Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of Eternal and its companions Tantalize and the forthcoming Blessed (all from Candlewick). She’s also the author of Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all Harper Collins) as well as the forthcoming Holler Loudly (Dutton).
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Growing up, I didn’t talk much about race. Of course, with my peers at school, I didn’t talk much—period. I was shy, bookish, and geeky, before being a geek was cool. Not that most people knew that about me. I was an honor-roll student, heavily involved in school activities, big on blending.
My memories come in flashes. Or a lack thereof.
Other than a third-grade report I did on Sacagawea, I don’t remember a single reference to Native people in the classroom. We simply didn’t exist beyond Thanksgiving decorations.
What’s more, though I was an avid reader, I studiously avoided books with American Indian characters and themes. I’m not sure if that was instinctive or if I’d had an early negative experience. But even as an adult, I can be self-protective that way.
Years later, I would write a short story about the Hollywood-style Indian “war calls” shouted out the windows as the team bus passed Haskell Indian Junior College (now Haskell Indian Nations University). But I didn’t dare say anything at the time.
So, there were problems. I could cite other examples—more personal and painful examples—but I prefer not to call up those ghosts.
No doubt individual experiences varied greatly. But for the most part, racism came from grown-ups, not other kids. My personal social group—AKA the center of my adolescent universe—dismissed such attitudes as hateful and on their way out.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I’m familiar with internalized racism. Certainly, with the Indian boarding schools, that was a primary goal. But my feeling has always been that racism is rooted in someone else’s problem. It’s about them making—at least over-generalized, at most hateful—snap judgments, and then acting in a sneering/discriminatory/abusive/violent way to assert their purported superiority.
The socio-historical-political contexts are different, but similar dynamics largely apply to sexism, classicism, homophobia, discrimination based on religion or on national or regional origin, and so forth.
That said, I may be more comfortable and optimistic talking about race relations than some folks. I also tend to both deflect and illuminate with humor.
My stories are just that—stories. Character and setting are my springboards to plot. Theme emerges over time, occasionally as a surprise. But all art has a moral center, a sensibility that comes from the artist’s heart.
I write with an inclusive world view, offering stories with protagonists of color and/or diverse casts. It never occurred to me not to. If art reflects reality, my reality is certainly multi-colorful and multicultural (not my favorite term of art, but you know what I mean).
I have addressed racism in my writing—especially the gray areas—in Rain Is Not My Indian Name, though that’s not the focus of the book. In my short stories, I’ve also taken on prejudice within the Native community and the parallels between racism and homophobia.
Of late, I’ve tackled racism in a make-believe world. Shape-shifters in my Gothic fantasy series are unsure of their constitutional rights, face job discrimination, and feel pressured to “pass” as humans. Speculative fiction has long illuminated real-world societal dynamics. For some kids, it’s in this fantastical context that the pain of injustice and importance of cross-cultural respect will finally click.
I’ve also used my platform as an author to promote a diversity of fellow children’s-YA book creators and their works. My official author site features Children’s & YA Literature Resources, including a substantial section on multiculturalism, offering bibliographies, articles, and related resources of interest to educators. Beyond that, my children’s-YA writer blog, Cynsations, is inclusive of its celebration of the field.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Reading across race and culture may be one of the most powerful ways to develop awareness, understanding, and empathy.
I’ve walked into countless schools where Native people were referred to only in the past tense. But time after time, with child after child, the Hollywood Indian, the mascot Indian, the stereotypical “savage boogieman” is cast aside when a child bonds with Jenna from Jingle Dancer or Ray from Indian Shoes.
I’ve had young readers—both Native and non-Indian—write me saying that Rain’s story made them really appreciate the diversity within Indian Country. I’ve had young readers—both Native and non-Indian—tell me that they somehow see themselves in her.
I’m also hearted to hear from kids and teens from other historically underrepresented communities depicted in my work.
Latino teens usually comment that hero Kieren Morales from Tantalize and Blessed (forthcoming) is Mexican American on his father’s side.
At a public library visit, two African-American teens specifically asked me about my choice of a black-and-blue butterfly—why those colors?—as the symbol of heaven.
Various teens have made a point of mentioning that the angel Joshua is black.
Young readers notice. Inclusion matters.
My favorite fan letter—referencing Miranda from Eternal—read: “Hey, nice to see an Asian girl pick up a battle axe!”
Cynthia is on faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an enrolled tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation, and makes her home in Austin, Texas.