Friday, July 27, 2018

A teacher's account of a critical read of David Arnold's MOSQUITOLAND

Editors note: Among the email I receive are ones from teachers who found a review on AICL helpful to their work with students. In this case, the teacher wrote to me about David Arnold's Mosquitoland. The email I received from "K" was interesting enough that I invited them to write it up for AICL's readers. Here's what K submitted. 


“White people!” I think to myself, about myself, channelling one of my student’s (head-shaking) refrains. I can see his friendly-mocking face and his shaking head as I read Dr. Debbie Reese’s post about her analysis of David Arnold’s Mosquitoland and her subsequent exchange with the author via Twitter. Sigh.

As a white woman from an upper-middle class upbringing, I try to be very conscious of my white and socioeconomic privilege. I spend countless hours trying to choose books that provide both reflections and windows to my diverse students. Looking back on how much of my own studies were focused on white, European male authors, I know that that impacted me as a woman and regardless of how great these great works are, I know that they are not they only examples of greatness and many include dubious content.

And yet, despite my own attempted awareness, I fell into my own trap of privilege, into a reading that I had the luxury of experiencing because I am “white people.” Having read and admittedly enjoyed Mosquitoland a few years ago, I recently found myself needing a book to start a conversation with my students about mental health struggles. I had been somewhat bothered by the protagonist’s casual dismissal of pharmacological treatments but thought that that, in and of itself (which problematic), could be a good conversation starter as non-examples often are. Many of my students have very entrenched views on certain medications and I thought that the book could give us a framework for those valuable discussions.

While I found Mim’s flippant and self-serving treatment of her heritage less than ideal, I did see it as being characteristic of a teenager. I did not initially tie the “war paint” to that heritage but rather while reading too quickly thought about it as a female putting on makeup to face the (male) world (again demonstrating the privilege of my lens). Nor did it occur to me to factcheck the various references to cultural sayings and proverbs--I thought that was why authors had editors...and Google. When the starter curriculum I purchased turned me on to Dr. Reese’s article about the book and the controversy, I was appalled at my errors in judgement. I clearly owed all of my students, Native American or otherwise, an apology, but more than that, I owed them the truth.

They got to see me make a mistake and own up to it. We discussed the importance of this in and of itself. As we continued reading, I pointed to these and other problematic points, which in turn seemed to give them permission to call out the author on other things:
“Walt seems more Autistic than Down Syndrome.”
“Is Caleb really schizophrenic or does he have multiple personalities?”
“Yeah, if you meet a white person who says they’re Native, they're probably Cherokee.” 
My Native students are primarily Paiute and Shoshone. The ones who made this last comment explained that what they meant was not white people claiming (à la Mim) to be Native American, but rather Native people who have more Caucasian features (i.e. blue eyes and/or blond hair). But none of them being Cherokee they’d had no clue about the misappropriated proverbs either. Thankfully, I was able to share Dr. Reese’s article “David Arnold’s Cherokee protagonist in MOSQUITOLAND” (March 07, 2015) with them, then we progressed to the Twitter exchange, compared Dr. Reese’s resume with that of David Arnold, discussed credibility and citing your sources, spent a period troubleshooting Arnold’s repeated fall-back to Mim’s “Cherokee” heritage and what alternatives he could have used (like, why not make her heritage Celtic?). We read an article about Elizabeth Warren’s similar claim to Cherokee heritage and the controversy it caused during her bid for Senate. We read about “Americans,” the current exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. dealing with the troubled history of the prominent use of Native American imagery in the U.S. since its inception. My students questioned and engaged with the problems of the story and the real life application but they did reflect that if they had been Cherokee, they would have felt hurt and offended by the misrepresentations in the novel. Where, we wondered, does an author’s responsibility to be accurate lie? Largely, my Native American students shrugged off the white author’s use of a character’s “Nativeness” as a plot tool. I worry that this is what they are used to seeing in literature.

Thanks to Dr. Reese, what could have been an ignorant passing on of ignorance was instead a lesson for the whole class, myself included. We all got more out of the unit for the non-example Mosquitoland provided. All of my students learned about not only the complicated struggles surrounding mental illness, but also about how the Cherokee tribes determine enrollment and why; the history of using Native American imagery to represent “America” while the government disenfranchises those same indigenous populations; the problem of using another culture in one’s writing, especially when the history between those cultures is so fraught; and to question authority, whether it be an author, a teacher, or anyone who says something wrong or problematic, especially if you know better.

1 comment:

Kara Stewart said...

It would be very helpful if the grade level and class was known. For example, 10th grade ELA, or 7th grade World Cultures, or 12th grade American Indian Studies, etc.

As a 20 year teaching veteran, lit coach and enrolled tribal member of the Sappony in NC/VA, I can tell you that the number of teachers who actually go back and introduce this sort of mistake analysis to students is negligible.

First, in elementary school, there is hardly time to breathe, let alone go back through a text and discuss the social and historical ramifications. We are hard pressed to teach all our ELA standards, let alone have time for this sort of valuable discussion.

Second, elementary age (K-5) students do not have the historical and social context to fully analyze and evaluate texts in this manner. At times, 5th graders who have had access to many experiences are able to discuss in this manner with some success, but they still are not able to bring wide nuance to it, simply because of their age. At ages below 5th, thinking tends to be mostly concrete, literal and black/white, good/bad. Those discussions may give students some brief opening thoughts on bias and inaccuracies, but like this teacher said, these thoughts are probably not new to the students of color and indigenous students. And there is much less understanding of nuance below 5th grade.

Yet many teachers use the idea of discussing non-example texts with students as a reason for keeping and reading literature fraught with stereotypes, such as Little House, Stone Fox and Indian in the Cupboard. But in reality, due to the time issue and the age-understanding issue, that discussion pretty much never happens - they just continue to teach with that text and not revisit. Or they do an extremely cursory nod to the discussion and feel their 'requirement' is met.

For those reasons, I do not recommend that elementary teachers keep texts of this nature with the idea that they will use them as non-examples with students. However, I can see this sort of valuable discussion happening and even expanding in high school and college (and perhaps middle school) in courses that are specifically geared to address this. In such courses, teachers would have the time to do the discussion - and their students - justice (and meet their course standards). But in general ed ELA elementary school - no.

Could you please supply the grade/ages and course of this experience?

I do applaud your reading with an eye for bias, and also your willingness to hold out your mistake and learning to your students - and yourself! So many times, admitting our mistakes to ourselves is THE hardest hurdle. We all struggle with that and this is a great example of your thoughtful response to that. But I don't want your good work to be misinterpreted and generalized as an excuse to keep and teach biased literature.