“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.
What 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)