by Linda Rodriguez
I’m a poet and novelist of Cherokee lineage who writes about a Cherokee protagonist, so I get contacted repeatedly by people who want me to give them a crash course in being Cherokee (or even just Native) because they’ve decided to make the protagonists of their books, or even a whole series, Cherokee (or just Native). These are people who know nothing about the Cherokee, not even the most basic information, and apparently have no Cherokee friends or acquaintances. My attitude toward them, I’m afraid, is not sympathetic. Basically, these folks are saying to me, “I want an ‘exotic Indian’ protagonist and the Cherokee are the most famous tribe, so I’ll choose them, but I have no real interest in the culture or knowing anyone in it. I’m too lazy to do any research on the most documented tribe in American history (the Cherokee were over 90% literate in their own written language and had a bilingual newspaper long before the Removal in the 1830s and have the biggest, most thoroughly helpful website now—the first thing you hit when you search the internet for Cherokee), so please do my research for me. Maybe I’ll use it, or maybe I’ll just do what I want to do, whether it’s true to the culture or not, while putting your name down as the ‘expert’ I consulted. Because I clearly don’t give a real damn.”
Indigenous cultures have been misrepresented by settler anthropologists and folklore collectors for centuries. An awful lot of books, especially novels, written by outsiders to a culture end up written from the viewpoint of caricatures rather than real people, and the culture is presented as a collection of stereotypes of that culture (often derived from those very misrepresenting researchers). These books almost always, in one way or another, diminish or denigrate those cultures.
If we keep to our circumscribed lives, how can we realistically create characters who are different from ourselves? How can we learn if we only read people who think and write the same way we do? As writers, we need to use our reading to add breadth to our experiences. To do that, we must read people who are different from us—people who write differently and think differently, people who have had different experiences in life from ours. There is a whole world of books out there by people whose whole experience of life has been different from yours. At one time, the only books to be found were written by wealthy educated European white men. Now, we can read and learn from the experiences of Latina lawyers, overachieving Chinese law professor mothers, Filipino labor organizers, and African American choreographers. Biographies and autobiographies and memoirs are a wonderful resource for this broadening of experience, as are poetry and fiction by these diverse authors. One of the best ways to get an initial feel for the diversity of experience within a culture is to read an anthology of writers from that culture. Your characters will thank you, as will your readers.
The first is Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century. https://www.amazon.com/Puro-Chicanx-Writers-21st-Century/dp/1732017018 This 359-page anthology, edited by Octavio Quintanilla, Carmen Tafolla, Luis Alberto Urrea and Edward Vidaurre, Teresa Acevedo, Carmen Calatayud, Denise Chavez, and Matt Mendez, “includes authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Alberto Rios, Gary Soto, Octavio Solis, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Linda Rodriguez, Rafael J. Gonzales, Raul Sanchez, Diana Marie Delgado, Juan J. Morales, Jenn Givhan, Reyna Grande, Myriam Gurba,” among many others. The book’s “focus is on Chicanx culture that has been a large part of this country for hundreds of years and is still under-explored and understood only at a distance by the dominant culture.”
The second is When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393356809 This “anthology of poetry from more than 160 poets, representing close to 100 Indigenous nations” was edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo with LeAnne Howe and Jennifer Elise Foerster. If Natives are depicted in modern America, at all, "usually it's through images that we did not construct but were constructed by nightmares and takeover," Harjo says. If, as a novelist, you wonder how this 400-page book of poems can be relevant to you, remember that the poet writes about the specifics of her/his life and traffics in sensory detail, imagery, description, and emotional reactions. All of these can bring a level of authenticity to your own work.
Stereotypes about drunken Indians (statistics show white people drink more per capita) and (nonexistent) free government handouts for Native people fueled a lot of rage behind support for the pipeline corporation and its private security guards who assaulted peaceful people with pepper spray and attack dogs (that had not been properly trained as K9 dogs but just made aggressive as trainers do for dog fighting).
Stereotypes about Latinos as gangbangers and drug dealers fuel a lot of the hate-filled rhetoric about ridding the country of all Latinos. The vast majority of Latinos in this country are peaceful, hard-working, family-oriented people, not members of gangs or criminals of any sort. The only way to do instant mass deportations of undocumented immigrants is to go door-to-door, and history tells us that when the United States does this, it ends up with 60% American citizens in the millions deported with much loss of life and loss of owned homes and businesses.
The things we think we know about other cultures that are wrong can do tremendous harm, especially when wielded by an author with a good-sized audience. So, we need to get it right. We live in an ever-diversifying world, yet most of the books published in the U.S. are basically white, Anglo, middle-to-upper-class, heterosexual, and able-bodied. This gives a terribly distorted view of our society, and since our literature informs the way we think about our world and its problems, it short-circuits our emotional and intellectual consideration of those. This is the situation, not because publishers, editors, and writers are evil racists, but simply because it's comfortable and easiest. To try to become a part of more accurately reflecting and considering our world is a noble thing to do, in my view, but it's not comfortable or easy.
One thing to remember about research on other cultures is that much of it is wrong, accidentally or willfully. Accidentally, because anthropologists and explorers may have misinterpreted what they saw or heard or because—and this was common—because their informants deliberately misinformed them to protect their people or to protect their own source of whatever the settlers were providing them. Consequently, even primary sources from past times can be contaminated if they are “as told to” or are translated. Willfully, because a lot of that research was done by people, usually men, who had an agenda that placed white male Europeans at the pinnacle of creation and everyone and everything else downhill from that, which led to eugenics and a lot of other horrid, stupid things. So there's your first caveat: You can do research and still get it wrong, so this is why you want to use writings by members of that culture..
There are dangers in writing about a culture that's not your own, and those dangers are especially fierce if you're a middle-class-or-above, white, heterosexual, able-bodied writer. First of all, simply by writing about that Other, you may well be keeping a member of that culture from being able to publish their book set authentically in their own culture. It's not your fault, but publishing is a very white, often dumb business. A publisher who publishes your book about XYZ culture will then say to everyone else who submits, “We have our XYZ book already.” And other publishers will often say, “That publisher does XYZ books, so we can't.” The mindset of mainstream publishing is that the world needs an infinity of books about the world of middle-class or rich heterosexual able-bodied white people, but the number of books it can handle about people of color, of varying genders, of the “lower” classes, of varying physical and mental abilities is extremely limited. And because of this limited experience and worldview, a publisher is much more likely to buy a book by a white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual writer about XYZ culture instead of a book by someone from XYZ culture—simply because they will share the same assumptions and perspectives, and it will feel less foreign and uncomfortable to the publisher.
So, the people who get angry about someone from the mainstream writing about their culture and keeping their own voices from being heard have a real point. There's your first danger: People may be angry with you, even if you get things right, because they see your book as preventing a person of that culture from writing and publishing—and they’re not entirely wrong.
Do whatever you can to help writers from that culture to reach success—signal boost, give blurbs, mentor, recommend, whatever you can do. And continue to do this. Your book may be out there in the marketplace for a long time. Make sure you're helping people from that community be heard for at least as long. Aside from being the right thing to do, it's good karma. Above all, know that what you're doing in trying to diversify your writing is absolutely important. Many of the problems we have with racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, classism, and all kinds of xenophobia stem from the damaging stereotypes that are continually presented about other cultures and the people living in them. You are changing the world for the better when you change that.