Being In’din 101: Where Native American Culture Meets Novel Writing

“There’s not much culture in this writing,” I’ve heard students say when critiquing student work or reading the novel of a Native author.  Or they’ll say, “It looks like the main character is having an identity crisis,” and it can sound dismissive, but there’s something we have to understand about most Natives:  We move deep into the center of culture and back to the periphery like an ocean in symbiosis with the moon.

Moon and OceanWhat prompted this post?  I was reading the novel of a newly minted Native author, or I should say I started reading the novel of this newly minted Native author (halfway through I had to sit it aside and take a break), and I could imagine students in a Native creative writing workshop make those criticisms listed above.

And they would be right.  There are “Native” authors who are not so imbedded in culture and these individuals can do really well in the Native literature circles.  In fact, frustratingly so, they can quite easily win the popular vote; while culturally aware Native writers like Louise Erdrich and Susan Power have to trudge up a bitter and cold mountain.  Many fans of Native lit pick up a book because they themselves are also going through identity crisis and can relate to the writing.  Ultimately, that’s the dick of the beast (patriarchal pun intended)–he who panders the best gets the most pop culture points.

Now I can hear you saying Louise Erdrich has won many awards for her writing, including the National Book Award.  But do you know how many books she had to write to do so?  When I bring up her name to someone who is an avid reader, maybe asking, “So what do you think about Louise Erdrich?” nine times out of ten the avid reader has never heard of her.  But if I ask, “Have you heard of Sherman Alexie?” they all immediately know who I’m talking about.  Now go take a look at the list of books Erdrich has written and compare them to the number of books Alexie has written.  Tell me what you find.

So when should culture meet novel?  When I write I don’t think about culture.  I assume it’s going to end up in there at some point so I don’t even worry about it.  My primary focus is to tell a story.  My work leans toward the educated Native seeking to better her community.  My characters are strong and powerful people.  I don’t do well with the “poor little ol’ In’din” motif.  It’s the ho hum.  It’s been done.  You’ll see my writing reflect an unlikable character before you’ll see me write about a victim.  Endless pages of victimhood makes me cringe and I think to myself, “Here we go again,” and I’ll wonder, “When will the palate of Native lit readers change?”  At some point, we as Native writers need to be champion enough to force the change.  Or are we cowards passively waiting for our turn at the gallows?


(Images borrowed from National Park Service and Flickr)

18 responses to “Being In’din 101: Where Native American Culture Meets Novel Writing”

  1. Thank you, Abdul. I’m not sure which would be which, but I guess I can see your point. It’s an interesting space where the two meet. Thank you, for stopping by. I hope you stop by again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not very well read but this seems to be a common issue amongst ethnic minorities in general. Every one has a part to play I guess, whether that be the ‘mainstream’ folk in the spotlight or the architects of the scene.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha ha ha I’ve just started here , and so far very friendly and approachable , no one has told me to go kill myself yet !.
    I’m not a writer , I’m a woodsman , lover of trees , whose whole technological leap from a pencil to txt on a website has shown me many shortfalls , but much much pleasure in the sheer amount of great writing out there .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Round House by Louise Erdrich.
    House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

    Those will be a good start and give you a good insight into Native life in America. Thank you, Gabriel. I’m glad you stopped, and do let me know how the reading goes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Question .
    As a Englishman , in fact as a Yorkshireman what native book would you recommend?
    I ask as a naturally inquisitive person who has never encountered such a thing and wishes to expand his knowledge .
    And I also love this .

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “We move deep into the center of culture and back to the periphery like an ocean in symbiosis with the moon.” Wow – great line, fabulous simile.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very true and similar circumstances. It can be hard to turn around the victimhood cliché, but unfortunately on the Native side of things many Native authors do so, and it can be toward satisfying readers desire to see Natives as victims. It’s convoluted.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It has only been recently that women have finally risen out of the ‘poor, helpless, little ol’ me’ syndrome. Talk about culture! I hated those stories where women could not help themselves. But, they were all written by men and finally now that we have strong women characters, women are actually buying books written by women. No more ‘initials only please’ in the author’s name.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you, Victoria. I’m glad you’re a fan of Erdrich. She’s one of our greatest writers. I hope she goes on to win the Nobel. It’d be nice to see. I’m also glad you like the layout. I worked on it over the weekend and wanted to make it interactive and inviting. I’m glad it’s working. There is always an invitation for you to step into my world. I welcome your peeking over my shoulder. Glad we connected and there will sure to be more interactions. Please stop by anytime.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. WordPress won’t let me press “like” so it gives me a chance to say Yay! Wow! (And I love Louise Erdrich but I’m an Irish/German mutt and so embedded in my cultures that it often feels like I’m a fly, trapped in flypaper; every moment no matter how well-intentioned, flinging sticky stuff into the air.) And also, your “landing” photo here is dynamite on every level. It completely captured my interest, made me want to find a zoom button to see more! The guitars! The diplomas! The books! And more! And your name at the center, as if inviting me to step into your world, look over your shoulder as you write. I am so glad I found you here! *peeking awkwardly over your shoulder*

    Liked by 3 people

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