The Hardest Book I've Ever Written

Monday, April 6, 2015

The SCBWI conference didn’t just increase my workload for Desert Jewels, as I discussed in last week’s blog. It also highlighted the additional challenges I will have when writing Creating Esther. I already knew these challenges existed, and I appreciate the insights I received at the conference.

First, unlike Desert Jewels, so far my research hasn’t revealed any memoirs that are right on point. There are plenty of memoirs about the Native American boarding school experience, but they don’t come from the right perspective. Mostly, they take place several decades later, when the students knew what to expect. Others come from the male perspective or that of a white teacher. The two most helpful memoirs are three essays by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), which can be found in her American Indian Stories, and Red World and White: Memories of a Chippewa Boyhood by John Rogers (Chief Snow Cloud). The Zitkala-Sa essays tell about her experiences as a Native American student and teacher shortly before the time in my story, but they are short on details. Red World and White provides a more detailed look at Chippewa reservation life around the right time but gives little information about his boarding school experience. So piecing everything together and making it historically realistic will be much harder than it was for Desert Jewels.

The second challenge is even more significant. Except for an aunt and uncle who don’t appear very often, everyone in Desert Jewels is fluent in English, and it's the only language my protagonist knows. In my attempt to get the aunt and uncle right, I based their customs and speech on real characters described in memoirs. Desert Jewels also uses a few Japanese words, which I included in a glossary. Overall, however, language was a minor consideration.

Creating Esther is very different. At the beginning of the book, Keezheekoni understands a little English but speaks and thinks in Chippewa. Once she reaches the boarding school and is forbidden to speak her native language, her English proficiency improves significantly. In the meantime, she communicates with students from other tribes using sign language. So how do I distinguish between the different languages without confusing my English-speaking readers?

I bought a number of books to help me with this problem, including two scholarly studies on how the students acquired English language skills in the boarding schools, two basic books on Native American sign language, and an Ojibwe (Chippewa) dictionary. So maybe, with a lot of work, I could get it technically correct. But that isn’t good enough.

One speaker at the conference said that broken English and grammar errors tell the reader that the character is unintelligent, even when that is neither the reality (to the extent fiction reflects reality) nor the message the author intends to convey. The speaker said the better option is to keep the character’s English sentence structure and vocabulary simple at first and to make them more complicated as the character learns the language. Good advice, and something I may not have thought of on my own.

As to signaling whether my characters are speaking English or Chippewa, my current plan is to write the narrative and the Chippewa dialogue in regular print and to use italics when the characters are speaking or writing in English. For some people, that may sound backwards, but Keezheekoni is Chippewa and thinks in that language.

My approach may change as I go along, but my main goal won’t. Yes, I want to make it realistic.

But it must also be respectful.

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