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Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World, #1)
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Trail of Lightning > ToL: Can we talk about representation?

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Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments I know a lot of people are pleased that Maggie is part Navajo, part black and there is so much of native religion and culture here. But the use of these elements by someone who is not Navajo is quite controversial, and the opinions are widespread and varied.

This discussion began in the announcement thread which was then locked so I thought I'd bring it back.

Before commenting, please read this thoughtful commentary from a reviewer on American Indians in Children's Literature, who originally gave it a positive review:

https://americanindiansinchildrenslit...


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Also I just read a new book of poetry from a Diné poet and if you want grit and landscape from the fifth world you should try it:

Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets
Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets


Mark (markmtz) | 2288 comments If you search for news about Roanhorse and her book, an article written by members of a Diné writers collective usually pops up.

https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytod...

They are extremely critical. Since Roanhorse is not of Diné ancestry, she does not have the authority or experience to write about our people and culture. To do so is cultural appropriation, the act of taking and using things from a culture that is not your own.

They also mention Tony Hillerman, whose books continue to profit off Navajo culture and stories without shame.

They don't seem to leave much room for discussion. I imagine it must be pretty difficult for Roanhorse to receive acclaim from the SF&F community, but contempt from some members of the Native American community. I'm not sure how I would deal with that.

Ironically, her Hugo-winning short story "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" is a parable about appropriation.

I think it's difficult to argue that writers must have the correct DNA in order to tell a story, but I don't know enough about Diné religion to know if Roanhorse crossed a boundary that she shouldn't have.


Oleksandr Zholud From what I see ion SFF forums here on GR and elsewhere on the web, a cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the US. For me, being from another part of the world with a different culture and upbringing it is sometimes strange, and pardon my possible ignorance, in extreme cases bordering on ridiculous.

I think it is a little naive to state that only a person from within a given group (gender, race, ethnicity etc) can adequately write about the group. From classic English literature, say William Shakespeare writing about Othello or Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet is actively appropriates. The mass of fantasy works based on Arthurian legend appropriate. The best two depiction of women character (according to many female critics!) from XIX century, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were written by men... I completely agree that there are quite a few works that got a group wrong but, this is more to the Sturgeon's Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crud”

It especially surprise me when a cultural appropriation mentioned for a fantasy world. I fully support a criticism if an author hasn't done the homework and uses say Deities incorrectly, but cannot it be said for a lot of fantasy?


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Mark wrote: "They don't seem to leave much room for discussion. I imagine it must be pretty difficult for Roanhorse to receive acclaim from the SF&F community, but contempt from some members of the Native American community. I'm not sure how I would deal with that."

One person in the discussion I linked to asked if it might be racism excluding her because she is also black. As in the protests say more about the protester. I also don’t know enough about it, but think the conversation is interesting.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Oleksandr wrote: "From what I see ion SFF forums here on GR and elsewhere on the web, a cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the US. For me, being from another part of the world with a different culture and upbr..."

I think it’s a hot topic because in the US, we have a deep history of genocide, slavery, and racism - one that continues to perpetuate inequalities toward people who are not white, either explicitly or systemically. Cultural appropriation more often arises when white people capitalize on narratives of people of color, and because of the privilege they already have, are given an even greater platform.

I’m not sure the Diné see their clans and characters like the coyote as something entirely "fantasy," at least not in the way they are used here. That might be the more unique protest here, that perhaps something sacred has been violated.

I’m not sure I can agree about Anna Karenina (whose moral tale ends in her death) but that’s an entirely different topic. ;)


Nils Krebber | 182 comments The writer being the from the right Background is the easiest Thing, but as mentionend in the article, the next best Thing is getting Feedback from someone within the community (sensitivity Readers). But you can never make everybody happy. If I understand the article correctly, she even got Feedback from Navajo, not the least her husband, on her work. But there are a number of People that are not amused by her use of their religious figures in an Action Fantasy.
And they bring up an interesting point - for the Diné this must be a Little like Jesus Christ, Vampire Slayer. She uses revered spiritual figures as superheroes. That is not an easy Topic and almost always will get some negative Feedback.

Should it prevent anyone from writing these stories? I don't think so, but it always helps to realise what you are doing and how you can try to avoid being disrespectful. If you then choose to ignore this Input, you must be ready to bear the criticism.


message 8: by Melani (last edited Sep 17, 2019 07:46AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Melani | 179 comments This is interesting. And I've just fallen down the rabbit hole of links.

I lived for nine years as a young child on the border of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and a lot of my school friends were Dine. There was a lot of stuff from Trail of Lightning that was reminiscent of the stories they used to tell me, but there were bits that were unfamiliar. So I know there were things in the book that most Dine wouldn't see a problem with sharing, the issue isn't that Roanhorse shared parts of the Dine culture, so much as it is she shared, and altered slightly, sacred parts of their religion.

Of course the counter argument is that fantasy plays with religions a lot. Rick Riordan based his whole career on it. However, because Native American religions have been almost wiped out, and are still denigrated, they have a kind of tenuous existence, and using them to write fantasy can feel like mocking. This is where cultural appropriation comes in, and what I think the articles were arguing. This line from another AICL article (linked at the bottom of the article linked up top here) is more succinct. "Instead of the respect that ought to be accorded to our belief systems, they often get characterized as folk or fairy tales rather than sacred stories that guide our lives." Bolding mine. I bolded that because I've seen those terms used here in our discussion, and TBH, it bothered me. These are not folk tales, they're religious myths.

I think this bit from the Indian Country Today letter is most on point: "Why did Roanhorse not take as subject of her science fiction novel her own Ohkay Owingeh culture?

This would be her most natural subject and setting for her Native American sci-fi novel. Yet she did not."

And this does make sense. If you're going to use a modern religion to base your fantasy novel on, especially a smaller religion (and not one of the big worldwide religions), it might be most accurate to stick to your own religion. Especially because the Ohkay Owingeh live in the same region as the Dine, so the region she's writing about wouldn't change that much.

Also the article from AICL (the one linked here) says that she's not saying people outside the culture can't write about the culture, rather that she's more picky about what they reveal and what they use and how they use those bits of culture in their books. i.e. how respectful are the writers using the culture.

The thing is, while someone outside of a culture can write an excellent book about said culture, that doesn't mean that all who write about the culture are going to do it well. Oleksandr mentioned Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, I haven't read Madame Bovary but I love Anna Karenina. I don't know if I think it's one of the best representations of female characters from the 19th century, especially because you have Austen, Alcott, the Brontes, etc. It's up there though. However, there are literally dozens, DOZENS, of books also from that century written by men that make me scream because they handle women so badly. And I'm just talking about the ones I've read. I'm sure the more I read, the greater that disparity is going to get. Just because a few men can write great female characters doesn't mean that men are great at writing women. And the same thing applies here.

I do think there's room for disagreements and discussion. Even among the Dine, there is going to be disagreements about how appropriate the book is.

Most importantly, I think we need to hear what they're saying. They're not saying, 'Don't like this book' they're saying 'Here's why I found this book offensive, please remember that as you read the book'. It's like Tolkien and his Easterlings or Orcs. I 100% know why those are offensive to people. I can read the books and see how the portrayals are not great, especially to a modern audience. Doesn't mean the book disappears from my list of favorite books of all time though. I wouldn't put Trail of Lightning anywhere near that list, not even in the subsection of favorite Urban Fantasies, but I liked it well enough. The conversation doesn't change that, but it does make me aware and awareness is a good thing.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Melani wrote: "This is interesting. And I've just fallen down the rabbit hole of links.

I lived for nine years as a young child on the border of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and a lot of my school frien..."


Thanks for sharing your experience and finding other rabbit holes!

I do not raise the issue to suggest we not like this book because of these things, but I like to read with my eyes wide open. So often I enjoy a book only to realize I missed what upset others and I'm trying to be more sensitive to it all.


message 10: by Allison (last edited Sep 17, 2019 08:03AM) (new) - added it

Allison Hurd | 226 comments I think the big thing to keep in mind is the difference between appreciation and appropriation.

As Melani said, there are lots of things that people of different cultures take pleasure in sharing with others, and there's nothing wrong with adapting that into your life. Friends might invite you to seders or Indian weddings or share in their families' special meals or what have you and that's great! Writing about it can also be great! Certainly having these things present in the world you write is fine.

The issue is when it's taken without the appreciation. So, for example, in this case the issue might be that Roanhorse didn't fully appreciate the religious significance. She took the idea and molded it to her own perception of what is "cool"--essentially, she took the style, not the substance for her own use.

This doesn't feel...great no matter what, but it's made worse when, again as Melani said, the thing that a larger community expresses enthusiasm for is something the original culture gets discriminated against for.

Think Elvis and the people he ripped off. The people he ripped off are largely unknown, they didn't become famous, they weren't paid for what he took, and they risked their lives to share their music. Elvis took essentially that same music, made it white, and received instant acclaim. It would be bad enough if someone took your stuff without asking. To be told you're no good while your stuff is stolen by someone else who is praised for it is an extra level of insult that you really only see in cultures that are quite diverse and have histories of persecution based on those differences, which is why it's so different for, say, a Japanese person to comment on white Americans dressing as geishas than it is for Japanese American people. And why it's so hard to explain in general, but particularly to people outside the culture.


Trike | 8291 comments Melani wrote: "I think this bit from the Indian Country Today letter is most on point: "Why did Roanhorse not take as subject of her science fiction novel her own Ohkay Owingeh culture?

This would be her most natural subject and setting for her Native American sci-fi novel. Yet she did not.""


I’m empathetic to those who feel their culture has been appropriated, especially given this country’s history regarding race. (Some people to this day don’t believe there were black cowboys, despite the voluminous written references and the numerous photographs. But Hollywood’s whitewashing of the Old West has destroyed the actual history.)

But at a certain point we’re tipping over into political correctness and people are becoming self-appointed Purity Police. If we follow the notion of “you can only write about your group” to its logical conclusion, then no one can ever talk about anything except themselves. Gay people can never write straight characters. Irish people can never have British people in their fiction. Black people can’t write about white people. Women can’t write men. People can’t write about things they’ve never done, whether that’s sailing, war, or banking, or three other random professions.

And all SFF goes out the window. “You’re not an astronaut! You’re not a witch!”

Which just leads us back to the white majority dominating the culture, because by definition those will comprise the bulk of the entertainment options.

It’s not like this has a right answer. Some Native Americans hate being called Indians, but lots of others have no problem with it. Author Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes) has said he prefers Indian, for instance.

It’s also complicated by the fact that books like those by Tony Hillerman have raised awareness of issues facing Indians (I recall Talking God really hitting home for me (view spoiler)), and the popularity of those books has led directly to numerous NA actors getting work that’s not as a bad guy in a Western.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Trike wrote: "Melani wrote: "I think this bit from the Indian Country Today letter is most on point: "Why did Roanhorse not take as subject of her science fiction novel her own Ohkay Owingeh culture?

This would..."


I think a quick read of the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism would explain why "black authors can't write white characters" might not be the same as "white authors can't write black characters." It's an easy way to dismiss the conversation, as is throwing around the term "political correctness" as if it is risky to consider the impact of what we write and read.


message 13: by Seth (new) - rated it 3 stars

Seth | 314 comments Jenny (Reading Envy) wrote: "Trike wrote: "Melani wrote: "I think this bit from the Indian Country Today letter is most on point: "Why did Roanhorse not take as subject of her science fiction novel her own Ohkay Owingeh cultur..."

I can see what both of you are doing here, but I don't think that carrying an argument ad infinitum (even if it is to a logical conclusion) is something that is always a valid topic. I don't think white people writing black people or vice versa is a perfect comparison to what we're looking at here. A woman of native American descent is writing about a native culture she cares deeply about - one she married into - a culture which she studied carefully, and has consulted with members of during the writing process. The result is a really positive portrayal of Diné beliefs and Diné characters that act with their own agency in a world where those beliefs and characters really matter. That really checks a lot of boxes. This doesn't mean that members of that culture can't still object, of course they can and they can be right about it, but I certainly feel fine about reading this book.


message 14: by Melani (last edited Sep 18, 2019 06:30AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Melani | 179 comments Trike wrote: "If we follow the notion of “you can only write about your group” to its logical conclusion, then no one can ever talk about anything except themselves. ..."

Please see the paragraph where I wrote this: "Also the article from AICL (the one linked here) says that she's not saying people outside the culture can't write about the culture, rather that she's more picky about what they reveal and what they use and how they use those bits of culture in their books. i.e. how respectful are the writers using the culture."

Again, it's not that I think you have to stick with your own culture. I don't. But when people from that culture say that a book is disrespectful, then I think we need to listen.

To be clear, I really enjoy Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee novels. They were the books that got me into detective novels, and while SFF is definitely my favorite genre, a good mystery is right up there. That said, I can enjoy them while still acknowledging the issues that people have with them. Again, it's not that we're being told "hate this" or "don't do this" we're being asked to listen and learn.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Seth wrote: "Jenny (Reading Envy) wrote: "Trike wrote: "Melani wrote: "I think this bit from the Indian Country Today letter is most on point: "Why did Roanhorse not take as subject of her science fiction novel..."

I enjoyed the book too, and I do not believe the author had any ill intentions whatsoever (for reasons you have listed.) I also know impact can sometimes trump intent, so I appreciate all of you being willing to discuss it! It helps me put it into a perspective.


message 16: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark (markmtz) | 2288 comments Jenny (Reading Envy) wrote: "I think a quick read of the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism would explain..."

Sorry about this brief tangent. I followed Jenny's link to the Goodreads page for this book by Robin DiAngelo, then to Amazon, where I was surprised to find at least three other books with titles like "Summary and Analysis of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo". Wow. A topic so complicated that books about it need multiple Cliff Notes companions.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 2844 comments Mark wrote: "Sorry about this brief tangent. I followed Jenny's link to the Goodreads page for this book by Robin DiAngelo, then to Amazon, where I was surprised to find at least three other books with titles like "Summary and Analysis of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo". Wow. A topic so complicated that books about it need multiple Cliff Notes companions. .."

I led a month-long discussion of that book in another Goodreads group this summer and we dug in really deep. It's really helped me question my assumptions and to gain perspective on some of these topics, but some people find her rather confrontational. If you are a podcast listener, I thought her interview on the Guardian Books Podcast gives a good summary of her perspective, maybe even more clearly than the book.

In one of my "other duties as assigned" in my job in academia, I am one of the people who facilitates diversity and inclusion discussions with academic departments. I'm better at asking the questions than knowing the answers, but I'm happier when we all talk about these things than when we don't. :)


message 18: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark (markmtz) | 2288 comments Thanks Jenny, I'll check out the podcast.


message 19: by Rick (new) - added it

Rick | 2781 comments Jenny (Reading Envy) wrote: "I think a quick read of the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism would explain why "black authors can't write white characters" might not be the same as "white authors can't write black characters." It's an easy way to dismiss the conversation, as is throwing around the term "political correctness" as if it is risky to consider the impact of what we write and read.
..."


And crying 'white fragility' is a wonderful way to dismiss opinions the don't entirely agree with minority criticism. Catchphrases don't actually help the discussion whether it's 'political correctness!' or 'white fragility!'. They just shut down discussion.

I don't think white people writing black people or vice versa is a perfect comparison to what we're looking at here.
Trike didn't mean it as a perfect comparison I assume (I considered using the same point yesterday). It's a boundary condition - 'taken to the extreme, we end up here, in this silly place' which leads to "OK, so how far down that direction is it reasonable to go?"


Think Elvis and the people he ripped off. The people he ripped off are largely unknown, they didn't become famous, they weren't paid for what he took, and they risked their lives to share their music. Elvis took essentially that same music, made it white, and received instant acclaim.


The solution to that issue is not to decry the success of Elvis, but to work to promote the people who were ignored, shoved to the back and never given credit for the art they produced. Same here. The solution isn't to decry Roanhorse for writing this book, but to expose and promote Diné authors who write about they culture.

For decades, women in SFF have been marginalized, ignored, shut out. In the last decade, this seems to be changing and we thus get books that are excellent (and some that aren't) and that enlarge the perspectives we have. Male SFF isn't suppressed - it's still fine - but we've added to the genre. Doing this for other groups would only be to the good for us.

Finally, there's the thorny issue of respect. Should someone not write about a culture (or about aspects of it) simply because some members of that culture object? Let's say that no Navajo authors want to write SFF incorporating their culture - does that mean no one can or should do that, no matter how carefully researched or how respectfully it's done? After all, some people in a minority group will *always* object - that's a combination of human nature and the law of large numbers.


message 20: by Allison (new) - added it

Allison Hurd | 226 comments I don't think anyone here is condemning Roanhorse. I think this is meant to be a conversation about how we can engage respectfully, and part of that respect is...taking feedback from the people impacted.

I certainly don't think she should be "canceled" or even stop writing her story, but it seems like there's more she can do to honor the culture she obviously cares about, and as she cares about it, it would make sense that she'd want to do better. That's all.

Also, not to derail here, but getting more upset at a phrase used to explain a stumbling block in the pursuit of the promotion of equality you mention than you are that it is a stumbling block is kind of the epitome of the white fragility stumbling block.

It sounds like you're on board with progress! That means dismantling the responses we have that keep us stymied.


message 21: by Trike (last edited Sep 18, 2019 02:09PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Trike | 8291 comments Jenny (Reading Envy) wrote: "I think a quick read of the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism would explain why "black authors can't write white characters" might not be the same as "white authors can't write black characters." It's an easy way to dismiss the conversation, as is throwing around the term "political correctness" as if it is risky to consider the impact of what we write and read."

It’s already happening, though. During one of the YA pile-ons that occurred on Twitter not too long ago, a gay Asian-American woman attacked a gay white woman for having an Asian lesbian in her book. That level of infighting is ludicrous and completely counterproductive. That was the moment I realized the Purity Police thing has gone way too far.

And has been mentioned already, Roanhorse is black and Native American, lives in the area, her husband is Navajo (meaning that both her in-laws and daughter are, too), so it’s not like this is white exploitation of native peoples. If she can’t get a little leeway for a Fantasy story set in this milieu then no one can.

Edit to add: And to the point of me being outrageously nitpicky about the Purity Police thing, look no farther than other comments in this thread and those links. The umbrage of “how dare she?!” seems a little silly when the two tribes in question are literal neighbors, sharing the same land, the same history, and quite a lot of blood relations.


Trike | 8291 comments Melani wrote: "Again, it's not that I think you have to stick with your own culture. I don't. But when people from that culture say that a book is disrespectful, then I think we need to listen."

But as has also been pointed out, numerous people from that culture APPROVE of the book. You’re giving all the weight to those who object and zero weight to those who are fine with it.

That, to me, is the danger of political correctness, where we shout down the side that doesn’t have a problem with it simply because we don’t agree.

As Trevor Noah has said, there’s a difference between being *offended* and being *affected*. To take that thought one step further, none of us here have any cause to be offended because we are not affected. And of the people who are affected, some are offended and some are not. As outsiders we don’t have a right to decide for them who is right, because (as I mentioned earlier) there is no right answer, there are only opinions.


message 23: by Buzz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buzz Park (buzzpark) | 342 comments Trike wrote: "But at a certain point we’re tipping over into political correctness and people are becoming self-appointed Purity Police. If we follow the notion of “you can only write about your group” to its logical conclusion, then no one can ever talk about anything except themselves. Gay people can never write straight characters. Irish people can never have British people in their fiction. Black people can’t write about white people. Women can’t write men. People can’t write about things they’ve never done, whether that’s sailing, war, or banking, or three other random professions...."

Agreed.


message 24: by Buzz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buzz Park (buzzpark) | 342 comments Melani wrote: Please see the paragraph where I wrote this: "Also the article from AICL (the one linked here) says that she's not saying people outside the culture can't write about the culture, rather that she's more picky about what they reveal and what they use and how they use those bits of culture in their books. i.e. how respectful are the writers using the culture." ..."

Every Group thinks that their Group is the exception and that authors outside their Group need to be more considerate, more careful or just stay away from writing about their Group in the name of Cultural Sensitivity. If that were the case, can there be any author writing about anything?

If this is the case, can you imagine the cultural insensitivity that Neil Gaiman has shown with his American Gods series? He must have offended the Scandinavians, the Slavs, West Africans, Egyptians, Hidus... The list goes on and on. Just the word "god" could be offensive to anyone who believes in "god".

My take is that if Roanhorse was writing a non-fiction book about the Navajo culture and religion and misrepresented them somehow, then the criticism would be much more warranted.

As a personal example, I was offended by the mis-characterization of Christians in the Bobiverse book we read a few months ago, and said so in my review (I loved the entire series anyway). However, I don't claim that Dennis Taylor shouldn't be allowed to use Christian characters or anti-Christian themes in his books.

As other folks have mentioned in their comments, political correctness taken to its natural end means that no one can write anything about anybody outside their personal cultural, national, sexual, and racial background.


message 25: by Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth (last edited Sep 27, 2019 03:53PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth | 1861 comments I more or less agree with everything Trike is saying. I'll add that I feel that having stories like this is a net positive since it builds an interest and greater understanding of lesser known cultures. In that article the op linked too, it talked about how religious stories should not be reduced to folk tales but, in my experience, they are one and the same, as I tend to read deeply into such stories with consideration for the beliefs they sit beside. I think readers are intelligent enough to recognise when fantasy stories are toying with ideas rather than perfectly describing them, and I don't think it is a bad thing to mold what you have to fit a story. I'm not saying that sacred beliefs, particularly those of cultures that have suffered oppression and such, should become a free for all to be used however one pleases, but I feel like respectful and researched storytelling like this should be encouraged. If every attempt at representation is met with cries of cultural appropriation, smaller cultures become untouchable shadows.


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