dark hair" named Jay. There's some chitchat and then (p. 28):
"What happened to your blood, dear?" he said.
"You're unwell, he said. You're... afflicted. Is it your blood, sweetheart?"
She tells him it is her brain (I cringed when I read "dear" and "sweetheart"). He can sense her pain and suffering and tells her that her (p. 29):
"...essential well-being is much deeper than the burden your body carries. You do not have to be tyrannized by your disease."
See that word, "burden"? Jay is going to suggest that Consuelo invite four friends to go through a healing ritual that will heal her energy and release her from her burden. The "powerful medicine" in this ritual "can eliminate your pain and disease and teach you to accept everything fate throws your way. With joy" (p. 33).

Of course, she agrees, and invites four kids from school to do it with her.

Along with Kaya is Thomas. He was a child soldier in Liberia and carries emotional trauma. Ellen is a drug addict and Kit is depressed over the accidental death of his girlfriend. Kit, by the way, is also the group expert on Native Americans, delivering mini-lectures here and there. His name (Kit) is a bit of a misstep. When I hear that name, I think of Kit Carson, the person responsible for removing the Navajo people from their homelands.

The ritual takes place at "Pecos Park" which is, in reality, Pecos National Historic Park. As a national park, it is protected from the very sorts of intrusion that happens in this story. People have been exploiting these sites for a long time, removing artifacts, defacing structures, and engaging in pseudo-rituals... just like the one Jay is doing in this book.

The kids don't know what this ritual involves. Some of the kids express skepticism about it and about Jay, too, but all partake, nonetheless. In it, Jay tells them his sacred name for the ceremony is "Walks with Coyotes" (p. 105). He chants, spits "sacred oil" on them, asks each one to talk about his or her burden, and then gives each one a totem that represents their struggle (p. 106). He does more chanting, and then throws some powder into the fire. The powder puts the fire out, leaving the kiva in complete darkness. Thomas gets the fire going again. Jay and Dakota are gone.

The kids go home. The next day, they realize that their respective burdens are gone, replaced by that of one of the others in the group. Consuelo now has Kaya's burden. She feels no pain.

Kaya has Thomas's emotional trauma, but she has the additional trauma of reliving the atrocities Native people experienced historically. She's in those moments several times. Those parts of Strayhorn's novel are gruesome, and the scene where Kaya dies is gratuitous.

Earlier this month, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference. At his session,* Varian Johnson posed a question to the audience: "Are you writing to exploit or enrich?"

"Are you writing to exploit or enrich?"

The events child soldiers in Liberia, and Native peoples in the U.S. experienced were horrific. Strayhorn may have felt she was bringing important history to life by writing this story, but it doesn't work for me. She is exploiting atrocity experienced by the child soldiers of Liberia, and, Native peoples, too. Who benefits from this? What lives are enriched by this?

Not Native kids, that's for sure, and I doubt that former child soldiers would feel empowered by reading The Way We Bared Our Souls. In fact, this feels very much like another author who didn't imagine not-White readers of her book. Did she know that Native readers are out here? Does she know that killing off the Native character is just a very bad move?

In an interview at RT Book Reviews, she was asked about the Native parts of the story:
The book also includes elements of Native American culture. Do you have personal ties to the culture or did you have to research the customs and practices?
Because I don't have personal, firsthand knowledge of any indigenous tribes, I felt a little wary about putting so much Native American history in the book. I didn't want to give the impression that I was trying to appropriate what wasn't mine. But that part of the country (the Southwest) is packed with fascinating history and ultimately I couldn't ignore it. I just hope that my deep respect for these New Mexico tribes shines through more than my ignorance. I did a lot of research for the book, and have actually been reading about America's indigenous peoples since I was a teenager and discovered my dad's beautiful books about them. I also had an extraordinary teacher in high school who'd studied Native American history and was sure that his students didn't neglect it even as he pumped us full of info about the founding fathers for the AP exam. But books and museums can't compare to firsthand knowledge, which I woefully lack.  
With that last sentence, she seems to gesture at an understanding that she's erred in her use of Native culture for this story. In reviews of her book, many view the burden-sharing as unique, but see problems in its execution. 

I'm certain Strayhorn felt she was enriching, not exploiting, as she wrote this book, but that interview suggests that she may have had niggling doubts that she didn't listen to. Some of this doubt can actually be seen in some of the things that Kit says. He wonders, for example, if Jay is a wannabe or a charlatan--both of which are exploitative. 

In the acknowledgements, Strayhorn thanks her editor, Liz Tingue at Razorbill. Razorbill, by the way, is part of Penguin, which means we have yet another book by a major publisher that does a poor job with Native content. 

Coming back to Johnson's question about exploitation, what is an editor's role? Do editors ponder the exploit/enrich question Johnson posed? When Tingue took Strayhorn's manuscript to the marketing department at Razorbill/Penguin, what was that conversation like? Honestly, I find myself cringing again as I imagine what was said. 

Willa Strayhorn's The Way We Bared Our Souls, published in 2015 by Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin Random House), is not recommended. 


*Thanks to Mindy Rhiger for her excellent report, Diversity at AWP15.

1 comment:

Anisha & Jess said...

Finally commenting on this (though I read it a couple of weeks ago!). Your points around this book are SPOT ON. I think the framing of "exploit vs enrich" are critical to this conversation. Strayhorn uses American Indians stereotypes as a pathway to make her story plot work. Need a random ritual? Insert Native (Jay). I don't think she intended to be so disrespectful, but it did end up that way.

Thanks for your great review. We continue to learn a lot from you in our own process! - Anisha (The Bookmark)