Wednesday, September 09, 2015

About Christine Taylor-Butler's Facebook Post

On Monday, September 7, 2015, Christine Taylor Butler started a conversation on Facebook by talking about heated conversations that took place over some things that Maggie Stiefvater said about writing the other (if you didn't follow it, see her response on her Tumblr page). Christine wrote (quoting what she said in its entirety):

I am watching the Maggie Stiefvater controversy and finding myself thinking that we don't progress as an industry because the internet has developed a new phenomena. The "attack by blog" cowardice from narcissistic sociopaths who use it as a form of passive aggressive expression for their anger management issues.
We don't have dialogue - we have attacks. We don't invite debate. We demand rote adherence to a single point of view.
We anoint movements as surrogates for real action and change but ignore the others that were on the front lines of the battle.
We attack the white speakers, but not the conference organizers who perpetuated the problem.
Why attack Maggie, when we didn't attack the authors who were appointed to an all-white male BookCon panel.
This. Must. Stop.
Children's literature is about creating engaging works for children. Not wars between angry content creators who, unable to pinpoint the true villains, tear down each other.
This. Must. Stop.
For those who can't conceive of sharing the landscape so diversity has a broader meaning. For those who say whites can't write "other" instead of addressing the real problem which is that those of us who are "other" should be able to write across boundaries, too, I say get out of the kidlit business and write for adults. Because you don't understand where the real problem lies.

As people responded to her, I read some comments that indicated some people may be unaware that, in children's literature, the discussion of "who can write" is not a new one. I posted a comment with a link to my post about dinner with Deborah Wiles. That post includes a quote from Kathryn Lasky, a writer who called critics "self-styled militias of cultural diversity." That quote is from 1996.  A few minutes later I got a notification saying Ellen Hopkins had commented on Christine's post, so I went back to see how the conversation was developing. My comment was gone. Christine had deleted it. That was surprising to me. Right after Ellen's comments, I saw one from Christine:



In that comment, she didn't name the blogger. Because she'd just deleted my comments, I assumed she was talking about me. I had asked her for an ARC. I did review her book, The Lost Tribes. At that point I more or less shrugged it off.

Later, however, there was a longer post (below) sent to her 800+ friends that I felt I couldn't shrug off. In it, she replaced "Dine (Navajo)" with "another culture" and "Indian Outreach Center" with "Outreach Center". Even without the references to Native culture, people who she sent it to thought she was talking about me. They wrote to me to ask about it. They sent me the text itself. I also received screen shots of it. Here's the text (my apologies for the not-great quality of the screen caps):





In the longer comment, this line is the one that prompted me to write this post:
"She didn't bother to explain in her blog that over several months she and I had discussed the research I had done."
The reason that line prompted this post? Lot of writers and editors write to me, seeking my help with content specific to Native people. My worry about that line? She was scaring people away from seeking my help. If they assume--like I and others did--that she was talking about me, she was effectively casting doubt on my integrity.

Was addressing it, however, buying in to social media drama? Yesterday morning (Tuesday, September 9), I said (on Facebook) that I was thinking about writing this post. Yesterday afternoon, Christine said (in a comment to me) that she was not talking about me. Other things she said in that comment contradicted that assertion. She deleted that comment, too. I don't have a copy of it.

Contradictions aside, I can take her at her word. This post was intended to be my effort to make sense of what Christine was saying. In an early draft of this post, I wrote about our interactions via Facebook and email, quoting extensively from those interactions. I'm setting that draft aside.

As Christine's initial post (top of this page) indicates, this is a heated moment in children's literature as we (once again) engage the debate of who-can-write. It is heated in adult literature, too. As I write, people are discussing Sherman Alexie's post about why he decided, in his role as editor of The Best American Poetry 2015, to include a poem by Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man who submitted that poem with the name "Yi-Fen Chou" rather than his own name. I think Alexie was wrong to include it. Writers use pen names for many reasons. Names matter. There are studies that show that people with ethnic names are, for example, denied job interviews, loans, and opportunities to publish. In some of those studies, the very same content is submitted using names like Smith, and those applications get further in the process.  Hudson did the opposite thing. He exploited a marginalized population for personal gain. There are excellent responses to Alexie's decision. See, for example, the letter by Craig Santos Perez.

I'm on the record, for those who don't know, for preferring Native writers because when a teacher or librarian shares a Native-authored book with a child, that teacher or librarian can use present tense verbs to tell that child about that author and that author's tribal nation, that nation's website, and so on. Those present tense verbs push back on the idea that we're a primitive people, and ideas that we no longer exist. My review recommending On the Move by Flynn, who is not Native is evidence that I think a non-Native person can write a story about Native people.

As for what Christine said about bloggers attacking authors? Some writers view negative criticisms as attacks, or, as dangerous. I understand they feel that way to writers, but the work I do here on AICL and elsewhere privileges the children who will read what writers write.

Update, Wednesday, September 16, 2015
I continue to be puzzled by this incident. Though Christine said it is not me she was talking about, interesting things come my way. For example, I posted a review of her book at Amazon several weeks ago. I get notifications when someone comments on a book I reviewed there. I've gotten two notifications in the last few days that suggest I am the person she is talking about:



Obviously, I disagree with KCmomof2. I don't care what genre someone is working in; if there are Native people in the book, the presentation of them must be accurate. I'm also revisiting the premise of the book in its entirety. None of the main characters (including the Navajo girl) are actually human beings. They're all aliens, masquerading as human beings. It is a twist on playing Indian that I find troubling.

For the record: It wasn't me who discussed research with her over a period of months. Via Facebook messenger, we talked in November of 2014 about Native identity because she was forming an award committee and wanted me to sit on it to help the committee understand the nuances of Native identity. She never mentioned her book. When I learned about it in January, I asked for an ARC. She told me about the Navajo character, and that Serise (the character) would have a greater role in the next book. I provided her with my mailing address and cautioned her that the people she asks to vet it cannot be the teens she met when she was on the Navajo reservation for two weeks doing missionary work.

10 comments:

Wahiaronkwas David said...

First, you're not obliged to share on your blog a single author's research progress. Second, the mission of your blog is quite clear. If a book fails particular criteria, I have seen you not only say so but provide examples where the problems lie. As an author, I would find that incredibly useful.

campbele said...

Debbie,
I follow your blog and always leave it with a heightened sense of awareness. From both you and Christine Taylor-Butler, I learn to take care with my words; to protect them and most important to take care of and protect the children with integrity, honesty and diligence.

Anonymous said...

I find that Robin DiAngelo's article "White Fragility" (http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/249/116) helps to contextualize responses to criticism in situations like this

Naomi said...

I appreciate this blog so much. If authors really cared to do research for works of fiction about Native people they would visit reservations and communities and ask permission from Tribal Review Boards and Tribal Councils to write about the tribe. If publishers cared they too would discuss with tribal communities the works to be published and let community members read ARCs and manuscripts before publishing to make sure the tribe was represented accurately. If librarians and teachers would stop buying books about Native people and start buying books by Native authors and Illustrators our libraries and schools would be better places. Understanding comes from asking permission and writing about another culture other than your own is not what we need more of in books. I am writing to express my gratitude to publishers, authors, and reviewers that speak up for good books that don't stereotype or misrepresent our cultures. American Indians are so misrepresented in fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature. Authors don't understand that we are living in the 21st century as doctors, librarians, teachers, nurses, students, farmers, architects, lawyers, grandparents, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. I have a dream that one day our voices will be respected and we will be represented in our current context and not as fictional characters. I'm sharing a blog from a student that made such an impact on me. She now works at UCLA, but was a fabulous student here at the University of Denver. https://reallifeindian.wordpress.com May we continue to inspire others to think critically and understand what it means to be American Indian today.

Christin D. said...

I appreciate your courage in "making people uncomfortable", which is clearly different than making them unsafe or marginal. I look to your work to provide a critical analysis of works that will impact my son, my students, and also the adults who too often unthinkingly perpetuate White supremacy and racism through the stories they continue to tell. I spent a lot of time today reading your last few posts and kept returning to the thought of what this must feel like to say what needs to be said even with the knowledge that you will have to deal with a lot of White attempts to retake the center stage or center their own fears, concerns, etc. as the real issue. I am thankful for the work that you do and value it a great deal. Thank you.

B Sanders said...

The irony that she implied you are the coward when she went out of her way to make those comments about her white defensiveness and fragility hard to find, then deleted them and put a 'DO NOT SHARE' on them.

I also wonder about these 'kind' coaches she found that were not you. What made them kind? That they absolved her? Told her she wasn't racist? Never disagreed with her? I wonder what she did in return for them to thank them for their input in validating and authenticating her manuscript, if anything, to return their kindness.

Misrule said...

B Sanders, Christine Taylor-Butler is African American.

B Sanders said...

Oh, my mistake!

vschanoes said...

You know, as a writer and an academic, I've had my share of negative reviews, often, in my opinion, given on far less important and salient grounds than the reviews you give. And I suck it up and deal with them. Maybe whine a little to a close friend. That's it. Because they're not personal attacks. Writers need to keep perspective--sometimes you get bad reviews, sometimes you even deserve them. Acting as though they're some kind of unbearable scourge instead of part of what happens when people who aren't your mother read your work is infantile.

And white people in particular (I know Taylor-Butler is not white, but she seems to be adopting a settler mentality here)need to accept that we will do things wrong, and it is not the job of people of color and/or Native Americans to make us feel OK about it.

Beverly Slapin said...

As educators as well as reviewers, we say what needs to be said. It’s not often easy, but to do otherwise would be unethical.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay about a certain shameful period in the history of the U.S. The essay, for a respected journal, contained critical reviews of children’s books that showed varying perspectives of this historical event. A close colleague of mine—a wonderful writer and someone well known in the field—had written one of these children’s books, and I applied the same criteria to his book that I do for every book I review.

Because we were colleagues (and it didn’t feel like a breach of ethics), I gave him a heads-up while the essay was still in draft form. We had a long talk over the phone and, in the end, we respectfully “agreed to disagree.” The essay was published, and the two of us remain close.

Thank you, Debbie, for the difficult—and necessary—work that you do.