A question of identity: Guest post by Joan Kane

Since many of the posts on 49 Writers refer to regionalism (“Alaskan writing”) or genre designation (“nature writing”), I’ve long been curious about the emphasis that contributors to and readers of the blog place on author identity. Most Alaskan writers, at some point or another, have to answer questions relating to place of birth, place of residence, and influence of location on their writing in ways that authors from no other state (except Hawaii, maybe) ever have to talk about. Not that geography isn’t important—but there’s such a focus on it that 49 writers seems a good place to discuss the issue.

The holidays presented a rare opportunity to spend time with a handful of novels, including revisiting Mudrooroo’s Dr. Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World. It’s an historical novel: a first-hand account of the extinction of aboriginal people in Australia as traced through Dr. Wooreddy, a Bruny Islander from Tasmania. I found the author’s biographical note elliptical, and curious about Mudrooroo himself, googled him. Surprisingly, I found his identity to have caused a great deal of controversy since the first time I’d picked up the book about a decade ago.

Mudrooroo Nyoonga— formerly Colin Johnson— is variously referred to on different sites as “the father of modern Aboriginal literature” and “one of the most fascinating authors writing in or about Australia, continually testing the boundaries of fiction and of Aboriginality over the past forty years.” He’s also described as being Irish, English, and African-American, not indigenous/Aboriginal.

This is all puzzling to me, as I’d arrived at the book in the first place through someone who’d read it for a course on post-colonial literature: other fine selections from the course included Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (another author, as it turns out, whose identity as an indigenous writer is continuously called into question), Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Regardless of Mudrooroo’s identity, the book remains one of the most well-written narratives of Aboriginal dislocation, displacement, and history I’ve come across—as Hulme’s The Bone People also figures as one of the best books I’ve read that touches on Maori experience. Nevertheless, rereading Dr. Wooreddy through this lens provoked a number of other questions for me— since the book doesn’t reek of autobiography, should the specifics of the author’s identity matter to me? Should it concern me, though, that Dr. Wooreddy purports to be a historical novel—a category, to my mind, that begs greater authorial accountability than novels alone— when the author purposely obscures his own history?

Alaska—particularly in its writing— still bears strong traces of its colonial past. There are a number of writers, including Inupiat poets Cathy Rexford and dg nanouk okpik as well as memoirist Willie Hensley and playwrights Jack Dalton (Yupik) and Allison Warden, and non-Native Seth Kantner, whose works in the last year or so have variously addressed the issue of Alaskan identity. Does all the attention to author identity (via political views, historical context, ethnicity) that accompanies Alaskan writing perpetuate colonial mindsets, or does it give deeper meaning to these works and purposefully acquaint readers with Alaska?

Joan Kane (Inupiaq), a Whiting Writers’ winner, is a poet and playwright. She is the author of newly-released The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife and the play, The Gilded Tusk, which is in its reprise run at The Anchorage Museum.

6 thoughts on “A question of identity: Guest post by Joan Kane”

  1. As a reader of fiction, I prefer not to know much about the author, at least initially. I like the story to speak for itself.

    As a reader of non-fiction, I appreciate knowing the author's background. Just like an agent wants to know why you are the unique person to tell this story, I like to know the depth of your acquaintance with the world you are writing about. I get a sense of the origin (perhaps) of your point of view.

    I've read and been interviewed for regional "histories" by writers outside of the region and both times saw edits/cuts (to many interviews)that a local would have understood the significance of(keeping). The result was an outsider's view that unfortunately bled out and watered down authenticity or local knowledge.

    I think it's best for a writer to acknowledge who they are when reader assumptions might be quite different than reality.
    Example: You are writing a treatise on fishery politics. If you have never fished a day and flew into Alaska last week to comb a wild hair because you watched an episode of Deadliest Catch – well, cop to it.

    All that said, an outsider is capable of crafting a fabulous authentic account of things outside their realm. This takes a special sort, however, and it does not detract from their work to identify themselves.
    I do hope that has made some sense.
    Thanks for your post.

  2. It's nice to see someone finally articulate the colonial thing in a public forum. Alaska is definitely still bound by the shackles of its colonial past (and some would say its colonial present). Residents of colonies and former colonies around the world tend to have a certain self-loathing for the art they produce at home. In this mindset, the Good Stuff, by definition, comes from the faraway land of Somewhere Else (or the Outside as we say here in AK).

    I think what we're seeing lately here in Alaska is our writers standing up and saying, The art we produce here can be just as good as what comes in from Outside. It can form the material for narratives that speak to the broader human condition, to say nothing of being more relevant to those of us who actually live here.

    As opposed to more stories of big city schoolteachers moving to Alaska to live in a bush cabin and thus discover their true selves. Or whatever. Not that there's anything wrong with doing that, but that's a colonial-bound narrative (okay, probably THE original colonial narrative) of which I've grown pretty weary. With so many different kinds of stories to tell about Alaska, why do we keep continually re-hashing this same old story line?

    Probably because it sells books…

    My two cents, anyway.

  3. So, I am wondering how much a colonial mindset can shackle a writer's own freedom. As an indigenous writer, are you free to write whatever is your truth or are you shackled by expectations? Of course that's a choice.
    I'm thinking of Sherman Alexie, a modern day writer who often writes stories of Native American experience. Sometimes he displeases people because they don't like the pictures he paints.
    I'm thinking of John Synge, an Irish writer who displeased many people with his stories of Irish life. Let's narrow the field now and say that John Synge is Irish and Protestant. This changes everything for some people.
    In a perfect world writers would write and readers would glean from a story whatever they might and it wouldn't matter what the origin of the writer was if the verity of the story rang true.
    Mindsets are in our minds. We can choose to be shackled or not.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Hi Joan, I'd never heard of "Doctor Wooreddy" and it looks like it's a hard book to find on amazon (I was surprised when I tried to set up a link) — and yet, perhaps it is an out-of-print classic?

    Weighing in on the question of knowing about an author's background (and I was interested by several other folks' comments here, and hope more weigh in) — the main thing that worries me is when an author seems to misrepresent himself or herself, which is always hard to judge, of course. The example would be someone who claims a certain heritage because they were adopted later in life or selected that exotic affinity (wraps themselves in it sometimes, convert-style). What worries me is that kind of heritage as a kind of status-seeking or subtle deception, or as a way of selling books or some other service. (I'm not referring to anything I've seen in Alaska — it's just something I'd be wary about in general, as a reader.) Beyond that, I agree that knowing an author's background helps interpret, but I don't consider any story off limits for any teller. I've read novels by writers about cultures or experiences beyond their experiences that included more detail and rang more true than stories by people who wrote close to their experiences. Reflecting on my own childhood — and especially, having my own children! — has shown me the fallibility of memory and understanding. If I wrote about my own 'people,' childhood, family, etc., I'd get plenty wrong, I'm sure. Someone who came from another place or time might be able to write about my "place and time" (Chicago, 1970s for example) better than me if they asked the right questions and cared enough to search. Does that make sense? I'm sure they'd miss other nuances, or overemphasize things that seemed exotic to them but not to me (growing up next to a nuclear power plant! corrupt Chicago politics!)

    In the end, my favorite novels/stories are about universal themes.

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