PEN Center USA has dropped John Smelcer’s novel Stealing Indians from the shortlist for its young adult award, after Smelcer’s integrity was publicly questioned by several writers, including Man Booker prize winner Marlon James.
Smelcer’s Stealing Indians was one of four titles in the running for the award. Telling the story of four Indian teenagers taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools in the 1950s, it was first published in 2016, but featured a quote on the cover from Chinua Achebe. (“A poignant story of colonisation and assimilation, something I know a little bit about. A masterpiece.”) Achebe died in 2013.
After Smelcer’s nomination was announced, several writers including Marlon James criticised the decision. James, who knew Smelcer from the Wilkes University MFA creative writing course, accused him of being a “living con job” in a public Facebook post. “This is the motherfucking fuckery we keep talking about. Why does this always happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes?” wrote James.
Smelcer, who describes himself as being of the Native American Ahtna tribe, was awarded the James Jones first novel fellowship in 2004, but it was rescinded in 2015 after a unanimous vote when Kaylie Jones, author and daughter of the eponymous novelist, accused Smelcer of faking a blurb from Norman Mailer on his own website shortly after the author died. Jones said she had been terribly upset by the quote, “which Mailer’s biographer and I knew for a fact was not written by Norman Mailer”. When she researched Smelcer further, she found that “a number of Native American writers and scholars had been decrying his claim to a Native American heritage and his blatant exploitation of his dubious position in the Ahtna tribe”. Jones called “this entire fiasco … a terrible stain on the reputation and integrity” of the prize.
In a statement earlier this month, PEN said that it had “become aware of concerns expressed by some within the literary community” about the nomination of Smelcer. “We take these concerns seriously and we are investigating them further to determine an appropriate path forward in accordance with our mission to both celebrate literary merit and defend free expression for all,” PEN said. On Tuesday, it announced that it had withdrawn the novel from the list of finalists, but would not comment further.
The announcement follows detailed investigations by the Stranger and the LA Times into Smelcer’s past and his claims to Native American heritage, and how he has used this disputed heritage to his professional advantage. “John Smelcer has been held in great suspicion and contempt in the Native world for 25 years,” the award-winning Native American writer Sherman Alexie told the Stranger, whose investigation also found that Smelcer’s agent, Johnny Savage, was actually Smelcer himself. The author told the website: “I invented the agent because of Debbie Reese and her rabid followers who for years (20) send me anonymous hate emails and death threats.”
Scholar Debbie Reese, who has been looking into Smelcer’s writing and his Native American identity for almost a decade and writes at the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, had questioned the shortlisting. In an email to the Guardian, Reese said that “Smelcer’s statements about his identity may suggest that his writing is an accurate reflection of Native life, but I find his writing to be rife with stereotypes and riddled with errors, too. Yes, he writes fiction, but, so little is known about who Native peoples are, that it is critical teachers provide them with books that accurately depict us in the past and present.”
A Kirkus review of Stealing Indians warned that “it may inadvertently encourage Native American stereotypes, particularly with teen readers”, while the Kenyon Review removed two poems by Smelcer from its website last year after complaints over stereotyping. At the time, the editor David Lynn thanked the “many readers who have contacted us to point out that these poems contained damaging stereotypes of Native people. I deeply regret the manifest distress this has caused and take full responsibility.”
On his website, where he says he has collaborated with names including John Updike, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, and where he lays claim to praise from the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Coretta Scott King, Smelcer provides a long defence of his ethnicity. “By all applicable laws of the United States (tribal, state, federal), most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA; 1971, 1987 Amendments), the largest indigenous legislation in American history, I am Alaska Native/Native American,” writes Smelcer, criticising the “wilful ignorance” of the “bullies” who “attack him”.
“I have come to realise the futility of trying to fight against such organised attacks and the weaponisation of social media and the internet,” he ends. “After nearly a quarter-century of these attacks, I’ve grown weary. I don’t have the strength of will to fight that I once had when I was a younger man.”