Kelly's Reviews > Homeless Bird

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
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Mar 07, 15

bookshelves: middle-grades, asian-and-asian-american
Read in July, 2012

Gloria Whelan's Homeless Bird is a pleasant enough story. Predictable and pleasant. It is a fast read and Koly is a likable protagonist.

But shortly after beginning the book I stopped to research the author. As I suspected after my first few pages of reading, Whelan herself is neither Indian or of Indian ancestry and has never traveled to India. I believe that it IS possible for writers to write successfully outside of their own experiences, but I am EXTREMELY wary of authors who attempt to write of places, cultures, social classes, and experiences that are not their own, nor even similar. To do so requires incredible amounts of research, intense self-reflection, a willingness to consult and learn from others who are more knowledgeable, and an intentional effort to present a truthful, unbiased reflection of reality -- even in the writing of fiction. In fiction like Homeless Bird, the setting is taken as truth by an audience, in this case most likely American children, who may not have the knowledge or experience to spot cultural misrepresentations.

As a white woman living in the woods of northern Michigan who has never traveled to India, it is possible that Whelan could write a truthful reflection of India culture and customs. But, I have a gut feeling telling me to be concerned. Whelan's own words, from her website, don't bring me any comfort. She says, "Sometimes I write about places that are far away or about earlier times. This gives me a chance to live in other countries and in other times -- at least in my head. The research for these books is like a treasure hunt, I never know what I'm going to find. I’ve made imaginary trips to China, India, and Vietnam." As a reader, I want to know that these imaginary adventures into the "exotic" are supported by hard researched, intensely fact checked effort. I am unconvinced.

I lived and worked in India for a portion of this year and I worked with children Koly's age coming from villages and families like Koly's. India is a big place and a vast array of experiences coexist within India culture and customs. Arranged marriages, dowries, and child brides still exist (as does sati -- ceremonial widow burning -- which Whelan seems to deny as something of the past no longer practiced (pg. 34-35)). Similarly, urban life does include Indians dressed in jeans and t-shirts, air-conditioning, and opportunistic men and women (who exist everywhere in most cultures). To me, reading Koly's story felt like a Western voice telling an Eastern story. It did not feel like an Indian voice, born and raised in Indian culture, telling her own story in her own voice.

And that is big problem because Homeless Bird is a National Book Award winner, which means it is frequently used in classrooms, likely as "diversity enhancement." And to read of Indian culture in an inauthentic voice is dangerous and disrespectful. There is so much wonderful literature written by Indian writers, and I am nervous what half-truths and misperceptions might be taken away from a reading of this book by young people, particularly if their teacher is not him- or herself aware of the potential pitfalls of including a text like this in the curriculum without intense critical reflection and the addition of other primary sources.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, but it threw up red flags for me about the authentic representation of Indian life and culture.
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message 1: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Thank you for your thoughtful review. I think that it is a real travesty for teachers to use authors outside of that culture. It is quite possible to find translations and short articles written by those who have at least "been there."


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