Sometimes it’s important to read things, even if you don’t particularly like them. That would be things like textbooks, religious texts, canonized literature, and literature by people who are different from you. Anything that is important to the basis of society is probably something you should be somewhat familiar with, even if it’s boring. And, even though this is kind of buying into the man rather than sticking it to him, it is important to read “literature by people of color,” even if it’s the cliched, overused texts and authors, because at least it’s a start, and, even though it’s awful to define it that way, it’s also just legitimately good literature that’s no different from literature by white people in terms of its quality.
But I will admit that I did not enjoy N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, or Leslie Marmon Silko.
Part of that is because I am a product of American education, which, instead of just saying, “We’re going to read this book because it is good literature,” says, “We are going to read this book because it’s decent and it was written by a Native American person, and we want to pretend as if we care about what they have to say and while we’re at it, reading their books will allow us to think that all Native American experiences are the same, and also that we didn’t historically do really awful things to Native people.” Part of that is because those three authors are people I read during my last five years of school (before college), and that was my five years at private school, where I was first the new girl who felt awkward, then the brown girl who was one of very few brown people, and also where I was someone who was pretty unfamiliar with the cultural history of said authors and their communities, and also where I was someone who was still in formative years and didn’t like to work hard at literature. I was kind of a bad student. School is a great place to learn literature, but it’s also an awful place to learn literature, because sometimes a book forever leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and then you’ll never know whether it’s actually a bad book or if you just had a bad experience reading it. But that’s life.
Still, I didn’t feel particularly connected to or interested in The Way to Rainy Mountain, “Snares,” or Ceremony, and who really knows why. I think it’s important to note that even as a person of color, I am capable of otherizing others, and probably part of my block on reading those books was that they felt utterly foreign from my life experience, and I was not at the point in my personal human development where I had the resources, wherewithal, or motivation to do outside research or just read with the intention of seeing what I might get out of it if I kept an open mind. Maybe some of it was also the way they were taught. I really don’t remember how I learned Rainy Mountain, because it was eighth grade. “Snares” was ninth grade, and our teacher was so awful at running a classroom that a few years later she was finally fired after enough parents complained. So I don’t really know anything about the books I read in that teacher’s class. For Ceremony I had an absolutely fabulous teacher, but I was also still in my angry teenager phase, and also that fabulous teacher was incredibly tough, and also I was still not really comfortable with literary analysis or close reading. I don’t think I learned how to do that (and to have fun with that) until college, which shocks me, because I spent most of college claiming that I wasn’t learning anything.
So now I’m reading Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven. I already like it a lot better than any of the three works I mentioned above. And it bothers me that I don’t know why. It could just be that Alexie is more enjoyable of an author. It could be that I am now older and much better at reading, both for pleasure and as a student of literature. It could be that it’s just more fun to read for pleasure than for school, but I don’t know if that’s fair, because there are lots of things I’ve read for pleasure and wished that I could be reading them in school so that I could get more guidance on them or just so that I could work out the book’s issues/questions/what have you verbally in a group. It wouldn’t be fair to say that all books are just better if you read them by yourself, because that’s really not true. But then why am I liking Alexie? Is it just that I’ve seen “Smoke Signals” multiple times?
One of my hypotheses is that I’m reading him like a writer, and while I do that, I see Alexie as a writer to emulate. Since part of being a person of color is just dealing with the world that privileges others and not constantly fighting it, it is important to be aware of how you present yourself. Sadly, much of my exposure to literature by people of color was in the context of “We read this so as not to appear racist in white male-centric English classes” (middle and high school) or “Hannah, you’re a smart black girl who has to deal with a white centric system, so here’s a book I think you’d enjoy reading on your own” (elementary school), I’ve felt as if it’s mostly simplified to being perceived as literature by someone who sits on their non-white ass all day thinking about the fact that they are not white and wondering how to appear to be white enough to get white people to respect them but also to appear ethnic enough to be seen as “ethnic” literature and teach white people about a culture that is oh so different from them in every way. And that’s ridiculous. So what I like about Alexie is that he understands that, no matter what he does, he lives and writes in a world that privileges whites and sees him as other. But within that system, he writes about being Indian in a way that is neither didactic nor exclusionary in the way it describes cultural values and systems that not everyone is familiar with. He writes about being Indian in a way that shows that cultural identity is central to one’s life and therefore to one’s story, but also that it is not the only thing going on in a non-white person’s life, nor is it always the most important. He writes in a way that makes it clear that he is an educated, literary, MFA-type of writer, and he shows that a writer of color can be one of those writers. Being literary and being “of color” are not mutually exclusive, nor do they require extensive self-identification as one, the other, or both. I’d like to be a writer like that.
**Also, new playlist up.