About My Next Book and Cultural Appropriation

One of my first serious long literary endeavors was a novella, submitted as my undergraduate thesis in 1990. It was called Where the Buffalo Roamed and had intersecting stories of young adults in Grand Forks, North Dakota, including a young man named Delano who was half Native American and half African American. My thesis advisor was a writer named Annie Dawid, and she grilled me about this character. I don’t think she used the phrase “cultural appropriation,” but it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that white people ought not to write about other cultures, or that they at least better have a good reason for doing so.

I did not have a good reason, damned or otherwise, but I was defensive about it. I was pretty thin-skinned at the time. But over time I did understand where Dawid was coming from and, moreover, came to appreciate that the character’s racial identity wasn’t very well explained or described, just a passing description. I probably gave more narrative attention to the battered field jacket he wore, which was based on a jacket I wore myself at the time. It’s easier to write about a jacket you’ve lived in than a skin you have not.

I’m now grateful that Dawid mentored me that year on cultural sensitivity, because she pushed me in ways my advisor (who was on sabbatical), John Little, never would have. Creatively I had been doing a lot of that impulsively — writing inauthentic Chinese fairy tales, for example. And those stories tended to leave me the most satisfied at the time and earn the most praise. It was hard to let go but over time I was simply less moved to write in that vein and more aware of the issues behind mining other cultures for inspiration. By the time I was actually getting published my characters looked like me.

But a few years ago I became interested in the intense way kids play baseball in the Dominican Republic, the fervor that grips the country, and the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their dreams. I was casting about for a new story and since Mudville is my most successful book, thinking I really needed to get back to baseball. I imagined a boy who was ambitious even by D.R. standards, who made up for a lack of natural talent with sheer determination. I imagined a best friend who had a natural gift as a teammate and friend but not the same talent and ambition (in that regard, resurrecting a theme of Mudville). Usually the difference between an idea for a book and writing a book is the characters, and these kids stayed in my head.

So, I wrote that book.

Dominican boy with a baseball bat
Photo by Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons.

By virtue of the fact that they are Dominican, these boys are Latino and of African descent. I’m obviously neither of those things, and in fact have never been to the Dominican Republic. I know it was audacious, but sometimes writers have to go where the heat is. Unlike Delano, their identity is essential to the story and to their characters. I did a lot of research, and found readers from the D.R., and tried to be accurate. I probably made mistakes (I make mistakes writing about my own life), but I dare say I did no harm, reinforced no stereotypes, and exploited no tragedy. But as I plugged along with the book I kept wondering if Rafael’s story was my story to tell, and if people would declare that it wasn’t. I wondered if insult and harm would necessarily be visible to the author. I knew eventually I would have to answer questions about it. Why this story, or, put another way, why this author?

This was a big week for discussions about cultural appropriation so it was more on my mind than usual, as I was finishing up copy edits and retooling the ending and getting excited for cover art. I’ve posted a couple of times about facebook, and one invited a thoughtful response from Michael Kleber-Diggs.

There are two general but tall hurdles to clear in order to do so. First… you actually have to love those characters. Your motivations in writing about them have to be scrutinized thoughtfully (ideally by zealous and ‘woke’ first readers). You have to inhabit that experience as fully as you can. You have to convey a high degree of care. The characters need to be essential to the story. They need to exist on the page like they are essential.

Second, the writer has to be able to clear that first hurdle. They need to be able to answer the question Bill Cheng isolated so well [in this article] – why does the writer want to tell these stories?

It’s a good set of criteria, but ultimately the readers will have to decide if I’ve written with care, or needed to write this book… which readers do for every book. If it isn’t self-evident, then my protests and explanations are irrelevant. If it is, they aren’t needed.

 

 

Tall Mouse & Short Mouse

3833115430_c4dae9baacTonight I was reading Arnold Lobel’s Mouse Tales to Byron. There’s a story about Tall Mouse and Short Mouse; they talk a walk together and see different things. Like a lot of Lobel, it seems light but it also kinda runs deep.

Because there’s a simple truth to this story that so few people understand, and I myself frequently forget. People have different truths because they have different experiences. They may walk the same path and yet take — in every measurable way — completely different walks. They might arrive with different truths. If you’ve only seen the birds and the flowers, you simply don’t know how other people walk among the roots and beetles.

Also, the story has a nice message about privilege.When there’s a view only Very Tall Mouse can enjoy, he doesn’t hesitate to lift his friend to share it. Not only does it bring equity to the relationship, it allows Tall Mouse to share the experience.

Somebody has probably written a 100,000 word novel to arrive at the same truth that Lobel nailed in a few sentences. Heck, people live their whole lives without attaining that truth that Lobel reveals to children in a few sentences.

 

Sky Blue Water

Sky Blue WaterI almost forgot that today is the launch day for this wonderful anthology of Minnesota writers. I’m excited to pick this up and read it, since a lot of my favorite people are in it. A story of my own is included, in which I advocate for both boys playing with dolls and fighting as a solution to bullying. I wrote it from the gut and it is what it is. I love the story, it has an authenticity I rarely get right. Ask for the book at your local independent bookseller.

Incidentally, “Sky Blue Water” is the meaning of “Minnesota” and has nothing to do with beer.

The Book Formerly Known As…

baseball
Rafael Rosales and the Infinitesimal Hope is now  entitled Rooting for Rafael Rosales. I like the new title because I had trouble pronouncing “infinitesimal” without slowing way down and concentrating. This appropriately echoes one of my favorite parts of the book, when the non-baseball-playing hero of the book is arguing for bees and against her father’s GMO-manufacturing business, and has to use the word “neonicotinoids” comfortably.

This is a strange, hard-to-describe books and like a lot of my books I find my honed elevator speech misses a huge chunk of the book. Maybe that’s because I write books intuitively (i.e., I make them up as I go) and they, like life, end up being about a lot of different things. This one has two point-of-view characters: Rafael and Maya. Rafael is a boy growing up in the Dominican Republic circa 2005-2010 and we see his rise from the streets to a baseball academy. Maya is a girl living in Minneapolis in the summer of 2015, when she has a chance meeting with Rafael that leads to her following his minor league career from afar. But she has her own story: she is deeply worried about the planet, and invests her energy in helping bee populations as one of the few things she can do anything about. But like a lot of people, she realizes her symbolic gestures are not only overwhelmed by greater forces, but that her very life is tied up with those forces.

Metallic_Green_Bee_(Augochloropsis_sp.)_on_Coreopsis_(7173773106)The original linchpin was a fantastical/superstitious belief that Rafael’s fate would would help the world, but that never quite fell into place as it should have. I like the idea of “Sabremancy,” as I called it, but it really never suited the science-driven Maya to have such magical beliefs. And yet Maya, like a lot of people, finds her own sense of hope about things rising and falling with the tides of her favorite player’s career.

So that’s the new title, and I think a release date and cover are coming soon. Stay tuned.

Black and Blue

dress

Remember this ugly dress? I still say it’s white and gold. No matter how much I look at it, it’s white and gold. People I love and trust like my own wife tell me it’s black and blue, but I can’t see it through their eyes and my own eyes see white and gold.

One way to absorb this difference of opinion is to shrug it off. Another way is to declare the other person insane or deceitful. Yet another way is to try to come to a fact-based decision, as I did by using the eyedropper tool in Photoshop to tell me what color the actual pixels were. (Brown and gray, but that’s misleading.)

In the same way, I cannot look at Donald Trump and see a president, no matter how much I squint or tilt the image or use different lighting. For that matter, I can’t look at Hillary Clinton and feel the revulsion and loathing that others feel, even within the Democratic Party.

This is not a political post or even one about over-exposed photographs. I’ve just been thinking all day about how divided we seem to be. It’s true that we have different sets of facts, but that’s a symptom not the problem. Why do we seek out and believe different facts (or “facts”) in the first place?

I read this week that only 20% of Clinton voters have a close friend or family member voting for Trump, and only 17% of Trump supporters have a close friend or family member supporting Clinton. Somehow even as we shout at each other in all-caps across the Internet, we don’t actually talk to each other. And when we don’t talk to each other, when we don’t really know each other, it becomes easier to see one another as monsters. The people on the other side of the hill have always been monsters and cannibals, and now our neighbors are on the other side of a metaphorical hill.

Then there is a vicious cycle. When the people over the hill are monsters, we begin to define ourselves by their presence. Before the monsters came, we might have described ourselves as a peaceful hamlet of shepherds and farmers, but now we see ourselves as a citadel of warriors, tirelessly defending ourselves against the monsters: that becomes our identity. And as it becomes our identity, the shadows the strangers cast become longer, their deeds become more savage and terrible. We can’t build our reputations out of fighting worms; we must have dragons. So I think that’s what’s happening, and it concerns me even more than a Trump presidency. Even if he loses the rift remains, these two worlds, each believing their are Geats and their opponents are Grendels.

Beowulf and Grendel

Maybe that’s where stories can help. Of course stories can reinforce the citadel-monster mentality (indeed, a thousand-year old story is behind my metaphor), but stories can also reveal the humanity of others, expose our own frailties, and compel us to self-scrutinize.

So maybe we need to do is sit by the fire and trade stories. We tell our own truthfully and with soft voices, and listen to theirs attentively and empathetically. We’ll come to understand each other. We’ll stop seeing each others as monsters, and find out that all we ever wanted was to stop being seen that way ourselves.

 

Justice

My son recently asked me the meaning of “justice,” after running across it in a book where “justice” had a law-and-order meaning, where bad men were brought to justice. As the poor kid often finds, Dad can’t answer a simple question without acknowledging all the shades of meaning and nuances and possible contexts. Justice here meant retaliation, I told him, as it often does, but it has a bigger and greater meaning than punishing wrongdoers. There is a justice that we are all responsible for, that is made of respect for others, of mercy, of fairness, of self-correction, the totality of small acts. His eyes glazed over.

Credit: Wesley VanDinter/iStockphoto.com.
Credit: Wesley VanDinter/iStockphoto.com.

I understand that the first kind of justice has a more compelling narrative. It is the justice of superheroes and revenge fantasies, the justice that is often dealt with a righteous blow. It is the justice where we can enjoy that flicker of final recognition in the villain’s eyes before he is swept off of the cliff.

I suppose small children are empowered by these fairy tales of justice, their innate sense of rightness and wrongness affirmed, and themselves placed at the center of goodness. The positive justice that requires sacrifice and patience for incremental change is harder to turn into a compelling story.

So my mind spun long after the boy has fallen asleep. I had been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and wondering how I myself could be a more active agent for justice. I thought about the symbol of justice: the blindfolded woman with the scale, who I visualize with festering eyes beneath the blindfold due to an image from a poem. What image would I replace this with? What metaphor would serve us better? I fell asleep as I pondered this.

And then it was a rough week for justice. We saw two men killed brutally and senselessly by those who are supposed to deal justice. People gathered to demand immediate justice, understandably frustrated that such justice is never swift and rarely sure. And then, in what seems like the kind of retaliatory “justice” I tried to caution my son about, other police officers were killed brutally and senselessly in revenge. It was a week of grief and outrage, hopelessness and cynicism.

And so for him, and for myself, I may turn to those reassuring stories where justice is in the hands of the strong, and see the strong prevail.

 

The Winds of War/War and Remembrance

The Winds of War War and RemembranceSince January 1 I have been listening to the audiobooks The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s immense 2-volume novel about World War II. I finally finished it last night, listening to the final passage twice because it’s so powerful. The books were blockbusters and turned into a hit television miniseries when I was a kid; because I was from a military/diplomatic family, perhaps, they seemed to be on every bookshelf. I don’t know that they have been standing the test of time, though Herman Wouk certainly is, having recently celebrated his 101st birthday (and published a new book at age 100!)

However, I’m a big fan of Wouk, especially City Boy, which I constantly recommend. I put off reading the Winds of War series forever both because I was daunted by its size and because I wasn’t much interested in war novels. This year I finally dived in.

One of the problems with audiobooks is you can’t highlight passages; there were quite a few that I wanted to note, for the portentous gloom on the present or for providing insights into World War II I never had previously.

For the first, there are several times where a passage seemed to be as appropriate to our own times: the easy dismissal of Hitler as a clown upon the national stage, the casual dismissal of concerns about genocide, the fear that refugees might be terrorists, even commentary on how new technologies are changing the world. If it was published in 2016, I might have find some of the analogs too obvious!

On the second: By the 1970s when Wouk completed the second book we must have already been steeped in the lore of World War II: that America selflessly saved the world once they realized Hitler was a monster. Wouk disabuses any reader of that notion, conveying the slow entry into the war, the ambivalence and distrust of intelligence about the Germans’ treatment of Jewish people and others, and the reluctance to take Jewish refugees (sound familiar?) One character in particular is a frustrated diplomat who eventually quits the foreign service because he sees so little response to the alarming information he’s uncovered; there is also a passing vignette about Jewish people escaping from Auschwitz and making their way all the way across Nazi-occupied Europe to bring evidence to the Allies and being met with indifference.

There are also protectionists at home, isolationists, people who don’t want to expend resources in Europe, and another major character (THE major character) is a Naval Officer with amazing insight and precognition laboring to get the U.S. military to even lend equipment to Allied Europe for the war. Wouk doesn’t even spare Jewish Americans, who can be as maddening as antisemites; he gives us this point of view through a Jewish American who eventually ends up at Terezin and Auschwitz and survives; she lives in Europe and sees the problems firsthand, but when she returns home early in the novel she is frustrated at the ambivalence of friends and family, even echoing the wariness of accepting Jewish refugees.

Wouk also presents a series of arguments against America and the Allies through a German military official; his point of view is presented as passages from a book purportedly translated after the war by the naval officer mentioned above. Through his words Wouk presents the German point of view, but also challenges the easy moral superiority of the allies: the English have conquered and colonized the world, the German reminds readers; America is built on genocide of Native Americans and slavery.  I don’t know if Wouk intends to mock liberal Academics by having a Nazi war criminal make the same arguments, or if he means merely to face the facts and force readers to do the same.

Because the thing is, despite all this — and as a devout Jewish writer — Wouk is clearly a patriot, and ultimately his masterpiece is a love letter to America. But his is not a jingoistic, uncritical patriotism: it is a patriotism steeped in true knowledge of his country. Among other revelations is that such a patriot used to exist.

Throughout the novel I felt like the book, despite many flaws, was authentic in a way World War II novels can no longer be, because it is written honestly and from living memory, and not with hindsight or imbued with current political and historical values. But in retrospect, it must be informed by the late 1960s and 1970s when Wouk wrote it, as much as it is the work of a World War II combat veteran. I suspect that Wouk’s purpose was at least partly to address the Vietnam-era anti-military mood, but without asserting a pro-Vietnam-war stance.

Yet, I think the historical importance of the books is that they capture the mood of the war so well, and Wouk incorporates many facts and real people in his book to also make the books a thorough debriefing on the war.

I would be remiss as a reviewer if I didn’t say that this is also fundamentally a statement by a man of faith, affirming his Jewish identity and religion. Early on in the book I wondered why the principal characters were Christians, even anti-Semites (when one of the Henry boys brings home a Jewish fiance, the talk behind is back is vicious). There is one lapsed Jew in Aaron Jastrow, a famous American writer who winds up “stateless” after living in Italy for many years, and is thus cast upon the tides and ends up in Nazi hands. Through his trials Jastrow comes back to his faith; perhaps ironically since it is the identity he tried to cast off that dooms him. Wouk’s writing is at its best here, and the work almost feels confessional. If not exactly against atheism, it is an argument at least for a such-thing as “intellectual man of faith.” That, too — like the unblinded patriot — might be an idea that has fallen on hard times.

Finally, on a personal note: As a fanatic of City Boy, I had to keep reminding myself that this was by the same author. Perhaps the only correspondence is honesty about how bowled over and weakened men/boys can be by love, but there is little similarity between the tall, beautiful, courageous military men who carry Winds of War and the plump, smitten, bookish Herbie Bookbinder. Herbie is deeply relatable; even as I cheered them on, I felt little affinity with the Henry men. Literary novels might fall into bins: the personal/local/autobiographic, and the epic/sweeping/historic. I like both but favor the former. I need to read City Boy yet again and write a fan letter to Mr. Wouk before he turns 102.