The book I still haven’t read

TheSixthExtinction

Since my last post:

  • We learned that a manufacturer’s leaky septic tank has been releasing a plume of heavy metals and a cancer-causing chemical, contaminating some of the groundwater and soil in our former upstate New York town. Testing will determine the extent of the contamination. Fortunately, the affected water is not the drinking water. Ironically, my first audio essay on Terrain.org, “Water Bewitched,” celebrated our neighborhood’s life-giving underground streams and how great it was to raise a family there. I’m not celebrating now. 
  • We are purchasing a few acres of land, and so we plumbed the mysteries of central Oregon irrigation, which is being modernized for less water waste (because mountain snowpack, an important source of water, will decline with climate change) and to restore flow in area waterways. (Strange timing for us, as we mourned the polluted and possibly dangerous groundwater in our former hometown.) Thanks to irrigation upgrades here and other efforts, a local creek no longer dries up every summer and, as of 2016, steelhead trout and chinook salmon seem to be returning. We’ve had something of a tribute to salmon on this blog of late. For more salmon thoughts, see “The memoir I didn’t want to write about” and Turning Homeward.
  • Indoors, I started lavender, rosemary, chives, kale, and pearl onions from seeds. We reclaimed the raised beds in the backyard of the home we’re renting, and so far we’ve planted carrots, spinach, kale, miner’s lettuce, winter lettuce, and maché. Lately, it’s been fun to discover flowers blooming in our yard planted by former tenants.
  • I completed the first half of my Oregon Master Naturalist class. For our final essay, we reflected on whether, to save endangered species, we should “transplant” species back into habitats in officially designated wilderness areas. By law, federal wilderness is typically free of human intervention. In my essay, I wrote that carefully selected species transplants are worth a try. In my heart, though, I believe Naomi Klein, “Only mass social movements can save us now.” The question stimulated much discussion and a good share of angst. A classmate doubts moving species around will make a difference, and cited Stephen Hawking: “We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” Someone else wrote that, given the sixth extinction, hard choices about which species to save are in order. Triage is required, as in medicine. He went on to say that human efforts will ultimately have no meaning and no importance. Wildlife experts, naturalists, climate scientists, and volunteers are grappling with these issues, while many of our government leaders pretend they don’t exist. The cognitive dissonance in our culture is deafening.

The cognitive dissonance in our culture is deafening.

  • I put The Sixth Extinction back on my shelf for another day. Sometimes, a book of this nature, no matter how critically acclaimed, is just too much information.

 

After I posted this, someone in my Oregon Master Naturalist class tweeted this must-read article, “A Moon Shot to Protect Earth’s Species.” If you do not know E. O. Wilson, look him up and try reading one of his books. He’s an author to know about. Click on the link here for one of his TED talks.

And this happened in the book world:

So many readers have loved and were inspired by Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, especially young Native Americans and members of other often marginalized groups. (Interestingly, every year this book is on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books.) Many of these fans remain blissfully unaware of the scandal that has befallen the author. Those who know about Alexie’s recent troubles have been saddened and disillusioned. Books, their heroic characters, and the talented writers who create them can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. When these heroes fall, it can be devastating. I was impressed by a recent essay that calls out how we lionize and anoint a single spokesperson for a group, when we’d do better to spotlight a diversity of voices:  “Why Sherman Alexie’s Sexual Misconduct Seems Like a Betrayal.”

The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association released its new Event Code of Conduct.   It is meant for booksellers, librarians, exhibitors, guests, attendees, and volunteers. The new code states, in part:

“Prohibitive behavior includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, ethnicity, and religion; deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, sustained disruption of talks or other events; unwelcome photography or recording, physical contact, or sexual attention.”

Books, their heroic characters, and the talented writers who create them can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. When these heroes fall, it can be devastating.

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With climate change, snowpack will decline in central Oregon. A view of two Sisters.

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We’ve been enjoying these for several days.

 

The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss.

And loss.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?

 

 

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