Having only a single day to spend in San Francisco, I put the City Lights Bookstore first on my list of places to visit. Carelessly wondering through winding streets of books, I found myself in the tail end of the fiction section and to my great surprise, there was a book by Gerald Vizenor (prolific Anishinaabe poet, writer, scholar) I had never heard of. I yanked the slim white volume, Chair of Tears, from the shelf and flipped to the copyright page. Published in 2012.
While I love the stumbling, gleeful discoveries of bookstore explorations, I was shocked and a little saddened that one of the most important Indian writers of our time had managed to release a new novel without a single mention of it reaching me before it was literally right in front of my face.
Like so many books by Native authors, Chair of Tears was published by a university press, the University of Nebraska imprint Bison Books (which puts out a lot of good books, check ’em out). This is perhaps one of the reasons it has escaped my notice, university presses generally making less of a splash for the non-academic reader than other big name publishers. Unfortunately, it seems all to often NDN authors can only find publication in academic presses, keeping their work esoteric and less accessible to larger groups of people.
The other, more glaring, reason is the lack of a thriving Indian literary community, which like most bookish communities these days would exist most likely somewhere in the cyberspace. It is this absent online community that would have been afire with news about the upcoming release and discussion sparked by robust reviewing.
So where is that community? It isn’t that Indians don’t read or aren’t interested in literature. Indians read…a lot. And a lot of Indians are on the internet. But not a lot of Indians are on the bookish internet.
Pause for definition: The Bookish Internet: A collection of people, blogs, websites, twitter accounts, authors, and publishing folks gathering together in cyberspace to share in the consumption and discussion of books.
Unlike the literati, the bookish internet is not always highbrow. But it is certainly nerdy. It chatters about J.K. Rowling’s new release as much as Dave Eggers and posts long winded cultural analysis of Icelandic crime thrillers as much as fangirl gushings of the same.
But most importantly for the purposes of this post, the bookish internet is insanely homogenous (i.e. white).
This is largely a reflection of the literary world, which is crazy disproportionate in writing about white, male authors with but a few nods to the many, great, important people of color and especially women writing today. There have been numerous posts on the bookish internet itself about the whitewashing of the current lit scene even in this supposedly post-racial, multicultural global village.
The Rumpus, more specifically contributing writer Roxane Gay, has been especially proactive in not only describing the problem but working to correct it. In June Gay conducted an in-depth look at every review published in the New York Times and found 65% of the reviews were of books by white authors and most of those male. American Indian authors didn’t even place a single percent.
It is incredibly depressing that even as brilliant and fierce writers of color pour out their stories and manage to get them published, they are silenced by the gatekeepers who refuse to acknowledge them.
As Gay points out, the establishment’s excuse for ignorance is the incredibly dimwitted assertion that there are simply less authors of color than white authors. In order to counteract this prevailing and poisonous idea, Gay compiled along with the help of the entire internet a working list of authors of color.
There is a small but strong presence of Native authors on that list. But still I think we need our own. So as of this moment I am sending out a call for a working list of NDN authors. Because who doesn’t like making a list? And it would make my little mixedblood heart swell to know you all care about Indian authors as much as I do.
If anything, we’ll at least have something to point to when some ignoramus says, “Well, there just aren’t as many good Indian authors out there.” Then you can say, “Psssh, here’s five from the White Earth reservation alone!”
Please leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions for Native authors to add to THE LIST. Let’s stick to authors of fiction and literary non-fiction for now, please.
Of course THE LIST is only the first step, an introduction to the struggle to promote Native authors and the stories they tell. We may not have a place in the bookish internet yet, but we can make our own. If the gatekeepers turn you away, sometimes you just have to tear down the wall. It’s the only way we’ll ever be listened to on our own terms. Let’s get to work!