As a spec fic writer, I’ve so often been told that it’s “unusual” or even “strange” for an Indigenous person to be writing in this genre. Why do you write speculative fiction? Do you think there’s advantages to the genre that aren’t found in other genres?
Yes, the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color.
We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.
If not, you may want to look into ordering online for international delivery. (Or check out the e-novella, Rose Eagle–should be an easy download.)
As for me, I take the advice we so often give to beginning writers. I write what I know. I write what I love to read. I saw “Star Wars: A New Hope” (before it was called “A New Hope”) 384 times in the theater. Of course I write speculative fiction.
My Tantalize–Feral universe is genre bending, incorporating elements of Gothic fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, suspense, humor, and science fiction.
The fantastical offers writers the ability to speak to our real world at a slant. At that slant, you can—ironically enough—hit the real-world themes harder.
Let’s say I wrote a realistic novel about a teenage girl who gets involved with an older guy who plies her with red wine, takes over her family’s business, socially segregates her, kidnaps her, imprisons her, assaults her, frames her best friend for murder and kills her best friend’s dog. Yes, his dog. Overkill? (Possibly. I’m still getting distraught reader mail about the dog.)
On the other hand, if he’s a vampire, the reader is far more likely to buy into the story. (And, thankfully, I had the discretion to subvert genre expectations and make it a girl-empowerment story.) With spec fic, we can dig deeper into the theme without seeming heavy handed.
My latest realistic short fiction, “All’s Well,” appeared as a chapter in Shaun David Hutchinson‘s Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015), which is centered on a school shooting.
Coming up, I’ll have a poem written as a child featured in “Dreams to Write” in Our
Story Begins: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring,
and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, 2017). I do a little creative nonfiction, too. Basically, I have either great range or a complete lack of focus.
You put time and effort into promoting the work of other writers. Why is this important to you?
When I decided to write full-time rather than practice law (or work as a journalist), it was more of a heart decision than a head decision.
By the time I was eight or nine years old, as an avid reader, I’d learned that I never wanted to open a book with an American Indian on the cover (or any hint of Native content), even if it was by the author of my favorite novel.
While we have far to go, I’ve seen progress and felt the pride in community that comes with it.
Books are where I belong. Story is what has always helped me make sense of the world and find my place in it. And my place in it is informed by media and the law–a longing for justice bolstered by the education and tools to help achieve it.
I want to do what I can to ensure that children’s-YA literature welcomes all kids in a positive, nurturing way. That’s not just about me. It’s about what we do as a community of book creators, publishers, gatekeepers, booksellers, child care givers… The team effort.
Light a candle. If that doesn’t work, light a bonfire.
How did I get here? By the standards of the time, I entered children’s-YA publishing as a very young author.
This was the late 1990s, and I was in my late twenties/early thirties. It’s different now. Debut authors younger than I was then are no longer unusual. But back then, editors weren’t taking many chances on new voices. There weren’t as many younger voices writing either. (Hello, Potter effect.)
Almost everybody I knew was at least 15 years older and had much more experience. People frequently commented to me that I was their children’s age.
My inner fourteen-year-old was–still is–spinning over the moon.
What I did have to offer the community was enthusiasm, a commitment to what then was called “multiculturalism,” and a background in journalism. I embraced the possibilities of the Web and began signal boosting in a big way.
Now, I’ve been in the business nearly 20 years and am finishing my fifteenth book. Though I still have much to learn, I’m honored to share what I do know, especially with Austin and Texas authors, my VCFA family, new voices, diverse voices and of course Native writers and illustrators.
Along the way, I keep believing, signal boosting, mentoring, teaching, writing and cheerleading.
Spreading the word that good books matter.
Does law influence your storytelling in any way?
Definitely. Law gives me an analytical skill-set that is priceless for plotting and world building. If you look, for example, at the Feral trilogy, the legal status of shape-shifters plays a significant role in the story construct.
By that, I don’t mean that my characters are citing case law or pontificating on legal history but rather that the socio-political-legal structure in which they struggle has been thought out and fully integrated.
On a more obvious level, I’ve written lawyer characters—Cousin Elizabeth from Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and, in my current work in progress, the protagonist’s mother is a law student.
When I write Native stories in particular, that heightened awareness comes into play because of the role of law in our nations’ histories and its ongoing importance to our survival today and beyond.
You’ve written that you felt compelled to write for young readers in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Why for young readers rather than adults?
I feel that hope, too. That faith. I believe in it enough to invest my life’s work.
It’s not that I don’t think adults can grow and change. Of course we can.
But when I close my eyes and imagine a world of heroes, most of the faces I see are those of elders and the young.
Maybe that’s because I was raised close to my grandparents, my great aunties and uncles. They faced Indian boarding school, the Great Depression, the second World War.
My first heroes were my elders, starting from the time the were young. Their influence is defining.
What’s the story you’re proudest of, and why?
I want to say that I don’t process my books and shorts in terms of
pride, but only moments ago I was telling you about the pride I feel in
the progress we’ve made in children’s-YA literature.
So, okay, I’ll close my eyes and keep typing and resist the urge to edit afterward.
I’m most proud of my novel in progress, tentatively titled “How to End a Date” (Candlewick, fall 2017), by which I mean I’m proud of the protagonist.
How she navigates, less and more successfully, all the crap that’s routinely tossed at Native teens and, for that matter, at girls on a day-to-day basis and how she takes refuge in her sense of humor and her loving family and her community and, most of all, how she fights, true to her heart, even when her biggest obstacle is herself.
And since it’s loosely based on my own adolescence, I guess I have to say that I’m finally proud of my own inner teen.
So there, Cindy Lou. I believe in you.
Author Interview: Joseph Bruchac on Killer of Enemies from Lee & Low. Peek: “…what really helped me begin to develop this story was the combination of seeing the ways in which building technology into people has become more and more of a reality and the idea that then came to me about how those modified people would be affected if electricity (including circuits implanted into human bodies) suddenly stopped working.”
Lately, I’ve been talking to Ambelin Kwaymullina, “an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people” of Australia, about own voices, representation, appropriation and writing across identity elements.
At first glance, when it comes to protagonists and point of view, we may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum–her advocating against writing as an outsider and me in favor.
It’s more complicated than that. As we compared notes, we found ourselves agreeing or at least empathizing more than you might assume.
I’m a Muscogee Nation citizen, and I’ve written protagonists who share that identity as well as those who, unlike me, are respectively Chinese American, Mexican American, Italian American, English American, Seminole, and Cherokee. The non-Indians appear in alternating point-of-view novels.
(I’m a Cherokee descendant, not a Cherokee Nation citizen. That translates to shared ancestry and cultural touchstones, but there’s a difference. To clarify: I’m likewise Irish American. However, I am not a citizen of Ireland. I am Muscogee and American, a citizen of both Muscogee Nation and the United States of America. Native identity is about culture and heritage, but it’s also about law and political status.)
More broadly, when it comes to race, religion, culture, gender, age, orientation, body type, and socio-economics, I write inside my personal experience.
Likewise, I write outside my personal experience. I speak on and teach the subject of writing, including writing across identity elements, on a regular basis.
As I’ve mentioned before, the question of writing outside one’s lived knowledge and most immediate stakes with regard to protagonists (or, in the case of nonfiction, focal subjects) is a very personal one.
Today I’m going to share a glimpse into my own, nuanced process for deciding who and what to write and why. Yes, of course your mileage may vary. It may evolve. Mine has evolved.
I’ve committed quality time, scholarship and tuition dollars to Freedom of Speech.
I’m well aware that rights come with opportunities, costs and responsibilities. And I’m well aware that restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.
I’ll restate that:
Restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.
Sometimes I exercise my right to speak. Sometimes I exercise my right not to speak.
As a one-time Native child who couldn’t watch “Super Friends” every Saturday morning without also seeing “Elbow Room”every Saturday morning, I fret the impact of erasure (to a cheery tune) and of the single story (in that case, the “helpful Indian”).
Watch this and, if it’s not your inherent perspective, try to do so–with your writing cap on–from a Native or POC point of view.
(2) The vast majority of children’s-YA authors must, to varying degrees, write outside our own experience—at least with regard to secondary characters and major historical events or societal topics. This is necessary to reflect the full range of our humanity in the past, present and future.
In a sweeping book about the U.S. Civil War or The Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution, I’m looking for inclusion when it comes to the participation of and impact on Native people, people of color, women, etc. Ditto that contemporary realistic chapter book set in a minority-majority nation or that YA dystopian novel.
Ducking that content isn’t a neutral decision. Again, effectively writing Native people off the continent–out of the past, present, and future–isn’t a neutral decision. Over the body of literature, it’s a minimizing one. An erasing one. Silence speaks. It contributes to adverse real-world impact.
After every U.S. election, we actually have to educate the new Congress about our continued existence. Please don’t make it harder for us to protect our nations, our land, our children. Remember, we are still here. And we should be reflected in the pages of children’s-YA literature.
So, to recap: (1) I’m well versed in freedom of speech. (2) Every children’s-YA writer must, to some degree, write outside our immediate frame of reference. Still with me?
Back to protagonists and nonfiction topics. Bookstores vary the titles they stock. Libraries vary their collections. Publishers vary their manuscript acquisitions, and agents vary their clients.
Otherwise their books would compete with each other, and they wouldn’t be able to offer the selection necessary to stay in business.
Choices that heavily favor slender, straight, able-bodied white kids are the norm. Those books are viewed as standard. Viewed as universal. There’s no industry predisposition to limit them.
But every day, other well-written stories are rejected for being “too similar” to an already stocked, purchased, acquired or signed project that’s perceived as similar enough to compete.
Let’s say there’s already one middle grade with an Asian boy protagonist. Will another one be turned down for potentially competing?
“I just acquired an Asian boy middle-grade novel, and, unfortunately….”
Writers get rejection letters to that effect all the time. I’ve read them. Quite a few of them because I teach and mentor and so other writers come to me to discuss such things.
And, granted, stories won’t be rejected just because of common identity elements. It could happen because they’re deemed “too similar” in other ways.
My kitty, Gali-Leo
“I just acquired a novel about soccer, and, unfortunately….”
What is the societal impact of limiting to one book about soccer?
What is the societal impact to limiting to one book about Asian-American boys?
Or one book about Asian Americans–period? Especially since “Asian American” is an umbrella term.
Heaven forbid two Asian-American boy characters in two different stories both happen to play soccer.
Sure, even with mainstream heroes, there are limits:
we’re already publishing a half dozen dystopians…”
Here’s the thing: Writers often panic over new releases that might be “too similar” to our own works in progress, particularly if our own manuscript is well along. We anguish over whether to read the competing title to gauge whether our project is in the clear or not. With nonfiction writers, you’ll often hear talk of “getting there first” in the marketplace.
Remember when I mentioned the right to speak and the right not to?
This is what I personally do with that reality:
Halloween decoration that inspired my novel, Feral Curse
I love cats. I love carousels. I’m intrigued by cryptids.
In the Feral series (Candlewick/Walker), I write about werecats, demons, magic and furry cryptid hominids.
The stories take place in Austin, in a nearby small town, in the suburbs, at a resort, and on a tropical island.
These YA books are heartfelt, funny, action packed and teeny bit sexy (if I do say so myself).
The trilogy metaphorically tackles diversity, social justice, and what it means to be human.
No way would the entire cast look like it had been raised by Carol and Mike Brady. Or be depicted simply as white kids from different social groups a’ la “The Breakfast Club” (remember when that was a diversity ground-breaker?).
The Feral series’ question is: “What does it mean to be human?” My answer isn’t: “Let’s check in with the all-white heroes to find out.” (Although white co-protagonists are certainly included in the mix.)
The series is told in alternating points of view by four co-protagonists, including Kayla, a werecheetah, who presents as Black American, and Yoshi, a werecougar, who presents as a biracial (Japanese-white) American. They’re homo shifters rather than homo sapiens, and they live among us. Within the genre bending, it’s a sci-fi-ish fantastical construct.
Now imagine this. An editor reads my manuscript and says: “Too bad! I just signed a story about a smart, small-town, Black Texas teen–the daughter of the mayor–who’s able to turn into a werecheetah, and is being haunted by her ex-boyfriend’s ghost, which is trapped in a carousel. And, wouldn’t you just know it? Both stories feature a Eurasian co-protagonist/love interest, raised in an antique mall by his homicidal grandmother.…”
Really? If another author also independently came up with that specific idea, we are soulmates.
But only one of us is probably going to sell that oh-so-similar book to that one YA fantasy editor at that house. Or sign with that manuscript to that one genre-bendy and cryptid-loving agent.
Libraries and bookstores will stock one or the other. (Unless there’s a major motion picture involved.)
We’re safe to say the Feral series (Candlewick) is an idiosyncratic, diverse spec-fic YA adventure. This is a benefit of a quirky writing nature (Werearmadillos, for example. I may have invented them. That level of quirky.)
Kayla, as one of four co-protagonists, isn’t going to knock a book with another Black girl hero out of contention for anything. And the lived experience that’s most on point is what it’s like to “pass” or not. On that point, I do have lived experience to bring.
Nifty. Green light.
Now consider this: I love the music of Eartha Kitt. I am fascinated by Eartha Kitt.
I believe that Eartha Kitt was the best Catwoman.
The. Best. Catwoman.
Nobody could purr like Eartha Kitt.
She was inspiring, talented, formidable. For years, I’ve longed to write a biography about Eartha.
She’s not a household name or an automatic tie-in to the Black History Month curriculum.
There might be room for one Earth Kitt biography for kids (or teens). I could see that getting published. I can imagine some bookstores and libraries stocking it.
As much as I love Eartha, I can’t imagine them embracing two or more.
So I’m not writing it. But if I weighed all
that and moved forward, I would talk to Eartha’s family first for
permission and consult with Black author friends, too.
Magazine cover of Eartha in my dining nook
All the while owning that my book could be blocking one by a member of Eartha’s own community.
Would I love that reality? No, but I couldn’t ignore it or dismiss it or explain it away either. And I couldn’t wrap myself in the First Amendment and leave it at that because I have the right not to speak, too.
I would have to hold myself to the highest possible writing standard and expect others, especially those with a closer kinship, to do the same.
What’s more, I’d have to acknowledge that I was starting at a serious deficit. There are writers with so much more to bring to that manuscript–Black writers, especially those with a strong background in singing and acting, who’d have knowledge and insights to illuminate the awesomeness that was Eartha in important ways that I’d never imagine.
I’m not planning to write that biography of Eartha. But up until a year or so ago, I was seriously considering it.
He and I have more in common. We’re both mixed-blood citizens of southeastern Native Nations now based in Oklahoma. I want Native kids to learn about him, to be inspired by his story. I want non-Indian kids to learn about him and rethink the “primitive savage” stereotypes they’re fed.
Still, writing about John would’ve required me to write as an outsider.
I’ve met him in person in Oklahoma!
I’m not Chickasaw. “Native American” and “American Indian”
are umbrella terms. Again, being Muscogee doesn’t make me Chickasaw.
Are there shared ties and history between some Native/First Nations
people and nations? Yes, more so within regions. But we’re not one
in the same.
I hate to say it, but, as with Eartha, there’s probably not room in the market for more than one nonfiction picture book about John Herrington.
Native people are not meaningfully included in the U.S. curriculum. To the extent we’re mentioned, the focus isn’t on our achievements in space exploration. (Cough.)
There’s no way I would’ve put down a word of John’s story without his permission. As a First Amendment student, I know that I have the right to do so. As a Native woman, I believe in cultural property but, more to the point, as a human being, I believe in respect and courtesy.
John’s story is not my mine to take. It’s certainly not mine to take for profit.
Besides, to do a good job with it, I would’ve needed not only John’s blessing but also his assistance because the greatest living authority on John is of course John himself.
And if John thought it was a wonderful idea for me to write the story, I would’ve been honored and proceeded from there. (Yes, I would touch base with Chickasaw children’s writers, too.)
Many of the best books written by outsiders come from a place of deep connection and respect, prioritizing impact on young readers–both those directly reflected by the book and those who’re not.
These titles were born in the wake of the September 11 attacks after Bethany, a 9/11 survivor, heard Arun give a speech and found personal solace and healing in it. Later, they worked together to share Arun’s stories with kids. He chose her as his co-author.
As writers, we succeed when we set aside the self-absorption of intent and entitlement in favor of respect and commitment.
We succeed when we come from a deeply felt place, like Bethany did after 9/11 and like she does every day when she cradles her own Indian-American baby son.
Bottom line: I never actively began writing the manuscript about John Herrington. It was merely an idea. I had other projects to finish first. I hadn’t yet contacted John to discuss it.
But now I’m absolutely delighted that John’s children’s book, Mission to Space, was recently published by Chickasaw Press.
Imagine if bookstores and libraries didn’t pick it up because another children’s writer (like me) had already gotten there first and with a publisher that has a larger, more powerful industry presence.
Ambelin mentioned that she doesn’t want to see outsiders writing first- or deep third-person point of view. She’s told me that she feels that way in part because she hasn’t seen it done well and in part because of the systematic exclusion of Indigenous voices, own voices.
She doesn’t “want anyone occupying that space until there’s something resembling parity of representation of Indigenous writers (and other own voices).”
I’m deeply sympathetic to her perspective and a strong ownvoices advocate myself.
At the same time, when it comes to Native content, I’m more open to outside voices than Ambelin.
It’s a blessing for Native kids, all kids, that books like those are published, and I’m thrilled to champion them whenever I can.
Moreover, as a southeastern American Indian, considering our history and current ties with Black Americans, I particularly long for more of their voices in the related conversation of books, especially with regard to the intersection of Black Indian tribal citizens.
Big picture, being open to outside writers is no small or unqualified leap of faith.
There is a long and damaging history of outsiders telling “Native” stories, having approached us in the guise of ethnographer, of anthropologist, of writer, of friend. A long and damaging and ongoing effort to mislead, gain trust, and then misrepresent Native lives and narratives. Usually for profit, power or both.
When I say “damaging,” that’s not hyperbole. I’m talking about real-world legislation, persecution, and impact on the daily life of every Native person. We are peoples of Nations defined by sometimes hostile law and profoundly affected by that law. Public opinion, education and miseducation affects the making and enforcement of those laws. And then there’s the psychological impact on citizens of our Nations, especially on our children and teens.
If you don’t know enough to understand why we’re skittish, suspicious and/or non-responsive, please step back and do more homework before starting that manuscript. Our feelings, actions and sometimes silence are based on real-world experience and concerns.
Of late, I’ve heard a lot of folks speaking in broad terms about the question of who writes what. We talk too often in broad strokes when brushstrokes apply.
It’s a much bigger, broader conversation than race, though of course that’s a critical component. It’s also persistently framed as primarily about white writers’ fear and failures.
As if no white writers weigh the responsibilities and costs of appropriation and respectfully seek the appropriate permissions
and insights like Debby, working with her husband to share his story.
As if diverse writers can’t stretch to successfully write across identity elements like Rita, who can certainly be trusted to respectfully conceptualize, research, frame and integrate story elements and, for that matter, feedback as needed to revise.
As if diversity conversations should default to focus on white, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight folks. That’s taking the idea that this isn’t all about them and responding with, “But wait, what about them?”
Of course all writers belong in this conversation, but own voices must be prioritized and centered. Meanwhile, the question of “which ideas are right for me?” is something every writer must consider.
By the way, even when you’re writing within identity elements, you still need to do research and engage in thoughtful related conversation. My work in progress is quasi-autobiographical, and I have a three-inch thick (and building) research binder. I’ve consulted with several friends and colleagues about the content and how it rolls out within the context of the story.
When I’ve cited, say, Rita and Debby among my go-to examples with regard to Native content, often the reply is something to the effect that I’m setting the bar sky high. And, yes, that’s true.
The bar is and should be sky high. Maybe we’re not all at Rita and Debby’s level of craft (yet), but we must emulate their gracious humility, their conscientiousness.
We must strive to create the best books for all kids.
While all the books can stand alone, there’s likely best appreciated in concert.
This finale unites protagonists of the two series and brings back a number of other fan-fave characters.
What’s more today’s paperback release of Feral Curse by Candlewick means that all but that last book in the series are available in paperback from Candlewick (plus, they’re all available in e-format and most are available on audio).
So to sum up, we’re talking nine novels (including two graphic novels, illustrated by Ming Doyle) and three short stories set in the Tantalize-Feral universe.
The early notes on the first book are dated 2000 and the last novel is out today.
The whole shebang totals out at 458,169 words (and I write tight).
Thanks to all who’ve joined and supported me along the way!
“Kayla is only baby steps into recovering from the death of her first boyfriend and Yoshi, who has legendary experience with ladies, is suddenly faced with the first one with whom he could have a real relationship, a real future, if they both survive.”
Anti-shifter sentiment is at an all-time high when Kayla’s transformation to werecat is captured on video and uploaded for the world to see.
Suddenly she becomes a symbol of the werebeast threat and—along with fellow cat Yoshi, Lion-Possum Clyde, and human Aimee—a hunted fugitive.
Meanwhile, a self-proclaimed weresnake has kidnapped the governor of Texas and hit the airwaves with a message of war.
In retaliation, werepeople are targeted by law enforcement, threatened with a shift-suppressing vaccine, terrorized by corporate conspiracy, and enslaved by a top-secret, intelligent Cryptid species.
Can Clyde rally his inner lion king to lead his friends—new and old—into battle against ruthless, media-savvy foes? A rousing blend of suspense, paranormal romance, humor, and high action.
The explosive finale to the Feral series by New York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith.
“Smith’s ability to mix the paranormal and the divine with sexy, wisecracking humor, youthful optimism, and fast-paced action has been a hallmark of this entertaining series.
Fans will not be disappointed.
“HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Smith’s fantasies have earned her an army of fans, and this trilogy-ender—that connects two series, no less—will have high visibility.”
“…the wickedly funny, quickly paced style is anchored by the novel’s underlying theme of the marginalization of people and its effects, both those obvious (‘Our legal rights are slippery,’ explains Kayla) and more insidiously subtle (like the wedge driven between Clyde, a werepossum/werelion hybrid, and his human girlfriend, Aimee, because of her father’s prejudice).
“…witty, smart and moving—sure to satisfy…”
“Since this Feral trilogy–ender also wraps up its companion series Tantalize, several major characters from those books appear here, but Clyde, Aimee, Yoshi, and Kayla ably carry this series right up to its bittersweet conclusion. Kayla’s full acceptance of her animal self, and the courage she gains in that acceptance, is particularly compelling. With its sharp humor and fully realized characters, this urban fantasy will leave readers hoping for another series from Smith—and soon.”
-The Horn Book
“Smith once again weaves an action-packed plotline with campy alternating narration by Clyde, Aimee, Kayla, and Yoshi, all while dealing with the complex themes of acceptance, tolerance, freedom, and self-esteem. All this is done in a nonpreachy style to which readers can easily relate. A successful conclusion to a thought-provoking series.”
-School Library Journal
“…the chance for alternative interpretations of who the shifter community could represent
any group reviled by those who consider themselves mainstream —
make this series as meaty as it is entertaining.”
-The Austin American-Statesman
Enter to win one of three copies of Feral Pride in hardcover or Feral Curse in paperback (both Candlewick, 2015). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.