JK: Historical Authenticity
One of this blog’s readers asked a question of me, about how to refer to American Indians in a book she was writing about a massacre that occurred in the 1860s. I responded and also posted my answer on another listserv that has generated some interesting discussion. Here’s my answer to her wondering if one should go with political correctness and not use words like “squaw” or whether to be “authentic” since people back then would have used those words.
I've decided to go with political correctness for two reasons: one, I know a lot of Indian people and the word squaw really is a diminishing word. Brave appears to have fewer evocative reactions as does half-breed so I'd be less concerned with using those last two. But I wouldn't use squaw. Oregon State has just gone through the process of renaming every geographical site using that name with an Indian name meaning "woman" using the words for several tribes. I'm glad about that.
The other reason I tend to go with political correctness is something Joyce Carol Oates said at the Festival of Faith and Writing, and that's that a writer should do three things in a story: to create empathy for a character and the flawed world in which they live; witness to people who otherwise might not have a voice and three to memorialize. So given those, I think that when we use the more acceptable, present day terms, we are memorializing something with integrity rather than something foul. We hope our stories will be widely read and why wouldn't we want them to remember it with words that respect the dignity of human beings rather than those once used to diminish them. Authenticity to me means not just factual accuracy but as writers, that we've done the work to convey the time period without demeaning the people even though people then might have done just that.
I think we can witness to what happened then and create the emotional impact of those kinds of words without ever using them, and I think that can be even more powerful than actually using the words. To have a narrator say "He called her that despicable word that he'd heard his father say, then spit, because she was a woman, an Indian woman, and he didn't think she deserved better" or something like that takes more time, but it also conveys a quality of the character that just using the word "squaw" doesn't. We might know something about the man, his father AND the woman then. Since it was a term used by a whole range of people with differing relationships to each other, some words might have been used as friendly banter between husband and wife or even a friend to friend. But we also know those same words were used derogatorily. So I just choose to find some other way to describe the relationship without using the offensive words. I’ll have more in my next posting.
Jane Kirkpatrick www.jkbooks.com. Look for Jane’s latest to be released April 17th. A Tendering in the Storm.