Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Twitter Thread on Justina Ireland's DREAD NATION

A blog post with my analysis of the Native content in Justina Ireland's Dread Nation is in process. 

For now, here's a record of the tweets I sent out on Twitter. The first one went out on the morning of April 28 and the last one on the evening of April 29th, 2018. I've inserted tweets from Cynthia Leitich Smith that I think are helpful. (Update on May 2: I'm inserting numbers for each tweet to help with further analysis and conversation, and I'm inserting additional comments for some of the tweets).

1. Last week I finished reading Justina Ireland's DREAD NATION. I found many parts--including the Author's Note--unsettling and alarming. Thursday I got an email from a young woman who had read it and was very upset with the Native content.

2. Because the book is doing so well, she wrote to me because the book's success made her doubt her own reading of it. The young woman is Native. I wrote back to her right away to tell her that my notes look much like hers.

3. One major problem is author using “well meaning” to characterize the creation of the boarding schools.
Update on May 1, 2018: Debra J. and Tanita Davis submitted comments about "well meaning." Both think that Ireland was being sarcastic. In the author's note, the word is not set off in italics or with quotation marks. Either one would convey sarcasm. Maybe that can be done in a next printing of the book. Several Native readers did not catch its sarcasm. I didn't, either.

4. Because the description said "Native and Negro Education Act" I expected a lot of content specific to Native people. There isn't much, overall, and what is there is... not great.
Update on May 2: In 1819, Congress passed the "Indian Civilization Act" which provided funds to Christian missionaries who would establish missions to "civilize" Native people.

5. And some of it is bad. A lot of historical fiction that could and should include Native people but doesn't, is a problem of omission. This is a different kind of problem.

6. For Native people, there's been wave after wave of government efforts to get rid of us. Some were straight up "kill them" and there are the assimilation ones which sought to kill us off as nations of people by killing our identity as Indigenous people.

7. Mission and boarding schools were designed to "civilize" and "Christianize" us. In author's note, Ireland wrote "This exploitative school system became the basis for the fictional combat school system in the alternative historical timeline of Dread Nation."

8. She goes on to say "Because if well-meaning Americans could do such a thing to an already wholly subjugated community in a time of peace, what would they do in a time of desperation?" There's a lot wrong in that sentence.

9. There's the "well meaning" (which I hope you should not be characterized that way, alone); there's the "already wholly subjugated community" (a collapsing of hundreds of Native Nations into a singular group); and there's "a time of peace" (peace, for what nation?)

10. When people make errors in fiction, it is not hard to say "this is an error of fact". Because Dread Nation is an alternative fantasy, it seems like there's a buffer of sorts. An author is in fantasy space, so in theory, anything goes.... but...
Update on May 2: Dread Nation is alternative history. In the tweet directly above this update, I said "alternative fantasy" but meant something more like "fantasy with alternative history."

11. I kept having to read and re-read passages to try to make the logic of what the author was doing, work, in this alternative space. I couldn't do it. It was (and is) a mind warp of some kind for me to be trying so hard to do that.

12. Hmmm.... would I get it if I wasn't an Indigenous woman who knows all this history--not from a history book but from family stories?

13. On page 17 we learn about Congress funding "the Negro and Native Reeducation Act" that created these combat schools. During that time period, people said "Indian". At the boarding schools, students were treated like if they were in the military, but...

14. ... they weren't given training in weapons or fighting. The military character of the schools was uniforms they were forced to wear. At some they were marched here and there. People in the dorms were/are "matrons".

15. Today at the schools, kids talk about this or that student being AWOL. They ran away, a lot, then.

16. On p 33 of Dread Nation: "I [Jane] heard that in Indian Territory they tried to send Natives from the Five Civilized Tribes to combat schools but they quickly figured out what was what and all ran off. The Army was too busy fighting the dead to chase them..."

17. "... so the government gave up and just focused on us Negroes." Knowing the real history, that's a kick in the gut.
Update on May 2: See tweet #47 for info on why I said "kick in the gut". Also relevant to seeing "Five Civilized Tribes" on page 33 are two other facts. That phrase refers to five nations: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. Make time to watch the Trail of Tears episode in the PBS series, We Shall Remain. Amongst the things you'll learn there, is that some Indigenous people had slaves.

18. Backing up a bit to page 19, that passage abt Miss Preston (she runs the combat school) having had a Sioux lover and that she keeps an eagle feather in his memory... is perplexing. Jane thinks it isn't true. That's good but what does that bit do for the arc of the story?
Update, May 2: Someone asked for detail on what I meant by "that's good." I appreciate the question. The entire passage is this: "There were whispers that Miss Preston had taken a Sioux lover while out west and that she keeps an eagle feather in his memory, but I don't believe any of that." I think Jane is saying she doesn't believe Miss Preston had the Sioux lover. But--the passage is here. If it is going nowhere, it could have been deleted. I wonder if we'll learn in book two that Miss Preston did, in fact, have a Sioux lover?

19. I'd really like input from other readers. I come into this reading from a specific place, and because she's an author who understands far more than most writers do abt power/racism, I'm feeling a bit lost.

20. I'm feeling that way, too, about the Custer part. Getting bit by a zombie used to take days for the person who was bit to become a zombie, but, there's a new strain that the scientists are calling the Custer strain.

21. This new strain makes the person who is bit turn into a zombie much quicker: "It's named after Custer's stunning defeat in Cleveland at the hands of his own infected men, of course."
Update, May 2: In tweets 42-46, I circled back to my question about the Custer passage.

(hitting pause for now; more later).

22. Back and picking up thread. I'll come back to the Custer part later. One thing that lingers in my head, from the start, is who are these dead that rise, in the first place? All the land was/is Indigenous land. The dead that rise when this rising of shamblers (zombies) begins...

23. These dead who are rising from the land... some would be the soldiers who were fighting in the Civil War, and squatters/invaders/settlers... but this land would have thousands of years of Indigenous peoples who died pre 1492.

24. Native people fought in that war, too, by the way. But setting that aside for now, let's talk about Daniel Redfern. He's the only Native character in the story. When Jane first sees him, she notes how he's different from the Indians in the stories she reads.

25. I am glad to see that, for sure. Jane wonders if he went to the boarding school in Pennsylvania. Later (p. 163) Jane asks him what tribe he's from. He says "I doubt you've heard of us, my people don't exactly get featured in the weekly serials."

26. Lenape is his nation. Jane asks him if Redfern is a Lenape name, and "His lips tighten. 'No, it was the name given to me by a teacher at the school I was sent to when I was six." That doesn't quite work.

27. There are many accounts of Native kids being given an English name at the schools. My Hopi grandfather had a Hopi name, but when he went to boarding school they gave him this name: Rex Calvert. The point was to erase Indigenous culture. To 'kill the Indian.'

28. Why would a teacher at the school Redfern went to give him "Redfern" as a name?

29. Did this guy arrive at the school when he was six, with a Lenape name that, when translated into English, became Redfern? Maybe. But it would have taken a lot of work to make that happen. That teacher (or someone else there) would have to know the Lenape language.

30. But remember--these schools, for real, were meant to 'kill the Indian.' Kids, for real, were beaten for speaking their own languages. That changed later, for sure, and it is possible that this was a kind teacher but...

31. ... Daniel says that "They took me from my family, cut my hair, beat me every time they felt like it, and sent me to work for the mayer when I was eighteen." So--my effort to make his name, Redfern, work... fails.

32. There's a thread from yesterday that has bearing on my analysis of any book. In a nutshell, it is that writers aren't writing a textbook and that they want to make things up and have fun.

33. Ethnographic writing in fiction is something that Native writers have said 'no' to for a long time, too. I understand all of that.

34. I don't like ethnographic writing either. It is a fact for most of us in the US that for all our lives (and those of our parents, grandparents, etc), we've read White-centered fact and fiction forever. That's the Center of US publishing.

35. As I sit here and think about sci fi and fantasy and how important the knowledge we bring to a viewing or a reading matters, that scene from Galaxy Question comes to mind... the one where the aliens have been watching TV shows that got beamed into space...

36. ... and they thought all that was real. Remember? The captain said something about Gilligan's Island and the alien said "those poor people." I cracked up. I got it. I knew it was just a show. Our collective knowings made that story work.

37. My primary concern is as an educator who is also Native. We (Native ppls), have borne the brunt of bad, misinformed, well-intentioned, deliberately misleading, politically-biased writing for hundreds of years.

38. What we're striving for, I think, is a point in Knowing, where readers know who Native people are, and can spot the playful or artful worldbuilding that any writer does with a Native nation's people, as that writer's craft at work.
Tweets from Cynthia Leitich Smith, @CynLeitichSmith:
Yes. On a related note, in certain cases, the use of front and/or back matter can be helpful to authors in clarifying our fantastical frameworks. 
E.g., In Feral Curse and Feral Pride (books 2 & 3 of the Feral trilogy), I used the author's note to make clear "the shape-shifter fantasy elements...are not inspired by or drawn from any Native...traditional stories or belief systems." 
I'd suggest considering forward matter for stories in which the fantastic shift is the focal element of the story--to lay it all out from the start (as opposed to my example wherein the concern was more about misconceptions that may have arisen from reading other books).

39. I will stress that there are writers who are trying very hard to do right by marginalized peoples. This is way different than, say--anything that a racist like Custer would write.

40. So, back to say a bit more about the alternative history treatment of Custer in DREAD NATION. To refresh: a new strain of the plague that makes victims turn into zombies faster is named after Custer. The professor who names it that, is racist.

41. He thinks there's something about Negroes and Indians that makes them more resistant to the plague. 42. Here's what he said about naming the new strain: "It's named after Custer's stunning defeat in Cleveland at the hands of his own infected men, of course."

43. I read and re-read that part and couldn't make sense of it, so I asked two people with expertise in literature and history. They both said the same thing: that he's being depicted as such a fool that his own men took him down.

44. I'd really like to hear from other readers on how they interpreted that line about him. In my conversation with the two people I asked how Lakota people might feel about his death being depicted in this way.

45. In fact, he was killed by Lakota and Cheyenne men when he attacked a village. Custer thought he was going to have a victory, but it was the other way around. It was an important victory... it is commemorated, today.

46. There's a video of it here. Go watch it and then imagine how the people in it would feel if they read that line in Dread Nation.

47. Also: I appreciate the person who wrote to me privately to ask why that part about kids running away from boarding school and not being chased by Army was, as I wrote "a kick in the gut."

48. As I noted, Native kids ran away from the schools. More info: many died as they tried to get home. The school administrators called them deserters and tried to find them. As Brenda Child writes in BOARDING SCHOOL SEASONS...

49. ... (I highly rec that bk, by the way; I taught it in AIS 101 courses when I taught at UIUC), rewards were offered to people who would capture the kids who had run away. Railroad workers were asked not to let kids get on the trains.

50. Parents were notified when their child had run away, and then their wait began. Would their child make it home safely? Some Native communities would take the kids in, hiding them from administrators. In BOARDING SCHOOL SEASONS, Brenda Child quotes from docs:

51. "Superintendent Peairs at Haskell [...] complained that the Iowa Indians "harbor the Indian boy runaways and do everything to assist them in avoiding arrest." (Kindle location 1378).

52. So, that's what I meant when I read, in Dread Nation, that the Army chased Negro kids but not Native ones.

53. On page 139, we read that Confederates surrendered and that "President Lincoln would issue the Writ of Concession..." that made slavery illegal. That happened on Jan 1, 1863. But... any time I read Lincoln's name in nonfiction or fiction, I wonder if the writer knows...

54. .. what Lincoln did on December 31, 1862? Do you know that on that day, the largest mass execution in the US took place? Info here:

55. I hope you went over and read that news item about the executions. If you did, you know that history of that time was not a time of peace. Native Nations and the US were at war. There was a lot going on that isn't depicted in DN.

56. No book can "do it all." That's a given. But I will say this: I get tired of the pretty constant erasures of us in historical fiction (and in alternative history). The author of Dread Nation was trying not to do that erasure.

57. And as you likely know, readers love Jane. I see the many reasons why. Because of her, some might say "this book is not for you, Debbie" (so back off). But, I think the author DID want it to work for Native readers, too.


Update on May 12, 2018: Last weekend, Justina Ireland and I exchanged a series of tweets that began when I saw her sharing an article about the outing system in government boarding schools. In short, she incorrectly named the funding for the schools. In the exchange (and through other sources) it became clear to me that the reason her book fails in its representations of Native peoples is because she did archival research. "Primary sources" she used are items in government archives. Though she lists several books about boarding schools, by Native writers, it seems to me that she did not read them carefully. I am working on a post about that, and the book itself, and noting here to, that I do not recommend Dread Nation.



8 comments:

Ava Jarvis said...

I admit (as a Vietnamese person, which I say only because I know people are going to ask and I might as well get it out of the way) that I was worried about the Native content that might be in Dread Nation. I know too well that even if one is marginalized, that doesn't mean one is going to get it right. But I'm surprised that Ireland didn't do more research into what the US government did to Native folks, because that blood is interwoven throughout the tapestry of this current nation. You cannot separate what happened to Native peoples from US history, just as you cannot separate what happened to Black people from US history.

I understand the desire to try to push to a more-or-less "safe" place the Native peoples in alternate histories of the US, but the way this was done was... well, it's better than, say, a previous book by a white author that entirely wiped out the Native population by saying they were never here, thus colonizers from their alternate Europe were able to do as they pleased without blood on their hands.

But what happened here will still hurt many Native readers. And from Twitter, I know that Ireland wouldn't have wanted to do that, wouldn't have wanted to hurt Native readers. I feel that anyone who insists that Native folks should mind their own business with regards to the content here---well. That's a pretty rotten excuse, because it's one a lot of racist white authors use for their own works, so it'd be nice if readers could stay out of that miserable quagmire for everyone's sakes.

And really. The idea that the boarding schools were well-intentioned and that the US government was at peace with the Native nations? I imagine Ireland would have something to say to the people who insist slavery was a well-intentioned institution during a time the US government was technically not at war with African nations. Even if these words were said in a context about an alternate history that cleaned the blood from US hands.

Heck, as the child of Vietnamese refugees, I would have many nasty words to say to anybody who wrote a history where the American-Vietnam War was really enacted to save Vietnamese from zombies or something. Because that's not what that war was actually about, and to use it in that way propagates a myth that hurts marginalized people.

As for "community", this is really unfortunate language that pops up a lot. For instance, speaking as a Vietnamese person again, I have many issues with the idea of an "Asian community" that many others (including other marginalized people) propagate. Because South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian peoples face very different struggles in America, which are erased when we get put under one umbrella. It's nasty and ugly, because I get to face being called a Rich Privileged Asian due to a TV show when my family (and now myself) lived and continue to live in poverty.

And things get complicated when we add the division that being diaspora adds. Many Vietnamese folks who still live in Vietnam, or who still have ties to Vietnam, would not consider me to be part of their community. And to be honest, the feeling goes both ways.

And that is all yet again very different from Native struggles.

I've learned that when we try to put other marginalized people into structures similar to our own, we erase their struggles. And that's pretty nasty.

Anyways this is all pretty complicated and this comment is long and I am sick, so I will stop here.

debraj11 said...

This conversation is necessary and useful. The only dissent I will make is this: I read Ireland's - boarding schools were well-intentioned - as sarcasm. Deep sarcasm. As an African American woman, I am aware that the majority culture has made a great many policies for IBPOC, and many were heralded as "well-intentioned." None of them, however, were designed to benefit those groups. Given that knowledge, the passage read as a bit of dark humor.

I'm learning as I read and listen.

Ava Jarvis said...

debraj11, if Ireland's "well-meaning" was meant in sarcasm, that makes more sense to me, given what I've read from Ireland's writings on Twitter and elsewhere. But even so it makes for some dissonance with certain items from the text.

I'm disappointed but not, like, filled with rage.

tanita✿davis said...

I second debraj11's comment - I, too, read that as dark humor and deep, deep sarcasm, but I also acknowledge that my place is to read and listen. Thanks for this conversation, Debbie.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Debra and Tanita, for your read of "well meaning" in the author's note. It isn't in quotes there, or in italics. I think one or the other would have made it clear it is sarcasm.

debraj11 said...

Thank you, Debbie and Ava Jarvis. Dissent was a poor choice of words.I appreciate your consideration and patience.

I should have added that my interpretation is by no means the only way to read the passage or the correct way to do so. My intent was to share the context that led me toward a different conclusion. I wholeheartedly agree. Italics or quotes would have made the author's intent clear.

Melinda R. Cordell said...

I laughed out loud at the line about Custer being attacked by his own men. "Custer's Luck ran out!" I said. (Custer's luck was said to have gotten him through the Civil War -- though it sure didn't protect the men that fought under him.)

I kind of wished that he'd been taken down by Native zombies, just as a dig at him for all the calamaties he unleashed in the West. But I wasn't sure if the timeline was right for it.

My take isn't very informed, as I'm a Missouri cracker in Trumpville (help me!!). I just read a lot of Civil War stuff once upon a time.

The Busy Author said...

Interesting discussion about this book. Just a note on the name "Redfern". It IS a fairly common English name, though it sounds like a translated Native American name. I have a feeling that's what Ireland was going for, just to create that tension of a name that could be either way. But even so, it falls a bit flat, as you say, because it's unclear.