I’m going to be honest: I’m a little afraid right now. As I approach this third rail, know that I do so from a position of humility. This is one ignoramus’s developing story of how I’m learning not to be a cultural appropriator.
I started working on my novel Winter Loon in the fall of 2011. The premise was sparked by two short stories I’d written, characters I’d fallen for, ideas I wanted to pursue. The novel begins with a boy, Wes, who is rescued from a frozen lake after his mother breaks through and drowns. Many iterations ago, this boy was only eight years old. Once I got him dried off and warmed up, I had to send him back to school. I took out my own class pictures from grade school in small town Montana, looked at the faces. If he was the kid with the bad haircut whose pants were too short, who would be his most unlikely friend? I had no idea whether this girl I picked would be important to the story or just someone with whom this poor kid could spend some time. Turns out, she becomes quite important to Wes, who is the reminiscent narrator.
In that particular grade school picture, there are two kids of color, both girls. One, if I’m remembering right from decades ago, was the daughter of a visiting researcher. The other was Native American. I don’t know what tribe she was from because I never thought to ask. I remember what her mom looked like, or at least I think I do. I remember that she had at least one brother, maybe an older sister. We were friends sometimes, not close for sure. I remember she was tough. I don’t remember where that girl lived or when she moved away. I think she played basketball for a while up in the big city. The girl I drew into my novel was the girl from the picture. Everything I put on her and her family is a work of my imagination but her story was informed by the limitations of my knowledge.
The novel progressed and I came to the point where Wes needed some guidance. I turned to the character of Kellie’s uncle, Troy. One of my favorite books from when my kids were little is The Bearskinner by Laura Amy Schlitz which is the retelling of a Grimm story about a weary soldier and what risks he’s willing to take to regain what was lost to war. Ultimately, it’s the story of a person at war with himself. It was exactly the talking-to that Wes needed and Troy was just the one to give it to him. The problem was, it wasn’t a Native American story. So I adapted it to suit my purposes.
Over the years as I’ve revised the novel and tightened that story, I always had this specific voice in the back of my head—the voice of bestselling novelist Ben Winters, actually. I took the Novel in Progress course at Grub Street with Ben for a year and a half. When I shared the bear story with the class, everyone loved it as much as I did. Including Ben. But he did ask: Did you make up that story or where did it come from? I was embarrassed to admit its origins. My memory of what he said was this: “Dude. No. You can’t do that.” But I wanted to. I loved the original story and I loved the adaptation and I loved how it worked in my novel, what the message did for Wes. So I ignored Ben’s advice. But I never quite forgot it. For this post, I went back through my notes to see if I could find exactly what Ben said. I couldn’t but I did find this from April 2, 2012. Stop Bullshitting Yourself. You have to get a strategy for correcting things you have labeled as “fine.” Force yourself to admit the problems. Don’t let yourself off the hook.
And yet, I kept the bear story. The ultimate darling. And no one ever really warned me about it again. I was getting away with it because the Grimm story is so obscure. I went through Master Novel in Progress. People loved the bear story. The Novel Incubator: Love that bear story. Even literary agents with whom I’ve shared the novel have noted the story as a stand-out. But always, in the back of my mind was Ben Winters’ voice: “Dude. No.”
It wasn’t like I didn’t know what the word for it was or was ignorant of the controversy. Writers from Marlon James, to Claire Vaye Watkins, to Roxane Gay, Jodi Picoult, and, of course, Lionel Shriver, have all weighed in on cultural appropriation. Grub Street has held panels on who writes the story. All I can say is that, when it truly hit me, it was a shock. Self-deception is buried deep. I literally shot up in bed. I’d taken a traditional white story and put it in the mouth of a Native American character whose own culture has a rich and varied storytelling tradition. And I did it because I was being a lazy white writer. I was a cultural appropriator.
So how did I fix it? Well, I contacted Anton Treuer who is a writer and professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota where my novel is set. I sent him an email and told him I was looking for someone to read my novel with an eye toward how I was representing native characters and whether I needed to do more work in that area. Dr. Treuer got right back to me with a list of colleagues, all native, who he thought might be able to help. One of them was Ojibwe storyteller Sean Fahrlander.
I got in touch with Sean and he read my novel. He affirmed a lot of my decisions and told me he felt the characters and their experiences were authentic. Relief. But, to no surprise at all, that bear story had to go. Here’s the thing: Not only did I try to take a short cut by adapting a story I knew, not only was I deaf to how arrogant that was, but I learned from Sean that the story itself actually misrepresented the values of Ojibwe culture. To his credit, instead of simply telling me what story I should use instead, Sean gave me guidelines, pointed me toward a couple of stories that might work better. But he didn’t give them to me. He talked to me about them and his own experiences over FaceTime, painted the stories with the broadest brush, and sent me to do the work.
Over six weeks, I read Ojibwe stories in a number of books including Anton Treuer’s Living Our Language and The Manitous by Basil Johnston. It took me reading those stories, listening to the voices—some of them over and over—before I could imagine which ones Troy might want to share with Wes, this white kid who was abandoned and lost and needed guidance. By the time I sat down to write the stories into the novel, I had a new appreciation and understanding for who Troy was, something that had been missing because I had been too lazy and too timid to find out. I sent the changes to Sean and his response was, “Damn this looks great.” High praise indeed.
The lesson I took from this experience applies both to writing and to life. Yes, write the characters, write the stories. Let them come to you in the way they do naturally whether that’s through plotting or happy accident. But, do the work. And that work means, now more than ever, reaching out to people who are different from you. Ask questions about what’s important to them, how they spend their days. My novel is about marginalized people who live in small towns, people who have been hurt, who are barely scraping by. I tried to do my best by those characters—to get inside their heads, to wonder how one thing might affect the other, to bring them to life on the page. Even with our best efforts, we can sometimes fall short. But don’t do that out of arrogance or fear. This was a lesson learned from someone who rightly tells the story. I’ll finish with this from Claire Vaye Watkins. “Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.”
Warrior Nation by Anton Treuer
Living Our Language by Anton Treuer
Rez Life by David Treuer
The Manitous by Basil Johnston