Tuesday, April 14, 2009

David Treuer's "Native American Fiction: A User's Manual"

Carrie Devall has sent AatA a review of David Treuer's controversial Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, a book she mentioned in a comment a few weeks back. She also sends a link to Shannon Gibney's fascinating interview with David Treuer for Gibbon's "Thinking Souls" Literary Series, that I think many readers of this blog might find interesting.

Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, by David Treuer, Graywolf Press, 2006.
Review by Carrie Devall, April 2009

I stumbled on David Treuer’s book of essays, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual on a library shelf while rooting around the Minnesota poetry and fiction collections to learn more about local writers. Treuer’s novels are The Translation of Dr. Appelles, Little, and The Hiawatha. He lives on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, and also in Minneapolis where he teaches at the University of MN.

I mentioned NAFiction in a comment here before I got to the part where Treuer makes comparisons between Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony and Luke Skywalker’s 1977 movie adventures, as “products of their time and the story that surrounds them.” That should give you some idea of the wide-ranging and anti-beatifying approach he takes to analyzing his genre. While its focus is very different, I think the book could be a useful resource for speculative writers trying to develop their own style and voice who have to contend with all the issues surrounding being a writer from a particular community, like endlessly being pigeonholed as “the ____ writer,” or as “not ___ enough,” etc., as well as for speculative writers working on projects of ‘writing the Other,’ beyond the beginner’s issues.

In this book (and in more depth in online interviews about the book), Treuer discusses the responsibility of writers from his P.O.V. as a fiction writer (and avid reader). He starts with the idea that all writers appropriate, but balances that with discussions of the writer’s awareness of how and what they appropriate, and how a reader will interpret the text. He also discusses his own conception of his responsibility as a writer to the community made up of individuals whose culture and language are being used to create a fiction, or a novel (a particular form of fiction that works in certain ways and does a certain kind of work). He develops ideas about what constitutes “good faith” on the part of a writer in “appropriating culture,” as opposed to what kinds of representations effect violations of self and the other.

Treuer lays out an analysis of ‘culture’ as something real people enact in their real lives, in contrast to a novel, which uses literary techniques to put together words on paper in a specific language (here, English) to depict people and their lives, culture, and forms of community. Fiction writing relies on the use of symbols, metaphor, all the abstractions that lead to ‘representation’ of people as certain kinds of objects, symbols, or ‘ghosts’—the analogy he uses to talk about how images and ideas about Native Americans are constructed by other people. Alongside the ‘ghost’ analogy, he also places the questions about non-Indians writing about American Indians in the context of a history of Indians being “written about as if [they] were silent for decades and decades and decades,” always the subject of ‘expert’ study but never the ‘experts.’ (partly quoting from an online interview)

His analysis is centered around the importance of style, of being aware of the assumptions that readers will likely bring to a text, for the writer to be able to avoid unintended ‘readings’ of the text, but more to be able to use awareness of those assumptions in crafting the text to best achieve the writer’s intended effect. He also takes on the political issues surrounding his favoring analysis of ‘style’ over analysis of the ‘origin’ or ‘authenticity’ of the author, style, and/or content of the text. I read his approach as steeped in an awareness of exactly how he is seeking to intervene in a debate over those issues that has gone on for decades. He is open about his particular agenda as a writer of novels that do not follow all of the conventions that many people have identified as “the way to write Native American fiction,” and as a man who grew up and lives on the Leech Lake reservation, speaks Ojibwe, but is not always perceived as someone who “looks Indian” or lives a stereotypical “Indian life.”

Treuer holds his cards close to the chest in interviews as well as the book, but to me this book read like a performance—the performance of a shrewd and skilled fiction writer and reader with a subtle sense of humor, masquerading for provocative effect as a more bristly and brash critic than his thoughtful and detailed analyses of books and literary theories reflects.

The book could be read for titillation, because he does a lot of nitpicking about the writing of big names in the genre and how specific writers talk about their novels and their body of work, and how they market their persona. However, he nitpicks to make larger points, and mentions that many of these people he knows well or considers friends. He also displays much respect for their craft, with the exception of Sherman Alexie, with whom he seems to have a personal beef aside from the fact that Alexie is one of the icons to whom every other (male) Indian writer has to put up with being compared to. I found that Treuer’s analysis of the performance aspect of Alexie’s public persona is constructed to support Treuer’s own project of performing a different, (ideally more expansive and freeing) idea of who a Native American writer and critic and what “Native American fiction” as a genre could be (as well as simply doing it by writing his own novels).

The book has a fractured focus, which seems to stem from Treuer switching positions, back and forth. The first is his position as a writer, serious about his craft and contribution to literature, caught between personal annoyance at the limits placed on him by the conventions that have grown up around the books labeled as a genre of ‘Native American fiction,’ resistant to being forced into the roles of token, spokesperson, and by nature of writing a fictional text becoming an ‘expert’ on anything and everything Indian that the text touches upon. The second is his position as a critic, reader, and writer who seeks to contribute in a concrete, constructive way toward pushing writers, readers, and critics to rethink those conventions and the limits they place on writers, to ask new and different questions. Negotiating the tensions between these two positions and covering all that theoretical ground is a big project; the essays tend to throw out a bunch of provocative questions and brief samples of how one could go about trying to come up with answers to those questions to address the specific problems he raises, rather than provide detailed, thorough analysis. (This made the book very readable, not overly long or dense.)

The essays I found particularly interesting examined specific novels closely in terms of the literary techniques the author used to create the effects that lead readers and critics to say they “represented” Native life or culture in an “authentic” manner. The essay “Smartberries,” Treuer’s analysis of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and The Antelope Wife, focuses on her use of languages, Ojibwe, English, and German, and her varying use for literary effect of translation by context, by explaining the meaning of words or phrases, or by lack of explanation. The position he takes as a critic in this essay is as a native speaker of Ojibwe, unlike Erdrich, so the analysis is partly one Native writer’s analysis of how he feels another Native writer succeeds and fails at writing his particular language and culture (and related ones) as ‘the Other.’

In the process, Treuer asks a lot of interesting questions about why Erdrich might have used the particular literary techniques she used, suggesting particular interpretations that may or may not be fair, but the cumulative effect is to point out many places where future critics could do fruitful study and analysis of Erdrich’s work and the work of other writers. He points out, for example, that Love Medicine primarily used Ojibwe nouns, as solitary words, where the language relies heavily on verbs. He questions what effect that has on the novel’s representation of Ojibwe language and culture. He also asks about the responsibility of a writer in crafting representations of a ‘dying’ language that people are working hard to keep alive in their very real lives.

Because I had this sense of the book as a performance of ‘the provocative critic,’ I found some of the negative reviews of the book amusing. The way Treuer structured that essay around an Ojibwe story involving the eating of ‘smartberries’ (rabbit turds) allowed him to succeed in luring critics into the trap of taking him to task for telling them they’re full of rabbit turds for taking issue with his analysis. In a way, this is a silly distraction, but his careful use of style in his critical writing brings home his point that focusing on questions of authenticity of the writer or the novel are a distraction from these other issues that he raises. Form, style, and content are closely linked in the essays, which gave me particular pleasure as a reader. And the traps Treuer lays seemed to me to make the statement “you’re purposely missing my point, stop evading the issues and look again,” not “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

One of the throughlines of the book is an insistence on specificity and thoroughness in literary criticism, on analyzing particular novels by Native American authors in terms of their literary craft and methods instead of the personalities and public personas and/or ‘political’ projects of the authors. He takes issue with the idea that any writer’s novels simply appear out of the ether or out of tribal history and culture as ‘products of culture,’ emphasizing the importance of the writer’s own time, effort, thought, and work to master craft and figure out how to ‘enact culture’ in a written form that has its own culture—literary tradition. He questions the ways writers (particularly Silko) claim they use ‘traditional’ myths and storytelling techniques, and analyzes how these are actually used in their novels. He also analyzes specific literary techniques that James Welch and other writers used to create a heightened sense of historicity about their fictional characters and the characters’ dialogue. These parts of the book might be particularly useful for speculative writers.

Some critics take his arguments, as Treuer says he anticipated critics would, as a call for a return to earlier methods of criticism that insisted that only the text matters and there should be no consideration of the larger context in which texts are produced and read. He specifically acknowledges fears that his project is an attempt to ‘turn back the clock’ and roll back the gains of thirty years of identity politics. (That by saying “style is what matters,” instead of the writer’s identity, means ‘white people can write Indian.’) But Treuer spends a good portion of the book criticizing white readers and critics and the effects of publishing industry marketing practices for the reductionism, colonization of the styles and content of the novels written by Native American writers, all the issues of white people trying to ‘be Indian,’ ‘have Indian spirit,’ and all that stuff that ‘identity politics’ is particularly useful in analyzing and countering. He also uses the example of (a former Klan leader using the pseudonym) Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree to examine how imitating certain literary styles allows ‘imposters’ to write hoax texts that are received as ‘Native American novels’ or biographies until the identity of the writers is unmasked.

I thought he managed to make a solid case for reading Erdrich, Silko, and Welch as amazing literary stylists, period (in fiction/literature as the unmarked state), whose skill as fiction writers should be appreciated and examined thoroughly, and he does this without recoding the writers as ‘not Indian.’ Some critics of this book disagree, because he tries at the same time to take issue with ‘what is Indian’ in a novel, and his lines of analyses get convoluted at times, but I think it’s pretty clear Treuer is not arguing that any of these writers are ‘not Indian.’

He goes to some pains to make it clear he is calling for something different than a return to old (white, Western) styles of criticism. And that his focus is on opening up opportunity and space for Native writers, and on the way in which standard ways of configuring identity politics limit or constrain the development of individual writers and Native American literature as a whole, having a cumulative negative effect on how people feel they are required to write their novels, as well as whether people can get published and how their work is received and marketed.

I ended up wanting to re-read the novels he analyzes in order to study them more closely, both out of curiosity about whether I agree with him and in the hopes of learning more about literary craft and techniques to improve my own writing in a very different genre. In particular, I became curious about his criticism of Leslie Marmon Silko’s use of the feminine figure who heals the male hero through being sexually receptive to him in Ceremony, as being sexist and also questionable in terms of the psychological healing process enacted in the story. My head is already filled with conflict over this issue, with the writings of Jungian analysts of myth and fairytales who decry the historical Western suppression of the feminine and ‘the goddess’ clashing with feminist criticisms of tired old tropes. Treuer’s analysis made me want to reread Ceremony to examine the use of that trope in that novel.

Also, halfway through Treuer’s essay about Sherman Alexie, I began to want to reread Alexie’s novels to see whether Treuer might be missing something about the way Alexie’s use of the “angry young man” as protagonist works in his novels, and whether that affects some of the flaws Treuer identifies in those novels. When a book of literary criticism sparks my mind in this way, generating new theory kernels to examine and giving me the urge to reread books, I have no problem calling it “thought-provoking.”

* * * * * * * * *

To illuminate Carrie's review, here's a taste from Shannon Gibney's interview of Treuer:

DT: But I guess I do feel like there’s a depressing lack of ambition among many writers, not just Native writers. Writers in general, who just want to write a book. They sit down and say, “I just want to write a good story.” You know, it’s a bit disingenuous. They want more than that – I’d like to think they did. You know, “Oh, a good story, that’s so sweet!” Especially writers of color – don’t they have more to do? Shouldn’t we think? But there’s this anti-intellectual strain in America, where intellectualism is somehow bad.

One of the writers who I cover in Native American Fiction, who shall remain nameless, was mad about one of the essays. I showed it to him/her, and they said, “Oh, so you wanted to be an academic.” And I said, “No, I wanted to be a thinker.” But I believe, I feel that we need to put a lot more thought into what we do. Especially when we know that people read our stuff as culture. Even we don’t intend it that way, we know it’s being received that way, so don’t we have a responsibility to keep that in mind when we’re creating?
. . . . .

[...] What passes as a “smart” book, the inheritors of Eliot’s and Nabokov’s and Thomas Mann’s efforts. To write books with really simple characters, who have very simple emotions, with language that replaces complexity with quirkiness. So we don’t have any complex language or complex characters, or complicated cross-purposed agendas. Instead of this, we have books that are quirky and extravagant. “Oh my God! His dog’s name is Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.!” (the dog’s name in Everything Is Illuminated). “Isn’t that hilarious!” So this quirk has replaced intelligence.

I’ll tell why people like these books. Because most readers, they don’t trust their own taste. They don’t trust they’re going to understand a” smart” book. But they will, if they get into the mode of reading them.

Reading takes practice, like anything else. Any reader can sit down with The Magic Mountain [Thomas Mann], and enjoy it. But, since readers don’t trust their own tastes, since the market doesn’t trust readers, since editors don’t trust writers, what we have now in these so-called “smart” novels are young adult novels dressed up as literary fiction. Simple plot, simple character, extreme emotions, extreme situations. Like The Life of Pi [Yann Martel], another great example. It looks deep, but it’s really very wide and shallow. “You put a tiger in a boat – isn’t that crazy!” And it’s selling readers short, I think.

That is authors then abdicating any responsibility, with a few exceptions – Richard Powers being one of them. I think he’s just incredible. The Time of Our Singing is just outstanding. It’s about race in America in the last 50 years, and it’s the most amazing book. It’s far more complex than [Toni Morrison’s] Beloved.

There are very few books that are about much anymore. But I’m trying to bring that back, in ways that are enjoyable. Because I think you’re right: people associate that kind of thought with whiteness, or that anything that makes you think is somehow suspect. Especially books about culture – they’re not supposed to make you think. They’re supposed to make you feel. Which is why Ishmael Reed is not a best seller. He should be, but he’s not. Because he makes you think.

SG: So what do you think the critic’s role is in all of this?

DT: Well, I think it’s like T. S. Elliot said, that you really can’t have healthy, vibrant literature without healthy, vibrant criticism. And there’s an awful lot of criticism out there about a great many things, but not a lot of it is about Native American literature.

I was putting it to a friend this way last night: “You are now allowed to be a non-Native critic of Native literature, so long as you take the writer’s word for it.” And this is an honest and heartfelt response to a pretty sticky situation. You know how it is, how often we’re spoken for. Everyone else is the experts about us, we’re never experts about ourselves. We were written about as if we were silent for decades and decades and decades.

Native American criticism, growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, alongside multiculturalism, began to address that, and suggest that these books have value. But the main argument is somehow faulty: That these have value not despite the fact that they’re different, but because they are. So they were read for difference where, in some ways, difference didn’t exist.

Most Native critics are in the same situation as many Native writers, where criticism is a kind of wish-fulfillment. Books are a portal into cultural connection for the writer and the critic. People feel, “I really want to believe that these books perform culture.” Because for Native critics and writers, it’s a way to have a connection with their culture.

I had my own identity issues so long ago, and that’s my private business. I know who I am, and where I belong, and who my people are. I don’t need anyone else to approve it. I don’t need anyone else to give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I don’t need my books to make me feel better about myself, or my place. I skipped all that. I speak Ojibwe, and that’s a great thing. And I don’t need books to do that for me.

Books are for thought and pleasure, and the thrill and magic that literature can bring. And for their inventiveness, not for their truth – except for maybe their emotional truth. That’s what books do for me. I mean, I love that. I can’t live without that. But it’s not about who I am. A lot of people like stories of cultural re-connection. And I’m not interested in that at all.

* * * * * *
A lot to think about, yes?


Foxessa said...

So much to think about indeed.

Thank you so much for bringing this work to the attention of us who didn't already know about it.

Love, C.

Eleanor said...

I guess I'd better track down a copy of the book. I just wrote a story in which I used an Ojibwa noun by itself. It will probably stay, though I should probably double check the word. It's what you do when you don't know a language, especially given the importance of nouns in English.