Showing posts sorted by relevance for query shusterman. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query shusterman. Sort by date Show all posts

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Neal Shusterman's UNWHOLLY and UNSOULED

On September 25, 2014, I uploaded my review of Shusterman's short story, UnStrung. It is part of his UnWind Dystology, set in the future, after a civil war.

In UnStrung (published in 2012), most of the action takes place on an unnamed "Hi Rez" reservation. "ChanceFolk" live there. They are rich, as opposed to "Low Rez" tribes that didn't spend/invest their money well. We learn that Indigenous peoples are called ChanceFolk instead of Indians and that some people call them SlotMongers (yes, that is seen as a slur).

The civil war was fought over abortion. The outcome was that abortion was replaced by "unwinding" -- a process by which parents can, at age 13, send their unwanted kids away to be unwound. That means that 99.44 percent of their body parts will be used as transplants. They will, of course, cease to exist, but somehow, they are said to be alive in a "divided state" due to that transplanting of their body parts. In addition to unwanted 13-year-olds being unwound, some couples choose to conceive and birth a child that is a tithe. At age 13, they, too, will sent to be unwound, but everyone see their lives and unwinding as a blessing and sacrifice for their specific religious group. This unwinding takes place at Harvest Camps (pretty disgusting premise, eh?).

In addition to this government sanctioned unwinding, there are "parts pirates" who sell body parts on a black market.

Below is my brief synopsis of UnWind, key points in UnStrung, and a more detailed review of UnWholly and UnSouled. The fourth book, UnDivided, is not part of this blog post.

Unwind (Book 1, published in 2007)

We're introduced to Lev in UnWind, the first book of this series. He was conceived by his parents on purpose as a tithe who will be unwound when he is 13. On the way to the harvest camp, he is kidnapped by an older kid named Connor who is determined to un-do all this unwinding stuff, but things don't go as planned and Lev ends up becoming a clapper. Clappers are kids whose blood is infused with chemicals so that loud clapping will cause them to explode. As UnWind draws to a close, Lev is supposed to clap, thereby detonating himself at a harvest camp, but he chooses not to do that. Instead, he pulls people to safety and will, later, need to have his blood cleansed.

UnStrung (a short story published in 2012 that fills in gaps between UnWind and UnWholly)

When UnStrung opens, we find Lev at a reservation. He sought refuge at this reservation because he'd heard that ChanceFolk didn't sign the Unwind Accord. Rather than use human body parts, their scientists have perfected a way to use animal parts instead, but the parts have to be from their particular spirit animal. They find out their spirit animal on a vision quest. At this unamed rez, Lev is nursed back to health by a Native doctor. She and her lawyer-husband have a son named Wil (he's older than Lev) who has a special musical gift. They call Lev "Mahpee" which means "sky faller" and is the name they use for people who climb the rez wall and drop down, into the reservation.

When Lev is feeling better, he and Wil are out with a group of kids on a vision quests to learn what their spirit animals are. But, they are attacked by some parts pirates, who want Native people because their parts are much desired. Wil sacrifices himself for the group. The story ends with his family and the tribe making Lev leave (Wil's family had tried to get sanctuary for Lev, but the tribal council said no to their request), and, they don't know what has happened to Wil. They know he was taken by parts pirates, but they don't know if he was unwound.

There's lot of stereotyping of Native peoples in UnStrung. Read my review for details on that, and see what Shusterman said in response.


UnWholly (Book 2)


Shusterman's second book in the series is titled UnWholly, published in 2012. An important character (in addition to Lev and Connor) is Cam (short for Camus). He is a "Rewind" -- a creature that is put together from the parts of others. His hands were once Wil's hands. That's Cam to the right. See the patterns on his face? It, too, is put together from several different people. Here's the part in the book where he looks at his face for the first time in a mirror (p. 58-59):
That face is a nightmare.
Strips of flesh, all different shades, like a living quilt stretched across the bone, muscle and cartilage beneath. Even his head--clean-shaven when he awoke, but no filling in with peach-fuzz hair--has different colors and textures sprouting like uneven fields of clashing crops.
The doctor who is helping Cam learn who he is, is a woman named Roberta. She's got a faint British accent. Cam is her creation. She found specific people to unwind and use to create him. His body is made of the best runner, swimmer, etc. that could be found. The left frontal lobe of his brain is from seven kids who were geniuses in math and science; the right frontal lobe is from almost a dozen poets, artists, musicians. His language center is a hub of nine languages. Studying the scars on his face, Cam realizes that (p. 61):
They are not as random as he had thought. They are symmetrical, the different skin tones forming a pattern. A design.
Roberta says (p. 61-62):
"It was a choice we made to give you a piece of every ethnicity. From the palest sienna-Caucasian, to the darkest umber tones of unspoiled Africa, and everything in between. Hispanic, Asian, Islander, Native, Australoid, Indian, Semitic--a glorious mosaic of humanity! You are everyman, Cam, and the truth of it is evident in your face."
Roberta goes on about how the scars will heal and he'll be "the new definition of handsome" and "a shining beacon" that will be "the greatest hope for the human race."

Frankly, I find this very unsettling. It means, of course, that faces were cut up to make his. And goodness! The stereotyping in it: "unspoiled Africa"?! As opposed to what? Spoiled Africa? Spoiled, how?!

Cam is unsettled by it all, too. At an event designed to show him off to VIPs, he malfunctions, calling out "I am more than the parts I'm made of!" (p. 144) He tries, unsuccessfully, to call that line out again and again but the words don't come. The big moment is ruined and Roberta whisks him off stage.

Lev, meanwhile, is serving as a counselor at a harvest camp after he's had the chemicals that made him into a clapper cleansed from his body. Those chemicals have damaged his body. He'll forever have the body of 13-year-old, and the only thing that will grow is his hair. He's staying with his adult brother, Marcus, but a clapper finds them and explodes herself. Marcus is badly hurt. Lev goes to the hospital with him and hopes his parents will see him (they kind of disowned him when he didn't go through with being tithed in the first book). They don't want anything to do with him. He's hurt by their rejection and goes back to his own hospital room (he was injured, too, in the blast). He curls up in bed, thinking back on his life (p. 191):
He thinks back to the days after he left CyFi, and before he arrived at the Graveyard. Dark days, to be sure, but punctuated by a bit of light when he found himself on a reservation, taken in by People of Chance. The Chance folk had taught him that when you have nothing to lose, there's no such thing as a bad roll of the dice."
I rolled my eyes as I read that! Come on, Shusterman (and your editors)! Didn't those Chance folk teachings throw up any red flags?! You create a tribe of Native people in the future whose teachings are related to their identity as casino Indians, as though casinos are a part of their value system?! (Shaking my head.) Since Lev can't stay with his brother anymore, he accepts an offer to go to the Cavanaugh mansion in Detroit which turns out to be a refuge for tithes. When he gets there, Mr. Cavanaugh greets him and tells him about the place. A woman calls out (p. 195):
"Mr. Cavenaugh, the natives are getting restless. Can I let them in?" 
Now see... I bet most people (like Shusterman and his editor) didn't give that phrase a thought! But if you're reading (as I am) through the lens of people who are dehumanized by white writers, well, FACEPALM.

Lev stays at that mansion for awhile but by the end of the book, he's reunited with Connor.

Roberta--who created Cam--looks for and finds a companion for Cam (p. 290):
...the young man with multiple skin tones that are exotic yet pleasing to the eye. 
Exotic and pleasing to... whose eye? This is the white fascination with 'other' taken to an extreme. I don't like it. As readers, I think Shusterman doesn't want us to like it either, but I'm not sure it works. Is there enough in the narrative that tells the reader that this gaze is problematic? If you see this taken up in a review, please let me know in the comments.

The companion that Cam ends up with is Risa. She's been a major character ever since Book 1. She was/is in love with Connor (also from Book 1) and doesn't like being manipulated into being Cam's companion for a public relations tour. Previously, she was in a wheelchair but Roberta gets her a new spine so she can walk. Then, there's a creepy thing that happens, and it appears later, too: the part of Cam that knows algebra is from a kid who had a crush on Risa. Cam has that memory--of the kid having a crush on her. When he tells her, she is horrified. Eventually the two slip into a friendly relationship and Roberta is thrilled with their interviews. But! At the end of the book at the last interview, Risa says its all been a farce. She takes off; Lev and Connor are headed east to Akron, on Route 66, to find a woman named Sonia.  


UnSouled (Book 3, published in 2014)

Picking right up, Lev and Connor are on the highway headed to Akron. They have an accident, get split up, captured, and then reunited when Connor (who has escaped in a sheriff's car) runs into Lev, who has leapt in front of the car. Of course, Connor recognizes him, and puts him in the car. He's bleeding internally and tells Connor and Grace, who is tagging along with Connor, to (p. 72):
"Get me to the Arapache Rez. West of Pueblo, Colorado."
Connor knows Lev must be delirious. "A ChanceFolk reservation? Why would ChanceFolk have anything to do with us?"
"Sanctuary," Lev hisses. "ChanceFolk never signed the Unwind Accord. The Arapache don't have an extradition treaty. They give asylum to AWOL Unwinds. Sometimes."
"Asylum is right!" says Grace. "No way I'm going to a Slot-Monger rez!"
Ok--so now that unnamed tribe from UnStrung has a name! For those who don't know, there is no "Arapache" tribe. My guess? Shusterman made it up by combining Arapahoe and Apache.  Connor does as Lev asks. They get to the Arapache rez, which is gated and has a sentry (p. 73):
In spite of all the literature and spin put forth by the Tribal Council, there is nothing noble about being a sentry at an Arapache Reservation gate. Once upon a time, when the United States was just a band of misfit colonies, and long before there were fences and walls marking off Arapache land, things were different. Back then, to be a perimeter scout was to be a warrior. Now all it means is standing in a booth in a blue uniform, checking passports and papers and saying hiisi' honobe, which roughly translates to "Have a beautiful day," proving that the Arapache are not immune to the banality of modern society.
Ah, shucks. This poor sentry. He isn't liking his job. He's rather be a noble warrior, scouting the perimeter of their land (Stereotype! Noble stereotype!). And here we go with some more made up language! I saw that in the short story, too. And remember that Mel Gibson did it, too, for Apocalypto? Here's more from the rez gate (p. 73).
At thirty-eight, the rez sentry is the oldest of the three on duty today at the east gate, and so, by his seniority, he's the only one allowed to carry a weapon. However, his pistol is nowhere near as elegant and meaningful as the weapons of old, in those times when they were called Indians rather than ChanceFolk... or "Slot Mongers," that hideous slur put upon them by the very people who made casino gaming the only way tribes could earn back their self-reliance, self-respect, and the fortunes leeched from them over the centuries. Although the casinos are long gone, the names remain. "ChanceFolk" is their badge of honor. "SlotMongers" is their scar. 
I get that Shusterman is trying to tell readers that colonization was a bad thing for Native peoples, but that message goes hand in hand with stereotyping... That poor sentry, wistful for being able to carry a "weapon of old" ---what might that be?! A bow and arrow? Or... a spear?! Those weapons of old have more "meaning." But why?! What gives a weapon meaning? I don't get it.

Well. When Connor and Lev and Grace get to the gate, there are lots of carloads of parents who want to take photos and buy ChanceFolk crafts. Crafts! Because that's what Indians do. Indians! Crafts! In the American imagination, they go together. Anyway, the tribe is very careful about who gets in (p. 73-74):
Not every tribe has taken such an isolationist approach, of course, but then, not many tribes have been as successful as the Arapache when it came to creating a thriving, self-sustaining, and admittedly affluent community. Theirs is a "Hi-Rez," both admired and resented by certain "Low-Rez" tribes who squandered those casino earnings rather than investing in their own future.
Interesting that Shusterman is creating this binary, of Hi/Low rez tribes. Why? Will it matter later? And... about those reservation gates (p. 74):
As for the gates, they didn't go up until after the Unwind Accord. Like other tribes, the Arapache refused to accept the legality of unwinding--just as they had refused to be a part of the Heartland War. "Swiss Cheese Natives," detractors of the time had called them, for the ChanceFolk lands were holes of neutrality in the midst of a battling nation.
Yes! You read that right. "Swiss Cheese Natives." I'm trying to recall swiss cheese being used to represent pockets of resistance in other books. Doesn't it strike you as, well, silly? There's more info about that (p. 74):
So the rest of the country, and much of the world, took to recycling the kids it didn't want or need, and the Arapache Nation, along with all the rest of the American Tribal Congress, proclaimed, if not their independence, then their recalcitrance. They would not follow the law of the land as it stood, and if pressed, the entire Tribal Congress would secede from the union, truly making Swiss cheese of the United States. With one costly civil war just ending, Washington was wise to just let it be.
Shusterman's "American Tribal Congress" must be his reworking of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). It is a membership organization, not a union of sorts that would "secede from the union" if it wanted to do so. I wonder what Shusterman knows about NCAI? And he used "swiss cheese" again! But there's more (p. 74):
Of course, court battles have been raging for years as to whether or not the Arapache Nation has the right to demand passports to enter their territory, but the tribe as become very adept at doing the legal dance. The sentry doubts the issue will ever be resolved. At least not in his lifetime.
This passport stuff is, for some current tribal nations, real. The Onondaga Nation issues passports. Prior to 9/11, they were accepted at international borders, but heightened security put a stop to that, preventing the Iroquois national lacrosse team from an international competition. I guess Shusterman read up on that, a bit.

Back to the story. The sentry suggests that Connor take Lev to a hospital in Canon City because it is closer than "the reservation's medical lodge." He doesn't want to let them in, but then he hears Lev say "Friend of Elina Tashi'ne," which surprises him (p. 75-76):
"The medicine woman?" There are many thousands on the rez, but there are those whose reputation is well known. The Tashi'ne family is very highly regarded--and everyone knows about the terrible tragedy they endured.
The tragedy is what happened to them in UnStrung (when Wil sacrificed himself to parts pirates; some blame Lev for what happened)Lev asks the sentry to call Elina. She wants a name, and when Connor tells him Lev's name, the sentry recognizes both Connor and Lev:
As for Lev, he was infamous on the rez before he became "the clapper who wouldn't clap." You can't speak the name of poor Wil Tashi'ne without also thinking of Lev Calder and his involvement in that tragedy. And his friends here probably don't even know. 
The sentry is right. Connor doesn't know. Skipping ahead, Lev recalls being at the Arapache reservation the first time, watching kids climb up and down rope ladders, worried that they'd fall. Wil told him (p. 150):
"We built America's great bridges and skyscrapers," Wil had told him proudly. "For us, balance is a matter of pride."
With that, Shusterman is referencing a fact, but giving that identity to his made-up tribe. Shusterman's tribe is in Colorado. The real ironworkers? Mohawks. As I said in my review of UnStrung, I think Shusterman had Pueblo Indians in his head as he created this tribe. Pueblo peoples used ladders at Mesa Verde and similar places, but in the modern day, we didn't do the ironwork that Mohawk's did. This cut/paste of identity is what makes the fictitious tribe move Shusterman did problematic.

Recall from UnStrung, the ChanceFolk have spirit animals that they use for their replacement body parts when they need parts? Well... guess what? Lev is able to get a spirit animal, too. On page 158, he figures out that his spirit animal is a kinajou. They live in the tropical rain forests of Southern Mexico and Brazil. The "spirit animal" stuff... that's not real either. It is another thing that outsiders to Native tribes use all the time.

Connor, Lev, and Grace have been on the reservation at this point for two weeks. Connor is tired of being there, and notes contradictions in Arapache lifestyle, austere but pointedly opulent. He thinks (p. 187):
With one hand they rebuke creature comforts, but with the other they embrace it--as if they are in a never-ending battle between spiritualism and materialism. It must have been going on so long, they seem blind to their own ambivalence, as if it's just become a part of their culture.
I want to think through this for awhile, but for now, I'll say this: this kind of judgement of Native nations that have casinos is common. A good bit of it is from people who think that Native peoples are "better" than other human beings and disappointed with casinos and what tribes do/do not do with profits from those casinos. It is the "noble savage" who is akin to the "model minority"--- but who disappoints the gaze because... we're human!

There's some strategizing happening, over Connor and Lev and what they'll do next. They want to leave but they'll need to throw the media off their tracks in some way. The plan? Bring in another tribe. But this time, it is a real one: the Hopi. Elina's husband, Chal, is a lawyer and he'll put the word out that he's going to represent the Hopi in a land dispute case, and that in return, they will give Connor and Lev asylum.

Up to this point in the book, I've read (re-read, actually)--but not commented on--the chapters told from Cam's point of view because they've not been specific to Native aspects of who he is, or about the Chance Folk either, but that returns on page 214. Cam signs his name on a document Roberta gives him. But then she asks him to flip the paper over, look at her, and sign his name again as he looks at her. He does, and when he looks back at the paper, he sees Wil Tashi'ne's name rather than Camus Comprix. Why?

Because, Roberta tells him, he has Wil's hands (p. 214):
"It's his neural connections and muscle memory that allow you to play guitar and accomplish a whole host of fine-motor skills."
As you might suspect, Cam is taken aback by this development, making him wonder who he is. This muscular memory is going to appear later, again.

At this point, Cam is definitely in love with Risa, misses her, wants to find her, and thinks he can impress her by bringing down Roberta and her company. She was/is in love with Connor, and of course, Cam is jealous but thinks that Connor is dead. He's feeling conflicted over a lot of things (like being treated as property) and starts wandering around alone. Roberta doesn't like him doing that.

After one outing, Cam goes to his room and starts playing the guitar. Remember--it is Wil's hands and muscle memory that drives his playing. Earlier, he'd learned that Connor wasn't, in fact, dead. As he plays the guitar, fragments of memory come together and he recognizes Lev, via Wil's memories, as someone who he (Wil) had healed with his music. He plays more and pulls together a much more complete memory of Lev. He figures he's got to get to the  When he'd been out earlier that evening and saw that Connor was in the news, he also saw the photo of Lev, and as he plays the guitar, he digs till he finds a memory of Wil playing for Lev on the Arapache reservation. He figures that's where Risa is and takes off to find her.

On page 252, he's found her, on the reservation. He's gotten past the gates, Wil's memories guide him to Una's house. We met Una in UnStrung. She was Wil's girlfriend. Cam finds that his hands know just where she keeps a key, hidden, and uses it to go in her house. He finds one of Wil's guitars and starts playing it.

Of course, Una hears the music, goes to investigate and sees Cam. She listens to him play for awhile, and then knocks him out with a guitar, ties him up, and carries him to an old sweat lodge where youth went to do a vision quest when they were of age. A vision quest. Safe to say all of this is another face palm. Both are common in books outsiders write about Native peoples. Both, a sweat lodge and a vision quest, are specific to certain tribes--not all of them--but they get put forth as one of those "Indian" things that has to be in ANY book ANYONE writes about Native people.

In that lodge, she ties him up between two poles that are six feet apart. The description of its size makes me wonder what Shusterman is talking about. I don't think a sweat lodge is big like this one, and they aren't made of stone. I'm thinking Shusterman is thinking about a kiva. Remember--the "Arapache" village is Puebloan in style. We use kivas, and some are made of stone. And they're big. Anyway! Moving on.

Cam stays unconscious as she ties him up between those two poles. He slumps, and looks like "a supplicant Y" (p. 256). Una leaves for the night, and returns the next morning..... with..... a chain saw.

Noting the seams/scars where his various parts have been assembled. She says (p. 258):
"Up and down and around--those lines go everywhere, don't they? Like an old shaman's sand drawings."
As with the sweat lodge/vision quest, the "sand drawings" stopped me. Here, Shusterman is dipping into sand painting (not 'drawing') most commonly done by Navajos in ceremony and today, in art. With this, we have an "Arapache" tribe whose homes are Puebloan in style, whose people scale heights like Mohawks, who use what is generally a Lakota sweat lodge, and whose medicine includes methods done by Navajos. I know that Shusterman is creating fiction, but Native and non-Native people have been, for years and years, saying "do not do mash ups of tribes" because that contributes to misunderstandings of who Native people are. Una continues (p. 258):
"The shaman's lines are meant to trace life and creation--is that what your lines are for too? Are you a creation? Are you alive?"
and
"Are you that man-made man I've heard tell of? What is it they call you? "Sham Complete'?"
Una does not like Cam. So what does this rez girl plan to do? She knows he has Wil's hands, so, she's going to cut them off with that chain saw! At the last minute, she cuts his jacket (that's what she used to tie one of his arms with) and hurls the chain saw across the room ('room' doesn't work if this is really a sweat lodge). With that free arm, he reaches up and unties the ribbon in her hair. She backs away, freaked out by that because that was something that Wil used to do. He tells her about memories he has via Wil's parts, now his. Then she cuts his other arm free and asks him to show her (with his hands) what Wil's hands would do to her. He touches her neck, her lips, her cheek, wrist... and then, she knocks him out again. And ties him back up.

Pretty intense scene, isn't it? And creepy. Very creepy and unsettling, too. It is violent, and it is a violation. It is perverse.

On page 270, Connor (he, Lev, and Grace are staying with Una) becomes suspicious of why/where she goes each day with a guitar and rifle. He decides to follow her to a structure he says is shaped like an igloo. Connor climbs on top of it, peering down as Una repeatedly asks Cam what her name is. He can't remember. They've been having this 'what's my name' conversation for a few days already. Connor can see that Cam has been urinating in his pants. He smells horrible. Her interrogation of him over, she unties him and at gunpoint, makes him play the guitar.

That, and the previous scene, are ones of torture. Una is torturing Cam. It is sadistic. While there have been sadistic acts throughout Shusterman's series, especially with regard to the creation of Cam, Shusterman has never been this graphic. I wonder if he sees that he saved up the most grotesque behaviors for the Native character? Does he see that he's created the savage Indian?

From his perch atop the lodge, Connor knocks some stones loose. Una sees him, aims her rifle at him, he falls down, she runs out with her rifle, points it at him... and then Cam bolts. She runs after him, dropping her rifle to tackle him, and Connor picks it up. Now he's in charge. He tells Cam that Risa is not there. Una wants to tie him up again but Connor insists on taking him back to her apartment. With the rifle, he's got control of the situation. Back at Una's, they see a press conference at which a spokesman for the Hopi tribe will neither confirm or deny a rumor that Connor and Lev are on their reservation. This creates the distraction that Lev and Connor need to take off. Elina arranges a car.

But, we learn that Lev doesn't want to go with Connor because he thinks he can "make a difference" (p. 317) because "they need to start listening to outside voices" (p. 318) and he can be that voice. The tribe has provided them with IDs. Both are now Arapache. Lev's name is Mahpee Kinkajou, and Connor's is Bees-Neb Hebiite Elina says Connor's name means stolen shark (he has a shark tattoo on the arm that used to belong to someone else). Connor and Grace leave, taking Cam with them.

Recall that in UnStrung, Lev's outsider status meant more to Wil's grandfather than Wil's perspective did? This is another slice of that, and it bothers me. Shusterman is making sure we all know that Lev is a white savior. He knows best.

Life for Lev, on the Arapache Rez, is peaceful and calm, but he feels compelled to do something about what is going on outside. He talks with Elina, but he finds that she has a "passive, fatalistic view of the world" that "too many people on the rez share" (p. 347).

I find that "fatalistic view" to be much like the stereotype of primitive Indians with no agency, just living life. No worries, no cares, like children.

On page 348, Lev is thinking:
There's an expression among ChanceFolk. "As go the Arapache, so go the nations." As the most financially successful, and arguably the most politically important ChanceFolk tribe, policy that's put in place here often spreads to other tribes. While the Arapache are still the most isolationist, instituting borders that require passports, many other tribes--particularly the ones that don't rely on tourism--have made their territory harder to access as well, taking their lead from the Arapache.
He thinks that, if he can convince the Arapache to do something, the other tribes will follow. But, a lot of the Arapache don't like him, so he needs a pretty good plan. A few days later, he goes into town to a concert. He gets onstage and tells people the names of the parts pirates who took Wil away, and that he's going to track them down and bring them back to face justice. Then, "in perfect Arapache," he calls out (p. 350):
"Who will help me?"
His question is greeted by silence. He repeats it, and then hears a response, also in Arapache. It is Una saying she will help him. Slowly the crowd starts to clap for Lev and his plan, and that's the end of the Native parts of UnSouled. 

Shusterman's fourth book, UnDivided, will have its own blog post. Thus far, I've found the series unsettling. I know--that's what a dystopia is supposed to do--but the use of stereotypes and the mishmash of elements of various tribes--mean the book doesn't work for me as a Native reader. There's too much wrong. In his comment to my review of UnStrung, Shusterman said he worked hard not to stereotype, but that he didn't want to be "politically correct" either, because that is as bad as stereotyping. What, I wonder, would this series have looked like if he'd been "politically correct" in his treatment of Native culture and characters?




Thursday, September 25, 2014

Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden's UNSTRUNG

In 2009, Neal Shusterman launched the first of his "Unwind Dystology" series. The first book is Unwind. Published by Simon and Schuster, here's the synopsis provided at Amazon:
In America after the Second Civil War, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies came to an agreement: The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, a parent may choose to retroactively get rid of a child through a process called "unwinding." Unwinding ensures that the child's life doesn’t “technically” end by transplanting all the organs in the child's body to various recipients. Now a common and accepted practice in society, troublesome or unwanted teens are able to easily be unwound.
With breathtaking suspense, this book follows three teens who all become runaway Unwinds: Connor, a rebel whose parents have ordered his unwinding; Risa, a ward of the state who is to be unwound due to cost-cutting; and Lev, his parents' tenth child whose unwinding has been planned since birth as a religious tithing. As their paths intersect and lives hang in the balance, Shusterman examines serious moral issues in a way that will keep readers turning the pages to see if Connor, Risa, and Lev avoid meeting their untimely ends.

Unstrung: An Unwind Story came out in 2012. It is a short story. Here's what Amazon says about it:

How did Lev Calder move from an unwillingly escaped Tithe to a clapper? In this revealing short story, Neal Shusterman opens a window on Lev’s adventures between the time he left CyFi and showed up at the Graveyard.
Pulling elements from Neal Shusterman’s critically acclaimed Unwind and giving hints about what is to come in the riveting sequel, UnWholly, this short story is not to be missed.

As Unstrung opens, Lev is waking up after escaping from bad guys who were gonna do that unwinding thing to him. He's an AWOL. The place he ran to? A "rez" -- or, reservation. There, he figured he'd be safe. Indians of the future, it turns out, are exempt from unwinding. The family helping Lev recover is going to petition the Tribal Council to let him stay. As he opens his eyes, he seems a woman with a square jaw, black hair, and bronze skin. He blurts out
"SlotMonger!"
Lev is immediately embarrassed for using that word. See--in this future world Shusterman created, Indians aren't called Indians anymore. The woman responds (Note: I'm reading an ebook and can't give you page numbers):
"Old words die hard," she tells him with infinite understanding. "We were called Indians long after it was obvious we weren't from India. And 'Native American' was always a bit too condescending for my taste." 
"ChanceFolk," Lev says, hoping that his SlotMonger slur will quickly be forgotten.
"Yes," the woman says. "People of Chance. Of course the casinos are long gone, but I suppose the name still has enough resonance to stick." 

Dear! Well, that's not what I said when I read that part. If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that sometimes, I curse at things I read.

Moving on...

The People of Chance family has a boy. He's three years older than Lev. His name is Wil. That's short for Chowilawu. We don't know what language that is, or what tribe these people belong to. Later on, we do get some clues about their location, though! They're in what we know today as Colorado, and they live in an incredibly opulent city with cliff dwellings on the canyon sides.

Do you know who lived at Mesa Verde? Chaco Canyon? Bandelier? Pueblo people! So, I take it that the People of Chance are somehow based on Pueblo Indians. Yikes!

Let's meet Wil.

Wil has a gift. When he plays his guitar, who or whatever hears his music, is transfixed. Just Wil's presence can calm people. But that guitar playing... well, it is such a gift that he/it is used to help the dying tribal members transition more easily into death itself. Wil doesn't like that gift, because his grandfather is dying. The people expect him to go play for his grandpa but he doesn't want to. When the story opens, Wil plays his guitar for Lev. He does that by sitting cross-legged on a mountain lion skin. Yep. Cross-legged. Cuz why?! (Answer: Indians sit cross-legged. You learned that at camp, right? Or maybe kindergarten? Or maybe your teacher knew better than to introduce that stereotype to you.)

Lev recovers a bit, and he and Wil go out into the city. Lev has a question:
"Is it true that reservations are safe for AWOLs?" he asks. "Is it true that People of Chance don't unwind?"
Wil nods. "We never signed the Unwind Accord. So not only don't we unwind, we also can't use unwound parts."
Lev mulls that over, baffled at how a society could work without harvesting organs. "So...where do you get parts?"
"Nature provides," Wil says. "Sometimes."
Nature provides! How does that work, you might wonder? Meet Wil's uncle, Pivane. Wil introduces Lev to him. He's wearing deerskins, but he's also got a Swiss watch on. And, Lev thinks, his rifle is probably custom-made. Pivane has been out hunting for a mountain lion. They need the heart of a male mountain lion. Pivane thinks they'll find one at Cash Out Gulch. (Reading "Cash Out Gulch" was another WTF moment for me.)

Here's where we get a picture of this place where the People of Chance live:
...red cliff homes, the whitewashed adobes, and the sidewalks of rich mahogany planks. Although the place appears at first to be primitive, Lev knows upper crust when he sees it, from the luxury cars parked on the side streets to the gold plaques embedded in the adobe walls. Men and women wear business suits that are clearly Chance-Folk in style, yet finer than the best designer fashions."
Lev asks Wil what the people do (for a living) and Wil says:
"When my grandfather was a kid, the rez made a bundle--not just from gaming, but from some lawsuits over land usage, a water treatment plant, a wind farm that went haywire, and casinos we didn't want but got stuck with when another tribe rolled on us." He shrugs uncomfortably. "Luck of the draw. We've got it better than some tribes."
Lev looks down the street, where the curbs gleam with gold. "Way better, by the look of it."
"Yah," says Wil, looking both embarrassed and proud at the same time. "Some tribes did wise investing with their casino cash; others squandered it. Then, when the virtual casinos got ritzier than the real ones and it all came crashing down, tribes like ours did very well. We're a Hi-Rez. You're lucky you didn't jump the wall of a Low-Rez. They're much more likely to sell AWOLs to parts pirates."
Lev has heard about the rich tribes and the poor ones. Wil continues:
"Anyway," says Wil, "my tribe knows the law and how to use it. In fact my dad's a lawyer, and has done pretty well for our family. My mom runs the pediatrics lodge in the medical warren and is well respected. We get rich tribal kids from all over North America coming here for healing."
I was doing a lot of eye rolling and cursing as I read all of that! I certainly want writers to move away from narrow depictions of the professions Native people are in, but the rest of what Shusterman did is so bad that I can't give the lawyer-dad or doctor-mom characters a good read! Let's back up, though to that info about how the People of Chance tribe (I wonder what the Lo-Rez tribe names are?!) got their money: casinos, and good lawyers. I'm wondering about Shusterman's source material for all that lawyering. Where is he from? Is he living nearby a tribal nation that has been successfully winning legal cases over water rights? Or wind farms? Is he from Massachusetts? In 2011, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head filed a lawsuit over a wind farm project off Cape Cod. The For Mojave Indian tribe sued a California agency over a water treatment plant that was desecrating sacred land. I'm guessing that Shusterman did some research and found these news stories. And as the wealth of the People of Chance indicates, they won big time! Doesn't matter, I suppose, that those two particular tribal nations are at opposite ends of the country. With a made-up nation, you can do whatever you want!

Well, let's move on. The People of Chance have animal spirit guides. If/when they're sick, that particular animal can be killed and its body part(s) used to heal the human. Do you recall that Pivane is looking for the heart of a mountain lion? A mountain lion is the spirit guide of Wil's grandfather. His heart is bad. He needs a new one. Pavine finds one, but Wil's grandfather wants to give it to a young woman who needs it more than he does. Wil argues with him about that decision. But guess what! Lev gets asked for advice. Outsiders have perspectives, you see, that can help people make important decisions. Lev's advice is to respect the wishes of Wil's grandpa. Such wisdom from the white outsider! Of course, the heart goes to the woman, and Wil's grandpa dies.

Wil is gonna die, too. No... that's not right. He's going to be killed. No... that's not right either...

Wil has taken Lev and a bunch of kids out on a vision quest to find their spirit guides. Some of those parts pirates have gotten over the rez wall, too. Turns out, there's a black market for People of Chance body parts because they have special skills. To save the children, Wil takes out that guitar and demonstrates his gift. He bargains with the parts pirates. They take him and let the children go. I gotta say... this is so unsettling. Does Shusterman know Native bodies were butchered and parts taken from them as trophies? Has he not read about Sand Creek?! How 'bout his editor? Does he/she know? Do they know and not care? Or maybe they don't imagine Native people as readers of Unstrung?

Well. Towards the end of the story, the tribal council denies the petition to adopt Lev. He leaves. And what about Wil? We find him again, on a surgical table. A woman with a slight British accent tells him:
"We have been searching for the right Person of Chance for a very long time. You will be part of a spectacular experiment. One that will change the future." 
Pretty sick, isn't it? In the end, Wil's family and girlfriend find out that he's been unwound...
Not through smoke signals.
Not through the intricate legal investigations of the Council.
Not through the tribal nations' security task force, put in place after the parts pirates took him.
In the end, the rez finds out Wil is no more when his guitar is delivered with no note and no return address. 
Another WTF. Smoke signals?! Mr. Shusterman: this is a very messed up story. I regret having read it.

Update, September 28, 7:48 PM

Mr. Shusterman submitted the following comment. As has been the case with previous authors who respond to a review I've done on AICL, I'm adding the response to the body of the blog post to allow readers to more easily read the response. Mr. Shusterman said:

I wanted to personally apologize for anything in UnStrung that you found offensive. Both Michelle Knowlden and I wanted you to know that in writing the story we took great cares to be respectful, and sensitive. We also were wary of “political correctness,” which is just as offensive as stereotypes.

The story takes place in a dystopian future – and we were attempting to extrapolate where one tribe might find themselves within that exaggerated dystopian world. It could not be immune to the dark turn society has taken. Our take was that this particular tribe had become affluent, and increasingly isolationist – to protect itself ideologically from the rest of America, which had become a pretty unpleasant place. We tried to take tradition, and marry it to futurism. We actively worked to shatter stereotypes, breaking them open to show something real, and honest.

Huge amount of thought went into every choice, so to be called out for insensitivity warrants the opening of a dialogue. I have a reputation for being culturally fair, and on-target in my books – so if I’ve missed the mark here, it’s important to me to know how, and how to improve it.

I do want to point out that some things you found were stretches. A kid sitting cross-legged on the floor was just a kid sitting cross-legged on the floor. That’s how my daughter plays guiter, so that’s where that came from. It was not a racial stereotype.

It’s important to note that socially and culturally, American Indians are the heroes of the story. They are the only cultural group that collectively fights against the heinous practice of Unwinding, and maintains a high moral and ethical bar, that the rest of society has lost. The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action in the face of a world mired in inaction.

UnStrung will be rewritten for inclusion in a collection of novellas in the Unwind world. We would love to discuss with you what changes will make it not only more palatable, but a positive experience for Indian readers. I can be reached at storymanweb@gmail.com. Thank you.


Debbie's response:

Mr. Shusterman,

Thank you for responding to my concerns. I am traveling this week and next and can't give your comment the attention it deserves. A quick note for now: I read a lot of children's and young adult books with Native characters. You'd be surprised, perhaps, to know how many of them sit cross-legged. Other characters in the book don't. They just sit. How they sit isn't generally noted. More, later, when I've had time to think about your comments. 
Update, Tuesday, Sept 30 2014

My review reflects my incredulous reaction as I read your book. You said it is important to know how you missed the mark, and how you can improve the story. I hope you'll find time to go back and re-read my review. I think I've clearly laid out examples in which you've missed the mark.

It is the overall premise, however, that is deeply flawed. You said that (quoting from your comment),
"American Indians are the heroes of the story... They maintain a high moral and ethical bar... The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action..."
See that? You think you've done a good thing, making American Indians the heroes. You meant well... You are just like all those people/places/organizations that use American Indian something-or-other as an ideal to strive for. Big case in the news right now is the Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington DC pro football team. Are you following that at all? From my perspective, you sound an awful lot like Dan Snyder and you sound like a thousand people who've told me and other Native people "but you don't understand. I'm trying to honor you."

In her excellent piece for writers, Cynthia Leitich Smith posed a few questions that authors can use when reflecting on the Native characters they create. I'm modifying them a bit:

Is Wil a magical character? My answer: Yes, he has a musical gift. It is so magical that it will be taken from him to serve the greater good. Who is taking it? A British/American surgeon.

Does Wil die first? My answer: Yes. Lev lives on. Wil does not.

Are Wil's people the model minority? My answer: Yes. This is a bit more nuanced, but they've had great success economically and professionally.

Does his heritage inform his character?  My answer: Yes, and a bit complicated because his heritage is your creation and rests on stereotypical ways of thinking about Native peoples. It is, in other words, an outsider's take on Native culture, so it is hard for me to say that his heritage is, in fact, Native. It isn't. In her post, Smith also asks if non-Native readers will notice problems like this. Her answer is, "maybe." Mine? From what I've seen online, nobody noticed. Smith asks if Native readers will notice. My answer: Not necessarily, but most of them will. I think a good many Native readers will do a WTF. In fact, Native people with whom I've shared the review are also expressing incredulity.

What will your readers think of Wil and his people? My answer: Most of your readers will (and do) love Wil and his people. In her post, Smith goes on to say that sometimes, writers "get so wrapped up in our own intent, however benevolent, that we forget to consider impact." Clearly, you meant well. You had good intentions. But the impact of those good intentions? You're using your conception of Native people to save the world. In so doing, you affirm stereotypical ideas that are already deeply embedded in the world.


What did you read prior to creating this tribe and people? Your turn. What did you read? And, I invite your answers to the question above, too. I know you're doing a Q&A at Goodreads this week and may not have time to come back to AICL for the dialog you asked me for, but I do hope you come back as soon as you can. Your fellow writers, and my fellow reviewers, can gain a great deal by reading our dialog.



Update, Saturday, October 4, 2014

Neal Shusterman's reply, submitted at 11:05 PM October 3 2013:

Debbie – thank you for your detailed response. I appreciate the time you took to really analyze the story. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s questions are right on target.

Perhaps I overstated it when I said that the Indians are the heroes of the book series. The Indian characters are as flawed as everyone else, and struggle with their own moral dilemmas and ethical demons. I do not feel that any of my characters are stereotypes, regardless of their cultural background. As a group, the fictional tribe in the book makes both poor decisions, and good decisions. Ultimately they are one of many factors that changes the world for the better by the end of the book series. 

I do need to emphasize the fictional nature of the tribe. It is not intended to reflect current Indian culture. It is an exaggeration seen through a very specific future lens, just like every other culture portrayed in the book. Everything is painted in unsettling shades of gray -- the reader is supposed to have mixed feelings about everything and everyone. We should see the best and the worst of ourselves in the characters, and cultures.


You mentioned that other people had the same reaction you did when they read your review. I imagine so. A review is like the prosecution’s case in a trial. It’s all very cut and dry if you don’t hear the defense. The defense is the actual work, and I stand behind my work. That said, there are some things I would, and will change, however, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.



Monday, October 27, 2014

What is wrong with Buzzfeed's WHAT IS YOUR SPIRIT ANIMAL and Neal Shusterman's UNWIND dystology

Sheesh. The activities that let people figure out what their Indian name is, or what their spirit animal is, are so freaking bogus!

So many assumptions and ignorance go into their making. Let's look at WHAT IS YOUR SPIRIT ANIMAL, created by Brieanna Watts Elmore (if that is a real name/person) at Buzzfeed.

It assumes, for starters, that we are monolithic, that no matter where our homeland might be, we think the same way about salmon. And buffalo. And wolves. Fact? We don't. We're over 500 distinct nations, located across the US.

We don't speak the same language. Our traditional clothing differs. And so do our spiritual beliefs!

Some of us have clans associated with animals but not all of us, and, frankly, I know a lot of Native people from a lot of different Native Nations, and nobody has ever said to me "my spirit animal is..."

I think that "spirit animal" thing is the White Man's Indian.

But gosh darn! So many people (who don't know better) love love love the White Man's Indian.

It is in a lot of children's and young adult books. Case in point? Neal Shusterman's Unwind dystology. I'm (grudgingly) reading Unsouled right now. One of his main characters (Lev) has just figured out that his spirit animal is a kinkajou.

Some people--including Shusterman--tried to persuade me that he's doing a good thing with his Native characters and content (like this spirit animal stuff). He means well, just like the person who created this ridiculous Spirit Animal quiz at Buzzfeed.

But!!! Good intentions don't matter.

The quiz isn't harmless. Neither is Shusterman's book.  Perpetuating and affirming ignorance doesn't do anyone any good.

Do some good!

If you found yourself taking that Buzzfeed quiz or if you found yourself liking Shusterman's Native content, but this post makes you think otherwise, push back on The White Man's Indian. Reject it and tell others to reject it, too.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

HOW TO WRITE A DYSTOPIAN YOUNG ADULT NOVEL (or short story) WITH NATIVE CHARACTERS FOR FUN AND PROFIT, by Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin

Editor's Note: Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin submitted this satirical "how to" piece in response to my review of Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden's short story, Unstrung. Shusterman responded to that review (see point 13 below). I am currently working on a review of the first three books in Shusterman's series. 

 HOW TO WRITE A DYSTOPIAN YOUNG ADULT NOVEL (or short story)
WITH NATIVE CHARACTERS FOR FUN AND PROFIT
by Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin
  1. Strive to know nothing about the real lives and histories of Native peoples. Knowing is counterproductive and can be used against you if you accidentally let something real slip in. Do not do any research at all. That way, your tribe will be a genuine object of your invention, and no one will be able to accuse you of cultural appropriation. 
  2. Invent a tribe. Give it a name that sounds kind of sort of like an Indian word. Or forget it—don’t give your tribe an actual name. Rather, refer to your tribe in a way that relates to a well-known stereotype. “People of Chance,” as an example, works well, because it will remind readers of casinos and how wealthy Indian people are. If you’re a little unsure, feel free to work in a backstory about gaming and skilled tribal lawyers.
  3. Write as though your invented tribe is just like any other transplanted culture with the exception of periodic decorative localized mythology. There should be no long memory stories of things that have happened where your tribe lives. Rather, for instance, you might go on and on about your tribe’s ostentatious show of material wealth—curbs that “gleam with gold,” an abundance of luxury cars, “gold plaques embedded in the adobe walls” and everyone wearing business suits “finer than the best designer fashions.”
  4. Assign at least some of your tribal characters names that sound vaguely “Indian.” To do that, make sure that the names contain lots of vowels; something like “Chowilawu” might be a good example. Don’t worry that someone might think the names of your Indian characters mean something. They don’t have to—they’re Indian.
  5. Describe your tribal characters as having small but important Indian mannerisms. For example, make sure that at least one of your Indian characters sits cross-legged on an animal skin. That will remind readers of the good times in kindergarten when they were instructed to sit “Indian style” for long periods of time.
  6. Make sure that the main character (preferably white and male) bonds with a member of your invented culture. Your Indian character need not be developed in any sense, because his only purpose is to teach your main character a major life lesson, after which he expires or goes back to whatever mystical land he comes from. Feel free to use this Native mentor in the style of any of the old tropes: Black nanny, Asian martial arts master, or supernaturally animated Indian doll who lives in a cupboard.
  7. Create new racial slurs to take the place of discredited old ones. “Redskins,” for instance, would be totally last century for a dystopian story. Try something like “slot monger,” or something else that you can make sound vaguely sexual, yet have a backstory that creates deniability.
  8. Put the power in the hands of your invented culture. Make sure that some of the members of your tribe express xenophobic opinions, such as referring to other tribes as “Low-Rez.” This will make the point that xenophobia is logical when it exists in empowered communities.
  9. Because there is no cultural attribution, feel free to use whatever stereotype or debunked expectation you may envision. It’s totally appropriate in this case to evoke offensively weird stories as long as you don’t name your tribe. For instance, you can have characters in your tribe hunting for a male mountain lion in order to transplant his heart into a dying Native elder for whom this animal is his “spirit guide.”
  10. Make sure to work in tropes that are pseudo-spiritual-cultural givens for your tribe: spirit animals and vision quests, for instance. And, above all, make sure that your main Native character, despite—or because of—his otherworldly psychic gifts, gets killed off.
  11. Now, take out your checklist. Invented tribe—check. No real reference to land, language, culture, community–check. No history or memory stories—check. No Indigenous meaning to names or anything else—check. Stereotypical mannerisms—check. Trope-type mentor—check. New racial slur to replace old ones—check. Xenophobic power—check. Offensively weird rituals—check. More tropes—check. Main Native character gets killed off—check.
  12. Done! Now sit back and collect your starred reviews for creating a multicultural dystopian novel with mystical Indian characters whose only raison d’etre is to interact with a white hero in a mentor role worthy of inclusion in a 1950s flick.
  13. On the off chance that you are criticized for inaccuracy, cultural appropriation, racism, or just plain abysmal writing, make sure to respond immediately—preferably with a vague reference to political correctness, reverse racism and/or the humorless nature of the critic. Mention how sensitive you tried to be. Use the phrase “considered carefully” to insure that everyone understands how hard you worked at appropriate representation. You can always fall back on the fact that you invented your tribe and therefore are immune to criticism, but it is worth trying to put the reviewer on the defensive—especially if the reviewer happens to be Native and has worked in the area of American Indians in children’s literature for many years.


—Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin

(We would like to acknowledge Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden—and the many other authors of “children’s books about Indians” [you know who you are]—without whose important research and writing these helpful hints would not have been possible. Wado, y’all!)


Sunday, March 29, 2015

AICL's Recommended/Not Recommended reads in 2014

I received a request from a person asking if I could write up a comprehensive list of books I read during 2014, with links to the page on which I wrote about the book. This isn't a list of books published in 2014. It is books I read in that year. Some are old, some are new. I'm bleary eyed from working on the list. I think it is complete but I may have missed some thing!

Some of you may look at the books on the Not Recommended list and say to yourself "Really?! You set a high bar!" or something like that. Keep in mind that I read within a larger context than just one book. John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, for example, has one passage about Native people. We could argue about its merit (as took place in the comments!) but I read such passages within a societal context that continues to publish books and media that misrepresent Native peoples. It isn't just one book. It is lots of little bits in lots of books. It adds up to a whole lot of misrepresentation.

Recommended




Not Recommended


Monday, August 15, 2016

"Spirit Animal" will not appear in future printings of Julie Murphy's DUMPLIN'

Last year, people were very excited about Julie Murphy's Dumplin. It is one of the books that, by word of mouth, I figured I would want to read sometime. Here's the synopsis:

Dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom, Willowdean has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American-beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked . . .  until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.  
Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.

Last week, Jeanne, who I follow on Twitter, wrote that she was reading the book and had gotten to the page with "spirit animal" on it. The line is "Oh my God," says El. "I think you might be my spirit animal." It is at the bottom of page 361:


Some twitter conversations began. Today, Julie Murphy says, at her Tumblr page, that she's talked with her editor and the phrase will not be in future printings of the book. I wrote about "spirit animal" in 2014 when I saw it on Buzzfeed--and in Neal Shusterman's Unwind series. Murphy's use is one that is easy enough to revise. Same was true with taking "totem pole" out of Out of Darkness. But Shusterman... he'd have to do a lot of rewriting... Plus, that series is loaded with problems.

Thanks, Julie Murphy and Alessandra Balzer (she's Murphy's editor), for hearing and responding to the concerns. Julie has, with her Tumblr post, been very public about the change. I trust that Alessandra Balzer will carry this understanding with her to future projects and that she, too, will initiative conversations about appropriation with her editor peers. I wonder, for example, if she knows who edited One Little Two Little Three Little Children... 

Julie Murphy's decision is another model for those who have learned that something in their book(s) is problematic. Change is possible, as Julie Murphy learned.