Fiction is . . . Fiction

Monday, March 16, 2015

Academics shouldn’t criticize fiction if they don’t understand how it works.

As part of the research for Creating Esther, I have been reading Learning to Write “Indian”: The Boarding-School Experience and American Indian Literature by Amelia V. Katanski. While I agree with her overall thesis (too complicated to explain here), I find that much of her reasoning and “evidence” are faulty. I’m going to cover one example in this blog.

My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl is set at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1880 and is one of the early books in Scholastic’s “Dear America” series. It was written by Ann Rinaldi, who is white. In my copy of the book—and apparently in Katanski’s copy, as well—the author’s name is not on the cover but is on the title page. The book—as is true of all the books in the series—is written as if it were the title character’s diary.

I’m a big fan of the “Dear America” series in general, although I have varying reactions to the individual books. Based on the research I have done so far, I think that My Heart is on the Ground paints too humane a picture of the Native American boarding school experience. I don’t attribute that treatment to any kind of cover-up, however. I assume that Rinaldi did the best she could with the information she had.

Katanski isn’t willing to make the same assumption. According to Katanski, “Whether the voice [Rinaldi] manufactures for her protagonist, Nannie, comes from her own anti-Indian politics or from research that relied too heavily on [the school administration’s] representations of life at Carlisle is uncertain.” This willingness to attribute Rinaldi’s voice to possible anti-Indian politics is based on “evidence” that shows Katanski’s ignorance of both the “Dear America” series and the art of fiction.

Katanski’s first “evidence” is that My Heart is on the Ground doesn’t have Rinaldi’s name on the cover page, so the only “author” listed is a fictional Native American girl. Katanski concludes that this is an attempt to “appropriate” a Native American identity. In reaching her conclusion, she ignores two important facts.

  • When the “Dear America” series first came on the market, none of the books had the author’s name on the cover, although they all identified the real author on the title page. At least that’s the case for the three early books, including My Heart is on the Ground, in my collection. One of these three books is about an Irish mill girl, so racism is unlikely to be the reason for leaving the author off the cover. I also have four books that were published or re-released after the series was revised, and they do carry the author’s name on the cover. However, the distinction appears to be based on publication date rather than on the character’s or author’s race.
  • Even third-grade readers know that the “Dear America” books are fiction written by someone other than the character whose name is on the diary. There is no danger that anyone would be misled.

Another piece of “evidence” Katanski uses to “prove” that Rinaldi is promoting a white agenda is Rinaldi’s use of names she found in the graveyard at Carlisle—a practice Rinaldi readily admits. But Rinaldi used them because they “were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities,” not because she expected anyone to believe that her characters were the actual people in the cemetery. What fiction writer hasn’t done the same, especially when trying to be authentic to the time and place?

Finally, Katanski charges that Rinaldi “stole situations from the autobiographies of former boarding-school students . . . changing the presentation and context of those memories (most of which relate to moments of resistance) to provide fake evidence of acquiescence in the values of the boarding schools through the narration of ‘good student’ Nannie.” Excuse me? Where does Katanski think novelists get their ideas in the first place? From a vacuum? As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And fiction may provide evidence of the nature of fiction, but it never provides evidence—fake or otherwise—of the “facts” within it.

Can fiction be written as propaganda? Of course. But Rinaldi uses conventional fictional devices that are common across races and subject matters. To construe them as “evidence” of possible racial politics is ludicrous.

Or is Katanski saying that we shouldn’t try to understand and write about any race except our own? But then she’s violating her own rule, because she is a white academic evaluating Native American literature and boarding school experiences.

Maybe Katanski should evaluate her own bias.


Katanski’s discussion of My Heart is on the Ground is found at pages 92-93 of Learning to Write Indian.


The picture at the head of this post shows the students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania around 1890. It is in the public domain because of its age.

1 comment:

Linda Glaz said...

I think ALL fiction is written as propaganda of sorts. We all have our personal lives interwoven in our stories and we all have agendas we promote. I don't see how it's possible not to have an agenda in a work. And that's not a bad thing. Gets diff perspectives.

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