January 06, 2010

How to write Native stories well

Native America & Speculative Fiction:  Interview with Amy H. SturgisRH: What do you think it takes for non-Native authors to become aware enough and comfortable enough with the legends to be able to incorporate them into their fiction?

AHS: Tolkien’s use of other mythological traditions provides a good example: when he found himself interested in the stories from The Kalevala, he went and taught himself Finnish so he could read it in the original language. He did his homework before he incorporated other people’s myths into his own stories. If authors want to use Native American stories, I think they ought to research these tales to gain an understanding of their history, of their particular origins and context. This does not necessarily mean learning a Native American language (although that is an excellent place to start); there are fantastic oral history collections available for listening, and there are fantastic anthologies and collections of these stories available. It is not asking much for people today do the research to find accounts as close to the original as possible.

Moreover, Native America is alive and well today, and many of the contemporary settings and stories of modern American Indians provide rich sources for writers, regardless of their own ethnic backgrounds.

There is a great debate about who has the right to draw on Native American traditional material, about who is authentic and what is credible. These questions for the most part disturb me. We do see mythology incorporated into fiction badly and disrespectfully, but I do not believe the solution is to prevent non-Native authors from accessing and being inspired by this material. The authors who use Native American traditions without doing even the most basic research, drawing instead on inaccurate stereotypes, have failed as artists, I would say. It seems to work out that the non-Native authors who are sensitive, inquisitive, and respectful of these stories and traditions also end up creating beautiful and lasting art.
Comment:  This seems like a sensible middle ground between the extremes. I.e., between non-Natives never telling Native stories and non-Natives telling them any way they want, without regard for the facts.

Respected authors such as Tony Hillerman immersed themselves in Native cultures before writing their books. That's why they're respected and hacks who write about Indian burial grounds or angry military veterans aren't.

Fortunately, this is also the approach I took when writing PEACE PARTY. I researched the Southwest and its Indians for something like eight years before publishing my first comic.

For more on the subject, see PEACE PARTY = "Real" Native Comic? and What Makes a Movie Native?

Below:  Tony Hillerman.

No comments: