Two young adult authors and their editors gathered for a casual yet insightful discussion about representations of Native American characters and authors in young adult literature at a panel called "Native Fiction and the Editorial Process," held at the New York Public Library on October 4. Authors Eric Gansworth (If I Ever Get Out of Here, Scholastic/Levine) and Joseph Bruchac (Killer of Enemies, Lee and Low/Tu Books) were joined by Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, and Stacy Whitman, editorial director at Tu Books. Betsy Bird, youth materials specialist at the NYPL, moderated.
The question of whether Native characters are underrepresented in young adult books was not the subject at hand – as, for the panelists, the answer was a clear and resounding yes. Instead, the speakers addressed questions of authenticity when writing about Native culture, audience, and the challenges of writing and editing fiction that is set within a culturally specific framework. Bird launched the discussion by asking Klein and Whitman to share how they first came to work with Gansworth and Bruchac.
Though, admittedly, Klein and Whitman come from backgrounds that are a far cry from life on a Native American reservation (“we’re Midwestern farm girls,” said Klein), they have both sought out work of Native authors, recognizing the dearth in the YA arena as well as an opportunity to publish new stories that reach Native kids.
Klein reached out to Gansworth, who grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation, after reading one of his short stories featuring adolescent characters. She asked him whether he had ever thought about writing explicitly for young readers. At the time, Gansworth explained, “I didn’t really understand the distinction between books for children and adults.” But he had dabbled in writing for teens and sent Klein that work. Klein felt that the content came across more as “an adult writing about young life” and “looking back” on childhood, rather than being “focused on being a young person.” Yet she was anxious to work with him, and the author set out to try his hand at writing material that more immediately captures the adolescent experience.
Whitman also approached Bruchac, after she developed an interest in finding an author “who writes sci-fi with Native American characters.” Bruchac, who is of partial Abenaki descent, developed an early interest in science fiction as a child, acquiring a vast library of sci-fi books. His love of reading within the genre eventually streamed into his own fiction.
For some time, Bruchac said, he had been interested in writing a novel that would envision a “post-apocalyptic future” that is the “result of an imbalance in our culture” and which “parallels the distant past.” He also knew that he needed his main character to be female, stemming from his interest in the ways in which “the roles of women have been misunderstood by Europeans,” somewhat in alignment with the ways that Native cultures have been undermined and misconstrued. Also, Bruchac noted that “women are brave and are made to endure pain better than men,” qualities befitting a protagonist living in the society he hoped to create. Bruchac’s concept eventually evolved into Killer of Enemies, published by Tu in 2013.
As with any novel, both Killer of Enemies and If I Ever Get Out of Here, underwent extensive revisions. The panelists discussed the enriching, challenging, and sometimes delicate process of preparing the books for publication.
For both Klein and Whitman, editing books that incorporate Native history, culture, language, and customs is always an edifying experience. Yet Klein described working on If I Ever Get Out of Here as “the most educational editing experience I have ever had.” Despite being a veteran in the field, she frequently came face-to-face with her own misconceptions. When Klein read a first draft of Gansworth’s novel, which takes place in the 1970s on the Tuscarora Reservation and features Native protagonist Lewis Blake, “I loved the characters and setting,” she said. But the novel was quite a bit longer than she felt it needed to be. “I also struggled to determine what the stakes were for the character [Lewis] and what he wants.” Thinking in conventional editorial terms, Klein sought solutions to what she perceived as persistent questions in the book, and looked to other works of young adult literature as models. But many of these models, she came to realize, derive from western literary archetypes (such as the Hero’s Journey), and were not necessarily germane to Lewis Blake’s story.
In her experience, a classic story arc takes a character from one place to another: “You leave where you are from and go somewhere else,” she said. In seeking more clearly defined motivation for Lewis, she suggested to Gansworth: “Why doesn’t he go to boarding school?” Gansworth was quick to dismiss the idea. In fact, at the heart of his character’s crisis is the very fact that “there are not a lot of escape options” available to him, Gansworth said. And the character’s connection to family and the past is also an integral component of who he is and who he will potentially become.
In addition to “finding the journey of a book,” and not necessarily subscribing to previous models, Klein began to see that “being made to listen is always an editor’s job.” Part of the process of working on If I Ever Get Out of Here meant asking “What is the meaning of here?” within the context of the book and the title. Of course, as Gansworth said, “Everyone wants to get out of middle school,” but for Lewis, perhaps “here” represents something much less obvious.
Another impasse came when Klein suggested that the book could benefit from moving and adjusting the timeline. From Gansworth’s perspective, since the book is set in the 1970s and “Indian history is rewritten and switched around so much” within white culture, he was very resistant to altering the timeline of events.
Another “aha!” moment for Klein: realizing that when an editor has the sense that he or she can freely alter facts of history, this speaks to a kind of “white privilege.” Rather than making dramatic changes to the book’s historical timeline, Klein instead began to focus on the “nitty-gritty of tightening up” the work."
Reading and editing Killer of Enemies was an educational experience for Whitman as well. Throughout the process, she often thought about our society’s ingrained and sometimes sexist ideas about story structure and chronology.
One of Whitman’s struggles as an editor was accepting that the book’s backstory was an important part of the present action. The story’s protagonist is 17-year-old Lozen, an Apache hunter living in a future world that has returned to a steam age. Since the book draws an essential link between Lozen’s present and past, Whitman worked with Bruchac to preserve this historical context while maintaining effective pacing.
Bruchac used the term “circularity” to refer to the way in which current events connect to events of the past, and future, a concept central to Lozen’s story. He also acknowledged the difficulty of telling a story that is closely tied to a particular culture “in a framework that won’t lose readers” who may not be a part of that culture. He pointed to Gansworth’s book as an example of a work that effectively explores being an outsider within an insider community in a way that will speak both to Native and non-Native readers. Bruchac finds that striking this balance is especially challenging, in that life on a reservation is highly distinctive both in terms of culture and in how the world is conveyed and perceived. For example, he noted the degree of “freedom that young people have in Native communities,” as compared to non-Native cultures, in which youth are often heavily protected and restricted. He also pointed to the dominant use of metaphor among indigenous people: for instance, he was once working with fourth-graders at a school on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation. Several kids told him about the “underwater wolverine” living in the frozen lake that their elders warned them about. To Bruchac, it was clear that the monster was meant to discourage the children from walking on the thin ice.
A Question of Voice
A question from the audience brought up the often delicate topic of white authors writing Native voices. For Whitman, while she does publish white authors writing about “outside” cultures, “with 500 years of Native lives being repressed,” she always looks first for Native authors to tell their own stories. For those white authors who are writing about Native life, during the editing process, she will “go to cultural experts to verify and guide” content. Bruchac and Gansworth, who agree that even writing about indigenous people outside their own immediate communities is problematic for them, the idea of a white author writing intimately from a Native perspective is dubious, at best. The essential question any author should consider, Gansworth believes, is: “do you have permission” to tell a particular story?
Yet, regardless of the specificity of historical, cultural, and geographical context in fiction, both authors agreed that a book reaches its audience through its command of storytelling. Bruchac noted that he looks less to the schools of Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, whose work he feels can be alienating and esoteric, but more toward William Carlos Williams to find “clarity of voice and storytelling that is accessible.”
Gansworth noted that he has met a great many young sci-fi fans on reservations, which he thinks may have something to do with the desire to escape from the very real challenges of reservation life (and for kids everywhere, sometimes “reading about their own lives is boring”). He personally found it difficult to read about the reservation when he was a child, as it reflected so glaringly his own experience. Thus, he was unable to pick up Ted C. Williams’s The Reservation, about Tuscaroran people, until he was much older and able to look back on his experience with some distance. He now treasures that book. Gansworth expressed his satisfaction in knowing that his stories will be waiting for Native readers once they decide that they are “ready to read about their home.”