Month: May 2015

Native American. Indigenous. American Indian. Sovereignty.

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If I Every Get Out of Here

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

It’s 1975 in upstate New York, and Lewis is a boy entering seventh grade. He’s a kid from the reservation, but the school is out in the white world, and to top it off he’s in the “smart track” where he is the only Indian. He’s determined to make friends in that white world, and the book opens with a scene in which he gets his reservation friend to chop off his braid. It’s not a merely symbolic act—Lewis thinks his reservation-kid status is an obstacle, and the braid telegraphs this.

“You think cutting off your braid is going to make those white kids suddenly talk to you?” (pg 1)

Right on page one, we focus on the thing that Lewis sees as his true obstacle: his Indian-ness.

A few pages later Lewis identifies and then meets the one new kid in his class, George, a white kid from a recently transferred military family. George immediately suggests they visit each other’s homes. Thus, making a friend is quickly dispatched as a problem; instead, Lewis’ problem becomes keeping his family’s poverty a secret as he builds the friendship with George.

“…I know secrets drive you crazy.” I had never thought this about myself, but even as he said it, I realized it was true. (pg. 107)

This contradiction—that secrets drive Lewis crazy, but he’s desperate to keep his reservation life a secret from George—creates a lot of emotional tension and helps propel the story forward through a fairly long time frame, from the beginning of seventh grade through the historic blizzard of 1977.

If you wanted to call this an issue book, you’d have a lot to choose from. Racism? Check. Poverty? Check. Bullying and corrupt local politics? Check and check. But all of this is context. The heart and theme of the book is how true friendship ultimately requires the truth in friendship.

This book is a lengthy read with a introspective tone. The language is smart and humorous, the characters well-drawn and the framework of the book is tied to an exploration of the music of the Beattles. (The intended audience may start this book having never heard of the band, but they’ll be experts before they turn the last page.) The age of the characters means the story hovers in the overlap between middle grade and young adult. This would be the rare book I’d recommend even for teens much older than the characters.  –Haley I.

I Love, I Hate, I Miss My Sister

I love, I hate, I miss my sister by Amelie Sarn, translated by Y. Maudet

I love I hate I miss my sister is a young adult book by Amelie Sarn, translated from the French by Y. Maudet. It is contemporary realistic fiction and is based on a true story. In her acknowledgements, Sarn states her purpose: “I hope [it] sparks conversations about civil liberties for girls and women–and the ways we can fight to prevent violence against women globally.” The book’s theme is liberty, in particular for women and girls.

The story is set in a poor community of Algerian immigrants in France. The protagonist and narrator is Sohane, a teenager of Algerian descent in France. Her journey in the story is to grapple with the conflicting thoughts and emotions she has about her murdered sister. The book moves between past (before the murder) and present (after.) Sohane addresses her dead sister throughout.

I think to understand the emotional potency of the book I need to give a little history. Much of this is knowledge gained from my own association with French and Algerian people, but you can find detailed accounts online.

France maintained its colonial control of Algeria until 1962, when a lengthy and bloody revolution pushed them out. This long relationship (well over a century) is why there are a large number of people with Algerian heritage in France. Like many immigrant communities around the world, they struggle with poverty and cultural isolation. They are less integrated into French society than we as Americans might expect an immigrant community to be after so many decades. (Although I also think we as Americans over-estimate our supposed integration.)

France takes pride in its secular civil society, and in general sees religion as an entirely private matter. But the Algerian immigrants do not share the history that brought the French to this cultural outlook. Instead, Algeria’s independence from France was in part led by religious men and women, and expressed in Islamic terms. Islam was suppressed under French rule. I’ve had both French and Algerians tell me that the French citizens with Algerian heritage “are like the blacks in the US.” In other words, they’re isolated by racism, and discrimination on every front leads to a lack of opportunity.

The two main characters–the narrator and her murdered sister–are two young women who are in the process of discovering who they are. One of them becomes defiantly more religious and one becomes defiantly secular. I say defiantly because both are pulled by the two poles of their cultural milieu: French secularism and Algerian religiosity. They each rebel against the opposite force.

As the murdered Djelila says: “You know what’s so stupid? Those guys bother me because I don’t cover my hair and you’re expelled because you want to cover yours. Isn’t it ironic?”

But only one of them ends up murdered horrifically, Djelila, in a hate crime perpetrated because she is female. She doesn’t live long enough to escape the poverty and conservatism of the projects. What is the thesis here? On the dust jacket, there’s an indication: “Every choice has a price.” I would say that the book presents the case that for women and girls, the price is very high–no matter what the choice is.

The issues explored in the book, as I discussed above, are possibly more poignant and potent for the French audience. I lack the context in which a ban on headscarves even makes sense at an emotional level–why would anyone think banning a scarf was a good idea? For the French, it’s a cultural flashpoint that generates a lot of heat on both sides of the issue. All you have to say is “headscarf” and French people immediately start experiencing all sorts of emotions.

What happens on the pages of this book is a meditation on guilt and love. For me, possibly because I am an American reader, the book feels strangely sterile. There’s not a lot of sensory detail in the narration–this is a book about thinking. Sohane the narrator thinks about her murdered sister. She thinks about her emotions. That’s it, and for a French audience, a character thinking might indeed be a rewarding read. My favorite bits are the scenes in apartments of relatives, the array of aunts and uncles, and it might be because the world came into focus, the details became more tactile. I wish I could have spent more time there.

Two Awesome Totally Different Books

The first part of every course at NILA takes place during the ten days of residency. For this DR, we covered two books at residency: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina and The Living by Matt de la Peña. So we didn’t do book reviews for these two books since we basically talked about them for hours in person, which is why these notes are brief and informal.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Holy cats! Harrowing. This book won us over with its wit and soul. The title made us (well, those of us who didn’t do our research, like me, I guess) think it was going to be light and funny, but this story is about a girl getting seriously bullied. And it is an awesome book, and there are lots of laughs along the way–but this is a hard-hitting, truth-telling kind of a story. One of those books where you’re not quite the same after you read it. We loved it.  ~Haley I

The Living by Matt de la Peña

This is a non-stop thrill ride. If you haven’t read it yet, that’s cool because there’s a sequel. And you will want to read it right after you finish this one. There was some discussion in class about this book as being very commercial to read for an MFA course. But that’s exactly why I think it was a brilliant choice.

This isn’t a book about what it’s like to have Mexican heritage or be Mexican American or etc. It’s a disaster adventure with both Nature and a shadowy corporate conspiracy as antagonists. Shy, the protagonist, experiences racist BS as one would in the course of daily life. Racist BS matters in the plot, but not in the afterschool-special or problem-novel way. For this reason, I think reading this book, a “plot-driven” book for which you can easily & eagerly imagine the blockbuster summer movie adaptation, was important for the course. (Also, can someone please make the movie of this book?)

Writing the Other: The book and more background

So we started the semester by reading Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It’s a slim volume with several essays, actually. There’s a useful discussion about the “unmarked state,” and a trip into the reptile brain:

The reptile brain will always remember the…bigoted information it learns, even when our conscious minds know the information is false.

(I’d give you the page number for this quote but I read it on my phone. It’s about 12% of the way through.)

The only caveat in my recommendation is the book’s assertion that class is not considered an important marker in America. I don’t know. All I ever heard is that poor people are leeches and if you don’t have resources it’s your own fault. Job creators are awesome, etc. Maybe it’s a generational thing and that’s why I don’t get the argument. It seems to me that class doesn’t matter in America in the same way that people claim to “not see color.”

But still, a useful and even reassuring place to start contemplating a trip out of your comfort zone.