Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Recommended: Inconvenient Skin by Shane L. Koyczan

Inconvenient Skin/nayehtawan wasakay
Written by Shane L. Koyczan 
Cree translation by Solomon Ratt
Illustrations by Nadya Kwandibens, Jim Logan, Kent Monkman, Joseph Sanchez
Published in 2019
Publisher: Theytus Books
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Recommended

"The cure will take as long as the sickness, and the sickness isn't yet over." (Shane Koyczan)

Inconvenient Skin is a message, in the form of art works and poetry in English and Cree, to the people and government of what is currently known as Canada. It's a message about a shameful part of the Canadian past that continues to infect the present: its residential schools for First Nations children. Although Skin is "about" Canada, its main message is relevant in what is currently called the United States. It speaks back fiercely against the notion that Native people, or settler-colonizer descendants,  should "get over the past," forget historical horror and injustice, and move forward while still in denial.

The book was inspired, if that's the right word, by the discouraging net result of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was convened in 2008 to study the history and legacy of the residential schools. Its work included gathering (often traumatic) testimony from survivors. The final report and "calls to action" were published in 2015.

From the outset, Indigenous people in Canada had expressed doubts about the project. There has been profound disappointment that the commission's work resulted in few, if any, of the positive changes it seemed to call for.

The book's title is taken from the passage:
we are not free to shed our history
like an inconvenient skin
Inconvenient Skin holds a mirror of truth to Canada's beliefs about its goodness: "[O]ur nation is built above the bones of a genocide."

Canadians, Koyczan says, aspire to certain traits as a nation (e.g., kind, honest, strong, free), but he warns:
if we ever become
who we hope we are
it will be because we see how far there is still to go
and we know that if we are not these things to everyone
then we are none of these things
And Canada has not been, and is not "these things to everyone." The same can be said of the United States.

As narrator, Koyczan uses the pronouns "we" and "us" to speak directly to anyone who identifies as Canadian. Having a same-page Cree translation of his words signals that Indigenous peoples are not silent in the discourse about Canada's identity. They've never been silent, though they have been ignored, and certainly the residential schools had the mission of destroying Indigenous languages.

Koyczan doesn't identify as Indigenous, but says his father "had first-hand experience with residential school". He is learning about "missing chapters" of his origins, he says, by beginning to reconnect with his father.

Biographical material about translator Solomon Ratt states that he is also a residential school survivor.  He is an educator, focusing on teaching the Cree language. You can see some of his teaching videos and other work on the Cree Literacy Network Web site, including a collection called "Stay home: Learn Cree!" inspired by COVID-19 regulations.

You could say that the "work" of Inconvenient Skin happens on 3 levels: Koyczan's call for reflection and change, Solomon Ratt's Cree translation, and the powerful Indigenous perspectives presented by the contributing artists.

Kent Monkman's (Cree) emotionally charged cover painting, titled "The Scream," depicts priests, nuns, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dragging children away from their families. The same image appears later in the book. One of Monkman's satirical paintings is also featured. The paintings by Joseph Sanchez (Taos Pueblo) consist of spare patches of color and indistinct figures that suggest trauma and the closeness of death. Several of the mixed media works by Jim Logan (Metis), incorporate text to depict a variety of residential school experiences; their overall effect is devastating. Nadya Kwandibens' (Anishinaabe) photographs highlight the "Idle No More" movement that began in Canada in 2012, signaling contemporary Indigenous sovereignty, and resistance to Canada's ongoing failures relative to First Nations.

Be forewarned that this was not meant to be a gentle book. The words are an admonition, an accusation, a call to action; the pictures depict the reasons behind the words.

Koyczan recorded a spoken-word performance of Inconvenient Skin in 2017 that's definitely powerful. The video incorporates vocals by Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagak and Kym Gouchie (Lheidli T'enneh Nation). Before viewing or sharing the video, be aware that it uses some images of childhood trauma that are not used in the book.

Inconvenient Skin assumes that readers already know something about the residential/boarding schools. That may be true for Canadian teens. But teens in the US will probably need background information. They need to know, also, that the US and Canada have held (and hold) similar settler-colonial attitudes about Indigenous peoples, and that the goals, policies, and practices of the schools were very similar on either side of the border. It might help to first read the section about boarding schools in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

I doubt the US will have a truth and reconciliation commission in my lifetime. Awareness of the boarding schools may be increasing among non-Native people, but there remains a nearly bottomless pit of ignorance and denial about the aftermath of the schools for Native families and communities.

Inconvenient Skin can be a powerful catalyst for conversations about what the legacy of the boarding schools means for a country (be it Canada or the US), and those who identify as its citizens. We can predict that these conversations about ugly, painful stuff will be hard for descendants of settler-colonizers who allow themselves to engage in that work, be they adults or high school students. But they are necessary, because as Koyczan says,
this nation is not so sturdy
that it can sustain the weight of this blind spot in our memory
As the mother of Native kids, though, I'd ask that in high schools, Inconvenient Skin be recommended rather than required reading. Some of the art in particular depicts traumatic situations that may well be part of Indigenous families' experiences, and still "with them" in ways that can make discussion re-traumatizing. I'd insist that Native students be allowed to structure and direct discussions themselves on a purely voluntary basis, and that they could opt-in to those discussions. They should never be put on the spot or asked randomly to speak for their families, or for Native people in general.

That said, I think the foregrounding of Indigenous experience, and an Indigenous language, in Inconvenient Skin can serve as encouragement and empowerment for Native kids. If any readers of AICL have taught with this book, we'd like to hear how you went about it, and how it went.

This is one of the most compelling illustrated books I've seen about settler/Indigenous relations. No one should expect it to be something they can take lightly.

Edited 4/29/2020: You can buy a copy from Theytus Books, the oldest Indigenous publishing house in Canada. It's good to support Indigenous businesses!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Highly Recommended: Grasshopper Girl by Teresa R. Peterson

Grasshopper Girl
by Teresa R. Peterson
Illustrated by Jordan Rodgers
Published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing
Published in 2019
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly recommended

When you're little and you don't feel well, there's nothing quite like a hug and a story from someone you love to help you get better.

Grasshopper Girl is a warm-hearted little picture book about Psipsi, a 6-year-old Dakota girl. One day, Psipsi's legs ache and she has a fever, so her Ina (mother) sends her to bed early. She wishes Ate, her father, would come home from work and tell her a story. But Ina doesn't know when Ate will be back. So Psipsi lies there, thinking about her family, and what it will be like to have a friend at school, and how much she likes to jump. When Ina brings in Psipsi's baby brother for his nap, Psipsi sings him to sleep. She still doesn't feel well, though. Then the door opens. It's Ate! He hugs her, and tells her a Dakota story about Unktomi, the trickster. That's the comfort she needs. When that story ends, Ate tucks Psipsi in, and she drifts off to sleep.

Grasshopper Girl is the work of two Native book creators: author Teresa Peterson (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) and artist Jordan Rodgers (Lakota). Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, a Native-owned press, is the publisher. So it's a tribally specific #ownvoices book.

The story takes place on "the Dakota reservation" in 1943. The author has said in interviews that elements of the book were drawn from her own mother's life, including the Unktomi story Ate tells. Psipsi's full name -- Psipsicadan Wicinyanna, or Grasshopper Girl -- is Peterson's mother's Dakota name.

The final page of the book includes a glossary of Dakota words, and the words appear throughout the story, followed by the English equivalent in parentheses. Non-Dakota readers who want help with pronunciation can refer to this alphabet video created by Dakota Wicohan (a language/culture revitalization project), and the Beginning Dakota Web site. Betsy Albert-Peacock at Black Bears and Blueberries recommended those resources. Thanks, Betsy!

Note that if you find other Dakota language resources, you may see that people have used more than one way to represent the sounds of the language. (Grasshopper Girl uses what's known as the Williamson and Riggs version.) The author's note explains a little about the Dakota language and efforts to keep it going. It feels great to be able to recommend a book that contributes to Dakota language preservation!

The author's note also gives some background information about the Unktomi story Ate tells Psipsi. If you've followed American Indians in Children's Literature for a while, you know how important it is for writers to be transparent about where such traditional stories come from. Peterson's explanation is very clear and credible. The fact that she embeds the old story in a realistic family situation is a strength of the book.

Jordan Rodgers' illustrations remind me of a good graphic novel, and I think they will appeal to the book's target audience. The characters' faces are very expressive (see example to right), and she brings in humorous details.

For example, in the "family photo" near the beginning of the book, Psipsi's two annoying older brothers are giving each other rabbit ears! I smiled at Psipsi's face when she pretends to be asleep while trying to see who has come into the room. And there's something comforting about Psipsi's quilt, and its presence on so many pages.

I also like how Rodgers represents Unktomi and the problems he creates for himself. You never quite see his face, even after his problem gets accidentally solved.

Grasshopper Girl would be a cozy bedtime read-aloud. Elementary age kids can read it themselves, too. You can order Grasshopper Girl directly from Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, or from Birchbark Books. Either way, you'll be supporting a Native-owned small enterprise, and Native book creators.