Sunday, August 01, 2004

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

"I can still smell the pork cooking, taste the lukewarm coleslaw, hear the songs, and feel the rhythm of the shell-shakers. I remember ribbons and tear dresses and me trying to dance like Mama. Echoes of stories, the snapping of fire. Smoke rising to heaven, and how it stung my eyes. Talk of corn and the New Year." --RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Harper, 2001)

"It's [RAIN] kind of like a combination of 'Northern Exposure' and 'Party of Five'." --Bob Langstaff, WAMV AM/Amhert, VA

Sometimes I think you have to write your first novel before you can write anything else, and it's in many ways a mixed blessing if it's actually published. Basically, that manuscript helps you clear out everything that's built up over the years.

I wrote RAIN while JINGLE DANCER was in production, knowing my new editor would be eager to see it and that I had just signed with a top-notch agent.

It's about Cassidy Rain Berghoff, a mixed blood girl who after the unexpected death of her best friend slowly reconnects to her family and intertribal community by becoming involved as a photojournalist for her small town newspaper.

The story was inspired in part by a true tragedy, although the reframed fact pattern is completely unrecognizable.

The timing of the release--only a couple of months before 9/11--was challenging. At that time, many people didn't want to hear an author talk to children about anything unpleasant, let alone fiction about grief/healing. I was asked by teachers and even some librarians not to focus too much on the actual themes and plot of the story.

The writing style is very Indian (in the way you sometimes see in Native writing for authors but seldom children), which was important to me. I didn't even consider presenting a protagonist with specific tribal worldviews in a literary construct inconsistent with them. A consequence of this was that reader reactions, though generally positive, were sometimes confused. However, Native readers (and reviewers) in particular seemed to absolutely love it, and the book established me as a voice in Native American literature.

Because my editor and agent already were in place, the submissions history of the manuscript was quite brief, however, I spent an extra six months putting in and taking out unnecessary scenes. Wheel-spinning, so to speak.

I couldn't let it go.

I wrote the book in Chicago, living in a loft apartment in the near South Loop. It was a reconverted old printing company, about the farthest thing from fictional Hannesburg, Kansas.

I've already said a lot about the book in articles and interviews, and I've resolved not to be repetitive. But some qualities have endured over time:

(1) standing as one of first books about a contemporary mixed blood where being Native American is not the conflict (although I can't tell you how many times I've read something about the book based on the opposite presumption);

(2) standing as an example of Native writing-style, especially with its community focus (big difference between tribal societies based on community rights and responsiblities and the mainstream's foundation of individual rights and responsibilities), which may have seemed like a broad net to some outsiders (but then again, Indian readers often tell me they find mainstream protagonists a tad self-absorbed);

(3) showing diversity within a specifically German American town; as a biracial character, Rain is not only incidentally Euro-American, it's an important part of her setting and identity (lots of flattering mail from German American townspeople);

(4) offering an emphasis on engineering and technology, which cuts against the stereotype of the Native primitive (the kids build a pasta bridge and Web sites);

(5) integrating the Internet in the story in a way that makes a plot difference (one of the first books to do so).

Readers have responded strongly to RAIN--no one is ever lukewarm. And those who love it, love it passionately. I've been asked too many times to count for a sequel or companion book.

See also:

Articles

"A Different Drum: Native American Writing" by Cynthia Leitich Smith, "Field Notes," (The Horn Book Magazine, July 2002)(p.407). A discussion of the value of vulnerability of Native American writing styles in the mainstream market.

"Interracial Themes in Children's and Young Adult Fiction" by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Library Talk, January/February 2001).

"Cheering for Books: An Interview With Cynthia Leitich Smith" by Teri Lesesne (Teacher Librarian: The Journal for School Library Professionals, October 2001).

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a review by Julia Durango of By The Book. Offers not only thoughts on the book but also its life in the world of children's literature.

Reviews

Kirkus Reviews calls it: "Tender, funny, and full of sharp wordplay . . ."

School Library Journal said: "It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. It's Rain's story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her 'patch-work tribe.'"

Publisher's Weekly: "...readers will feel the affection of Rain's loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her."

Children's Literature: "Smith (author of Jingle Dancer) portrays a protagonist with a genuine voice and an appealing sense of humor."

Awards

For this title, selected as a 2001 Writers of the Year in Children's Prose by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Also RAIN was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award, featured at the Second National Book Festival, the Texas Book Festival, the St. Petersburg Times' "You Gotta Read This Book Club," and included in GREAT BOOKS FOR GIRLS by Kathleen Odean.

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