The Indigenous Author
Once in an elevator in a posh place in Seattle I overheard a conversation between two stylish middle-aged ladies. One said, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear you lost your job. What will you do now?”
The other said, “Oh, I suppose I’ll buy a cheap computer and write a book.” It was almost as if she thought the computer wrote the book.
Thanks to the thundering herds of literate people who believe that writing a book is a thing that anyone could do and that every book is a best seller, and who include in their own books and movies the idea of writing a book as achieving salvation (which is related to the Abrahamic admiration of the magic of books: Bible/Torah/Koran) we still have the fantasy that writing a book really IS something. That will make money.
Gutenberg made it possible for the classes just below the top to own books, because printing presses made them cheaper and sources of education made people able to read. Of course, at first they only read “improving” books like “Pilgrim’s Progress”, but then someone realized that wicked sells, so they began to “publish” (print, bind and sell) novels in shops next to the dry goods. It was a shift in the underpinnings of society.
That was a few centuries ago. Recently, delancyplace.com, which daily runs a few hundred pages from histories of all kinds, ran a quote from
“Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks” by Bryant Simon. "Increasingly over the last two decades, women and men with higher salaries and more college classes under their belt broke away from the sensible middle class and engaged in a new round of conspicuous consumption. …"
One’s taste in print consumption is no different -- though reading commuters had to be a little devious if reading certain books — until finally you could read from a small screen, privately, without a giveaway dust jacket. Equivalent is the context of writing. In the days of Louisa May Alcott one wrote books in an unheated attic, living on apples, or if one were male, one had a major adventure of some sort and then wrote about it almost secretly until the world was ready. But writing a published book was thought to be a middle-class version of winning the lottery, very much connected to deservingness, certifying that one was anointed after all.
Then came laptops and the Starbucks-related phenomenon of writing in public. Now the plotted disaster was not accidentally leaving the paper manuscript in a taxi, but rather having the laptop stolen. (Does no one carry around their masterpiece on a thumb drive as though it were the secret plans for the Russian invasion? Of course, one cannot steal a cloud.) Watching the faces of the keyboardists, one sometimes suspects they are actually just composing a spread sheet for expense reimbursement from the head office. How middle class, but at least there’s income involved.
That’s a quick list of the changes in print transmission methods. The equally changing content is a little harder to identify and understand. Underlying all print is spoken language and under all spoken language is a constantly shifting set of connectomes that Freudian systems have led us to believe are bubbling ferments of inchoate accumulation. But now, if you listen to George Lakoff and a host of researchers, we know that there is a system, as sure as bones, that guides everything mental (and physiological, since by now some will accept that the consciously mental is also physiologically based and almost entirely unconscious).
I particularly like the vid linked below because it reveals how closely “virtue” and “emotion” are tied to reading, esp. for those dedicated upper-middle-class PBS people, who by now have home espresso machines on their sleek kitchen counters, next to the planning book for their European vacation.
Part of the assimilation of the indigenous people of the North American continent has been getting them into books some way or other. First, they were written about — inaccurately, as we now recognize. Then nice Victorian do-gooder ladies began to create manuscripts that were represented as translations from the people. No one wrote in their own language, not even the people themselves, except for the Cree who benefitted from devising their own alphabet. That came next.
Then the journals of adventures of young poetic men who felt truly at home with the indigenous cultures. Some learned those languages. When the college-educated indigenous began to write, they all wrote down oral legends. Then they acquired research skills and gained access to primary records — which wasn’t easy because part of the task of escaping hegemony was through politicized destruction of “white” files and records which made librarians wary of them. If they seemed “middle class” enough, they gradually sat down at tables to read and were scandalized. This was “white” stuff — where was the pre-print history of the red people?
The long process of using a medieval invention, print, to express the deep structure of an indigenous world has to be based on the raw material that is the land. No one born in the 19th century of buffalo and nomadism is alive today, but the buffalo are being restored and from satellites it is possible to locate the old trails, marked with with GPS. A new accumulation of writing is building up in the tribal community colleges where indigenous art abounds. It could happen anywhere — Australia, China, Russia?
This is a very long way around to get to my point, which is that the secret to deep writing deserving the idea of a “body of work” is not so much print in “books” in the sense of organized, complete, indexed and footnoted ideas or even in the flash-bang narratives of survivors, but rather in the shift to writing as creating a steady output. People talk about a “body of work” as the lifetime output of a writer developing through the shifts and oxymorons of living, but they talk about it even after the author’s death, from the outside.
From the inside it is now possible to produce a body of work that is felt as “written” (including images, sound, movement) and through “reflexivity” understand where the deep travail is taking one. That was always possible with a diary or journal, but to have a company of readers sharing the adventure is new. Not always comfortable.
Of course, new means new problems. Not everyone will react the same, though one hopes the viciously critical would just go away. For a while, writing will need to be sequestered into material read by those sharing and identifying with that life — Indians writing for Indians, as it were. That’s happening. But it doesn’t always go back to the environment that created the tribes in the first place. Those who open the Bundles haven’t necessarily sat for hours watching what those prairie creatures do, what their aura is, what lessons they teach, how they connect to survival, but a person still could. Could learn to take badger and fox into one’s own body so as to dance their nature.
Swift foxes on the prairie
The missing piece for those who choose to create a body of work as a figure of process, traveling along through the world and time, is close to what for a while was called “discovery.” The discovery is that a “body of work” is a “thing” and then that the thing is worthy, worth searching for. Possibly not middle class or in English. Maybe not written on a laptop at Starbucks. Potentially beyond words.