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Tony Hillerman: Dead at 83


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Oct. 29th, 2008 01:46 am (UTC)
Psssst, second link is broken -- got an extra "h" in "http"...

Another fairly decently nuanced news link, focusing on his relationships with the Dine, is this story from the Albuquerque Journal -- Hillerman Gave, Received from Navajo Nation.

Strangely enough, I'd just been finishing up A Thief of Time when I saw that news -- dunno if you saw the little subthread about the Leaphorn/Chee books back during IBARW, but between BookMooch and the big library sale score I've been on a project of reading/rereading all those in order, to see how well they hold up twenty-something years later past that initial schoolgirl squee of just finding ANY books about modern Indians. Seven books in so far, and the answer is very well -- I know from the comments in news stories and Amazon pages that a lot of his non-Indian readers are buying these books because the settings and characters are so "exotic", but it's to his great credit that the books absolutely do not exoticise the Indian characters in any way; they are the default, the norm, in all their non-monolithic diversity, and it's the belagaana and their ways that are strange and exotic, even with long familiarity.

Oct. 29th, 2008 03:14 am (UTC)

Eeek, thanks for the link correction! (And the article link. And the reassurances about Hillerman's attitude/writing.)

Oct. 30th, 2008 12:51 am (UTC)
It's a very shades-of-grey, really -- you're definitely not going to get any sort of unified party line as to what Indians in general, or Navajo in particular, think of the man and his books, and even in that range of opinions a lot of the answers will be more complicated than simple approval/disapproval. The criticisms I've seen generally fall into three main categories -- that he was seen as a greater expert on the Navajo than actual Dine, that he shared sacred knowledge that elders shouldn't have told him in the first place, or that he was exploiting the people by writing about them for profit. It's rather telling, I think, that the two of the three are more to do with the actions and attitudes of readers and sources, not the man himself -- I certainly haven't yet come across interviews where he's trying to set himself up as the ultimate cultural authority, and in the books I've reread so far he's taken pains to disclaim that he is an outsider and not any sort of religious initiate, etc. Compared to the likes of, say, Cassie Edwards, it's also telling to see what he's *not* criticized for -- perpetuation of stereotypes, starry-eyed romanticization, over-simplification, lack of research, and so forth. There's no mystical twaddle about how he felt drawn to Indian stories because of some supposed princess-or-shaman-grandparent, even though as an Okie I'd be stunned if he DIDN'T have some native ancestry in his family tree -- as Sarah Vowell once quipped, "being a little bit Cherokee in Oklahoma is about as unusual as being a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago". Instead, he talks about growing up as a dirt-poor country boy himself, and thus feeling at home when he first visited the area and saw elders sitting outside a trading post.

The exploitation argument, well, that's the sort of thing that can be hashed out endlessly, you've got modern Western and traditionalist collective ideas about, well, community and economics and intellectual property tangled up together, and that's not simply resolved. Yes, it's colonial literature and that has to be kept in mind for any serious discussion. And he made a lot of money on it, but there's probably also a hard-to-measure ripple effect of it indirectly helping the economy by inspiring some fans to visit, look further into real Dine artists, providing work for some fine native actors in the PBS miniseries... And in a few of these articles, something plenty of folks including myself have questioned in the past is answered, that apparently he did also make some direct monetary contributions to schools and charitable programs serving the community. It's a little paradoxical, but in a way I'm kind of glad that this is only coming out now posthumously, whereas I couldn't find bupkus online about charitable contributions when he was alive -- that seems to hint that he was perhaps doing it very quietly without a lot of hoopla and press releases, in a spirit of service and sharing blessings and giving back, instead of trying to make himself look good for his critics. And the attitude shown in this quote from the New York Times' obituary article is also encouraging:

For all the recognition he received, Mr. Hillerman once said, he was most gladdened by the status of Special Friend of the Dineh (the Navajo people) conferred on him in 1987 by the Navajo Nation. He was also proud that his books were taught at reservation schools and colleges.

“Good reviews delight me when I get them,” he said. “But I am far more delighted by being voted the most popular author by the students of St. Catherine Indian school, and even more by middle-aged Navajos who tell me that reading my mysteries revived their children’s interest in the Navajo Way.”

I definitely don't think the books or the man himself are perfect or above critical examination -- but oy, compared to the ethnic-fetish historical romances, or the YA-paranormal-romance treatment of the Quileute in the Twilight books, or so much other stuff...30 years on down from the beginning of the series, and the Leaphorn and Chee books are still just worlds better than so much of the stuff being written by non-native authors...
Oct. 31st, 2008 05:47 pm (UTC)

Have you read Roger Zelazny's Eye of Cat? (And did we discuss this book already?")

Oct. 31st, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes I have! Although I haven't reread it in many years. But I do think I mentioned it briefly in the comments on the IBARW stuff at least, it was a huge favorite as a teen because it was one of those rare and thus deeply cherished "INDIANS IN SPACE!!1!" books that came along, well, almost never.
Oct. 31st, 2008 10:51 pm (UTC)

Now that you mention it, I think I remember that.

I brought it up because Zelazny dedicated it to Leaphorn and Chee. Also, I had wanted to blog a reread of it about 14 months ago, and was worried whether I should. I had at that time just read Oyce's IBARW stuff about cultural appropriation. (Hadn't made your acquaintance at that point, so I couldn't ask ... .)

Nov. 1st, 2008 06:08 am (UTC)
Well, again, this is just going by memory rather than any recent rereads -- yeah, of course there's room for critical examination. There are cultural appropriation issues to consider -- but at the same time, we both know from painful experience what it's like to be a F&SF-loving little geekling who can seldom find any reflection of one's own folks in the stories you love...and if there were a total moratorium on non-native folks writing Indian characters, I really don't think that the publishers and movie/TV studios would be falling all over themselves to make up for the slack with work from native writers. In EOC specifically, in retrospect I could now argue that there are some iffy elements (the Indian character is a hunter/tracker, he's trapped in an irretrievably lost past and must die because he cannot cope with the modern world, etc.); but it also has a lot of elements that I really, really like (the Dine surviving as a distinct culture into a futuristic SF setting, showing of cultures in general as adaptable living organisms rather than hidebound museum pieces, the centrality and normalization from his POV of Singer's cultural/religious lens -- even the tragic ending doesn't come off as badly as it might, as I recall it read less like "Indians can't adjust to the modern world and are thereby doomed" and more "this individual is out of step, due to time dilation and outliving his immediate relations and familiar settings -- but the culture he came from is still surviving and adapting"; and his death didn't even feel as wasteful and tragic as it might, there's a sense of balance and peace and coming full circle in it all that I liked. Memory says it was ultimately more satisfying than Robert Silverberg's Sundance, which also blew me away just for *existing* when I first read it as a teen, but now feels a little bit like Luc Mauno in the last Joan Vinge "Cat" book -- I'm still glad just to see Indians in SF at all, but cringe a little bit at the heavy-handedness of the well-meaning "genocide and racism are bad, mmmmkay" thrust of the text. Those are Message Stories, and while it's not as if it's a message I disagree with, you get a little tired of only seeing your people show up for that sort of thing; EOC in contrast was more of a character study than anything else, I think you could have recast Billy as some different ethnicity and he'd be just as angsty about outliving his contempories, just as plausibly reverting deeper to familiar cultural views in extremis...

Um, anyway, long-winded way to say I'd be very interested in seeing you write it up or chat about it, if you remember enough after a year to do so!

Oh, ha, and speaking of the difficulties of finding "$ETHNICITY in SPACE!" genre stuff -- that character from Babylon 5 I was mentioning that I think Red will absolutely fall in love with if she ever watches it? Ivanova's a Russian Jew. And she is absolutely MADE OF PURE SNARKY AWESOME:

Nov. 7th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC)
(Eye of Cat)

My recollection is also that the Dine as a people were shown to be surviving quite nicely, using some little bits of technology as they saw fit but still living in their own lands on their own terms. And Singer's death was definitely his own issue, not his people's. I also recall feeling peaceful about the ending.

I liked the clip. It's amazing how little Judaism shows up in outer space-type SF. I think it's because most of the authors tend to portray an irreligious society out there, and they're thinking of Judaism as a religion, not a culture.

Nov. 8th, 2008 06:58 am (UTC)
Re: (Eye of Cat)
*nods* I'm trying to think of examples from the various Trek series and such not, and even when you do get religion it's much more likely to be something alien, rather than human practices. And I think writers who are likely just from sheer demographic numbers to be coming from a background that's at least nominally Christian have a lot harder of a time wrapping their heads around religions that are so organically intertwined with ethnicity and culture, like Judaism or ATRs or Indian or Hawaiian traditions -- religions that are less about conversion and adherence to particular doctrine and more intertwined with just general lifeways are a very different paradigm.

And ha! Look what I just found! Hulu's got the complete first two seasons. "TKO" honestly is not one of the best episodes of the entire series, but having one of the two storylines be Ivanova-focused, it's worth watching. And since it's not one of the real major plot-arc-moving episodes, I think it can be watched on it's own easily enough without having to sit through the preceding episodes or brush up on series guides. What little bits of backstory you might need for context -- Garibaldi's a recovering alcoholic, Ivanova's the last survivor of her family and had a strained relationship with her father, CO Sheridan regards her as a good friend as well as a trusted, valued second-in-command -- are all amply noted in the episode itself, so it could probably be watched as a standalone without losing much impact.
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