Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fiction on the Fringes and a Great Question

I spent much of last week on the way to, at, or on the way home from the mystery writers’ and readers’ conference, Killer Nashville. It was a great conference, but this isn’t my Killer Nashville post. I’ll post that one tomorrow over on The Stiletto Gang, one of the group blogs where I hang out. At the conferences, among other things, I was part of a panel called “Fiction on the Fringes: Writing about Other Cultures, Closed Societies, and Countercultures.”  It was a terrific mix of writers, Barti Kirchner, Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Jill Yesko, and our moderator, Stacy Allen. We joked among ourselves that we were just the writers no one knew what to do with, so they came up with this panel idea. 

But it was actually a great topic, and as a panel, we presented a variety of views—Barti who moves back and forth as a writer between her birth culture in India and her adopted culture in the United States, Ilene writing about a female rabbi from her experience as one of the first eight women rabbis ordained in this country, Jill writing about a counterculture hacker with oppositional-defiance disorder, and me writing about a mixed-blood Cherokee cop in a university setting.

The audience was completely attentive and receptive, and at the end audience members asked thoughtful questions that led to a fantastic discussion and exchange that continued out at the book-signing tables. One member of the audience, however, asked a question that’s been rumbling around in my mind ever since. She pointed out that the world she lived in was highly multicultural. She worked among people from many different backgrounds and cultures. She lived in a neighborhood with many people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Yet when she opened a book—unless it was written by someone from a cultural background other than the Western European mainstream—it was populated almost entirely with characters from the Western European mainstream. Why, she asked, couldn’t the novels she read be as diverse in their characters as the world around her was?

Others chimed in to agree. One audience member noted that a friend of hers who was a New York Times bestselling novelist routinely turned out one novel after another with all-white and middle-class casts of characters. Some people believed it was what publishers wanted. Others felt the writers who did this were just lazy. Some thought the majority of readers in the past preferred that homogenous line-up of characters, and publishers were simply slow in adjusting to new realities and readers who preferred a more realistic and diverse fictional world.

Finally, that original audience member posed a new but related question. As a writer who wanted to build a world as varied as that she lived in, she asked, how could she know enough about these other cultures to be certain she was getting it right and not using stereotypes, which can be too often what writers resort to when writing about cultures with which they are not truly familiar?

At this point, I had to point out that, if a writer wants to write about a culture, perhaps s/he should be hanging around with people from that culture, even becoming friends with some of them. Not because it’s useful to the writing, but because, if you want to write about a culture, you should appreciate that culture and the people in it, and if you appreciate them, you’ll become friends with them.  I always suggest that people look at Tony Hillerman as an example. He had lived around the Navajo and had friends among them long before he wrote about them, rather than the other way around of deciding to write about them and then heavy-handedly going among them wanting them to educate him about their culture. Even then, he checked and 
rechecked things with his Navajo friends and tried to be sure he was being both accurate and respectful. 

There’s still a split in the opinion in Indian Country, having to do with the appropriation of culture, whether he should or should not have written those novels, but the Navajo tribe awarded him an award as a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation. I’ve written about that controversy and the reasoning on both sides here.  There’s also an interesting discussion in the comments on that topic.

This is a sensitive topic with many cultures, but in the U.S. it’s especially so with Native American nations because so many European-American folklorists and anthropologists swooped in and interviewed one person over a limited time, often taking things out of context (or just getting them dead wrong) in efforts to make their own academic reputations and careers. These misunderstandings and inaccuracies have fed stereotypes that still inflict damage even today. The tribes have become leery, with reason, of outsiders who come to them wanting to know the secrets of their cultures for their own purposes.

My questioner then pointed out that she did have friends among the culture she wanted to write about, but was unsure whether she should ask them for help. I suggested that, under those circumstances, she might want to talk to her friends to see if they would be willing to help her immerse herself more in the culture and/or warn her when she was veering away from the actuality of their world in her writing.

It was a self-selected audience, of course—a group of people who chose to attend a panel called Fiction on the Fringes—but I was heartened at the deep interest in reading and writing novels that more truly reflect the rich diversity of cultures within this country. How do you feel about my questioner’s first question? Should the books we read reflect the diversity that surrounds us? Perhaps another reason they don’t is because some writers live in situations where they don’t see much of that diversity. (We often tend to be people who burrow into our caves and don’t see many others until we’re forced out, blinking, into the larger world to promote our books.) Certainly one of the advantages of attending conferences like Killer Nashville is the wide variety of panels that lead us to consider issues like this.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

EVERY HIDDEN FEAR Cover Reveal, Synopsis, and More

At the end of last week, I turned in the manuscript for my third Skeet Bannion mystery novel, Every Hidden Fear, which will be published May 6, 2014. My mind is still awhirl with the characters and events of that book. Yesterday, I received the cover for Every Hidden Fear, and I’m delighted with it, as I have been with each of the covers my publisher has given me for this series. So I wanted to share it with you.

Every Hidden Fear takes place in autumn just a few months after the events of the previous book, Every Broken Trust. Skeet Bannion tries to adjust to having her tough old grandmother living with her and her son, Brian, while Brian goes through the first pangs of unrequited love for his best friend, Angie Melvin, and Skeet’s aging delinquent father has also fallen disastrously in love.

Meanwhile, Ash Mowbray, a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, comes back to Brewster as a wealthy developer to polarize the town where he was once scorned, pushing plans to build a shopping mall on the outskirts of town that will destroy the courthouse-square businesses of Brewster.  The town council’s split on his proposal, and feelings run high.

Mowbray makes things worse by threatening to reveal dirty secrets about prominent citizens and announcing he’s the real father of Angie’s quarterback boyfriend. It’s not long before Mowbray turns up murdered with his son as prime suspect. Angie and Brian turn to Skeet to find the murderer and save their friend.

From Brian’s classmate and his family to Skeet’s friends among the shop owners of the town square, too many people wanted Mowbray dead, and too many of them are people Skeet cares about. She must catch the murderer to spare her friends, even if the killer’s one of them.

In this book, the plots and subplots are driven by people’s hidden fears, hidden from others and often from themselves, and these hidden fears often lead them to take ruinous actions. Skeet’s own hidden fear is activated and intensified by the disasters of others in the story, leading her to impulsive acts that will continue to affect her life for some time to come.

My beta readers and I think this is the most emotional and personal Skeet Bannion book, so far. Fear of love and fear of loss lead Skeet to places and actions she’s sworn she’d never go or do. I’m still excited about it, and I hope you will be, too, when it’s published and you have the chance to read it.

As soon as my publisher gives the okay, I’ll post a sample chapter or two. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Project Needs Help—“Red Dust: A Mixed-Blood Dust Bowl Childhood”

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is an acclaimed poet of Huron, Metis, Cherokee, Creek, Portuguese, French-Canadian, Irish, Scot, and English heritage whom I have featured before on this blog, but she is almost as well-known for her activism. Just check out all the activist projects listed in her bio below and realize that the listing is not comprehensive. Hedge Coke is another of the many writers of color who give back to the community selflessly. She was named Mentor of the Year in 2001 by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Of particular interest is the work she did with the sandhill cranes at the University of Nebraska Kearney. A poet and activist also heavily involved with labor and the Indigenous mound structures that network across the continent, her work reverberates with dreams, myths, history, and a true sense of life lived into something more sacred than its sometimes brutal or desecrating events.

Photo of Hedge Coke courtesy of the Maturin Cultural Center, Venezuela World Poetry Festival

Hedge Coke is seeking funding for an ambitious project documenting through the life of her 91-year-old father the experiences of the many mixed-blood children who lived through the Dust Bowl and the Depression, usually in dire poverty and often working as migrant farmworkers.  Hedge Coke’s father as a child moved around the heart of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas picking other people’s cotton for a penny a pound. As Hedge Coke says of this project, “Though we have hoped to do this project for years, my father recognized that he was in school with speakers interviewed in the recent Ken Burns documentary and was saddened that Burns’ work did not explore the collective experience and focused more in the Anglo experience, solely. Obviously timely and potentially time limited, I am setting out to document my father’s primary history of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, while he is still able to contribute effectively.”

“Red Dust: a mixed-blood Dust Bowl childhood” is designed as book project and documentary film using Hedge Coke’s father’s narration of his memories on location as the narrative thread running through a project that will also seek other surviving mixed-blood voices from that time to add their stories to enrich the chronicle. For more details of this unique project and the opportunity to contribute, visit the USArtists website here.

Hedge Coke conceived and edited the valuable anthology, SING: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, the first-ever anthology of Indigenous American poetry from all the Americas, North, Central, and South. This was an incredibly complex work that took six years and multiple translators to create. Its usefulness for scholars and lovers of poetry is a testament to the energy of her vision and the quality of her accomplishment. It leads me to expect great things from this new project, which is an exciting foray into an area that has long been missing the stories, experiences, and voices of the mixed-blood people who lived through that crucial time period.

Allison Hedge Coke has been an invitational featured performer in international festivals in Medellin, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Canada, and Jordan and foreign visiting professional in for Shandong University in Wei Hai, China. A 2010 Split This Rock Festival featured poet and 2011 Lannan Writing Resident (Marfa), she is a MacDowell Colony for Artists, Black Earth Institute Think Tank, Hawthornden Castle, Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, and Center for Great Plains Research Fellow, is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Appointment Distinguished Visiting Professor at Hartwick College and formerly the Distinguished Paul W. Reynolds and Clarice Kingston Reynolds Endowed Chair in Poetry as an Associate Professor of Poetry and Writing at the University of Nebraska, Kearney where she directed the Reynolds Series and Sandhill Crane Migration Literary Retreat & Cranefest. She is core faculty in the University of Nebraska MFA Program and regular Visiting Faulty of the MFA Intensive Program at Naropa University. Hedge Coke is a regular keynote lecturer/performer and was the 2008 Paul Hanly Furfey Endowed Lecturer, in Boston. Her books include: Dog Road Woman, American Book Award, Coffee House Press, 1997; The Year of the Rat, chapbook, Grimes Press, 2000; Rock Ghost, Willow, Deer, AIROS Book-of-the-Month (memoir), University of Nebraska Press, 2004; Off-Season City Pipe, Wordcraft Writer of the Year for Poetry, Coffee House Press, 2005; Blood Run, Wordcraft Writer of the Year for Poetry, Salt Publications, UK 2006-US 2007; To Topos Ahani: Indigenous American Poetry, Journal Issue of the Year Award (ed.), Oregon State University, 2007; Effigies, (ed.), Salt Publications, 2009 and Sing, University of Arizona Press, 2011. She has edited five other volumes. Her long poem "The Year of the Rat" is currently being made into a ballet through collaboration with Brent Michael Davids, composer. Recent literary publications include Kenyon Review, Florida Review, Connecticut Review, Sentence Magazine, Prometeo Memories, Akashic Books, and Black Renaissance Noire. Recent photography publications include Connecticut Review, Future Earth Magazine and Digital Poetics. She has also authored a full-length play Icicles, numerous monologues, and has worked in theater, television, and film. Hedge Coke has been awarded several state and regional artistic and literary grants, fellowships, and tours; multiple excellence in teaching awards, including the King Chavez Parks Award; a Sioux Falls Mayor's Award for Literary Excellence; a National Mentor of the Year, a Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Award; has served on several state, community, and national boards in the arts, a housing board, as a Delegate, in the United Nations Women in Peacemaking Conference, Joan B. Kroc Center for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego, and as a United Nations Presenting Speaker (with James Thomas Stevens, Mohawk Poet), Facilitator, and Speaker Nominator for the only Indigenous Literature Panel of the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Forum. For many years she has worked with incarcerated and underserved Indigenous youth and youth of color mentorship programs and served as a court official in Indian youth advocacy and CASA. Hedge Coke has edited five additional collections and is editing two new book series of emerging Indigenous writing. Hedge Coke has continually taught various creative writing, literature, environmental writing, cultural philosophy, Native American Studies/Literature, education, and other courses for pre-school, K-12, college, university, and professional institutions since 1979. She came of age working fields, waters, and working in factories.