Sunday, March 11, 2018

Some Questions for Book Clubs that Select Books Like NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles

Sometimes, readers of AICL write to me to ask about a book that has been chosen for their book club.

The books they ask about are usually best sellers or award-winning books in the adult market that have Native content. They wonder if it is accurate and one way or another, end up on American Indians in Children's Literature, hoping that maybe I've reviewed it.

A recent case in point is News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Mostly, I ignore those queries. Once in a while, I take them up, as was the case a few years ago, with Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.

Obviously, books like News of the World have a compelling story, or they wouldn't be selected for awards (it was a finalist for the National Book Award).

One question is: compelling for what reader(s)? 

I haven't read the book, but please hold off on throwing that attack my way. I don't want to read it. The point of this post is to ask book club members to think about what they choose, and why such choices appeal to them.

Based on the description of the book, this story is about a White girl (Johanna) and a White man (Kidd). Set in 1870, the White girl is ten years old. When she was six, she was taken captive by Kiowas who killed her family. Kidd is going to help her get back to her aunt and uncle. Living with the Kiowas for four years, however, she's forgotten English, and she's learned some other things... like how to scalp.

Several reviews mention that part of the book, but they don't question it.

Let's think about that part, because from what I've read online (in professional and readers' reviews), no reader said STOP to that part of the story. The reason? My guess is that nobody noticed, because most people have been socialized to think that Native peoples were brutal and blood thirsty. So much so, in fact, that they taught little girls how to scalp their enemies. Instead of saying NO to that part, most readers blow past that part of the book. 

Is News of the World compelling to you because it affirms your pre-existing stereotypical ideas of Kiowa or Native people in the second half of the 1800s?

Another question is: what does a book like this do for you, after you've read it? 

Some of you are teachers. Are you developing lesson plans and selecting children's books for your classrooms, that have stereotypical ideas of Native people in them? Are you a librarian who purchases books for the library? Are you a book reviewer? An editor? A writer?

Books like News of the World shape what you do. How is it going to shape what you do, in your work?

And another question: who is helped by content like that? 

In asking that question, I'm pushing pretty hard at asking you to think about the work books with that sort of content do. Citizens of the United States like to think of this country as exceptional, as better than any other country... you know--"we the people"--and all that sort of thing.

To maintain that idea, the country and its institutions have to keep telling lies about Indigenous peoples and the history of our interactions with Europeans. We weren't primitive. We weren't blood thirsty. We didn't teach little kids how to scalp. What are you doing, unintentionally perhaps, that upholds that false idea? And what does it cost all of us when you do that? Who benefits from that lie?

My final question: what will you do, now? 

If you've read this far, then I hope you're wondering what to do to interrupt this cycle of lies.

What I'm asking is that you step away from what you think you know. I'm asking you to dislodge or decenter the "knowledge" you've received. For historical information, you can start by reading An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. If you listen to audio books, you can get the audiobook version of it.

You can also start by listening to the Media Indigena podcast. There, you'll hear Native scholars, journalists, writers, artists, etc., talking about issues specific to Indigenous communities (many of us, by the way, use both, Native and Indigenous, in our writings--except when we are talking about a specific nation). You could also listen to Native America Calling, a daily call-in radio show. You could read Native newspapers, like Indian Country Today

The overall point of this post? 
Do better. 
Make better choices for your book clubs. 


Ava Jarvis said...

Sometimes I wonder if book clubs should have charters as a matter of course, other than "let's pick award-winning books because those obviously must be the best books so that we can be better read".

Awards are always gated--and that gate is usually white. Books chosen for awards by these committees don't actually push boundaries beyond what they're comfortable with. It's a huge reason why many books by marginalized folks aren't considered--our experiences can read so alien to these committees to the point where sometimes they can't see why we're writing about particular themes at all. There are even public stories about non-white authors being asked by white editors to cut out important themes (that aren't important to white people) or "make your non-white characters more 'authentic'" i.e. stereotypical. And that's all to suit trying to get these books to win these gated awards.

It's a cruel jape at best, because despite this non-white authors often don't get past the gate anyways.

Awards aren't everything. A book club charter needs to be more specific than picking from award lists. If a book club's aim is to be more well-read so that members understand this wide, diverse world better and can be better people, this is a must. If a book club's aim is just to feel more well-read by reading books with gated awards, well, that's super not helping anybody.

Tricia said...

Thank you, Debbie. I think the questions you pose are ones that any critical reader should ask. The last two are variations on the questions I pose to my students when we confront problematic texts. I usually ask students who is hurt by the content, but I really appreciate looking at this from another perspective and will now ask them who the content empowers. I will continue to ask the "What now?" question, because we must act after reading these titles.

Unknown said...

My eyebrows hit my hairline when I got to the part about scalping. I would say "unbelievable," but of course it's all too believable to find such nonsense in a prominent book.