During my book tour this summer, I was asked more questions about my life and Native people than I’d ever thought possible. Most were thoughtful, but occasionally I got questions so ignorant, they were offensive. A white woman asked me whether if she thinks she was a Native American in a past life, is it O.K. to practice our ceremonies? I told the woman no, and said Native ceremonies come from Native experience and are there for us to heal, to understand Native experience. I saw her after the reading, and it seemed she wanted to talk, but she didn’t want to talk enough to wait more than five minutes for me to finish my conversation.
Ignorant questions are frustrating to people of color because in movies as well as in literature, the white male is the default representation. This country has been ruled by white men and made to benefit white people above all else since its inception. It is deeply damaging to the psyches of oppressed communities who suffer because of this history to hear lies about what this country means and has meant. It’s not even agreed upon that this country’s origins are steeped in slave labor, genocidal bloodshed and the taking of land from a people, even though these are facts most if not all historians would agree are facts. The onus is always on us, we the oppressed, to challenge a system that wants to conserve its traditions and traditional values. We come to understand that if we want to be included in the American conversation, we have to work twice as hard while being told that we’re lazy, or that the government gives us money, and then told that we’re angry if we bring up the problem of racism in public spaces or when it doesn’t feel like the right time. So we keep putting off these conversations, or we’re having them on the Internet, where it’s too easy to be anonymous and therefore cruel and selfish. It’s like car drivers behaving dangerously on the road, simply because they’re hidden behind metal, glass and distance. In our more personal online spaces we fill our feeds exclusively with people we agree with. If there is conflict below a post or tweet it never feels like a conversation–only like road rage.
Both the writer and the reader bring their experience to the page
So if we can’t seem to find ways to talk in person, or online, when and where and how do we talk? I think a novel is a kind of conversation. Both the writer and the reader bring their experience to the page. The reader’s experiences and ideas can be reshaped, challenged, changed. I know, I’m a writer, so of course I think the answer is books, but I think reading books is a good place to start thinking about and understanding people’s stories you aren’t familiar with, outside your comfort zone and experience. A novel will ask you to walk in a character’s shoes, and this can build empathy. Without empathy we are lost. I tend to read mostly novels and have come to understand the world better through the lens of novels. When someone else’s world is different from our own, we see how we are the same. We not only become more empathetic to their experience but we see how we are equal. We also see how much upper-middle-class white male writing has been the only thing taught in schools, the only experience for so long–most of the time anyway. I think institutional change can come by teaching women, teaching writers of color. We will all be better for it. I like that novels ask us without seeming to ask us to think about other people, to understand the many-storied landscape of this country we live and die in–with or without truly knowing or understanding them.