Calling Team Gabe! This is your chance to wax eloquent.
I meant to have this up this morning, but this week has been insane at the paper. I had a huge project more or less dumped in my lap and am trying to get it done before I leave for a week-long writing vacation that starts tomorrow at 5 p.m. Things have been so tense that I did something I really haven’t done in ages today — I got up in the middle of a meeting and walked out. Now I just want chocolate and a blankie.
Poor Kat and Gabe have been patiently awaiting their turn on the I-Team Reading Challenge stage so this blog is dedicated to their story, Naked Edge.
Naked Edge drew together some completely unrelated things. It combined my climbing accident — read all about it here — with my years of reporting on American Indian issue and my time volunteering as a naturalist for Boulder Mountain Parks (now called Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks). I borrowed names from my ranger friends, which amused them. More than that, however, this book was a very personal tribute to the Diné people and to my Diné friends.
Without a doubt, it was the most difficult book I’ve written. I wanted to make absolutely certain to be accurate when it came to the Navajo traditions in the story and to Native culture in general. That’s a very complicated, layered world to portray even when you’re familiar with it as I am — Kat’s Navajo heritage, the mixed cultures off the reservation where Native people from all nations come together for ceremony, friendship and a sense of belonging, their conflicts with mainstream society. I’ve said it a zillion times, but I wanted Kat to be Navajo through and through, not an “apple,” i.e., red on the outside and white on the inside. If I had to criticize most books, films, TV shows involving Native characters it would be for portraying Native characters in a way that makes mainstream readers/viewers feel comfortable.
At the same time, there were things I couldn’t write about. The real goings-on in ceremony, certain sacred words and phrases. Those things aren’t meant to be shared. Except how do you create an authentic Navajo heroine without going into those things? Well, you have to be creative and careful.
Kat became my favorite heroine. Strong and very comfortable being a woman, she knew exactly who she was. There was no need to “find herself.” She was herself. And some readers agreed at least, as she was voted Favorite Heroine in RBL Romantica’s Hughie Awards, ousting Eve Dallas from her multi-year hold on the lead spot. Go Kat!
But a lot of people didn’t care for her. The reviews range from glowing five-star reviews to a measly three stars from RT Book Reviews and one-star review in which the reader says the book was “incredibly stupid,” mostly because she didn't like the fact that Kat said she didn’t date. In fact most of the objections to Kat came as a result of her sexual choices. Some people got on Kat’s case for being a virgin and setting Gabe straight at their first real meeting (lunch). Some people got on her case for not wanting him to wear a condom the first time they had sex. Some people hated the fact that she went back to the rez to have her baby and for not having an epidural (!). Some didn’t understand how a woman could go to college and still have superstitious religious beliefs about coyotes and so forth. Allow me to explain:
Some women don’t date. Dating — i.e., sampling men to see which one you like, if any — is a serial event. Some women wait for a man who is interested in them as a wife and explore that territory very carefully. These are mostly women of strong religious conviction.
A lot of Native people — not just Navajo — don’t feel comfortable with contraception. In the case of the Navajo, the mingling of male and female waters is part of what’s sacred about sex. If you remove that, you’ve destroyed the significance of the sex act. So naturally Kat would want her first sexual experience to be all natural.
As for the birth at the end, if Kat hadn’t gone home, her daughter would not have been considered Navajo. To be Navajo, you must have a certain blood quantum AND be born on the rez. And not all women have epidurals. A lot of women prefer completely natural births. What’s the big deal about that?
And lastly, a lot of women go to college and yet are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or whatever. They have beliefs that may seem strange, stupid and/or superstitious to outsiders, too, even though they’ve been to college. To suggest that going to college eliminates a person’s belief system is to fail to understand the importance of tradition and one’s connect to one’s own spiritual truth.
What struck me as so funny as I read through all of these objections to Kat’s character, particularly the sexual ones, is that they were coming from women. Haven’t women fought long and hard for the right to make decisions about how they live their lives? Kat was making choices that were right for her, but there’s a segment of the romance reading world that just is only comfortable with sex for fun and wants heroines to be rockin’ the contraception.
But I write stories about characters who feel real to me. Kat was a traditional Navajo. These things were natural for her.
I guess I needed to get that off my chest. Whew!
As for Gabe, there were some readers who felt he was so repugnant that he couldn’t be redeemed. I found that funny, given how many novels have man-whore heroes. Gabe isn’t a man-whore by nature, of course, and meeting Kat was a scary re-introduction to his core self. Ultimately, it forced him to confront his choices, his past and the way he had changed. But, yes, it probably took readers a while to warm up to him. That didn’t bother me, because I knew by the end they would love him.
Because this book took a lot of risks, I was pretty nervous before it came out. I even blogged about how nervous I was. Despite the fact that the story received some of the nastiest reviews any of my books have ever received, it’s getting nominated for all kinds of awards — and winning. Between AAR and the Hughies, it won six awards. So I think a lot more people appreciate the risks the story took and the different feel of it than hated it.
As for the Big Event at the end, you all have done such an amazing job of keeping that secret! I can’t thank you enough for that. It was a crucial moment in the story, the one where past and present come together and Gabe has to make a choice. And the only choice he can make is to express his love for Kat in the ultimate fashion. I wanted that to feel real and to break hearts. I think it succeeded because Naked Edge has been getting a lot of tear-jerker designations.
So, a year after it’s release, I stand amazed by the recognition the story is receiving. I hope with all my heart that it opened up hearts and minds to the contemporary Native experience. Much of what was in the book is real and those real events represent the kinds of things that happen to Indian people every day: the raid on the inipi, the theft of artifacts, the corruption and loss of sacred sites, the desecration of graves, the struggle to maintain identity, the fight to preserve one’s own spiritual beliefs and practices, and so on...
I’ve been an eye witness to much of that. The raid on the inipi really happened. The loss of a prominent sacred site really happened. I covered it, shared the outrage and wished I could have done more.
I suppose the ultimate satisfaction for me came when my friend Kat, after whom Kat is named, read the book. Her husband, whom I call Uncle Ray, is a full-blooded hereditary Navajo spiritual leader, and both of them are dear to me. Kat read the book and e-mailed me to say it was perfect and that it felt authentically Navajo to her. She saw things that no one else could see — elements of shared experience between the two of us, late-night conversations, jokes, my own personal experiences on the rez. There are elements of our friendship that are woven into those pages.
Maybe that’s what makes the book feel special to people, even if they don’t know what those elements are or realize they’re even there. (Egads, now I miss her so much!)
Today, she sent me a link to a hideous news broadcast in which a non-Native reporter took news cameras into an inipi ceremony. Cameras! She filmed it. They filmed the altar. They filmed the sacred elements. And they put it on TV. During the call-in portion of the program, a Lakota elder called in to say that what they had done was wrong. She cut him off! I was horrified. (I’m not posting the link because that would only perpetuate the insult and damage.)
I didn’t intend for this post to be so long. This is all really heavy stuff. I guess it’s okay to share it with you, though, because these are the things I think about when I put a story together.
So I’ll shut up now and turn it over to you.