June 14, 2009

Alternative America without Indians

Here's a "pioneer fantasy" I just heard about: Patricia Wrede's Thirteenth Child. It's based on the premise that America really was uninhabited.

You're hurting my head again, SF/FI imagine some kind of buzz is getting started concerning just how much FAIL is inherent in Patricia Wrede's new novel The Thirteenth Child in which she decides to retell the history of the Americas by erasing the people who were here long before Europeans decided to come. Instead of finding people, the Europeans who come over find magical animals and as a bonus, none of those troublesome native peoples who so stubbornly refused to see that they were dirty, ugly, and wrong and standing in the way of shiny new WHITE progress!And:I think it's even more heinous to write this kind of thing as YA. Because I'd really hate to be the kid who is Native American or First Nations or derives lineage from there and has to realize that they couldn't be in that book, because in Wrede's world, they don't exist.

Just for the record, I wouldn't exist either in that universe. And not because of some inkling of Magical Indian Princess blood. I mean my grandfather, my father, me would all not exist at all. Not to mention many members of my extended family and many, many friends of mine.

This book just erased my grandfather and his entire people. Cut him off and said that his people and his family and his past and his heritage weren't as interesting or worthy of consideration and respect as a bunch of Europeans coming over and discovering magic mammoths. Because heavens forfend that, in the quest to imagine a world without slavery or genocide or conquest, you erase the offenders instead of the victims.

And let's not even consider the possibility of writing a novel where Europeans live and keep their hands to themselves and the people of the Americas get to ride the magic mammoths and have awesome adventures? Because that would require considering them as interesting and worthy of respect as Europeans, and obviously, that isn't happening.

So thanks for that, Patricia Wrede. It's nice to imagine a world where I couldn't possibly exist. It's like every other fantasy novel I've read where women or bisexuals either don't exist or don't matter, except this time it's with race.
Next verse, same as the first.Consider this an open letter to all those who, once again, think that writers are free to write any story they want in any way they want, with no regard to or recognition of the larger contexts in which those stories exist. So sure, you can write about anything you want. No one can stop you. But if you continue to demand that not only you can write want you want, but that everyone is required to treat it as a value-neutral text driven only by your (good or unexamined) intentions, then you're at best naïve of the privilege you have, or at worst you actively don't care and your way is the right of way, so get out of your way.

Either way, you're wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

Nothing we write about exists in a vacuum. Nothing. You can't divorce a story or an idea from its deeply layered and intricate context, repackage it to suit your needs, and send it off expecting that the people who are aware of that context will pick it up and say, "Hey! Nifty!" Because for many people, that context you just disregarded as inconvenient or uninteresting or just plain not useful to your purposes? IS THEIR LIFE. It's their history, their pain, their story. And you've just wiped it away as an afterthought, cleaning a slate filled with history and love and pain and anger and hard questions and even harder answers, to make it neat and pretty and empty for you to write your own story.

And the worst part? You're hardly the first person to do that.

And yet, every time this comes around, people react as if it is the first time. They react as if there is not also a history, a deeply layered and intricate context to that erasure, and they're shocked, shocked I tell you when that's pointed out.
Comment:  I could see wanting to do a pioneer story without the tricky issue of racial and cultural clashes. But at least explain why there are no Indians. Perhaps a plague decimated them, or a meteor strike halted the Ice Age that created the land bridge.

Even better, set the story on another planet. What's the point of America if it doesn't have any Indians? Other than a few features such as the Mississippi River and the Rockies, it could be any anonymous continent.

Moreover, what's the point of a pioneer story if there are no "others"? Has there ever been a novel of exploration where the protagonists didn't meet another group of people? A land with no challenges except wild animals and weather is humdrum.

For more on the subject, see Stereotyping Indians by Omission and The Best Indian Books.


dmarks said...

This begs a sequel. A turn on the concept in which the Old World is devoid of humans, and it is eventually found by "Novamundian" pioneers. (Yes, this might be the first and only time I've used Russ Bates' term for Native Americans in any sort of conversation).

Anonymous said...

Very well, but who gives a wit about one angry white woman's sexual fantasies? And that is that--a fantasy.

Maybe the truth can be very deadly for these ofay scribblers?

GENO the Shadow Wolf--

Anonymous said...

But a frontier story with no new cultures on the frontier has so much inherent PHAIL that it's pretty pointless.

Rob said...

I don't care about Wrede's book per se. But it's interesting because it hints at our cultural biases. We're willing to erase the Indians because they're an afterthought to us. They're like the forests and herds we had to mow down before we could "settle" the land.

Anonymous said...

Yep, just take a gander at Savages and Scoundrels if anybody here has the idea that mainstream America thinks of us in any term other than either as an afterthought or something to be shoved out of the way, kind of like how the Israelites committed genocide against the Canaanites [it's in the Bible!]