Friday, February 24, 2017

Why is Navajo gr-gr-grandmother in THE KILLER IN ME by Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison's The Killer In Me is amongst the books the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) listed in 2016, as having significant Native content. Here's the description:
Hasn't he lived long enough? Why not? I could take him like a thief in the night. This is how the Thief thinks. He serves death, the vacuum, the unknown. He's always waiting. Always there. Seventeen-year-old Nina Barrows knows all about the Thief. She's intimately familiar with his hunting methods: how he stalks and kills at random, how he disposes of his victims' bodies in an abandoned mine in the deepest, most desolate part of a desert. Now, for the first time, Nina has the chance to do something about the serial killer that no one else knows exists. With the help of her former best friend, Warren, she tracks the Thief two thousand miles, to his home turf—the deserts of New Mexico. But the man she meets there seems nothing like the brutal sociopath with whom she's had a disturbing connection her whole life. To anyone else, Dylan Shadwell is exactly what he appears to be: a young veteran committed to his girlfriend and her young daughter. As Nina spends more time with him, she begins to doubt the truth she once held as certain: Dylan Shadwell is the Thief. She even starts to wonder . . . what if there is no Thief? From debut author Margot Harrison comes a brilliantly twisted psychological thriller that asks which is more terrifying: the possibility that your nightmares are real . . . or the possibility that they begin and end with you?
The Killer In Me is published by Hyperion, which is part of Hachette Books.

Dylan, it turns out, is Nina's older brother. Their mother, Becca, gave Nina up for adoption when she was a baby. The reason The Killer In Me gets tagged for Native content is because Becca's great-grandmother (Nina's great-great-grandmother) was Navajo.

Here's the thing: There is absolutely nothing about how she is developed that makes this Navajo ancestry matter. Harrison could have made Nina and Dylan's ancestry be any of the many different Native ones in the southwest and it would not have mattered one bit.

That disturbing connection with Dylan is that, through her minds eye, Nina can see what he is doing (and vice versa). As I read, I was worried that Harrison was going to have their Navajo ancestry be the source for the ability of Nina and Dylan to see what the other is doing.

But--thankfully--that didn't happen. We don't know why they can do that.

My big question: why is this great-great-grandmother Navajo? It doesn't matter one bit to the story. So, why is it here? It feels to me that The Killer In Me may be an example of a writer creating an aspect of a story with DIVERSITY in mind.

Like I said, nothing turns on this aspect of Nina's identity. Someone might argue that the Navajo ancestry makes it possible to set the book in the southwest, but, that great-great-grandma could be anybody! In the southwest, there are white people, and Spanish people, and Native people of many nations...

Again: why is this great-great-grandmother Navajo? What did I miss?!

Because I think it is meaningless, I'm giving this a not-recommended label.


Anonymous said...

At some point, Debbie, I knew you would go too far. You did with this entry. It is completely believable and normal for people to point out unusual things in their own backgrounds and ancestry. It helps to ground individuals in the past and secure them in the present. I have a friend who has shared that one of her ancestors was a slave trader in west Africa. Another friend has great-grandparents who moved to Russia after the Revolution to live out their lives in the socialist paradise. Another who has an ancestor who was a voodoo spiritualist from Haiti. Another lost an ancestor in a Polish pogrom. She is now Catholic. None of these things are necessarily germane to who the people are, but are cherished family stories and histories. Not to recommend a book because it makes reference to a Navajo ancestor for a character is going overboard. Let authors build characters how they want.

Unknown said...

Speaking as an author, a detail about a character that is not germane to who that character is in the novel is a failed detail. Characters are not people-they don't have random events. When an author includes a heritage or family story for a character, it is doing some kind of work in building that character in the reader's mind or in affecting the plot. You've got to ask yourself--what's so special about the Navajo g-g-grandmother that she should be singled out? Does the author mention the race/ethnicity/nation of the other g-g-grandparents? If not, what is being positioned as default?

Further, if the author doesn't deliberately develop a mention of Native ancestry, the author is comfortable with invoking general cultural stereotypes about Native peoples as part of that character-building, and that is lazy nonsense.

You may think Debbie has gone "overboard," and this mention might not have stood out to me as a reader, but Debbie is not reading with an eye toward me. She's reading with an eye toward what will stand out for Native kids/teens if/when they read this book. And speaking for myself, if the mention was of a Jewish g-g-grandmother, and then that was never developed and never affected the plot or the character, I would wonder what the author was doing with that. What is the reader supposed to get from it?


Anonymous said...

It helps actually to read the book. The Navajo ancestor is psychologically germane to The Killer in Me. The girl is adopted. She lives in Vermont at the start of the story. Part of the story takes her from Vermont to New Mexico to visit her birth mother, who has the Navajo ancestor. Every psychologist who has ever worked with an adopted kid knows that the adopted kid, whether in text or in subtext, thinks about their birth families and their lineage, even if it is not a spoken part of her or his story at any particular moment. That's what the author is doing here, and I wish that Debbie had mentioned the adoption. It would have cleared up a lot of stuff.

Debbie Reese said...

Anon at 10:14 on March 2:

I did read the book and, if you'll go back and read what I said, the first paragraph after the synopsis says that the character is adopted.

One thought I had about the author saying that, is a way for her to set the story in NM/AZ. I still think it is a throw-away piece and/or empty gesture towards the calls for diversity of characters in books.

I do have more to say about the book. I was working on that for a part-2-post on the book, but your comment suggests I can say a bit right now.

Did you follow the conversations I initiated on adoption in THE LOVE THAT SPLIT THE WORLD? If so, you know that Emily Henry included the Indian Child Welfare Act in her story, but in a way I found disconcerting. That law was passed to protect Native children and Native nations. The stories of Native children being taken from their birth mothers--and the ways they were taken--are heartbreaking. US Congress responded to that by passing ICWA. In her story, Henry referenced it but only to talk about the ways that her characters worked around that law. I found that storyline utterly disgusting.

What is Nina's backstory? Does Margot Harrison know about ICWA? Would a real life Nina have been adopted out to a white woman from Vermont? These are the questions specific to that follow up post I plan on doing.

And yes--Anon at 10:55 on March 2nd--it is not unusual for any kid to wonder about their ancestry. If you are at all aware of Native life, history, citizenship issues and the like, you know that we deal with an awful lot of people--good, well-intentioned people--who have a family story that someone in their ancestry is Native. It moves them to behave in ways that undermine the well-being of the people they feel a kinship to.

By that, I mean that Native people hear these sorts of thing all the time:

"Well I think the mascot is fine and I'm part Native American." Or,

"Just look at that photo of my grandmother! See her high cheekbones. There's proof right there that we're part Native American."

This is why I question how a character is described. If it feels empty, I'll say so!

I don't know if these two anon's are the same person. Thank you, Veronica ("unknown") for your comment about how a writer approaches character development. Anon's---go back and read what Veronica wrote.

Last thing I'll say for now: Among my notes on the book is one about that Navajo grandmother wearing a crystal necklace. Now, it is possible that a Navajo woman would wear one, but either Harrison doesn't know that a Navajo woman is more likely to be wearing turquoise than crystal. Or--then again--maybe she's looking at some New Age images. Shaman's, crystals... that does a tremendous harm to Native peoples, too.

Sam Jonson said...

I believe this trope, when it doesn't involve just Indians, is called "Narrative Filigree". Quite a bad place to put your "affirmative action" characters. Man, I hate it when Europeans and McEuropeans get so anxious about stereotyping Native characters that they take measures that actually make it worse. Reminds me of Egypt's recent revolution.