Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.


6 Comments

  1. When we read about prolific writers and mom’s who got up in the middle of the night to create a master piece (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), we do well to remember that these are outliers, a red rose in the middle of a desert. Just as you say, writing takes a long time. The articles I’ve published at was paid for, then self-published books that continue to sell (in small numbers) reaffirm that others find what I have to say worthwhile. And now at almost 70, my blog is a gift to those who want to keep learning and laughing.

    Another point you make that is so important is to read. Reading Geraldine Brook pushes me to a higher level. Reading your books takes me out of my head into a new world to meet friends I know if real could be my friends.

    Keep posting your Sunday reads. Thank you.

    Like

  2. Thank you Edith! Like you, I am happy with my less visible (but not less meaningful) contributions. People in the arts who make big names for themselves, have many fans, and earn lots of $$$ have other problems that come with fame and fortune. I like my quiet corner of the internet and am happy you enjoy it too!

    Like

  3. When you say costume he was wearing are you referring to his traditional regalia? If so you should change refer to it as regalia. Our traditional clothing isn’t something we put on for fun, it is sacred. All of the Native people I know, myself included, hate when regalia is called a costume.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed reading There There, and I know what you mean about a white woman trying to learn about a different, minority culture that has been subject to racism for so long. I like to think of it as us just simply learning more about the world around us, which can never be a bad thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking forward to reading it when I get done writing my novel. I like the way you think about white women trying to learn about the world and its people. It can’t be bad that we support and want to understand and engage with people of other cultures.

      Liked by 1 person

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