Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Diversity, Authenticity and some thoughts on Gift of the Raven

The question of diversity and authenticity in literature is something that I am passionately interested in. But it is also a tricky question for me. I have written two books, both of which have major characters with a non-white heritage. I have regularly questioned whether I can write authentically about such characters and, indeed, whether I have a right to even try.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached two people campaigning for greater diversity in literature and publishing – Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ and Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK– in order to interview them for the August 2015 edition of Words with Jam.

You can read those interviews on the WWJ blog page. What I want to do here is reflect on the issues the interviews with Debbie Reese raised for me and for my authorship of the novella, Gift of the Raven.

Clearly I can’t do the sort of dispassionate, professional assessment of my own work that someone like Debbie Reese would do. But I hope what follows is a reasonably honest review – and not a piece of self-justification masquerading as self-flagellation.

Gift of the Raven – self-critique

(NOTE: if you haven’t read Gift of the Raven, this contains mild spoilers.)

As Reese says in her interview, "Native children see stereotypes of themselves in books. They rarely see themselves accurately portrayed. The damage that that does to your existence is significant."

At the start of Gift of the Raven, my protagonist Terry is completely isolated from his father's culture. He's pieced together an identity for himself from the negative, distorted and stereotypical images available to him. And it's been deeply damaging.

So far so good. But if I try and assess the book against some of the criteria set out by Reese, it doesn't fare so well.

Do I have a relationship of trust with the Haida people?

No. I’ve never even visited the Haida Gwaii. I’ve had no direct contact with any Haida people and as far as I am aware, no one from the Haida Gwaii has ever read the book.

I always knew I could never write a story about a Haida child. Terry is not that. He is an abuses child who has lost all sense of his own identity.

Be that as it may, the heritage I gave him is not just any heritage. I have chosen to make it Haida. There are significant Haida characters in the book (his father and grandfather), I talk about Haida culture, I use a Haida-derived image on the cover and I have called the book Gift of the Raven, after the Haida story of the Raven and the sun. I can’t escape from the responsibility that places on me.

Have I respected a tribe’s right to ‘own’ their stories.

I don’t try to retell the Haida story of the Raven and the sun, but I do reference it. I even use it in my title and on my cover. Reese makes it clear that those stories belong to individual tribes. Do I have the right to use it in that way, even peripherally?

In my blurb, I talk about the ‘real meaning’ of the gift of the Raven. What I meant is that, for Terry, the gift is the artistic talent handed down to him from his grandfather, who was of the Raven moiety. But the words could be seen to imply that I am claiming some special understanding of the story’s meaning.

Later I have Joseph say (about his father, the master carver)

‘He used to say the artist must be a Trickster, like the Raven. He has to trick the wood into giving up its secrets and play tricks in people’s minds to make them see the things he sees. If he’s lucky—once in a lifetime—he will bring the gift of light to the world.

This is largely my interpretation – a way of linking Terry’s artistic talent with the story of the Raven, but might that be perceived as presumptuous at best, and at worst as cultural hijacking?

Do I treat indigenous people as if they existed only ‘long ago and far away’:

Growing up in Canada in the 1970s, I was familiar, on the one hand, with modern indigenous artists like Bill Reid, Benjamin Chee Chee and Rhonda Franks, and aware, on the other, of bitter disputes that were brewing, especially in Quebec, over Native land rights. More recently, there have been the Healing Walks, led by indigenous people, protesting the environmental damage caused by the Alberta Tar Sands. And this year saw the culmination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, examining the shaming and painful history of Canada’s Residential School system that tore children away from their families and their cultures in an attempt to ‘kill the Indian’ – a chilling phrase that was not always a metaphor.

So, no, I never thought of Native Canadians as existing only in the past. My story is set in 1971 and talks about Native land rights cases that were getting underway at that time.

Were my sources for the story authentic? Have I failed to differentiate the rich diversity of indigenous culture?

I wrote Gift of the Raven fifteen years ago. I was living eight thousand km from the Haida Gwaii and the Internet was comparatively in its infancy. I researched the background of Terry’s father and grandfather as far as I was able, but I can’t be sure, now, how reliable or authentic my sources were.

I did read The Raven's Cry, by Christie Harris. Harris is a non-native author, but the book was written with the cooperation of artist, Bill Reid, and other Haida people.

When I published my book less than three years ago, though,  I didn’t go back and check my sources. And Reese is right – that was, in part, because I didn’t have a Native audience in mind. I was assuming that is would be read primarily by a white, British audience, and it was ‘good enough’ for them.

I’ve tried now to go back and looked at some websites that, as far as I can tell, are authoritative and specific to the Haida (e.g. )

So what do I think I may have got wrong?

At least some of Joseph tells Terry about Haida art seems to stand up (e.g. that the intent of those that carved the totem poles was that they should gently decay over time. Likewise, some of what Kate tells Terry seems to stand up (e.g. the cutting of hair as a sign of mourning.) But not everything.

For example:

Kate said the Indians believed that the dead didn’t go away. The ancestor spirits lived all around us in trees and birds and animals and stuff. I kind of liked the idea that Dad might be watching me.

I suspect this is exactly the sort of lazy, inaccurate generalisation that Reese deplores. A more accurate representation of Haida beliefs regarding ancestors can be found here:

And of the relationship with the natural world here: 

Another thing I may well have misunderstood is the role of the eagle and raven divisions within the Haida. When Terry meets Joseph, Joseph tells him:

“The Haida are all members of two clans—the Ravens and the Eagles. You always married outside your own clan. And the children belonged to the clan of the mother ... Your grandfather was of the Raven clan. I am an Eagle, like my mother. And you—if you were part of the tribe, you would be a Raven too.”

Going back and looking at this question again, it would be more accurate to say there are many clans, each of which as an Eagle and a Raven ‘moiety.’ And yes, a man from the Eagle moiety would marry a Raven woman, and their children would be of the Raven moiety.

The important point that I missed was that this is a matrilineal descent. So Terry, having a non-Haida mother, would not necessarily be Haida, or a Raven, at all.

[Note that, according to the Constitution of the Haida Nation, ‘all people of Haida Ancestry are Haida citizens,’ but it also notes that they are a matrilineal society and that ‘heredity is an internal matter formalised through the ancient clan customs of the Haida Nation.’]

If this is the case, it could also impact on Joseph’s decision to marry, and have a child with, a non-Native woman. It seems likely that this would be something his own family, as well as his wife’s, would be concerned about, but I never touch on that.

Another critical point I ignore is that Terry’s father and grandfather are of the generations affected by the residential school system. How would that have affected the ability of someone of those generations to become a master carver? Or for that matter, a lawyer?

Even in 1971, would Mohawk boys from the reserve have attended the same elementary school as Terry?

Do I use loaded or inappropriate terms?

At the start of the book I use some fairly appalling language to refer to native Canadians – e.g. Terry seeing himself (and thinking of his father) as a warrior; references to scalping; referring to the Mohawk steelworkers as spidermen. That’s deliberate. I am trying to show what effect that language has on Terry’s own self image. But would it pass Reese’s “would you read this out loud to my daughter” test? I don’t know.

I also have the Mohawk boys in the playground refer to Terry as ‘little brave.’ That’s intended to be ironic. Once he has failed to answer the most basic questions about his heritage, they see him as just another white wannabe. But would they do use that sort of language?

Do I have a white person as the hero or ‘rescuer’ of Native people?

Kate is a white woman, and if she is not his saviour, then she is certainly the bridge to his salvation – the one who connects him with his father.

More problematically, she is the one who begins to tell him Native stories.

It would be good in many ways to make Kate an indigenous woman. The main thing that militates against this is that I think it is important Terry’s meeting with his father is his first encounter with an indigenous person he can respect –indeed, the first time it occurs to him that an indigenous person can be worthy of respect.

So what am I going to do about all this?

I am an indie author. I have no publisher to persuade or to answer to. If I recognise flaws in my own work, I have little excuse for not trying to fix them.

What's more this whole exercise started because I was planning to relaunch Gift of the Raven to give it a new lease of life, three years after publication. All the more reason to ensure that it is the best it can be before I put it out there again.

It would be easy enough to correct factual errors, or to alter the blurb. But what about use of the Haida Raven in the title, on my cover and more generally as a metaphor? Hard to imagine my story without those things, but if I have used them improperly, then perhaps it’s time to think again.

And what about my right to tell Terry’s story at all? That, at least, I hope I can defend.

Look out for the launch of a revised version of Gift of the Raven in the coming months!

You can read my review of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here on Book Muse. This YA novel opens in the fall of 1975, just as I was leaving Canada. It is set on and around the Tuscarora reservation, on the American side of the Niagara River, less than a hundred miles from where I grew up. And his hero, Lewis, is around the same age as Terry. So the book, which is highly recommended by Reese, had profound resonances for me.

And you can read my overview of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's excellent book Writing the Other, about writing from perspectives different from your own,  in the Triskele Toolbox