Saturday, May 22, 2010

Addendum to Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Nymeth made a comment that got me going and thinking seriously and now that I'm done with it, I'm not sure I want all that work to stay hidden in the comments. So here we go:

Nymeth's comment:

On the one hand, this book really appeals to me. On the other hand, I'm a bit put off by a heated debate that followed its publication. I'm not sure if you heard of it, but many readers were upset that Wrede completely suppressed Native Americans from the world she created, especially as this decision was apparently accompanied by some comments about how she wanted to create an alternative American where magical beasts lived alongside with people, but other than adding the magic, she didn't want to make any changes that would have much of a cultural impact. People were of course very upset with the implication that the non-existence of Native Americans would be just a small detail without much of an impact at all. As you're someone whose opinion on these things I really value, I thought I'd ask you how you felt about this aspect of the story.

My response:

I didn't know about the controversy (I missed it completely, and am somewhat chagrined that I did) but I'm not in the least surprised that there was one, because I did notice the lack of Native Americans and I did wonder what happened to them and why they weren't involved, even mentioned. I thought it strange. I thought about writing about it in the review, but then I couldn't think of exactly what to say. So now that you've prodded me into it (and thank you for that), here are my thoughts for now:

Let me say first that I'm pretty sure it would be irresponsible of me to speculate on Wrede's motives, not having read any of the printed material surrounding this, nor heard Wrede herself say anything. But aside from my own personal suspicions about what she was thinking, something does occur to me: I can see, without too much difficulty, that adding that dimension to the story would have complicated it into something much bigger and different from the tale Wrede obviously wished to tell. Any inclusion of anything regarding Native Americans would have made a point in one way or another. It would have added an extra layer of complexity and this was already a story more complex than any other Wrede I've read.

I don't know much about the frontier at all, but my understanding is that the Natives didn't populate North America nearly as densely as we do now. There would have been large swathes of unpopulated land. I suspect, though I am not certain, that it would have been possible for people to live their entire lives as settlers in a large, well-established frontier town without ever encountering a Native, or even really thinking about them. If Wrede decided not to add that aspect to her story, I don't think that's so far-fetched. And her alleged comment could be interpreted in that light, too.

It's true that the exclusion was noticeable. Taken in another way, her comment could smack of entitlement: that whole "wild uninhabited west ripe for settlement" attitude when in fact the west was perfectly well inhabited and settled before Europeans got here, densely or not. When basing an alternate history so closely on ours, I do think it a strange choice to include notable historical (white, male) characters and yet also exclude an entire group of people. Particularly since the group excluded has a long history of discrimination against them -- it's hard not to view it as yet another discriminatory act, even if it is in a world that is recognizably not one we inhabit.

This is the first of a trilogy and it's possible that in Eff's travels she will encounter that alternate universe version of Natives. It's also possible she won't ever meet or hear of a Native American equivalent, that it won't ever be addressed. Wrede might decide that it's not part of what she's working with in her story. I think it is her authorial prerogative.

I loved the book, and I noticed the exclusion and yet decided to go with the story anyways and enjoy it. I don't regret that decision. I still love the book. I do hope that the exclusion and the comment wasn't out of either overt or subliminal racism, but more a conscious decision, based on reasonable information, not to complicate the story and turn it into something different from the story she wished to tell. But, either way, I think the fact that the exclusion was noticeable, and that there was pushback about it, is a good thing.


Nymeth said...

"Particularly since the group excluded has a long history of discrimination against them -- it's hard not to view it as yet another discriminatory act, even if it is in a world that is recognizably not one we inhabit."

I think this is exactly what the problem is. It's a complicated decision to make - like you, I think that as an author she has the right to make it, and I hate the idea of telling someone "you CAN'T write this" or "you MUST write that". But there are things with such a complex history that it's hard not to bring that history into play even when making even innocent writing decisions. I'm also glad that people noticed and talked about it - that's better than invisibility anyway. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this, Kiirstin!

Aarti said...

my goodness! I am shocked by this and also never knew about this controversy. I am so sad, though, because growing up I LOVED Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons series and now... I feel a bit differently about her :-(

kiirstin said...

Nymeth - You're right, I think that's the exact problem: the complexity of the situation may have called for better handling. And I wonder if this may have been a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't kind of situation, if she had portrayed alternate settler's views of Natives the way our settlers historically did view them. It's a minefield for a writer. And the last thing I would ever want to say to a writer is "if you can't appease everyone, don't write that story." I still don't think I'm comfortable with the decision she did make, but not to the point of disliking the story. That's a personal threshold though.

Aarti - It sucks, sucks, sucks when an author one loves says or does something one seriously objects to. It colours everything I read by them, for me. I learned some things about Anne McCaffrey I wish I'd never heard some time ago and I don't think I'll be able to read her again, although I may attempt the Harper Hall trilogy again anyways, just to see if I can separate beloved story from storyteller.

With Wrede, I think it's a much more ambiguous situation. McCaffrey said things that were unequivocally wrong, to me; and since, I've heard more criticism of her work that upsets me. With Wrede, the trilogy's not even done; it could be that she just hasn't gotten there yet. And the way her remarks could be interpreted isn't necessarily racist, although poorly chosen for sure. So I'm not prepared to give up on her yet. Again, though, different thresholds for different people, and those are personal choices.

GeraniumCat said...

This is a fascinating discussion of a book I haven't read, but one that touches on some of my own concerns, so I can't resist weighing in. I think I can certainly say that if I were Wrede, I wouldn't have gone there. OTOH, I would hate to tell a writer she couldn't say something. But it is such a hugely sensitive area, and one I have seen people get so angry about - even if Wrede plans to introduce Native American characters later, I suspect leaving them out of the first is damaging enough.

What I'm fumbling towards, I suppose, is my concern that a writer can find a way of justifying such a piece of Eurocentrism - however good the reason seems, it cannot be good enough. And it would always worry me that someone I respected as a writer could be capable of self-deception on such a scale.

When I'd wrote the last sentence, I was curious to see if Wrede had said anything about it, but could only find a second-hand comment that it might be because Native Americans had never moved there from the Old World. Okay, that seems like a reasonable kind of justification, until you realise that in itself that's controversial to many Native Americans, since it conflicts with their creation stories. Whatever kind of erasure it is, it's not acceptable. How every sad.

kiirstin said...

GeraniumCat, it is an interesting discussion, isn't it? And it is so sensitive. I find myself thinking that though I can forgive the omission here, if I were Native I certainly wouldn't. So it's been making me think in general about empathy and reason and discrimination a lot.

Something I've wondered, too, is if Western movies get the same kind of flack. It's not a genre I watch often, but the last time I did I don't recall encountering a Native American character or discussions of them. I know it was a popular movie -- I'm trying to remember which one. Anyway, it made me wonder why the standard is so different for movies and books, or if perhaps it isn't but I just hadn't heard of a similar conversation surrounding movies.