Guest Post: Debby Dahl Edwardson on Lens Shifting

By Debby Dahl Edwardson

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2020, white people will be a minority in this country.

What this means, among other things, is that increasing numbers of people will be checking that new box on the census labeled “multiracial.” People no longer required to identify themselves as of one race only will increasingly identify as multiracial.

What does this say about the search for self, the very stuff of young adult literature? Given the nature of our changing demographics, I think it’s safe to say that the search for self will increasingly involve navigation between cultures. It will increasingly require us to be truly multicultural, able to comfortably wear different cultural lenses in different situations. It’s not about race, ultimately; it’s about culture and cultural alliance.

I think we are slow to understand the implications of this, despite the fact that most of us are well enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of it in our own lives. Our spouses, children, relatives and in-laws reflect many different races, many different cultural identities. We write from the heart of it, as it were, and should be better able, by now, to shift cultural lenses as matter of course.

Moreover, we should understand why the ability to do so is important, even imperative, in an increasingly multicultural world.

But we don’t. We still seem to subscribe to the idea that we are inevitably migrating towards a one-size-fits-all mass culture. As writers, we seem to assume that this is where young people are headed and so we are often seen racing after it with all we’ve got.

I have a problem with this. Even though the new mass culture now sports a variety of colors, it’s still largely homogenized. Regardless of the politically correct names we give it, it’s still the melting pot.

My take may be partly generational and partly situational, of course. I’m of the generation that fought for civil rights and I live in the heart of an indigenous culture that’s about as remote as it gets from the centers of mass culture, a place that holds the distinction of being the northernmost spot on the north American continent, accessible by air only—no roads in, no roads out—and a place not terribly interested in the melting pot.

And yet the tentacles of mass culture touch here, too. It’s in the books at the grocery store, in the movies everyone’s talking about and in the ubiquitous TV, the honored guest in everyone’s house.

The problem I have with it is that it reflects everyone and nobody. Young people where I live see a vision of what they are supposed to be, but they never see a reflection of who they really are. I suspect this is true for other marginalized and not so marginalized communities. Maybe it’s true for all of us.

I’m trying to puzzle out what this means from a variety of angles. I’m decidedly not trying to “preserve the purity” of anybody’s culture, including my own or my own so-called adopted culture.

I understand that when one culture comes into contact with another there is an inevitable melting, a blurring of the lines that happens naturally and is good, even healthy. It leads to new understandings, innovation.

But when a massive monolithic culture comes into contact with smaller distinct cultures there is a steamroller effect that tends to negate understanding and is not at all healthy. I see myself, as a writer, trying to stay the steamroller.

I always find myself on the edges of conversations that from my perspective reach into the heart of lens shifting. These are often conversations regarding books about Native American cultures.

Cultural insiders will review a book, saying something like, “an XXXX child would never speak that way to an elder.” The cultural outsider says, “oh, come on—are XXXX children perfect or something?”

No, not perfect, but where there are firm cultural norms, people never break with them unwittingly, the way a cultural outsider would. Even the ways in which we protest “norms” are culturally proscribed. This becomes an issue only when a writer doesn’t recognize the need to shift cultural lenses and assumes that everyone acts in relation to the writer’s own cultural norms. We call this ethnocentrism. It often comes from members of the dominant culture, so enmeshed in their own way they tend to think their perspective is culturally neutral: “I don’t have an accent! You do.”

I guess I’m saying that if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t write about other cultures. Hell, if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t even try to write about other genders. I listened once, to an adult male recalling how he felt totally inarticulate as a teen, how the things that were going on inside his head and the things that came out of his mouth rarely seemed to match. Having known a number of teenaged boys intimately, this felt really authentic to me and explained a whole lot of things. I took notes.

To write in today’s world, lens shifting is paramount. That’s my take. Maybe it always was. And I don’t really believe that it is useful these days to speak of “cultural insiders” and “cultural outsiders” or of “borrowed” or “adopted” cultures. We are all immersed in multiple cultures.

What exactly do the terms “borrowed” or “adopted” mean to those, such as myself, who have lived within their “adopted” cultures longer than they have lived within their own birth cultures? Or to those straddling, by blood, two or more cultures?

Twenty-five years ago I found myself in an odd position, reporting, as a young white public radio reporter, to an audience that was 90 percent Inupiaq. My white boss sent me to a workshop on minority news reporting. What did minority reporting mean to me, I wondered, reporting in a region where I was the minority?

Flash forward 20 years. The cover of my first novel, Blessing’s Bead (FSG, 2009), a novel clearly rooted in Inupiaq history, features a beautiful young girl who, when you get right down to it, looks more white than Inupiaq. She has dark hair, but…. is this another white-washed cover? Should I reject it and use it as a forum to speak out on the issue? Hey, it might sell books!

In fact the girl on the cover of Blessing’s Bead is not white—she is biracial—part white and part Inupiaq. Her Inupiaq name is Aaluk, the same name as one of the characters in the book.

She’s my daughter.

In terms of cultural identity, she strongly tied to both of her cultures.

Hers is the face of the future.

Let’s go there, shall we?

Here’s one for fun. My novel, My Name is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), is about the boarding school experience of Alaskan Natives.

No, that’s not a particularly fun topic. But a few years ago a funny song about boarding schools went viral throughout Native Alaska and was emailed all over the place by boarding school alumni.

The late Vincent Craig, an Navajo musician and comedian, had us on the first line of his song, “Indian Alien”—have a listen, thinking about lens shifting.

Cynsational Notes

The “video” below is sound only–no pictures; Debby received permission from Vincent’s son Dustinn for us to share the song in this post. Note: My Name Is Not Easy was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Census Data Presents Rise in Multiracial Population of Youth by Susan Saulny from The New York Times. Peek: “Among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent, to 4.2 million, since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country.”

Originally published in November 2011, this post continues to speak to the ongoing conversation about diversity in literature for young readers. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn’s revision deadline.

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Debby Dahl Edwardson on Lens Shifting

  1. Thank you for this post.

    Although I’m not a fan of labels, such as ‘cultural insider’, ‘cultural outsider’, I do believe we need to distinguish between those writers who have solid ‘lived‘ experience of a culture, and those who think that checking a couple of websites and/or contacting a forgotten friend or neighbor is adequate research that shows great respect for the culture. I understand that these are two extremes on the continuum of cultural knowledge. Unfortunately, the publishing world seems to be gravitating towards the latter group of writers rather than the former.

    I also hope that publishers who employ cultural consultants will make sure that these consultants are present prior to acquisition and have the power to veto the purchase of manuscript if they think that it is low on cultural content.

    Thank you again.

  2. Anonymous–I agree with you. Personally I can't imagine writing of another culture solely on the basis of research. I know from first hand experience how fraught with peril it is to attempt to do so. Hats off to those who get it right, but the vast majority do not.

    At the same time, though, I am somewhat leery about the concept of cultural consultants. Being of a culture doesn't necessarily make one an expert. My experience even of the home I grew up in, for example, is significantly different from that of my siblings. Who among us is qualified to certify what is accurate and what is not? Sure, there are obvious things, but what about those that are more subjective, more open to multiple interpretations?

    I touched on this in a blog I write for Through the Toll Booth

    I don't know what the answer is, sadly, but this is a discussion that must be had.

  3. This is a fabulous essay, Debby—and that's quite a provocative suggestion, doing away with the insider/outsider concept. What do you think of the concept of cultural competence? Is that what we ought to be aiming for rather than consulting an "expert" (since you seem to be suggesting that expertise is often up for grabs)? How can we train or equip editors (who are outside of our cultures and communities) to better receive our work?

  4. Zetta–cultural competence, of course, is what we're aiming for. But who defines it? Ideally the writing provides its own passport for the fictional world. Ideally, honesty precludes the writer from falsely claiming that a fictional world is based in a specific culture when the writer hasn't enough experience with the culture in question to make the claim.

    But of course we don't always live in an ideal world.

    As a one-time cultural outsider, I assumed that all I had to do was write in a way that those of the culture would see as authentic. If I could do that, I reasoned, then those readers not of the culture–ie those of my birth culture–would be able to enter the fictional world as cultural insiders, through my writing, which would be the passport, so to speak. But it didn't work that way. I got a rejection once that make me sit up and take note. "I have no doubt that this is, as you say, authentic to the culture you write of," the editor told me (I paraphrase) "but you have failed to provide the bridge that would allow me, a cultural outsider, access to your story."

    Who knew? I thought I was the bridge.

    What I think this means is that we always have to be aware of who the audience is and we always have to build bridges in as many ways as we can. If we are only writing for cultural insiders then we should not be surprised if those outside the culture fail to respond to our work. And sometimes, no matter what we do, they will fail to respond. Because sometimes, I suppose, it takes work, like reading subtitles or something. And not everyone is willing to work at it and try though we may we can't always make it entirely easy.

    I have been trying to work this out for years and, in truth, I am still trying…

  5. My dear thanks to anonymous, Zetta, and Debbie.

    I suspect these issues would be less daunting if there were more diverse representation across the board.

    When voices of a community are so outnumbered by those attempting to reflect it, they can be drowned out in the conversation of books.

    One step toward a solution is empowering and encouraging new voices, including those whose cultural backgrounds are historically (and still today) underrepresented in the field.

    Thanks again to Debbie for sharing her thoughts, and congratulations to her on being a finalist for the National Book Award.

  6. This is a powerful statement, Cyn, and one which gets to the crux of the issue, I think:

    "When voices of a community are so outnumbered by those attempting to reflect it, they can be drowned out in the conversation of books."

    Well said.

  7. Debby, you may think I am following your comments and I am because they hit so important and close to home. I am white, but I found my soul in the villages of Alaska and also my creativity in the vastness of the tundra that combines harshness with the ability to dream. What I have found in your blogging and books is the universality of living on the edge. You can do that in the ghettos of the cities or on the top of the world. While you have bragging rights for the top of the world and your ability to 'bridge' they never get in the way of your story. Your message is one of civil rights, but also of how much our egos get in the way of civil rights. I have been advocating your books like crazy as universal, not regional stories. They are stories of growing up, gaining confidene, etc, which can apply to a person or to a group of people.

Comments are closed.