PERHAPS THE MOST FASCINATING and instructive moment in Margaret Seltzer’s now discredited memoir Love and Consequences comes early in the book, when a young Margaret B. Jones storms into her South Central foster home to pose a query to her African-American caretaker “Big Mom.”
“What if I don’t want to be white?” Jones asks, offended that, despite her half Native American heritage, her white skin leaves her branded a paleface.
“Well,” Big Mom replies, “that’s white folk for ya. They thinking everyone wanna be white, so they finna consider you white anyway, like it or not.”
Of course we now know that “Jones” is white, and this exchange provides an intriguing look into Seltzer’s rhetorical strategy for fooling her editors. If questioning the ethnic heritage of someone white in appearance who claims to be Indian is something only racist white people do, woe be to any editor who suggests an ethnic-background check.
The exchange between “Jones” and Big Mom is also interesting in other ways. In the novel, Big Mom herself claims to be part Native, a “redbone,” as she calls it — a mix of black and Native.
Ironically, Big Mom’s Indian heritage is more genuine than Seltzer’s. Big Mom appears to be substantially lifted from Native writer Sherman Alexie’s character of the same name in his novel Reservation Blues. Though a comparative reading of the two books reveals no overt line-for-line plagiarism — Seltzer’s simplistic, facile prose bears little resemblance to the poetic style and cadence of Alexie’s — both versions of Big Mom depict soulful saviors who help rescue their respective protagonists from damnation, foster-care hell for Jones and actual fire-and-brimstone for Reservation blues man Robert Johnson, who traded his soul to the devil.
Coincidental? It hardly seems so. Seltzer certainly can’t claim ignorance of Alexie’s work — he’s listed prominently on the Love and Consequences MySpace page, as both a “hero” of Seltzer’s and a favorite author.
Of course Seltzer wouldn’t be the first white author to play Indian by cribbing from Alexie.
A little over two years ago, in the midst of the Oprah/James Frey fiasco, I wrote an exposé called “Navahoax” that outed award-winning “Navajo” memoirist Nasdijj as Tim Barrus — a middle-class white guy from Lansing, Michigan, who was also a failed writer of gay pornography. Barrus didn’t just manufacture his Native identity, he rose to prominence by filching elements of Alexie’s biography and prose style, as well as those of several other Native writers. “Nasdijj” won himself a PEN Award and a myriad of literary accolades in the process.
“It is flattering in a sociopathic sort of way,” Alexie says of his literary clones. “I should start a workshop: ‘How to plagiarize Sherman Alexie and get a big book deal!’ I have enough cultural power that it works to mimic me. How weird is that?”
He jokes, but after “Navahoax” broke, and forests’ worth of trees were devoted to shaming Barrus for his fraudulence, Alexie hoped the story would finally dissuade other struggling white writers from hijacking Native identity to jump-start their careers — a curious and surprisingly common phenomenon over the past century.
After “Navahoax,” Alexie was contacted by two separate editors asking for help in vetting books by self-professed Native authors. One book was for real, he says; the other had serious issues.
“People don’t realize how small the Indian world is. I can make two phone calls and figure out if someone is lying about being Indian.”
Alexie was actually sent a copy of Love and Consequences and asked to write a blurb, but he didn’t read it. “I remember seeing something about a girl growing up in the L.A. gang culture and thinking, ‘I have nothing to say about that.’ ”
Though Nasdijj was pilloried for his shameless appropriation of Native identity, other avowed Natives of dubious heritage — such as University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill — have come away unscathed, even after being publicly exposed.
If Seltzer’s Native future remains uncertain, her past is just now becoming clear. Last week, Fishbowl LA noted a curious acknowledgment in University of Oregon Professor Gordon Sayre’s book The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero: Native Resistance and the Literatures of America, from Moctezuma to Tecumseh.
“Peggy Seltzer of the Quinault nation alerted me to the annual ride of the Sioux and inspired my teaching of Native American literature at Oregon,” he wrote.
Had Seltzer been playing Indian even before writing Love and Consequences?
Quinault officials say there is no Peggy Seltzer on the tribal roll. Sayre didn’t return calls for comment, but on Sunday he published an op-ed piece in the Eugene Register-Guard admitting that Seltzer was a former student of his, and that she had written at least one paper for him claiming she was of Quinault descent. Surprisingly, Sayre defended her actions — all of them.
“When early on the morning of March 4 I went out to get the newspaper and learned that I had read a novel, not a memoir, I was neither angry nor disappointed. If Peggy’s assertion that she had spent part of her childhood on the Quinault reservation was untrue, if the paper she had written about this experience was based on false premises, at least it was backed up by enough research to be convincing.”
Apparently, academic and intellectual fraud is tolerable provided it’s well done — this from a professor of Native American literature, no less. Academic dishonesty may have been the least of Seltzer's transgressions. On Monday, writer Inga Muscio, who helped Seltzer land a book deal after hooking her up with literary agent Faye Bender, claimed on her blog that Seltzer received monthly checks from the Quinault Nation after convincing tribal officials her “bio-dad” was a prodigal Native son.
Such cynical realities keep the Sherman Alexies of the world awake deep into the night.
“I’m mad and irritated, but at the same time it’s hilarious,” says Alexie. “I thought after ‘Navahoax’ people would understand that with the Internet there’s just no way to get away with this anymore. Maybe now they’ll get it? Maybe …”
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