Friday, September 22, 2017

Novelist Alexandra Fuller Accused of Cultural Appropriation

Of course.

I just shake my damn head sometimes.

Here's her book, Quiet Until the Thaw: A Novel.

It's on my wish list, and then now I see this, accusations of "cultural appropriation," at the New York Times (where else?), "Alexandra Fuller’s Novel of Lakota Culture May Stir the Appropriation Debate":

A white writer, born in Britain, raised in colonial Africa and residing for years in Wyoming, writes a novel about the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In a prefatory note included with advance copies of the book, she cites a three-month visit she made to Pine Ridge in 2011. “For the first time since coming to the United States in the mid-90s, I neither needed to explain myself nor have this world explained to me,” she says. Being on the reservation felt like an “unexpected homecoming, if home is where your soul can settle in recognition.”

The writer is Alexandra Fuller, and from this jolt of recognition she fashioned “Quiet Until the Thaw,” a novel that dives deep into Lakota culture and history. An author of six books of nonfiction who made her name with a searing memoir of her African childhood, Fuller is here a careful inventor: Many of the events she describes, at least one of her central characters and more than a few snippets of dialogue are rooted in fact. The novel is peppered with Lakota words, not all of them easily translatable, and the story she recounts, of a pair of Oglala boys whose lives on the reservation become fatefully entwined, is an impassioned allegory of the long-suffering Lakota people. More subtly, it’s an awed meditation on the lofty conundrums of time and being, and on the ways oppression seeks to blind us to the fundamental interconnectedness of things. Fuller’s novel is like a delicately calibrated tuning fork, resonating at a cosmic pitch.

That she wrests such sweep from a couple of hundred odd pages is itself a bit awe-inspiring. Like Rick Overlooking Horse, one of the two Oglala boys, who speaks only when necessary — by the time he turns 10, “he had uttered, all told, about enough words to fill a pamphlet from the Rezurrection Ministry outfit based out of Dallas, Tex.” — Fuller is terse. She doesn’t narrate so much as poetically distill, into chapters seldom more than a page and a half long, the beauty, violence, poverty, humiliation and resilience that have marked Lakota existence for several hundred years. In one, a young tribal activist travels to Palestine, where she dines on camel with Yasir Arafat and speaks at an event honoring leaders of indigenous groups. “They can rewrite history, and erase our stories. But what my mind hasn’t been allowed to know, my body has always known,” the activist tells her audience. “I am an undeniable, inconvenient body of knowledge. Read me.” She proceeds to stand before the crowd in silence for 15 minutes.

The punch Fuller’s book packs is visceral, but it wears its righteousness with tact, its tone more consolation than jeremiad. At its heart is a bifurcation. Orphaned at birth, Rick Overlooking Horse and another parentless boy, You Choose Watson, are raised in a tar-paper lean-to by Rick Overlooking Horse’s grandmother, Mina, the local midwife. Although not prone to chattiness herself, Mina is disposed, especially when high on Wahupta, to recount to her young charges tribal myths and battle tales, and to instill in them an appreciation for key Lakota precepts regarding the “eternal nature of everything.” “They say you’ve been here from the very start, and you’ll be here to the very end,” she tells her stupefied grandson. “Like that breath you just took. In the beginning, a dinosaur breathed that breath. Then a tree. Then an ant. Then you, now me.”

Mina’s teachings suggest a vision of politics as enlightened forbearance — since what goes around comes around — and Rick Overlooking Horse, assisted by some Wahupta experimentation of his own, comes to embrace this view. He gets sent to Vietnam, where he survives the casual racism of his fellow G.I.s, along with a friendly-fire napalm bomb that solders his dog tag to his chest and vaporizes the rest of his squad. He returns to the reservation resolved “never to lay so much as the tip of a single finger on the diseased currency of the White Man,” and installs himself in a tepee on a patch of empty land.

You Choose, meanwhile, channels his rage into violence. He feigns diabetes to escape the draft, and wanders north, dabbling in odd jobs and drug dealing before returning to the reservation and getting himself elected chairman of his increasingly restive tribe. Here, the disparity between the two men comes into sharp relief. Rick Overlooking Horse, acquiring a reputation for spiritual wisdom, is sought out by addicts, wounded veterans and the lovesick, while You Choose becomes a figure of terror. Like Richard (Dick) Wilson, the notorious chairman of the Oglala Lakota from 1972 to 1976, whom he closely resembles, You Choose plunders tribal funds, sidelines opponents and surrounds himself with a private militia, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs). There are bloody clashes over purity (like Wilson, You Choose is of mixed blood) and over colonization (tribe members whose lifestyles are regarded as too white are referred to as “Colonized Indian Asses,” or C.I.A.). The murder rate surpasses that of New York and Detroit.

The conflict culminates in the novel as it did in life, with the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, where Rick Overlooking Horse and hundreds of other protesters demand You Choose’s removal as tribal chairman and the resumption of treaty negotiations with the federal government. United States marshals descend, thousands of rounds are fired, and both Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose end up doing jail time...
Keep reading (FWIW).