Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ingredients of Good Multicultural Historical Fiction: Avoiding the “Dances with Wolves Syndrome” by Michele Hathaway

Joseph Bruchac refers to stories that portray one culture as good and another as bad as the “Dances with Wolves Syndrome.” In these stories, protagonists are often complex, quiet, and deep, for example, the Noble Native American. Antagonists are notoriously uncomplicated and ignorant, such as the tobacco spitting, trigger happy, whites. Notice how even the terms underline the difference: the Native American is given a geographic reference, but whites have no geographic origin or color—or capitalization.

Human Dignity

Dances with Wolves literature not only perpetuates cultural stereotypes and inaccuracies, it re-sows and nourishes racial tension. Stories must show wrongs—in age-appropriate doses—in all their ugliness, of course. It is the way this is done that is problematic. One clue to poor storytelling is if the reader comes away with a sense of pity for the oppressed. Showing one people as entirely the victim of another, paradoxically, diminishes that culture’s humanity. Even people in concentration camps are not powerless. They make choices. They can decide to sacrifice themselves for others, to have hope, to endure—even to die well. They can have dignity. The difference here is respect, not pity.

Jim Murray, Scholastic, 2009
Human Complexity

Another problem with Dances with Wolves Syndrome is that it often simplifies the complex. As you know, history is a labyrinth of connecting passages, convergences, and dead ends. Those who attempt to teach or write about it for the young have an almost overwhelming job.

There is always a backstory. Usually the backstory has a backstory. Perpetrators of injustice can be convinced or brainwashed about their actions. Some, perhaps many, are conflicted. There were Germans during the world wars who were embedded in a system where they felt powerless. There were teachers in American Indian boarding schools who thought they were doing the right thing by not letting children speak their own language. I’m not suggesting that backstory excuses wrong, but good multicultural historical fiction fosters empathy, not enmity.

Truth in the Telling

I am writing a series of stories about a Navajo family set in the late to post WWII era where I explore life on the Navajo reservation, in boarding schools, and in a tuberculosis sanatorium, among other settings. Indian boarding schools have a long dark history. Children were sometimes stolen from their homes. They were stripped of their identity, given a European education, and returned to their families, if they survived, unrecognizable—living victims of ethnic cleansing, make no mistake.

Dig into the history, however, and you’ll find that on the Navajo reservation, things took a turn for the better in the 1930’s—better, not best. In the postwar ‘50s, education and conditions climbed upward. If you read biographies, even from earlier periods, you will get a wide spectrum of experience. While most children were still homesick, some liked indoor plumbing, getting more food, and solid ceilings rather than sand and dirt sifting down from a hogan roof. Some children escaped a life of hardship, sometimes even abuse. Also many parents and grandparents insisted their children go to school because they saw it as a path to making their way in a changing world. Conversely, there were children who loved their way of life and wanted nothing to do with any other. The point is that a story must be accurate for as many involved as possible. It must show the grey between the back and white.

It's a Human Thing

Good multicultural literature is for everyone. When the last paragraph is read, we should feel more connected to others and our own humanity, not less—more united than divided. Why do we love the story of the Christmas Truce so much? Because even our enemies can sing the same songs, love the same sports, dream the same dreams. In the end we are more alike than we are different.

As one of my Navajo friends likes to say “It’s a human thing."

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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