Sunday, January 31, 2010

CORA Diversity Roll Call: Paradigm Shift

For this assignment, I want us to shift from the importance of representation and focus on how difference or a different perspective changed us in a meaningful way. Have you ever read a book and the character's perspective opened you to ideas, beliefs or realities that you had never considered? Tell us a about a work or an author whose body of work changed how you looked at the world, others or yourself. Have you ever read a book and had a paradigm shift because of it?

Recently I connected with professor and writer, Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Talk about kindred spirits, this advocate doesn't hold back. Do you believe in serendipity? Because after chatting with Debbie, I finally decided on a book I wanted to focus on for this meme.

I want to start by saying I was never a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, book or television and Debbie can tell you better than I why the series is problematic, and as an aside author Bich Nguyen briefly talks about the racism in the books in Stealing Buddha's Dinner. As a person of color, even as a child, I was put off by stories told from the white person's perspective which often meant people of color were secondary figures either to be feared or saved or they were viewed as the exception of their kind, you know, the noble savage archetype. One of my problems with Brave New World was the reference to native people and the noble savage character. I was preoccupied with the portrayal.

It's not the first time but in talking with Debbie I was reminded that outside of classic children's literature, I rarely read any mention of Indigenous people and when I did, it was seldom a positive representation. In adult literature, I know and have read a little from Louise Erdrich. There's Joy Harjo the poet and then I thought of David Treuer. Two years ago for a group read, I read, Little. As I said my knowledge of First Nation writers is shamefully little. I rarely read men and since I began mentoring teen girls, I don't read much adult literature either.

Little was a challenge for me for all the reasons I outlined: limited knowledge, my reading preferences and my focus for the last few years. Here was an adult read, a literary read about a culture I knew nothing about and from a male perspective. It was hard getting into the read but it came highly recommended and I respected the opinion of my friend who suggested it. The opening is slow and detailed. I had to mentally adjust and I'm glad I did. The writing is deliberate, focused and distinctly different- dispassionate I think describes it.

Little was a shift; it was an education. Here was an intimate account of a family spanning three generations, details about a culture and life on a reservation and a part of American history I knew almost nothing about. It's been too long for me to write a review but that's not my focus here. What I want impress upon you is that reading Debbie's current challenges against the misrepresentation of American Indians, evoked my experience with reading Little. I remember being stirred, agitated by what I learned. I can tell you that taking time to hear another person's perspective is not only informative but uncomfortable. It challenges you to rethink what you thought you knew or to question your ignorance. It tests your humanity. Little introduced me to two cultures and histories: the Indigenous community and the Nordic settlers of Minnesota. When Treuer described the history of the area and its occupants, I asked myself why hadn't I looked at this gaping hole in my understanding of this part of American history and the region before. I don't have an answer except to say that the absence and misrepresentation in effect contributed to my ignorance. Obstacles are not legitimate excuses however.

I wish I could say more and in order to do that, I need to read more. Stay tuned.

Mr. Treuer’s accomplishment is a wonder. Out of the seasons and landscapes of a Minnesota reservation David Treuer has forged a strong intricate narrative complete with the intimate voices of fully realized characters.
—Toni Morrison

David Treuer is Ojibwe. He grew up at Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, where he now lives. He is a graduate of Princeton University.

Find more CORA Diversity responses here.


Rasco from RIF said...

So glad you and Debbie have met! We are delighted to have her advising RIF in her role on our Literature Advisory Board. You two together are DYNAMO'S and beware world!

Jessie Carty said...

ya know, it has been a long time since i read the little house on the prarie books but i hate to say i can't remember how native americans were portrayed in those books. makes me want to go back and assess that.

i don't remember the name of the book but i read a YA novel when i was just starting college about a girl working at a hospital after WWI, i think, who falls in love with a former soldier whose face is deformed. i had never been one to date for looks but the extent to which she was able to look past physical appearance made me re think the way i looked at anyone who was disabled in anyway.

i started to smile at them and nod as i did with pretty much everyone else instead of trying not to stare. i wanted to acknowledge them as people, not disabled people.

great meme idea!

Vasilly said...

I'm so glad that you reminded all of us to read more books by Native American authors. I have Sherman Alexie as one of the authors on my TBR pile for this month.

Because of this post, I just went and bought little. I can't wait until it's in my hands.

Ali said...

Putting Little on my reading list right now. Thank you.

I adored the Little House series as a kid. When I read them aloud to my own kids a few years ago, I was horrified. More than the racism within the context of the books, I was appalled by the fact that I had no memory of it from childhood. That it was accepted by my young self as part of that history, without question. When I read them with my kids, we definitely questioned. The boys were sad for both Laura's family for their ignorance, and for the native people who were so brutally misunderstood in those days (and still).

It's been years, since then. I'll have to talk to my kids about it now to see if they remember that aspect of the books.

Color Online said...


I'm glad you pointed out not realizing the racism when you were a child. I think many of us missed cues/wrongs when we were younger.

I was a little girl during the "I'm Black and I'm Proud" era and my parents briefly flirted with Pan African ideas/group so Little House was more obvious to me though as a child I didn't see the issue in the enormity and signficance that I do as an adult. As a child, I simply thought, "One more book where we aren't."

Vasilly, Little is well-written. While writing this post I easily revisited the story, remembering lines and scenes.