Cultural ground: handle with care

“As writers (and newcomers to this place), we should tread carefully on cultural ground that is not ours — which should not be confused with mindlessly following political correctness.” So wrote one of our readers several weeks ago – and with our upcoming discussion of Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves this weekend, it seems a good time to open a discussion on this difficult issue.

Down the road, we hope to feature a panel of Alaskan Native authors commenting on this issue. When I came to Alaska thirty years ago, we would would have been hard-pressed to find enough Native writers to form such a panel. The opening of the literary world to Native voices has been one of the most exciting regional developments of the past few decades.

My first novel, A Distant Enemy, began with a short story drawn from experiences in the village schools where I’d taught. As the story grew into a novel and a full plot emerged, the protagonist became half Yupik, half gussak (white). I don’t recall how conscious it was, but I do remember hoping that with my main character straddling two cultures, perhaps I’d be spared some of the criticism my writer friends warned of. Writing about a culture not your own was considered risky business at best. Two writers I knew were openly criticized, though not perhaps in ways they could defend, for writing nonfiction about their village experiences.

Should all of us have held back? Teachers tell me that young readers in Alaskan villages appreciate that someone, anyone, gussak or not, wrote a book that’s relevant to their experiences. Did I “get it right”? Is there food for thought? All I know for sure is that if my book challenges even one Alaskan Native to do a better job telling the story of village kids dealing with anger and cultural change, I couldn’t be happier.

Which is not to say I’m oblivious to the many-faceted issues of treading on cultural ground. In the primary source material I rummaged through when prepping my most recent book (Picture This, Alaska) were comments about Alaskan Natives so outrageous and offensive I began rethinking my position on book burning.

So what’s the answer? We’d love to hear your thoughts. As always, if your negative comments are couched in general terms (“some books cross the line” versus “Annie Fannie’s books cross the line”), especially when we’re talking about authors who are also are colleagues, our discussion will be more open and productive.

11 thoughts on “Cultural ground: handle with care”

  1. This is a great discussion subject and one that a lot of us writers struggle with in one form another. My first novel, which I have never submitted anywhere, includes a character that is part Native, and I have worried some about public perception. On one hand, it doesn’t seem right to avoid a character because of race or gender. If white writers never include Native people in their Alaskan-based books, it’s almost saying that only white people live here. At the same time, I think there are valid concerns about dominating cultures writing from the perspective of minorities. Ultimately, I hate the idea of avoiding a subject in fiction because it makes us uncomfortable — those are often the most important for us to look at more closely if we do it right. That’s one reason I so appreciated Seth Kenner’s book — it is uncomfortable to read at times, and it is one of the few books I think all Alaskans should read.

  2. Great discussion. And although I understand the concerns about dominating cultures writing from the perspective of minorities, you could argue that a writer shouldn’t write from a perspective outside their gender as well. Writing is about getting in to other people’s heads and if the story calls for Native, African American, whatever, you must write it. I think you need a deep understanding of the perspective that you are writing, minority or otherwise, in order to be true to the perspective. It takes a great deal of courage to write an uncomfortable book.

  3. I relate to your struggle, Eowyn. Even though I was never made aware of any negative feedback on the issue from my first novel, I rather consciously steered clear of Native characters and issues in subsequent work, though I’m regaining some balance, I think, in some current projects.

    The issue even came up in my photo book that just came out. I had all these beautiful, timeless photos of Alaskan Natives. Looking at other books that collected historic Alaskan photos, Natives were virtually excluded. I didn’t like that. I ended up showcasing the best of the photos in my book’s first chapter, called “First Alaskans.” Would people think I was singling out Natives, excluding them from the rest of Alaska’s history, when my intent was to show that much about Native culture, such as subsistence activities, is timeless? There seemed to be no right way to handle it.

    I was very conscious of a quote I included from Rosita Worl, my favorite in the book: “We are the ones who have everything to lose.” But you can know that and still not know what to do with it when you’ve got a book to compile or a story to tell.

    And I definitely agree with Betty about the courage required to write an uncomfortable book.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    In agreement with what’s already been said here: I understand that some people worry about “cultural appropriation,” but for me, censorship (including even self-censorship) is a bigger concern. I believe all writing is an imaginative act, and if I can’t imagine the life of a Native person, just as one of many examples, then who I am to imagine the life of someone older than me, someone of another gender, someone who lived in the past, someone who practices a different religion… on and on. Yes, we might fail to get some detail right, but we might also fail in writing about our own lives. (I know I’d get more wrong than right about my own childhood, for example, but that memoiristic concern is a post in itself.)

    If writers can’t write beyond their own remembered experience, then we really can’t write fiction. For me, one of art’s many purposes is to experience others’ lives and to create empathy; one way writers stretch their own empathetic abilities is by imagining lives very different (and, at the same time, NOT so different) as their own.

    But what if an outsider writes something cliched or false? I’m an optimist, believing that there is room for many stories, and that the ones that are authentic outlast the ones that aren’t. (It’s also worth noting that Native Alaskans who write about their communities attract criticism, too.)

    Having said all that, I — like Eowyn — get nervous every time I try to embody a new character in my fiction. Will this person ring true to others? Hard to say…

  5. That’s a really good point — much of writing, and especially fiction, is about trying to imagine how it would be to be somebody else. It is a scary task, but also a lot of fun and can be very rewarding. At the same time, for example, I have read some male authors who stereotype women to such an extent that I can’t stand to read them. A friend recently described reading a novel by a non-Alaskan about Alaska that was really demeaning to and inaccurate about everyone who lives here. I’m curious if anyone else has had that experience, of reading something about your culture/gender/race that offended you.

  6. Oddly, I seem to be more taken by the opposite – instances when authors have done an amazing job of writing from a pov totally foreign to them – men with strong female protagonists, women with strong male protagonists, authors from one culture who write successfully about others. Maybe it’s because my first two novels were stories about boys, and I’m a woman.

    Some stories seem best told by someone with closer POV experience, though. For instance, I can’t imagine Sherman Alexie’s True Confessions of a Parttime Indian having been written by someone who wasn’t Indian – not with that title, anyhow.

    That being said, I totally agree about staying away from self-censorship by not limiting ourselves to writing only what we absolutely “know” from our own limited experiences.

  7. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    A fun question, Eowyn. Fairly frequently, I’ll read a book — say, by a prominent male writer (maybe a Philip Roth, for example) — where the guy characters are great and the women are, ummm, unfamiliar to me as a woman. Or just not as well defined. But if it’s someone I’ve read a long time, who is fantastic about his own realm of experience, I just skate past those parts. Ditto for things written by women who have never had children, who try to describe parenting issues and sometimes don’t hit the nail on the head. (I feel sympathetic with the writers — almost defensive on their behalf, especially when I love the rest of their books.) But as Deb said, what amazes me more often is what people get right. There is a joy that comes from reading one thing described just so, perhaps in a way we hadn’t imagined, but which brings the object or experience to life. I feel like I’m being taught to see anew, and I usually castigate myself for all the things and moments I overlook, or have forgotten, or don’t appreciate enough. Even if those perfect descriptions happen just a few times per book, it’s worth it.

    How about you, Eowyn? Any examples in mind?

  8. I agree with you both — it’s amazing how much writers get right, even when they are operating outside of their sphere of experience. Larry McMurtry blows me away with his female characters in typically all-male country. He gets it so right! Funny, strong, surprising, multi-dimensinal, tragic, etc. However, since I’m a typical white American mutt, so much of fiction is written by people like me. I guess I was curious if anyone with minority background has found that writers get it right. I believe people are just people, so if we try to put ourselves in another pair of shoes, we should be able to imagine being them, no matter the race/gender/creed. But that’s easy for me to say, being white in America.

  9. kenaiqueen2007

    I think I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to deal with cultural issues in my one kid’s book as it deals with just Alaskan animals and an alien child. However, a future book may result in my alien finally meeting a human Earthling and I had planned that it would be a Native child because it just seemed right. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t have to deal with this before I was a little better educated.

    I’ve been following some of the blogs on LiveJournal about how POC’s (Persons of Color) are presented in both published and unpubbed stories and it’s a very complicated issue with many differing opinions. The most basic and succinct advice I have drawn from all that reading is that POC’s would like white writers to “Fail Better”. In other words, at least try and educate yourself before you write.

    I found this web site interesting with it’s book reviews which are written by students:
    It was an eye opener to see what they found wrong with the books that I’d read and thought were just fine.

  10. Thanks for the website. I just glanced at it and it’s really interesting. I plan on reading more of the reviews. It’s helpful just to see what issues the reviewers are being asked to consider as they critique a book.

  11. Likewise, thanks for the HAIL link. I had no idea it was out there. Apparently the class isn’t taught any longer??? I wonder why not.

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