tablesaw: An indigenous American crucified on a cross crowned by a bald eagle. In the background stands a Mesoamerican temple. (América Tropical)
Tablesaw Tablesawsen ([personal profile] tablesaw) wrote2011-06-24 03:37 am

Navi-Gation

I used to do reviews of the Escape Artists podcasts. Maybe I should do that again. Recently, I've been meaning to post more, but the days slip by without me even noticing I haven't posted again. (On the other hand, my exercise is staying fairly regular, despite wisdom-tooth disruptions, so that's good.) But I really wanted to talk about one particular Podcastle episode I listened to last week. So I'll preface by saying that on the whole, the quality's been good from the shows that I was listening to (though I listen anywhere from a month to a year behind release, usually).

The story I was listening to on Monday was Podcastle 156, "Household Spirits" by C.S.E. Cooney (full text available at Strange Horizons, where it was originally published. I stopped listening halfway through.

Skipping episodes is actually common for me—due to audio issues, substandard performance, or stories that are simply not my cup of tea—not usually anything to remark upon. With "Household Spirits," though, I had to turn it off because of the relentless parade of tropes forwarding racism against Amerindians.

As I was listening to this story, I felt like I was ticking off a checklist, or filling in a bingo card, about how to use harmful racist imagery to not!Amerindians in science-fiction. I spent a while looking for such a checklist. I mean, there's got to be one, surely, what with Avatar, and all that. The best thing I could find actually wasn't related to speculative fiction, but was simply the criteria from How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children's Books for Anti-Indian Bias by Doris Seale, Beverly Slapin and Rosemary Gonzales, published online at Oyate.org.

Let's take one section:
In these hills called Seven Quails by the Kilquuts, back in those days there still was Kilquuts. Our ghost don't talk much. When he does, it's to Jessemee.

I shouldn't say ghost. Jessemee says the better word (just like you with your better words) is genius or numen. I've heard other words too, by other settlers. Ghoulog. Scabby. Shadekin.

Got to tell you, Del, to me it just looks like a boy.

His name, so far as I can coax one, is Mimo.

I know I got that wrong. There are other sounds in between the ones I can hear, but that's close enough for letter writing. Mimo looks a bit like this old Kilquut farmhouse we bought sight unseen. Skinny and leaning, with dirt on it so thick I don't reckon a bunch of bachelors like us'll ever get it scrubbed clean.
What can we check off?
  • Are Native peoples portrayed as . . . simple tribal people, now extinct?
  • Are there insulting overtones to the language in the book? Are racist adjectives used to refer to Indian peoples?
  • Are Native cultures presented in a condescending manner? Are there paternalistic distinctions between "them" and "us"?
  • Are Native peoples discussed in the past tense only, supporting the "vanished Indian" myth? Is the past unconnected to the present?
Or how about this:
About ten years ago, the Kilquut elders had a sit-down at their meetinghouse (big ramble of a place the Gladstones have overrun), and said, They're coming. We can't fight them. We can't become them. We can't leave.

The Kilquut argument, what Jess calls "their focal tenet" (which puts me in mind of you, Del, and those radical ideas you call religion), is that it's always better to die than kill. Easy way to wipe out your species, I say. I told you that before.

So the Kilquuts gathered themselves in a valley. All but the young'uns, who the elders hoped might grow up with no memory of how things'd been. Then the Kilquuts spoke some words they all knew, and the green lightning came down and killed them. The sky opened and poured a month straight, filling up that valley of the dead.
In addition to some things we've already checked off:
  • Are Native Nations presented as being responsible for their own "disappearance?"
  • Does the story encourage children to believe that Native peoples accepted defeats passively?
Continuing on:
After making sure Mimo was okay and not puking anymore, he went outside and cut a switch, then came back in and explained to Mimo, let's see if I can remember the words . . .

"Son, those arrows weren't rightly yours to . . . to . . ." Dad pointed at the green fire but couldn't say burn. "And someday, Mimo, maybe not tomorrow, but someday in the future, if I don't show you right now how it's wrong to break other people's things, it'll go bad for you."
Let's check off:
  • In modern times, are Indian people portrayed as childlike and helpless? Does a white authority figure – pastor, social worker, teacher- know better than Native people themselves what is "good for them?"
And this is just in the first half of the story before I turned it off. And it's not even all that was in the part I listened to. And Oyate doesn't have anything on their list about being magical.

It's not a new idea that there's a problem with speculative fiction writers who attempt to "subvert" or otherwise "neutralize" racist tropes by using their authorial control to make those tropes literally true in their world. So the Navi are literally connected to the earth. Patricia Wrede writes about pre-Columbian Americas that are literally "empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical." The beings that South Africa are subjecting to apartheid are literally insects. This is not subversion; this is entrenchment.

Finally, there's a general criterion on the Oyate list:
  • Is there anything in the story that would embarrass or hurt a Native child?
It's a question best answered by [personal profile] moniquill:
STORIES LIKE THIS HURT ME.

They hurt PEOPLE LIKE ME. The especially hurt CHILDEN LIKE ME. They hurt me because they are part of a cultural narrative that erases the reality of my existence. That claims that This is what NDNs were and Now they Are Gone isn't it Sad? But if our good readers had been there, OH IF ONLY THEY HAD BEEN THERE, they would have been some of the Good White People and would have Joined The Natives. Yes they would. Which neatly absolves them from having to think about the fact that their ancestors didn't and the lasting ramifications that has on native people living today. Everyone weeps cathartic tears and insists that they'd have helped the Na'vi fight to keep out the unobtamium miners, but precious few of them then go home and help the REAL FUCKING LIVE Dineh (Navajo, to those playing the white name game) fight the uranium miners TODAY in the REAL WORLD. And why should they? The story already absolved them.
Moniquill wrote this and much more because I bugged her about this story before I wrote up this post. As a result, she wrote a far more amazing response than I could hope to come up with, from which I took the above quote. She also subjected herself to the entire story, so if you want to get a taste of even worse things in the story (and even I was shocked at some of he quotes from later in the story), she's your person.

[identity profile] joshroby.livejournal.com 2011-06-24 03:57 pm (UTC)(link)
Blarg! =P
entwashian: maurissa tancharoen is a sexbot who has injured herself, thus rendering herself useless. (buffy rocket launch)

[personal profile] entwashian 2011-06-24 08:53 pm (UTC)(link)
It sucks so much to see the same thing happening over & over again.

Thanks for the link to Oyate.org.
terabient: Ariel's a total hipster, also judging you (Hipster Ariel: Judging you)

[personal profile] terabient 2011-06-24 09:39 pm (UTC)(link)
There are other sounds in between the ones I can hear, but that's close enough for letter writing. Mimo looks a bit like this old Kilquut farmhouse we bought sight unseen. Skinny and leaning, with dirt on it so thick I don't reckon a bunch of bachelors like us'll ever get it scrubbed clean.

This is unbelievably terrible writing.

Thank you

[personal profile] elysdir 2011-06-27 06:45 pm (UTC)(link)
(I just posted the below comment to moniquill, then saw you had posted, and figured I should post a copy here too--I should have addressed it to you as well as moniquill.)

Thank you for posting this. I'm a fiction editor at Strange Horizons, and we appreciate it when people let us know about problematic stuff we do. (...I should explicitly note, in case that sounds sarcastic, that I mean it sincerely. We would rather not fail at all, but when we do, we're grateful when people are willing to spend the time and energy to tell us about it, as you've done.)

We've read your comments and we're taking them seriously, and we'll try and respond soon. But we'd like to discuss the issues among ourselves before posting a public response, and one of my co-editors is currently out of the country and largely offline, so it may be a little while.

In the meantime, here's the author's response: http://csecooney.livejournal.com/322752.html

Response from editors

[personal profile] elysdir 2011-07-05 07:54 am (UTC)(link)
My colleague Karen, who edited the story, is now back in the US and has posted a response in our official SH blog.

Thank you again for calling us on this.

(I'll also post a copy of this comment on moniquill's entry.)
spacehawk: (Default)

[personal profile] spacehawk 2011-07-09 12:01 am (UTC)(link)
Hi, I'm Dash from Expanded Horizons.

Thank you for this post, and thank you for calling out the squares on the bingo card that should exist.

We've gotten many stories with similar themes submitted to our magazine. It is so sad that this keeps happening and happening.

It's not a new idea that there's a problem with speculative fiction writers who attempt to "subvert" or otherwise "neutralize" racist tropes by using their authorial control to make those tropes literally true in their world. So the Navi are literally connected to the earth. Patricia Wrede writes about pre-Columbian Americas that are literally "empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical." The beings that South Africa are subjecting to apartheid are literally insects. This is not subversion; this is entrenchment.

THIS. The same old tropes are combined with "these aren't supposed to be REAL [people of marginalized group], these are FANTASY people/creatures who are used as ALLEGORY." (Hm, Avatar.) Then "this isn't about you, it's allegory" becomes an excuse.

I recommend this excellent video by Expanded Horizons two-time contributor Carter Meland, if you have not seen it already. It covers the use of Indians as "allegory."