Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ghettos, Sterilization, and Other Things We Might Consider

I've been having some lingering thoughts about Monday's discussion and since Wendy Rose's poem touch on issues of appropriation as well, I thought I'd stay with the already established topic and go deeper.

I've noticed that a number of students felt that Churchill was going too far in supposing that mascots could *really* be a problem, so I wanted to add a couple points to consider in our discussion:

1) The history of ghettoization.  Many students associate the word "ghetto" with the inner city and, in this country, tend to think of Watts, Compton, Harlem, Skid Row, and so forth, but the term itself was first used in Venice to describe neighborhoods in which Jewish people were compelled to live.  The term came into more widespread use during WWII when the Nazi party ghetto-ized the Jewish people in Germany, Poland, etc.  I bring this up because it might make Churchill's comparison of mascots to the case of Julius Stricher more poignant if we consider the fact that Native Americans in this country are, to some extent, a ghetto-ized people.

2)  An argument was raised that, if Native Americans left the reservation, they could better themselves, but of the nation's 2.1 million Native Americans, only 400,000 live on reservations.  Many living off the rez still face problems with poverty.  Those on the reservation have some help in the way of tribal support, government assistance, health care, and the like, but those services only go so far to help.  According to a 1997 article in the Washington Post, "Pine Ridge, which is in Shannon County, S.D., [is] the poorest county in America, a place where unemployment hovers around 80 percent, where the per capita income is $3,417 a year, the lowest in the nation, where two out of three people live below the federal poverty level"  (Carlson).  We should not over-simplify the difficulty of a decision for a person or family to leave their home in hopes of a better life that may not be available to them.

3) Many of us are not fully aware of the extent of anti-Indian prejudice because it isn't a part of our daily lives, but the writers we're examining this semester are more fully educated on the topic.  This isn't a matter of simply having their feelings hurt.  They're looking not only at a history of genocide against their people, but know that much of the attempt to wipe them out has continued into the present day.  Both Alexie and Churchill mention the sterilization of Native American women through the 1970s, for example. (To find a more comprehensive list of links, look at the bottom of Churchill's essay.)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of factors we should consider when we read Churchill's article, but it's a good place to start.  Perhaps it makes it a little easier to see why these writers are offended by the cartoonish representation of their people--a representation that makes it easier to ignore them and the continued threats they face.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Balancing on the wire separating "culture" and "stereotype"

As many of you know, this course evolved from much of the reading I did when I was first drafting my novel, Borrowed Horses.  The main character of the novel, Joannie Edson, is a white woman living in Idaho, and her love interest is Timothy, the son of a Welsh father and Spokane mother.  Because I've long been an admirer of Alexie's work, it was impossible for me to write without his poem, "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in my mind, and I still read it, thinking of my own book, and wondering if I've been careful enough to create a character that feels real and whole and that represents some of this rich culture without seeming stereotyped.

This is a devilish hard line to walk.  I'll give an example from my own culture to illustrate--

When shopping for houses, we stumbled upon one that might have been nice if its previous owner hadn't chosen to cover all the walls of one room with plastic wood laminate paneling (gag).  Someone who I will not identify here jokingly commented that the previous owners must have been Irish because the Irish love fake wood paneling.  "Hey!" I yelled, wanting to launch a protest in defense of my mother's people, but then I remembered my grandmother and grandfather, who pulled down the solid mahogany wainscoting in their turn of the century semi-detached in Philly and replaced it with (cringe) fake wood paneling.  And then I thought of one uncle's home, and another.  Paneling, paneling, paneling.

So, would I have been right to call this person out for a stereotype, or had s/he simply located an aspect of the culture?  (Immigrant practicality?  Too much time spent scrubbing the darned wood in other, wealthier people's homes?)  If I wrote about a character who was born of Irish immigrants, would placing paneling on the walls of her childhood home be stereotyping or merely a nod to a cultural phenomenon? 

To get back to my own novel, if Timothy has a dream (as he, like Joannie, does), then am I giving him a vision and violating my own desire to avoid stereotyping?  And are then Joannie's dreams, the white girl who, according to Alexie's satiric poem, is "Indian by proximity" [line 27] affected by this, too?  Do I remove the dreams?  But, then, don't people have dreams?  And aren't those dreams sometimes oddly telling of the knowledge that we carry subconsciously?  And does it matter that some of the dreams were written before the character Timothy was introduced to the novel?

I am not so naive a writer as to believe that, just because some of the sections predate Timothy's creation, that his presence won't affect how they're read, and much of my revision has been dedicated to the task of separating him as far from stereotype as possible and creating a character that readers will sympathize with and admire.  Still, I read my own work with Alexie very much in mind.  I want him to approve.