Saturday, January 18, 2020

NOT RECOMMENDED: Rebecca Roanhorse's RACE TO THE SUN. A review essay by Michael Thompson (Muscogee Creek)

With his permission, American Indians in Children's Literature is publishing Michael Thompson's essay about Rebecca Roanhorse's middle grade novel, Race to the Sun, published in 2020 by Disney Hyperion in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Thompson is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and taught high school in Farmington, New Mexico. He does not recommend Roanhorse's book. 


NOT RECOMMENDED: Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun

What will Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun 
contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays?
Review essay by Michael Thompson (Muscogee Creek)

When Rebecca Roanhorse published her dystopian fantasy novel Trail of Lightning, I wrote at length about my grave concerns for her appropriation and distortions of Dine’ cultural narratives. I noted, as a Native educator and a Navajo in-law, that numerous Navajo writers were voicing similar objections, many of which are archived at Debbie Reese’s important website (AICL).

Now that Roanhorse has published a YA novel, Race to the Sun, my concerns remain unchanged, and arguably the stakes are even higher, as this book is likely to reach a much larger audience of younger readers, who are both Native and non-Native.

Although my primary conflict with RTTS is its failure to observe traditional boundaries that normally protect cultural narratives from appropriation, I will note briefly that there are some unusually problematic internal inconsistencies in the narrative and in some characterization.

For example, are we really to think that a young Navajo woman who has undergone her kinaalda is clueless at solving the riddle of what “four mountains bind you to your home”? Or that her father, a man who’d married a woman whose secret identity was supposedly a monsterslayer, would be seeking to work for a major oil and gas company that is being protested by Native people for its pipeline?

Moreover, there are some elements that are jarringly inconsistent with actual Navajo life and culture – the six stanza riddle that sets the quest seems straight out of European folklore, as does the plot structure that is clearly derived from classic stages of the hero’s journey, as well as the book and the sword that are among the monster slaying weapons provided by the Sun. And finally, I could barely believe that the climactic battle at Tse’Bit’Ai’ actually included Spider Woman dressed much like the Marvel superhero and casting a life-saving web. Clearly, the author feels free to mix and match whatever cultural/literary elements suit her fancy. This is opportunism on a grand scale.

Yet the greatest problem here is a simple one. Roanhorse must know that some traditional Navajo people consider her use of sacred figures and practices profoundly inappropriate. Those objections are well-documented.

She just doesn’t care.

Years ago I wrote an article for Tribal College Journal about the importance of the oral tradition in tribal college classrooms. I spoke with several Native scholars and instructors in researching that piece. One of the most significant personal conclusions I came to was this: as place-based, earth-based, community based cultures, tribal people honor the story of the group, its history and values and beauty, above the imagination of the solitary artist.

And I might add that the most important stories are often seen as belonging to the group, not to an individual to do with as he or she pleases. When I was first given a few traditional songs to learn to sing in ceremony, I was told this by my teachers: don’t add anything, don’t change anything, don’t take anything away.

That’s how it is possible to keep cultural knowledge intact for thousands of years.

For many traditional Native people, our origin stories, our ceremonial songs and teachings – passed down from our ancestors for centuries -- have a deeply sacred aspect, which in turn has made possible our cultural survival.

I am well aware that many people, maybe even a majority of Native people, consider the objections I am making inconsequential. So be it.

But there are at least some Native people I know who believe that we must always push back against anything that would diminish our origin stories, our worldviews. That means, among other things, protecting our stories as they were handed down to us.

As an educator, one of the most important questions I would ever ask about any work categorized as Native literature is this: what will it contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays?

When I consider Race to the Sun, I find almost nothing of real value to deepen one’s understanding of actual Navajo teachings but rather a mishmash of coming of age tropes from various non-Native cultures and from popular American culture, sprinkled with just enough familiar Navajo elements (hogans, Navajo tacos, geographic icons, and the like) to label it a Navajo story. No doubt there is a great deal of currency in mainstream readership for doing this. But there is little here to educate young Navajo or non-Navajo readers about the real meaning of the Dine’ narratives’ actual Holy People or the complex principles on which they are based.

The literature that Roanhorse makes uses a kind of cultural costumery and caricature. She takes characters and iconic landmarks from a rich, interconnected set of sacred Navajo stories, which have profound significance within that context, and she uses them as plastic action figures and dramatic settings to spin out whatever pop culture genre she likes, without any real regard for the actual gravity that traditional Navajo people would attach to them.

This is cultural reductionism, plain and simple.

Spider Woman, for the Dine’, does not belong in the Marvel universe, however many books that may sell. She belongs exactly where she has always been -- in the Dine’ universe – with beauty all around her.


Tricia said...

I find it disturbing that Kirkus has given this book a starred review. Worse, they end the review with "Native readers will see themselves as necessary heroes." It is clear that folks are still not listening to you and others who bring a critical eye to stories of indigenous peoples. When will that change?
Thank you for the good work that you do.

Tammy H. said...

Thank you for posting/sharing this review and for this site. So necessary given the power and capital behind Disney/Riordan's imprint. I will NOT be teaching or purchasing Roanhorse's book, thanks to Thompson's review, but will seek out other books on this site that have better representations for my students to read and think about.

Adam S. said...

I appreciate this blog so much. As a middle school librarian, I reference it often when evaluating books for purchase.

I still have plenty to learn about all of this, as a white male middle class person of privilege and sheltered upbringing. Here's a question I have about this book in particular, which applies to other books, as well.

Where is the line between cultural reductionism and appropriation, and being inspired by culture when crafting a story?

It seems like Race to the Sun might not be the best example to use in answering this question. However, I would be interested to know about some titles that you feel have drawn inspiration from Native cultures, but have taken stories in new/different/unexpected directions in a way that is both innovative and respectful.

Thanks for all you do.

Anonymous said...

It is dicey to argue on the one hand that blood quantum should not determine whether a person is indigenous or member of a people on the one hand, and then turn around and argue that a naturalized citizen of a nation or people (or adopted into that nation, depending on the parlance) is not a full part of that nation or of a people. That is essentially the argument that some have made regarding Roanhorse and her tribal affiliation in opposition to this book, and it is troubling, not to mention terribly hurtful to the millions whose families and peoples have been blessed by adoption and naturalization in the last 30 years. Especially children.