Writing About Native Americans: A Diversity Conversation with Kara Stewart

Welcome to The Winged Pen, Kara! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Writing About Native Americans. I know many readers/writers in my circle are eager to learn more about this topic. Tell us a little about yourself and your passion for Native American Literature, especially for children.

Kara: I’ve been a Literacy Coach and Reading Specialist in the public schools for twenty years. I was the Honor winner in 2014 for Lee & Low’s New Voices award, and am still working on that manuscript! I’m an enrolled member of the Sappony and have served a number of terms on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and my Tribal council, am an educational consultant, and was the recipient of a University of North Carolina’s 2015 Community Diversity Award. I’m also an SCBWI Carolinas member.

As a Sappony person, I’ve done a lot of stereotype busting in the schools. Instruction is driven not just by data, but also by popular literature, resources, and what people think they know, and when those concepts are inaccurate and full of stereotypes, so is the instruction and hence, the learning. I want to break that cycle of misrepresentation for all children so that it won’t continue to roll on for the next three hundred years as it as for the past three hundred years.

Based on the most recent data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, although there has been a small increase in the number of books written about Native Americans in recent years, the number of books written by Native American authors remains rather flat.

Related to this information, is it okay for non-Native Americans to write books about Native Americans or with Native American main characters? Should these types of books primarily be #ownvoices? What type of knowledge/experience should an author have before they write a book about Native Americans?

This has been quite the controversial topic over the last few years. I can’t give ‘the Native opinion’ – I can only give my personal opinion. After reading hundreds of books about and including Native people by non-Native people in a professional capacity and as a parent (now a grandparent), I do believe these books should be #ownvoices.

My reasons fall into two major categories:

1)    Colonialist/inaccurate/stereotypical portrayals- I have read books by non-Natives that technically have the facts correct, but the overall atmosphere of the book is still colonialist, which was most likely not the author’s intent. But does intent matter when a child reads that book and either has the colonialist mindset reinforced, or a Native child is given reminders that their family is ‘less than’? Can you, as a non-Native writer, recognize when your words combine in a way that perpetuates a colonial mindset?

2)    We should leave these stories for Native authors to tell, ones who are finding it difficult to get published. Many agents and editors seem to find the colonial/inaccurate/stereotypical content more palatable and probably marketable, as it is the same content about us that has been cycling for hundreds of years.

I’d like to take this opportunity to give air time to some authors who have already written phenomenal blog posts about this topic. Writers will find a lot to chew over in these posts.

·      Jacqueline Woodson’s Who Can Tell My Story in The Horn Book

·      Torrey Maldonado’s Write What You Know: Encouraging Young Authors of Color on Ideas Never Sleep

·      Torrey Maldonado’s Demand Change in the Publishing World on Ideas Never Sleep

·      Celia C. Pérez’ When Google Translate Gives You Arroz Con Mango: Erroneous Español and the Need for #ownvoices in The Horn Book

·      Sarah Hannah Gomez’ How Privilege and Diversity Affect Literature and Media on Scoop.it!

·      Margarita Engle’s Cuba For Beginners on Multiculturalism Rocks!

I’d also like to invite writers to read some of my blog posts on writing about American Indians to get an idea of the nuance necessary (with over 567 very different sovereign federally-recognized nations and hundreds more sovereign state-recognized nations, nuance is everything), and real life consequences to Native people:

·      Writing About Native Americans

·      On Obligation and Percy

·      Indian 101 for Writers – co-written with Alison DeLuca, a five part traveling blog series that can be used as a mini-course and perhaps the most important resource in this post specific to American Indians.

With the push to make sure children’s literature mirrors the diversity we see in the real world, many authors are trying to be more inclusive with the characters in their novels.

Is it okay for authors to write novels with supporting characters who are Native American? What advice do you have for avoiding stereotypes and harmful narratives?

Professor Snape was a secondary character. Yet we knew him deeply – or so we thought! He was fully fleshed out and came alive from his mannerisms and attitudes to his outward manifestations of his beliefs and motivations.

Secondary, and even tertiary, characters shouldn’t be demoted to the token Indian, or the speck of diversity to attract an agent or editor. I think writers need to ask themselves why they want to write a Native character. See more on this on Questions Agents and Editors Can Use To Evaluate Native Content.

A tool you will want to learn to use to avoid stereotypes and harmful narratives is the Criteria From How To Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias (adapted from oyate.org).

It was created originally by the wonderful people at Oyate as a tool to evaluate already-written books. Media specialists and teachers who attend my workshops report afterwards that it does take three or four passes at evaluating books before they feel they have the hang of it, but through using it they have become much more adept at recognizing harmful narratives, inaccuracies and stereotypes. Writers can also use it to learn to evaluate their own writing, although they will most likely need to study Indian 101 for Writers first. The Criteria would be a great activity for writing critique groups.

As writers, you will also want to be sure to use sensitivity/beta readers. This is a great way to find problematic language and bias you may not realize are in your writing. You can find helpful thoughts and even a spreadsheet full of people willing to be sensitivity readers on Writing In The Margins. Debbie Reese has also written a very helpful post on her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature that is specific to Native content. If you do hire a sensitivity/beta reader, please be sure to believe her or him. It is discouraging when you care enough about your group to offer these services, but your feedback is primarily met with the author defending their writing.

Those are great points, Kara! We talked about sensitivity readers and the importance of well-developed characters in this recent post. What can we do as consumers, educators, writers, and readers to increase the number of books written by Native Americans and to raise awareness about correctly portraying Native American culture in literature?

The good news is that there are many things you can do! The number one best thing you can do is to educate yourself, which means being willing to put in a LOT of time reading and thinking – not just about Native Americans, but about yourself, and being willing to seriously consider and reconsider beliefs you may hold, uncomfortable as that may be.

One tool to help you with this is Indian 101 for Writers. If you are serious about wanting to learn as a writer, reading all five parts and investigating the resources listed in it will be a mini-course worth your time. Take your time and let the information sink in.

Another great thing you can do is promote Native authors. There are so many amazing books out written by Native authors! Debbie Reese has a Best Books page by year that includes very recently published books, and the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education has a lengthy Recommended Books About American Indians list. Just a few of my personal favorites are Tim Tingle’s How I Became A Ghost and Saltypie, Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett, and Cynthia Leitich Smiths Jingle Dancer.

Thank you, Kara! So many great resources and things to think about in your responses! We greatly appreciate your time and your dedication to helping other writers and readers!

Thank you, Michelle, for inviting me to share my thoughts and information with you and your readers!

For more great books written by Native Americans, check out our post from last month on Native American Literature for Young Readers.

For more information about Kara Stewart check out and follow her blog From Here to Writernity. Or follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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MYC: Writing “Other” with Sensitivity

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the Power of Metaphor. This week, we’ll discuss writing “other” characters.

What is writing “Other”?

It simply means writing characters that are not like yourself.

Some writers are terrified to try this. If you’ve ever witnessed arguments about writing diversely or seen Twitter posts “dragging” authors who make mistakes when they tried to do so, you probably understand why!

But, it’s important that the stories we craft represent the world we inhabit. This post at Lit Reactor by K. Tempest Bradford sums up the importance of diversity in our writing and our reading pretty well, especially this paragraph:

 

Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.

 

So hopefully, you’ve included an interesting variety of people from different cultures, beliefs, or abilities in your masterpiece. And if not, this is a great time to tweak a few characters to give your story depth and sparkle.

 

But…

And this is a REALLY BIG BUT

Don’t do it unless you’re invested in doing it well.  

There are a few steps to that process.

Ask Yourself Why????

Why are you writing this “other” character?

Maybe you have a unique perspective. For example, you may have adopted a child of a different ethnicity or maybe your child has a disability and you want the world to see life through her eyes. Maybe your nephew has recently “come out” and you want (with his permission) to use his experiences to help others. Having a personal connection to writing “other” automatically puts pressure on you to get it right.

But maybe your reason is just because you feel it’s important to show that a gay, black, hearing-impaired boy can have exciting adventures. That’s okay too. BUT, you’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure your character is authentic and realistic for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the gay, black, hearing-impaired boy who might be read your story. Will he like it? Will he relate to the character? Will he recommend it to his friends?

After you’ve answered why, the real work begins.

Research!

A lot of it. Thoroughly. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But if you care about your readers and you want to make fans, you’ll do it. If you don’t approach your characters thoughtfully, you may do more harm than good and lose readers in the process. One of the worse things you can do is to write stereotypical characters.

Examples: the blind person who can “see” visions, the crippled evil villain, the savage Native American, the gay male who loves theatre, the sassy black girl…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

As we mentioned in our post about Writing Cross-Culturally, not only are those stereotypes unrealistic, but––especially in kid lit––they do harm. Just like there are millions of different behaviors of a “typical” white girl, the same is true of every character regardless of religious beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, bodily abilities…

Make all your characters real people. (For more details about how to do this see this post on character development and this one on supporting characters.) Understand what makes them tick, their beliefs, their concerns, their limitations, and their special abilities. This is important even if your “other” character isn’t the main character.

One great way to research is by reading books written by #ownvoices authors. Check out this Kirkus post by Cynthia Leitich Smith for more info.

See below for a list of resources about writing a variety of “other” characters.

Sensitivity Readers!

Yes, you’ll need them. Several in fact. If you don’t know what that is, read this or this. You may have a person in your life who can serve as a sensitivity reader for the “other” that is in your story, but I’d also suggest finding a reader that you don’t know. A reader who doesn’t know you personally will be more comfortable with being completely honest with you and will be able to provide a deeper insight to make your story more authentic. Heads up: If you haven’t employed a sensitivity reader before you submit to an agent, sometimes they will ask you to find one. Sometimes your editor will do that, but you should be prepared to pay a sensitivity reader for their time and experience. And here’s the most important part: LISTEN TO YOUR SENSITIVITY READERS!

One recent example of a book about “other” is Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. The story is about a girl who was born without arms. But Dusti has arms. How could she possibly write this book? She did her homework and followed up by reaching out to someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live without arms. Check out this Publisher’s weekly post to find out what inspired Dusti to write this book and this interview for more info about her research and sensitivity reader.

Here’s a database for finding sensitivity readers: Writing In The Margins

Own Up to Your Mistakes!

This may be the most important step. Hopefully you’ve taken the first three steps very seriously and done all your homework. But no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes because you are human. The best thing to do is to very clearly apologize to all those who you’ve offended. (Please note: True apologies do not contain the word “but”.) Accept your mistake(s) and learn from it. Do not blame anyone, not your friend readers, your betas, or your sensitivity readers. It’s yours. Own it. Move forward graciously.

General Resources:

Twitter Handles You Should Follow:

@writingtheother

@diversebooks

@disabilityInLit

Race and Ethnicity:

Gender:

Sexual Orientation:

Disability:

Be brave in your writing, but sensitive to your readers.

Let us know about other resources in the comments! Thanks for reading this week and come back next week to read our discussion about Writing Openings That Hook Readers and Endings That Turn Them Into Fans.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.

Highlights

We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017

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