The NY Times Asks if Alexandra Fuller’s Novel on the Oglala Lakota Requires Justification

Quiet Until the Thaw: A Novel
By Alexandra Fuller

The New York Times reviewed Quiet Until the Thaw, Alexandra Fuller’s novel on the Oglala Sioux and the lead up to Wounded Knee 1973, and asks several questions regarding authenticity: “Such, at least, is Fuller’s reading of Lakota creed. Is it a reading she is entitled to make? Is her intuitive identification with the Lakota sufficient to justify her novel? Does her novel require justification? And not least, is a non-Native reader qualified to review it?”

Fuller is British and, according to this Paste Magazine review, found an “adopted home with the Lakota.” Natives have become accustomed to thinking the worst of someone who defines themselves or is defined by another non-Native as “adopted” by any tribe in any regard. Tribal adoptions do exist, however, they are uncommon enough to remain questionable. Typically, people mention they are “adopted” by a tribe or are 1/16th, or some other fraction, “Native American” as self-justification–a way to help themselves feel comfortable with writing about Indians, cheering for teams with Native mascots, or to feel better about their opposition to any number of Native issues.

The NY Times reviewer asked these questions of authenticity without delving deeper into them, and I wonder why. Surely, a book review is no place for an in-depth study of cultural appropriation and literature. One would need the space of a critical essay to do so. Yet, simply acknowledging the issue without some sense of recourse is hardly worth a reader’s time. The reviewer should have left that paragraph concerning identity and appropriation issues out. The last paragraph addresses the issue more effectively anyway.

I’m interested in the novel and will probably read it. The NY Times review is largely positive even though there is mention of some stereotypical elements in the story. If a non-Native reviewer can cite Indian stereotypes and clichés, I wonder how much more a Native reader will find. Regardless, I’m interested.

It’s hard to write well about another culture or another experience, one in which the author did not share but researched instead. I won’t say it’s impossible, but I will say there is a lot of room for failure, especially when those whom the author wrote about read the work. Some will say that a writer should never write about another culture or experience because one cannot write about what they do not know. Others will say that a writer should seek help from the people they are writing about and never stray from what those cultural informers say. More will say, “Who cares?” Debbie Reese wrote of a few reasons why we should care on Twitter.

So, as the NY Times reviewer asks, Does Alexandra Fuller’s novel need justification? Ultimately, no. Writers can write about whatever they want. However, as one who constantly sees Native people written about in stereotypical and harmful ways, I am wary about any novel written about American Indians by non-Natives. I’ll have to wait and see how Fuller does until I get a copy of her book.