HipWriterMama, one of our fabulous postergirlz, interviewed author Cynthia Leitich Smith as part of the Winter Blog Blast Tour. Cynthia is the author of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, one of the recommended reads in this month's issue of readergirlz. Here's an excerpt of their interview:
HWM: November is all about celebrating Native American Heritage Month over at readergirlz. I was shocked how difficult it was to find good books, that treated Native Indians with respect, rather than as a stereotype. Why do you think this is the case, even in 2009?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Big question. It’s a combination of reasons.
The first is that many folks in the United States—including some in youth literature--are still in an active state of denial (or ignorance) about the nation’s history with regard to Native people and our reality today. Especially the former is painful—after all, we’re talking about child abuse, rape, land theft, and genocidal efforts.
Perhaps because of misplaced ancestral guilt, it’s easier for some to believe that we all had a great time together at the first Thanksgiving and then Native people either (a) became savage warriors who had to be exterminated or (b) mysteriously died out through no one’s fault.
Certainly, that’s—to a significant degree—what’s still taught in American schools.
Of course there are some terrific teachers and school librarians trying to counteract this, but possibly the majority of Americans are carrying false information about Indians, delivered by our educational system itself.
I’ve had my share of school visits where the very young students had already been taught that Native people were either scary or extinct or both—taught not only at school and through books but also from other media and influential adults.
Grandma says, “My, aren’t you the savage little Indian!” (I overheard this in a bookstore, said to a young child who was misbehaving.).
To further complicate matters, a significant number of people who think of themselves as open-minded tend to equate “Native American” with either (a) supernatural, super-ecological largely inhuman creatures or (b) a tragic, defeated and dying people whose glories (and achievements) exist only in the misty past.
It’s a mess.
That’s the big-picture challenge.
Extend that to books, and often you’re looking at authors (a) who’ve been raised in that mainstream (sometimes contradictory) belief system, (b) who honestly don’t begin to realize how off-base many/most of their assumptions are, (c) who’re consulting “original” resources drafted by enemies of Native people, and (d) are trying to connect with a mainstream audience that shares many of their same biases. You get the idea.
It’s entirely possible to write across race successfully. I do it, and I have no intention of stopping. Miranda, the protagonist from ETERNAL (Candlewick, 2007) is Asian (Chinese), and I’m not. Kieren, the protagonist from TANTALIZE: KIEREN’S STORY (Candlewick, 2011) is Mexican American, and I’m not. And I fully realize that we’re humans. We all make mistakes.
But in writing cross-culturally about Native people, it’s critical for non-Indians to begin as if they know absolutely nothing, take a significant amount of time to acquaint themselves with the truth, and proceed in a patient, open-hearted, and respectful manner. It can be done. I’ve had friends and students and colleagues who’ve done it. But you have to stretch, perhaps more than you might realize at the beginning.
That said, writers are only a part of the equation. For the reasons I mentioned above, readers—including gatekeepers—may be more likely to find that an inaccurate book that embraces popular stereotypes rings “true” to them than one that reflects Native realities.
For example, over the years I’ve had several readers mention—some in a questioning way—my inclusion of Native characters with a higher education in my books. Cousin Elizabeth from JINGLE DANCER is an attorney. Aunt Georgia from RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001) is a retired school teacher and a science teacher at that.
The final big reason is numbers and interest level. Native people are 1.5 percent of the population. As I mentioned, there are certainly writers who succeed in writing cross-culturally about American Indians, but when it comes to writers from within the communities, the pool is small. We need to nurture interest and aptitude where we find it.
Likewise, our numbers of Native teachers, librarians, reviewers, editors, agents, marketing people, and bloggers are small and in some cases non-existent or at least statistically non-existent.
We need more friends, more loud mouths who advocate for quality Native voices and visions and well-executed cross-cultural additions to the body of youth literature.
Read the full interview at HipWriterMama's blog.