Saturday, January 16, 2016

Not Recommended: Nancy Bo Flood's SOLDIER SISTER, FLY HOME

Some months ago, I learned that Lori Piestewa was being written about in a book by Nancy Bo Flood. My immediate reaction was similar to the reaction I had in 1999 when I read Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is On The Ground. In preparation for her book on Native children at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Rinaldi visited the cemetery there. She used the name of one of the children buried there as a name for one of her characters. That--and many other things about her book--astonished me. What happened to Native Nations and our children because of those schools is something we have yet to recover from. Rinaldi using the name of one of those children was wrong.

Flood is doing that, too.

Soon after the Iraq War began in 2003, Lori Piestewa was killed in Iraq. Her death was felt by people across Native Nations, who started a movement to rename "Squaw Peak" in her honor. Janet Napolitano (she was the governor of the state of Arizona at that time; the Hopi Nation is in Arizona) supported the move. Though it was a difficult change to make (due to governmental regulations), it did take place. What was once "Squaw" Peak (squaw is a derogatory term) is now Piestewa Peak. Each year, there are gatherings there to remember Lori Piestewa. Her family is at those gatherings, as are many Native people.

Tess--the main character in Flood's Soldier Sister, Fly Home--is Navajo. The story opens on the morning of a "ceremony" for Lori. Tess and her parents will go to it, but her older sister, Gaby won't be there because she is in the service. Tess is angry that her sister enlisted in the first place, but also angry that Gaby can't be at the service. The reason? Gaby and Lori were friends (p. 14):
Lori was the first of my sister's friends to join, the first to finish boot camp, the first deployed to Iraq. "Nothing fancy, nothing dangerous," Lori had emailed. "I'll help with supplies, help the soldiers who do the fighting. They're the real warriors. Before you know it, I'll be back."
It is implied that Lori wrote to Gaby. That passage feels wrong to me, too. Several news articles report that Lori sent an email to her mother. In it, she said "We're going in," and "Take care of the babies. I'll see you when I get back." Whether she used Lori's actual words or ones she made up and attributed to Lori doesn't matter. What matters is that she did it in the first place.

The "ceremony" for Lori that Tess and her parents go to bothers me, too. It is going to be held in a gymnasium in Tuba City. When they get there, Tess sees that there are "three large wide drums clustered together." Three different times during this "ceremony," the drumbeat is described as "boom-BOOM."

In newspaper accounts, I find that there was a memorial service held for her in a gymnasium in Tuba City on April 12, 2003, but I don't find any descriptions of it. What is important, is that it was a memorial. Not a "ceremony." At these kinds of Native gatherings (many are held in gyms, so that is not a problem with Flood's story), there is a drum and honor guard, but no "ceremony" of the kind that is implied. And characterizing the sound of the drum as "boom-BOOM" is, quite frankly, laughable.

On page 14 of Soldier Sister, we read that Tess's mother is going to give Lori's family a Pendleton blanket. Tess remembers her sister in that gym, standing at center circle ready to play basketball (p. 15):
Today Lori's mother stood in that circle, wrapped in a dark-purple blanket. Purple, the color of honor. Fallen Warrior. On each side of her stood two little children, Lori's children. Did they hope Lori would come home and surprise them?
Surprise them?! That part of that passage strikes me as utterly callous and lacking in sensitivity for Lori's children and family.

It is possible that, at the actual service that happened that day (news accounts indicate her family was given Pendleton blankets are other memorials since then), someone gave Lori's family a Pendleton blanket. It may have been one of the Chief Joseph blankets. They're available in purple. Pendleton blankets figure prominently throughout Native nations. I've been given them, and I've given them to others, too.

I doubt, however, that a purple one was chosen because purple signifies honor to Hopi or Navajo people. Purple carries that meaning for others, though. In the US armed services, for example, there's the Purple Heart.

All of what I find in Soldier Sister, Fly Home 
that is specific to Lori Piestewa, is cringe-worthy. 

In the back of the book, Flood writes at length about getting Navajo consultants to read the story to check the accuracy of the Navajo parts of the story and her use of Navajo words, too. There is no mention of having spoken to anyone at Hopi, or anyone in Lori Piestewa's family, about this story.

In her "Acknowledgements and Author's Note," Flood writes that (p. 153):
A percentage of the royalties from the sale of this book will be contributed to the American Indian College Fund to support the education of Lori's two children.
That, too, is unsettling. Using her children to promote this book is utterly lacking in grace. It may sound generous and kind, but the reality is that most authors have day jobs. They can't support themselves otherwise. Various websites indicate that an author may receive 10% (or up to 15%) of the sale of each book. Amazon indicates the hardcover price for this book will be $16.95 (it is due out in August of 2016). If we round that to $17.00 and use the 10% figure, Flood could get $1.70 per book. How much of that $1.70 does she plan to send to the American Indian College Fund? Did she talk with Lori's parents (Lori's children live with them) about this donation?

Update, August 24, 2016: An anonymous commenter wrote to say that in the final copy of the book, Flood revised the Author's Note. It now reads as follows:
The Piestewa family is pleased that a percentage of the book's royalties will support the education of Lori's two children. An additional donation will be made to the American Indian College Fund.

Given that Flood specifically names many Navajo people who helped her with this book, the lack of naming of Hopi people makes me very uneasy. Without their names, it feels very much like Flood is exploiting a family and a people. For that reason alone, I can not recommend this book.

I could continue this review, pointing to problems in the ways Flood depicts Tess as a young woman conflicted over her biracial identity. Doing that would help other writers who are developing biracial characters, but I think I'll save that for a stand-alone post.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood, published by Charlesbridge in 2016, is not recommended.

Update: January 26, 2016

There aren't nearly enough Native people in children's and young adult literature. It is a small community, and a good many of us write to each other, sharing news, concerns, etc. As I read Flood's book, I was talking with Joe Bruchac about author notes. What he says below is similar to what I said in my post about beta readers. I'm glad to share his remarks (with his permission) here:

I also am feeling increasingly leery about books which mention the names of people from whatever native nation the non-native person has written a book about as those who provided guidance in some unspecified manner.
For one, not every native person from a particular nation is an expert on that nation's culture, language, and history. I suggest doing what I have tried to do as much as possible, which is to work directly with tribal historians, linguists, and others from that particular nation who are regarded as expert, as elders, and spokespeople and so on-- recognized as such by their own tribal nation. (Such as Wayland Large, the tribal historian of the Shoshone Nation who reviewed my manuscript Sacajawea before it was published.)
I know of a few books in the past that mentioned supposedly American Indian people who were advisors, but were in fact not even Indian. One example is the infamous book brother eagle sister sky.
For another, when there is merely a list of names without any indication of what those people said or did to assist I wonder if there really was any actual significant input from those folks, or just a random conversation now and then.
I may have used this term before when discussing things with you but I find that a great number of books about American Indians by non- Indians tend to engage in what I call "cultural ventriloquism." They create a supposedly native character who is nothing more than a dummy through which the non-native authors voice is spoken. As a result, the worldview and the viewpoint is distinctly not Native American, but a mere pretense.

I first heard "cultural ventriloquism" back in the early 2000s, at a conference in Madison at the Cooperative Children's Book Center. Joe was talking, then, about Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is On the Ground. 

I am still working on my next post about Flood's book, mulling over what I will emphasize. I've got several thoughts in my head. When that post is ready, I'll provide a link here, to it.

Update, September 1, 2016
I finished my second post on the book. 

28 comments:

Ann Bennett said...

When I read posts like these, I feel a lot of sadness. Unfortunately, this is a common post on this site.

I don't know the motives of the writers. In attempting to write myself, it is not casual in what you choose to write. I can't help but feel so many are wanting to elevate their characters but lose the essence in doing so.

I do not have an easy answer. One would be Native Americans need to write their story; but, the muse may take them elsewhere. Second would be more feedback for many. How well you write depends on feedback.

It is good you spot these errors. It is just a shame it did not happen in the editing process. As far as money, writers don't write to be paid. It is rare for any to make any real money. In a perfect world, it would be good if there were an organization that would monitor content and index payment on what the author or book earns.

As much effort as a writer makes to create a book, I think they should pay someone to examine the book's content for accuracy and have first hand knowledge when they ignore the advice.

I'm a retired teacher and I hate, absolutely hate wrong information. In my classroom, if a child would state an oddball fact that was wrong, you could never stamp it out. It would show up as test answers. With the internet, there is so much rubbish floating with good information.

This is my 2 cents. Thanks for your contribution.

Stephanie Greene said...

When I read a review such as this, I wonder wether the reviewer has spoken to the author. I wonder why a reviewer is so quick to condemn a book that won't be out until the Fall 2016. I wonder what purpose is being served in tearing down a book about when the reviewer has no real information. Has Ms, Reese spoken to Nancy Bo Flood? Can Ms. Reese overlook her own narrow prejudices enough to consider that perhaps Ms. Flood knows and understands her material? Is any purpose being served the children's book community with this kind of blanket condemnation of a book that may well, indeed, be based on accurate information and life experience? This parsing of single words, phrases and sentences. Someone has a grudge here but how fair is it to the Native American community or young readers?

Stephanie Parsley Ledyard said...

While checking to see if you had anything to say about A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I was saddened but not at all surprised to see you’d ripped apart Nancy Bo Flood’s forthcoming novel, Soldier Sister, Fly Home. My daughters and I are fans of Nancy’s work, especially her picture books and poetry, and as a former fourth-grade teacher I shared her Warriors novel with a few students, who were deeply moved by it.

Soldier Sister, Fly Home is a work of FICTION whose beginning may or may not have been sparked by Lori Piestewa’s death. The fact that you would nitpick the connections between the Lori’s story and Gaby’s is absurd. Nancy lived on a Navajo reservation for years while her husband worked as a physician there – moving away only recently and often going back for weeks at a time to visit. These are her friends and have become her family. She is highly qualified to imagine, fictionalize, and write about life there, tragedy there, relationships there, families there – and yes, “ceremonies” there – as she has lived there, taught there, learned there, cultivated a community of friends there, and become the person she is there.

If you did further research, you’d learn that Nancy cares deeply about war and its impact on children, families, and the world. I believe that she is currently at work on another novel about a war. And the theme of relationships between sisters, as portrayed in this novel, is an especially important one in her own life. Further, your mocking of her language, “Boom BOOM,” shows your lack of regard for the fact that Nancy is a talented, highly respected poet, and that if you bothered to look, you would find similar types language and rhythm in most all of her poetry and fiction; it is absolutely not used in a mocking or stereotyping way.

The most insulting notion in your review is that Nancy would ever desire to exploit anyone or profit from a tragedy. I can tell you that this novel was written with deep love and respect for the community and people it depicts, and meticulous attention – over YEARS – to getting her facts and nuances right. You’ve taken a fine, well researched, lyrical, powerful novel written by an author who is highly regarded in both her Navajo community and in the writing community and have accused her of unseemly motives. It’s a good thing people who are familiar with Nancy’s work, and yours, know better.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Ann, for your comment. Yes--the Internet is awash with bad info--but good, too. A good many of the tribal nations have websites. These are excellent places for people to go to get information. Some nations also have developed guidelines about how a researcher (that includes writers) should proceed when using tribal peoples and culture in their stories. The Hopi Nation is one of them. They (I say 'they' because I'm not enrolled there, but my material grandfather was Hopi). Native Nations have been exploited so much--historically and in the present day, too. My hometown newspaper has a story in it this weekend that is a followup to an on-going situation where a white writer has a book out about Acoma Pueblo. http://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/columns/viajes_pintorescos/controversy-erupts-over-peter-nabokov-s-publication-of-the-origin/article_1bcbe12b-b5c2-527e-93e9-1759fec994c5.html

Stephanie Greene, reviewers read books before they're published. I am not a consultant who was hired to work on the project.

Stephanie Parsley Ledyard, have you read this particular book? As I keep thinking about the story Flood has written, I think "did this book NEED to have Lori in it?" The answer is no. It could have been a fictionalized soldier. It could have been a fictionalized White soldier that was a friend to Gaby. I appreciate that Flood was inspired by Lori. I think there's a very fine line in being inspired by someone and using them. It seems to me that Flood could donate money to the college fund for the children because she feels bad for them, but do we need to know she's doing that? If so, why do we need to know she is doing it?

Both Stephanie's: I agree that writers can write what they wish. It has been done for hundreds of years, but most scholars of Native literature will tell you it has been done poorly for a wide variety of reasons. Most nations do not want writers to write about ceremonies and beings within our nations that are sacred to us. Writers do it anyway.

I study representations of Native peoples in children's books, and I write about them. The good ones, and the not-good ones, too. I've got book chapters and journal articles on this topic. I know that some people don't like what I do, but I also know my work is deeply respected.

Perhaps Flood did not realize that her use of Lori's name and the note about donating to the college fund would be received as I've responded to it. I am not alone in that, by the way. The Native circles I'm part of are also expressing concern. Given that this is an ARC, maybe this can be addressed before the final copy is published. It feels like exploitation to me. I understand that it feels harsh to you to see me use the word "exploitation." Reading those parts of the book invoked strong emotions in me, and my use of that word captures the depth of those emotions.

Debbie Reese said...

Edits to my first paragraph above, for sentence that starts with "They (I say they....)" are as follows:

They (I say they because although my maternal grandfather is from there, I am enrolled at Nambe, not Hopi) have a website writers can go to. Specifically their page for researchers: http://www8.nau.edu/hcpo-p/intellectPropRights.html

Ann Bennett said...

We no longer see someone disagreeing with us as productive but an attack which is unfortunate. This is an opportunity for Flood to examine her book before it is released to the public.

Nancy Flood had lived on a Navaho reservation and has loved many people there. I have taught many African American children and loved them. This does not make me all knowing about how it feels to be African American. Many of these children have loved me back, and I would never trust them to tell me the truth about something I was writing which involves race. Part of the pact of friendship is you either don't see a flaw or you are not going to mention it to the person.

What causes me to reply is the part about a donation. The business part of me thinks it should be written in the contract with a set percentage. The business part of me acknowledges that you need someone's permission to write about them if they are still living. Writing in fiction allows you to not need to do this. In addition, most of our lives need to be spiced up to be interesting.

Out of respect for an American hero with close family living, a mention of them in a book's promotion should have the family's blessing. This is what would matter to me on a personal level. On a business level, it would help with sales of the book.

The book industry does make money; although, the book usually does not make enough to pay the author's advance which realistically may only be $1000 to $5000. The book industry does know certain topics attract people's interest. I do not doubt the sincerity of the writer. The publishing company has a bottom line which dictates most of how they act. It is possible it is too late to make changes.

As a teacher, I chose books that I thought were good for students. I would love to have had more diversity for my students. Books suitable for sixth graders in which all the characters were African American would be great.

I have not always agreed with Debbie Reese. I used the book "Island of the Blue Dolphin" in my classroom. The fact that the main character was Indian was not one of points I discussed with my students. If I were an active teacher today, I may use the book again. However, I would take parts of Debbie's blog discussing the book and share them with students. Not get too heavy with them but enough for them to know specific problems.

Keep up the good work, Debbie Reese. People cannot know something if they have not been told.

Ann Jacobus said...

I've known Nancy Bo Flood for many years and know of no other children’s author and poet who is more responsible and committed to and positively active for social justice than she. Ms. Reese has not spotted errors, she is making them. The author was present at the Tuba City memorial for fallen solider Lori Piestewa and has absolutely been in contact with Lori’s family--her parents, and her brother who approved the novel. In addition, Trish Polacca, who is a member of the Hopi Tribe, a relation of Lori Piestewa, and a librarian at a Tuba City Library vetted the story and is thanked in the acknowledgments. If THEY have any misgivings about donations to the American Indian College Fund, I'm sure Nancy would change that. I'm very sorry to see so many untrue accusations made against any author/scholar, but especially Ms. Flood.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Ann,

The note does not say that Flood was at the memorial.

The note does not say that Flood has spoken with the Piestewa family.

The note does not say that Trish Polacca vetted the story. She is spoken of as such "Hurray for Trish Polacca, who created a library out of nearly nothing for Tuba City children."

As I said in an earlier comment, donating to the fund is absolutely fine. Telling readers you're doing it? That is not fine. In the final copy, perhaps Flood can change that part of the book. She could say, in a distinct part of her notes, that readers may wish to donate to the fund and provide information on how to do that.

I'm pretty sure that nobody--me included--would discourage anyone from donating to any college fund for Native children.

Ann Jacobus said...

The story is in ARC form. You assume that Nancy acted irresponsibly and insensitively, and accuse of her that publicly and judgmentally without knowing the facts. Why not ask first and/or suggest that the final acknowledgments include more background?

Debbie Reese said...

Ann Jacobus, please read the comments above yours.

The Elephant Rag said...

This morning, I just finished the ARC of Soldier Sister, Fly Home. I read the story from my perspective, someone just discovering the Navaho culture. When I finished, I imagined the 12-year old child discovering Soldier Sister and that the story would shift her life. She might never have met a Navaho child, but now she's met a girl painted with the deepest respect. She'd learned in the story and in the Author's Note about a real Native American young woman who died in combat and was loved by her people and the country. I was thinking that Tess, the protagonist, is living a life different from city and suburban kids, and through the compassionate portrayal of Tess and her grandmother and the horse Tess loves, kids can meet her. The world they live in can now hold the reality of Tess. A writer such as Nancy Bo Flood with a deep empathy for all life as is evidenced in all her books offers a bridge into a culture for children. For just a while, we all can be Tess and imagine how extraordinary it would be to love a sister the way she does and have a grandmother like hers. And to learn of the way her family helps her grow to be the young woman she'll become. The story gave me enormous respect for a culture I knew little about.

Anonymous said...

The use of real people in fiction is a widely accepted literary technique. The following website links to a fairly comprehensive list.

http://www.complete-review.com/maindex/fictbio.htm

For example, here are those whose names end in "A" or "B". The digits refer to the amount of involvment in the book.

Alhaji Adegoke ADELABU: Adelabu, Ogali OGALI (1)
ALFONSO XVIII, : The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist, Robert PAGANI (1)
Salvador ALLENDE: The Neruda Case, Roberto AMPUERO (3)
Joseph ALSOP: The Columnist, David AUBURN (1)
Idi AMIN:

The Last King of Scotland, Giles FODEN (1)
A Play of Giants, Wole SOYINKA (1)
Abyssinian Chronicles, Moses ISEGAWA (2)
The Gravity of Sunlight, Rosa SHAND (2)
Night and Day, Tom STOPPARD (2)
Snakepit, Moses ISEGAWA (2)

Kingsley AMIS: Still Life, A.S.BYATT (3)
Kofi ANNAN: Stuff Happens, David HARE (2)
APULEIUS: Dreams of Dreams, Antonio TABUCCHI (2)
ARCHIMEDES: The Fourth Circle, Zoran ŽIVKOVIĆ (3)
ARISTOPHANES: The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, Martin MILLAR (1)
Julian ASSANGE: Replay, Benjamin STEIN (3)
W.H.AUDEN: The Habit of Art, Alan BENNETT (1)
Michael BAKUNIN The Coast of Utopia, Tom STOPPARD (1)
J.M.BARRIE: Kensington Gardens, Rodrigo FRESÁN (1)
Jean-Michel BASQUIAT: Eroshima, Dany LAFERRIÈRE (3)
Frédéric BEIGBEDER: The Map and the Territory, Michel HOUELLEBECQ (2)
Vissarion BELINSKY The Coast of Utopia, Tom STOPPARD (2)
Saul BELLOW: Ravelstein, Saul BELLOW (1)
Sarah BERNHARD: A Samba for Sherlock, Jô SOARES (2)
Thomas BERNHARD: Die Murau Identität, Alexander SCHIMMELBUSCH (1)
Gian Lorenzo BERNINI: Where Tigers are at Home, Jean-Marie BLAS DE ROBLÈS (3)
Osama BIN-LADEN: Zero Day, Mark RUSSINOVICH (3)
Tony BLAIR:

Stuff Happens, David HARE (1)
Saturday, Ian McEWAN (3)
Speak for England, James HAWES (3)

Hans BLIX: Stuff Happens, David HARE (2)
Allan BLOOM: Ravelstein, Saul BELLOW (1)
Anthony BLUNT: A Question of Attribution, Alan BENNETT (1)
Humphrey BOGART: Sister Hollywood, C.K.STEAD (3)
Niels BOHR: Copenhagen, Michael FRAYN (1)
Jean-Baptiste BOKASSA: A Play of Giants, Wole SOYINKA (2)
Jorge Luis BORGES: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, Luis Fernando VERISSIMO (1)
Ruđer BOŠKOVIĆ: Tranzit, kometa, pomračenje, Muharem BAZDULJ (1)
Mohamed BOUJERI: VSV, Leon de WINTER (1)
Paul BOURGET: The Diary of a Chambermaid, Octave MIRBEAU (3)
Marlon BRANDO: Sydänkohtauksia, Kari HOTAKAINEN (1)
Willy BRANDT: Democracy, Michael FRAYN (1)
Eva BRAUN: Siegfried, Harry MULISCH (2)
Bertolt BRECHT:

Brecht at Night, Mati UNT (1)
Brecht's Mistress, Jacques-Pierre AMETTE (1)
Tales from Hollywood, Christopher HAMPTON (2)
Sister Hollywood, C.K.STEAD (3)

André BRETON:

Death Sentences, KAWAMATA Chiaki (2)
The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo PADURA (3)

Leonid BREZHNEV: Monumental Propaganda, Vladimir VOINOVICH (3)
Benjamin BRITTEN: The Habit of Art, Alan BENNETT (1)
Suzanne BRØGGER: Bitter Bitch, Maria SVELAND (2)
Pieter BRUEGHEL: Headlong, Michael FRAYN (2)
BUDDHA: Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights, MITSUSE Ryu (1)
Guy BURGESS: An Englishman Abroad, Alan BENNETT (1)
Richard BURTON: Bitter Drink, F.G.HAGHENBECK (2)
Richard Francis BURTON: Der Weltensammler, Ilija TROJANOW (1)
George BUSH jr.:

Stuff Happens, David HARE (1)
[American Wife, Curtis SITTENFELD (1)]
Checkpoint, Nicholson BAKER (2)

Laura BUSH: [American Wife, Curtis SITTENFELD (1)]

Veronica Schanoes said...

Yeah. It's a well-known literary technique, so you can assume Debbie's familiar with it. The question isn't whether Flood has done something unusual. The question is whether she's done something respectful.

--Veronica

Anonymous said...

Fallen American soldiers, no matter their sex,education, SES, ethnicity, race, religion, or other sociological characteristics, belong to all of us. Remembering them is no place for identity politics. That Flood would do her own service to the memory of Lori P., making it possible for thousands or tens of thousands of American children who no longer must serve their country in the armed services to remember her and begin to know her story, feels like the ultimate in respect. Much respect to the author. I look forward to this book's publication.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous on Tuesday, January 26 at 7:27 AM,

I appreciate your sentiment that fallen soldiers belong to all of us.

As a Native woman and scholar, I read "belong" however, from a different place than you do. The history of the US is one rife with examples in which Native peoples lives--and indeed, our remains--were deemed property that belonged to others who could own and use.

That said, I agree. I want children to read about Lori Piestewa, but not as a character in a work of fiction.

Some of the people commenting in this thread are friends of Nancy Bo Flood. They indicate that she has the approval of Lori Piestewa's family. I am curious why that wasn't in the ARC. I trust that approval will be indicated in the final author's note, but I also think it would be wonderful if Flood used her position as someone in children's literature to help increase the number of Native writers getting published. I think a work of nonfiction written by Piestewa's family would be far better than the what I see in Flood's novel.

Judith Robinson said...

Ms. Reese,

Although I have not yet read Soldier Sister, Fly Home, I gather from your review it is the story of friendship, connection, love and commitment. Those are values that arise to meet us from the province of the sacred. Where Truth is known.

If our wounds become our eyes, we are blinded to the Truth. Restoration of our sight, since ancient days, has fallen to our storytellers. It is they who must wring Truth, sacred Truth, from what they’re given, and from what they know. Our burden lies in discernment.

The hurting heart infers “exploitation”, where “tribute” lies in Truth. In angst, the offended assaults without knowledge and "lacking in grace" the integrity, the being, the Truth of another.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Wow.

I wonder if John Lithgow could do a guest spot and perform the above comment?

I can see it now. "Debbie, your wounds are your eyes, and you are blinded to the... Truth."
*drops mic*

Judith Robinson said...

Ms. Reese

For those of us who tell stories, I ask for this expressed grace in our struggle toward Truth,

"... no author ever sets out to deliberately misrepresent who we are in his or her writing..."

Judith Robinson

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that Shonto Begay, the notable Navajo illustrator attached his name to this disrespectful piece of filth book. I wonder how he would defend his contributions.

Debbie Reese said...

Judith Robinson:
That a storyteller has good intentions is never a question for me. Good intentions are a given. But good intentions have misinformed Native and non-Native children for hundreds of years. Even though there's a body of criticism of misrepresentation that writers can use, the same errors happen over and over again---and in abundance. These aren't isolated instances. I ask that you take what you learned here, and share it with writers you work with. And ask them to share it, too. It is the writers who are giving us this endless stream of problematic books.

Anonymous at 9:30 on June 1st: With picture books there is usually no communication between the writer and illustrator. I don't know what was done for this particular book. I don't know if he read the manuscript or not.

Judith Robinson said...

Dr. Reese:

Thank you. I stand thus informed.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Debbie, but he must have had a manuscript to read in order to create the illustrations. I think we should demand an explanation from him! How could he not be offended by this?!?! He is willfully contributing to the degradation of native peoples!

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous, when I am back in my house (where the book is), I can add a screencapture of his illustrations. He did the cover and if I recall correctly, the illustrations inside the book are decorative here and there rather than ones that enhance the text in the way a picture book does.

In the meantime, I believe Flood's friends are following this thread and may know more about the illustrations.

The question of why he would accept the contract to illustrate the book is an important one, similar to questions about actors taking stereotypical roles in Hollywood films. There are arguments made, defending them, because that is their profession and they have families to care for, and there are arguments made, saying they contribute to misrepresentations when they accept those roles.

Jean Mendoza said...

I get why some people wish to be Anonymous in comments sections, but it does complicate responding to what they say. Assuming that the two Anonymous comments about Shonto Begay are from the same Anonymous -- Anon, despite your hyperbole (Debbie has not said or implied that this book is a "disgusting piece of filth" that "degrades" native peoples), issues around illustrations in problematic books are serious, as Debbie points out in her diplomatic and thoughtful response of 6/3.

However, I want to direct attention back to a previous Anonymous comment from January, which encapsulates a core problem with any writing that uses fallen heroes, and specifically with this book. Anonymous asserts "Fallen American soldiers... belong to all of us." I take issue with that and the next statement about "identity politics." (I know that this Anonymous may be different from the June 3 Anonymous.)

I propose that the dead do not "belong to all of us" no matter what the circumstances of their deaths. Their lives/deaths may be significant to survivors and to subsequent generations, individually and collectively. Their deaths will inevitably mean different things to different people. But they are not and cannot be possessions. We, the living, have no inherent right to their names, their identities, their lives, or their deaths.

Not that we cannot think about or write about the dead. That’s what biography often is, after all. I imagine we can all agree that biographers must take some ethical considerations into account lest they be guilty of exploitation, appropriation, misrepresentation, or “ventriloquism”.

IMO, similar ethics ought to apply to writers who choose to turn real people who have died (e.g., real-life fallen soldiers or children who died at boarding school) into characters in the stories they craft.

For example, Chris Kyle has been in the news again lately. If someone who’s not one of his comrades-in-arms were to write fiction in which Kyle featured prominently -- especially fiction related to his service or his murder -- one might question the decision to include him. The fact that Kyle sometimes fictionalized himself would not be relevant here. What’s relevant is how the living treat the dead.

Kyle’s identity as a soldier and medal recipient is what appeals to many people. That identity would potentially carry a lot of freight for any writer who decided to put him into a story. So one might ask: What words, if any, is this author (as a kind of ventriloquist) having him say? What actions is the author imagining for him? What would this book be without the fallen one?

Lori Piestewa’s identity also is neither apolitical nor incidental. I think Debbie’s comments about Sister Soldier make that clear, and even more could be said.

I don’t believe that we get to decide that Lori Piestewa “belongs” to all Americans just because of the circumstances of her death. Though her identity carries a lot of freight, it is not a commodity we should/can possess, to do with what we will …. Seems to me that when she’s written into a piece of fiction, it’s reasonable to wonder, “What’s the author doing with this remarkable person, the only ‘real’ human among a full cast of made-up characters? Are words being put into her mouth? What words? Are actions being imagined for her? What actions? What do other characters do about her? What might this book be without her identity/identities?”

So I guess I’m surprised that authors would NOT expect that writing a real-life person into a work of fiction would invite scrutiny. And writing a real-life Native person into a work of fiction does/should invite scrutiny from Native people and their allies. That scrutiny will be informed by unique circumstances that historically have not been well understood by non-Native people – no matter how well-intentioned they may be, or how certain they are that they are doing the right thing. Authors and their supporters can ignore the criticism, deflect it, resist it, or decide to learn from it.

Anonymous said...

Now that the book has been released in final format, the author's note clearly states "The Piestewa family is pleased that a percentage of the book's royalties will support the education of Lori's two children. An additional donation will be made to the American Indian College Fund."

I would expect a retraction about this concern from the owner of this blog. But I'm not holding my breath.

Debbie Reese said...

You're not holding your breath. You're funny, Anonymous. Who are you, by the way?

What do you want me to "retract"?

I asked "Did she talk with Lori's parents (Lori's children live with them) about this donation?" Now, we know that the family is pleased about the royalties so I guess the answer to my question is 'yes.' Does that mean that they endorse the book, the way that Flood presented their daughter? Maybe. We don't know.

I still have questions, though. What is the percentage that Flood is donating to the family? What does that mean, in dollars and cents? I suppose that is none of my business, so it is silly to ask.

Anonymous said...

Debbie Reese said...

"Hi Ann,

...

The note does not say that Flood has spoken with the Piestewa family.

...

Monday, January 18, 2016 at 1:16:00 PM CST"

In the finished copy the note says she spoke to the family. Your above comment claiming otherwise is what you should retract. You blistered this book before publication. Please accept responsibility.

I choose to stay anonymous for fear of retribution.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous,

Please scroll up. Based on your comment, I inserted an update just after the paragraph where I asked questions about the royalties.

Somehow, I think that is not what you mean by accepting responsibility. I think you want me to delete what I said. I won't do that. I don't delete what I write because doing that suggests I have something to hide or be embarrassed about. And, within the community of people who study children's literature, those deletions/revisions create confusion.