Two weeks ago, my latest book, As I Descended, was released. One week later, I received an anonymous message from a thoughtful reader who’d just started the book. This reader, who’s Indigenous, noticed that I’d used the term totem pole in chapter 1 to describe where a character stood in her school’s social hierarchy ― in the sense of the phrase “low man on the totem pole.”Talley's response to that reader was similar to the one I got from Sarah McCarry when I wrote to her about that phrase in her book (see her post), and the response I got from Ashley Hope Perez when I wrote to her about the phrase in her book (see my post).
In short: they listened.
Talley wrote that she'd shared that reader's message with her editor, Kristen Pettit at Harper Teen, and that the term will be taken out of future printings of the book. Here's the photo of the page that Talley posted:
The line is "Maria was almost as high up the totem pole as Delilah." I'm guessing that the book's title "As I Descended" is a reference to that totem pole. My guess is that Delilah is going to descend from a high point on the social status hierarchy.
The book itself has nothing to do with Native peoples. I haven't read it, so do not want anyone to think that this post is an endorsement of the book.
In her post, Talley apologized:
I profoundly regret that I used the term this way, and I apologize to any readers who have been hurt by it.I shared Talley's Tumblr post, adding this:
Really glad to see another person speak up about this, and another writer and editor acknowledge its use as being wrong! Very glad it’ll come out of the next printings, too, and that it is all being made public for us to know! Thank you, Robin!
A thought, though, about apologies.
I get why people offer them. They’re a social grace. But sometimes, they carry some things that don’t work. They suggest that __ is hurt by the word that misrepresents their particular demographic, when maybe __ isn’t actually hurt. Maybe __ is just pissed off. Yeah, I know, being angry can be characterized as hurt. Still, though, saying someone of that demographic is the one who should be apologized to suggests they’re the only one who is hurt by the word, when I think everyone who doesn’t know it is a problem is impacted by it.
Instead of “I profoundly regret that I used the term this way, and I apologize to any readers who have been hurt by it,” maybe something like (and yeah, I know, this is pretty audacious of me to tell someone how to apologize, but I think we’re talking about larger issues) “I messed up. I didn’t know I was messing up. Lot of us don’t know. Let’s not do that, ok, ourselves, anymore, ok? And let’s tell others about it, too.”On Twitter, I retweeted her "On Making Mistakes" tweet, and that I had a response to her post (crossing lot of social media platforms with this post!). Talley replied that she agrees with my points.
1) A Native reader wrote to Talley.
2) Talley listened.
3) Talley wrote to her editor.
4) Talley and her editor are revising that line.
5) Talley wrote about this error, publicly.
Change happens, when we speak up, and when we listen. With more of this speaking up, and listening, I feel optimistic that change can happen.
Update: November 8, 2016
As I Descended is published by Harper Teen.