Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Totem pole" will not appear in future printings of Robin Talley's AS I DESCENDED

On Friday, I read On Making Mistakes on Robin Talley's Tumblr page. There, she wrote:
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.

In brief:

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.


Anonymous said...

Really glad to see authors owning up to their mistakes. Talley seems like a decent person. Genuine apologies like this should not be so rare. (Still waiting on Emily Henry to apologize for her terrible Native representation in The Love That Split the World. I never see her supporting Natives period. But I digress.)

I do want to make one correction. Your above post says "The book itself has nothing to do with Native peoples." That's not entirely true. As I Descended does have some mentions of the Native people who lived on the land that the story's boarding house is now on. There aren't many mentions, but they're there, and they may or may not be problematic.

Debbie Reese said...

Oh! Thanks for telling me that it does have content specific to Native people. Now... I am kind of worried because from what I see, there's a lot of ghost/spirit themes.

Anonymous said...

Hello! This is a new topic to me - why is the word "totem pole" not the best word to use in this context? Is it bc it is not used in tandem with the actual culture? I'd greatly appreciate any clarification!

Debbie Reese said...

Anon at 12:09 AM on September 26:

Totem and pole are, of course, English words for something created by Native peoples. We can start there. Just which tribal nations created them? And, why? Also, what is their word, in their language, for this thing known, today, as a totem pole?

If you stop in at a toy store, you'll easily find Native play sets that include a tipi and a totem pole... but nothing that tells the child that those two items don't belong to a single tribal nation. They are items of specific nations, but more often than not, they're put forth as "Native American" which is accurate in the global sense, but also a huge problem because broad terms like that obscure the diversity within Native nations across the US and Canada.

Totem poles have several different meanings or significance. Some embody story, and some are similar to a memorial that commemorates an event or person.

One of the things I want to know, personally, is when and how they acquired this idea that the figure at top of a given pole had more status than one at the bottom. I've seen writings that say that the item at the bottom is actually more important because it is closer to the earth.

Bottom line for me: they have significance that most people do not know about, and as such, represent something we need to be mindful of, and learn more about. There's a video that you could watch about one pole that ended up in Sweden, and how the Haisla people worked to get it back in their homeland. It is here: