Friday, March 23, 2018

Native American Literary Symposium's 2018 "Welcome" Includes Statement about Sherman Alexie; Public Backlash to American Indian Library Association's Decision to Rescind Alexie's Award

In 2001, a group of Native writers organized as the Native American Literary Symposium (NALS). As I write, it is in its second day of its 2018 symposium. The final program includes a Welcome, that has this statement in it about Sherman Alexie (I am highlighting a portion of their statement):

For 19 years, NALS has been a place where Native worldviews can be expressed and considered in all their variations. From our beginning as “clan mothers” through today, we have focused on bringing forward as many voices to American Indian literary and creative studies as possible, and fostering this environment in our own indigenous ways. NALS is not just another academic conference, but a true family of scholars and artists and thinkers. So, it does, but does not, come as a surprise that the predominant literary world is reacting to recent events as if we have “only one literary giant,” Sherman Alexie. And while sad, nor are many of us surprised at the accusations against him, nor will we be surprised when others in our field also fall. We are not responsible for the actions of those abusers. We are responsible for listening to all of those who have been hurt. We are responsible for understanding that while we may be shaken to our core, our roots are strong and deep. We are responsible for finding paths forward when those we have admired, whose works we have admired and taught others to admire, fall from grace. 

On March 21, 2018, I published a letter from the American Indian Library Association (AILA), about its decision to rescind the youth literature award it gave to Alexie in 2007 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. The School Library Journal (SLJ) published a news item that includes the letter.

The comments to the SLJ article and on electronic listservs tell us a lot about the power of a "literary giant." 

  • Rather than listening to the women who spoke out about Alexie, commenters are discrediting them in sickening ways.
  • A man said that AILA should revisit its "intellectual honestly" (sic) and said "AILA is demeaning itself by being victim to cultural correctness along with raising that despised ole specter of “Indian giver” in the eyes of the general public." 
  • A librarian reports librarian staff saying that "they" [Native people] are criticizing Alexie because he writes about "the darker side of contemporary American Indian life instead of making it all look good."  That, in particular, is evident in his remarks about alcoholism in this video from 2012. If a Native story doesn't have an alcoholic in it, some librarians maintain, it isn't an authentic story. 
  • One woman thinks the "apology" Alexie issued is so good of him, that she went out to buy another of his books, to thank him for apologizing. 

Mainstream society's response to this #MeToo about Sherman Alexie points to how much power he has--and still holds--over public sentiment. It does not bode well for any Native writer---other than him or someone who chooses to write like he does, giving readers that narrow slice of Native life.

It is a fact that we have alcoholism in Native communities. But it is also a fact that alcoholism is a disease that occurs in White communities at the same rates that it does in Native ones. People don't insist that every book about White families have an alcoholic in it. Calling for that -- as Alexie does in this video -- is destructive.

It is a fact that some Native people want to leave our reservation communities, but it is also a fact that many of us do not want to leave.

For hundreds of years, White writers have written stereotypical books about Native peoples. Those books have done harm to our youth, and to non-Native youths, too, by misinforming them about who we were, and who we are. Indeed, many of those books end with us vanishing.

I know it feels to you that Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian -- set in the present day -- is a significant book, but it is ONE STORY of Native life. With that one story, he--and you--have created a situation in which the Indian life he chooses to tell has become, in your mind, the truth.

You've made Alexie, his writing, and what he's given to you into something that you refuse to view, critically. In doing that, you are doing what those White writers did for all these hundreds of years. You're providing stereotypes, and you are doing a disservice to Native and non-Native youth.

Most readers of AICL are educators--whether they are teachers or librarians or professors or writers--who have a responsibility to the young people for whom they write for, or for whom they provide a service or instruction.

Don't perpetuate stereotypes. 
Expand what you offer. 
Expand what you know! 
Step away from your adoration of Alexie.
Believe Women. 

It is excruciating to see that the Native women who spoke up about Alexie are being tried in public by people who choose Alexie and his books over their lives. It is a clear example of why women won't speak up. The risks are too great--for all of us. Please rethink what you say, and what you do. And speak up, too. If someone you know is discrediting women who speak up, speak back to them. You might need to rehearse what you'll say. Be ready to do that. The well-being of so many of us depends on everybody speaking up about abuse, harassment, and destructive stereotyping. 


Ava Jarvis said...

I have several pieces of advice for non-Native folks who are looking at this. Yes, this includes people who aren't White but are also non-Native.

First, no one group of people are a monolith. This is something that some folks--some White, some not--would prefer for everyone to believe. What do I mean when I say that no group is a monolith? I mean that every group of people, by definition, contain people who have different experiences--often vastly different from one another. This always lends a certain amount of complexity these types of issues, but we HAVE to embrace that complexity. Humans are not simple.

Second, "no one group is a monolith" is not an excuse to keep hurling slurs or keep insisting that such and such a piece of work isn't bigoted. "No one group is a monolith" also means (a) treating individuals as *individuals* as well, and (b) groups can indeed have consensus, but that's not the same as everyone being essentially clones as the monolith fallacy would have it.

Third, remember that all human groups have people who are going to be crappy and willing to take advantage of their fellow humans, even if said humans might be in the same marginalized group as they are. There are indeed people of color and Natives who are more than willing to sell out if it means they can be looked upon as "better" by White folks. Being looked on as better by the White establishment than other Natives, for instance, means more acclaim and more money and more power for Sherman.

Sherman isn't naive, and in fact, all evidence points to him pushing for stereotypes that explicitly disempower all other Native people who might provide a story that isn't his. If he can monopolize the story of Native people, it's all good for him. I think it's pretty damn obvious he doesn't actually care about other Native people.

And yeah, this occurs among Natives and people of color, and indeed, all other marginalizations. There are such people as, I've mentioned previously, non-Native Asian folks who wish to completely forget their heritage. But there's also many who don't wish to do so. There are certain folks in every marginalized community who are willing--in return for payment or favors--to turn their backs on their fellows and empower their oppressors, even *specific* oppressors.

I know of no one term for people like this, but I think "collaborator" probably covers it.

Fourth, remember that internalized bigotry is a thing. Collaborators found a way to leverage this, to drive how they take advantage of others. Those of us who aren't, often need to overcome this, and it's hard. Though my parents and I are all Vietnamese, I was raised to think that White people were the greatest; the smartest, the most artistic, the most truthful, the most varied in personality and individuality, and the most beautiful.

It took me months of looking at an Instagram feed of only non-White people to realize that beauty isn't inherently White, nor only for people who ape White beauty standards. It took me years of reading non-White fiction and non-fiction to unlearn the idea that non-White people are incapable.

My point is, this bigotry perpetuated by societal structures is so pervasive that it even affects people who are targets of bigotry, as well as people who aren't. Everybody can only combat this by embracing and immersing themselves in a variety of viewpoints--including a variety of viewpoints within any one marginalized group. Any individual proclaiming their story as the true narrative of a group are selling you snake oil. And they don't care who it hurts.


Ava Jarvis said...

Fifth, when situations come up where it turns out someone is abusing their power, do NOT think that it's a shame that their works might be shunned or criticized. Instead, remember that every person abusing their power has done so at the expense of disempowering so many others. The real tragedy is that they've ruined the careers of so many people and silenced so many other voices. Voices that we need to hear to learn the truths of the world around us.

Every single Hollywood director who sexually abused women pushed scores of women out of Hollywood. Sherman, abusing his power, pushed scores of Native voices into obscurity.

We need to remember the voices who go unheard because of the abuses of power. And we need to remember that abuse of power can come from within a marginalized group as well as from outside.

(sorry for the extra long comment. I used to have a blog but mostly I don't anymore because of harassment related to my writings that interacted badly with my PTSD.)

Roger Sutton said...

Debbie, what do you think of the decision to retroactively remove the award citation? That's the main wrinkle for me, but obviously that's AILA's decision to make. PART-TIME INDIAN also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, but I can't imagine un-awarding it (or any other winner). I guess that's a door I'm afraid to open!

Linda Rodriguez said...

I find it interesting that, when wealthy, celebrated white women in Hollywood and the media were speaking up and making accusations, the outcry from all these privileged, liberal white people was "Believe women!" But when Native women speak up against "the Indian du jour," as Alexie has named himself, suddenly they are not believed, and they are being trashed publicly in disgusting ways. And then people wonder why the other Native women are not coming out with public accusations after seeing this treatment. What I want to know is why must we believe white women but not Native women?

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Ava! Your two-part comment has so much to think about.

Roger--I support AILA's decision. Is it the first time a children's book award has been rescinded?

Linda--I hope someone studies and writes about it. The public response to this is striking. What is behind it? My mind races here and there. Is it because people feel sorry for Alexie? Or, find him charming? I'm re-reading DIARY and making notes to share with my readers. My purpose in a close read of it was to show them the stereotyping in it, but I am also taken back by how certain parts of it read, today, in this context. Wanting to be liked. Wanting to write. Wanting to be famous. Wanting to leave the reservation. It is all in DIARY's character. It is partly autobiographical, as he's said, but it is quite the thing to read those words in light of current news.

Roger Sutton said...

It's the first I know of!

It's not a question for me about Believing the Women, because I do Believe the Women. And I recognize that AILA has different goals for its awards than do ALA or BGHB for theirs.