Monday, November 2, 2009

Mystical Indians and Mythical Indians

So, I'm in between travel and wanted to post a few thoughts sparked by the last conference I went to (the NEATE one in Rhode Island). It was amazing to meet and interact with so many dedicated, caring English teachers. They were a lovely group, especially the ones in our workshop ;).

In my intro comments, I spoke a bit about how I came to write SHINE, COCONUT MOON and I wanted to share those here.

The book started out, initially, as a love letter to my eldest daughter. A while back she came home, chattering animatedly about Columbus Day. She described what she'd learned about the voyage across the Atlantic, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, and how Columbus discovered a strange new land, making friends with strange new people.

I held my tongue for the most part, and worked very hard to find age-appropriate ways to question and challenge some of the assumptions she was learning at school. I asked her how it's possible to discover something when there are already people there who obviously know about its existence. She nodded her head thoughtfully, pondering that one.

Everything was well and good until she said this:
"And we learned about the Indians. They lived a long time ago and they lived in teepees."

All of my composure and resolve to act as a mature parent was now in danger of crumbling. I told her that First Nations people and the indegenous people of North and South America are still alive and well, and living among us.

I could not convince her that this was true. Because somewhere in her mind, as a result of what she was being taught in school, she believed, without a doubt, that Native Americans were a myth.

I thought (okay, maybe obsessed) about this for some time afterward. I had to figure out a way to have my daughter question what she was learning without alienating herself, or making life difficult for herself in relating to her peers. I knew if that happened, I could lose her. She could easily turn her back to anything else I said down the line, because listening to me might result in painful alienation and isolation from her friends. And, as we all know, friends and social life are the MOST important things during those key, formative years.

I realized, too, that this same sort of mythification and mystification happens with "my kind" of Indians. I knew this on other levels before, but I'd never quite seen it in action before like this. I'd always known that India was romanticized in a lot of the literature I'd read. That India was portrayed as this far off, exotic land, waaaay across the ocean, with music that Madonna and the Beatles had decided to incorporate into their mega-gazillion dollar albums. This was not news to me.

What was different this time was the realization of how this affects kids in school. How, in Chimamanda Adichie's insightful words (see previous post), the "single story" shapes young minds--even in terms of their *own* identities. When, rather than looking to their own experience to define themselves, children reach, instead, for the "single story" that some teachers (many of whom are with these children more hours of the day than their own caregivers), teach from textbooks without examining its content or effects.

I don't know what the stats are on the exact percentage of kids who are bullied at school. But I would hazard a guess that a large percentage of that bullying is targeted towards children and teens who have some *identifiable* difference (race, class, not adhering to heteronormative confines, differently abled, etc). And while I love that many teachers and educators are on board with teaching children and teens about embracing and accepting difference, I am concerned that, at least in terms of race and multicultural education, that difference is still about "exotic others" living in far off lands.

For instance, teaching children about Guatemalan children feeding their animals in Guatemala doesn't necessarily help Guatemalan children here, dealing with their peers on a day to day basis. Likewise, my daughter learns at school about children in India and what their lives are like "over there". To her, there is absolutely NO connection between those children and her life. She looks at those children as exotic others because she doesn't identify with them. This is the same way she learned that Native Americans "lived long ago in teepees." Because the representations she saw were of Columbus's voyage, and that was all. She saw no other representations that year, or the next two after, of Native American children and/or people. She saw no images of Indigenous North American children of *today*, interacting with kids like herself and her friends.

On the other hand, if my daughter should read about or see images of South Asians in the present, navigating their daily life's challenges--challenges she can relate to and identify with--she will see herself in those depictions. And should her friends and peers read about, or see such images, they will begin to see her as a person who lives, loves, walks, and breathes among them. Not an exotic, mystical "other".

This was a huge reason I chose to write SHINE. It's also the reason I devoured novels like The House On Mango Street, The Joy Luck Club, The Absolutey True Diary of A Part Time Indian, Born Confused, The Not So Star Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, and a host of others. Though I love fantasy (and am writing two fantasy novels right now) as well as historical novels, I wanted my daughter and her friends to learn about what life is like for people here and now, when there is an obvious, identifiable difference to negotiate. And I want them to think critically about how much of that difference is real, as well as how much of it is an illusion. But they can never learn to negotiate that difference if it is always posited as being somewhere far away, or long ago, outside of their immediate experience.

Sometimes books help us find paths we never knew existed. Or allow us to dream up and forge new paths. I know some of the books listed above helped me do that, and I strive to provide the same in all of the books I write, regardless of genre. And the emails I'm getting on a daily basis let me know it's working, even if it's one little window at a time.

1 comment:

Zetta said...

It's so great to know you shared all of this with other educators...I've been thinking lately how I was so fascinated with ancient Egypt as a child, yet never ONCE heard the pharaohs and tombs linked to Africa. I don't know where I thought Egypt in the middle of some desert somewhere. The far away, mystical Other can do some serious damage...

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