CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 30. . . .April 6, 2018
In the past two decades, much discussion and debate has been generated around the issue of representing communities who have been historically marginalized from mainstream society and excluded from predominant mediums of cultural dissemination, such as the mass media, literature, and pop culture. Both inside and outside the academic and publishing circles, a central point of contention has been the issue of who represents or speaks for the communities that get portrayed in fiction. This raises ethical questions about what obligation authors can or should have toward the communities that they represent in fiction, particularly when the community being represented has been historically disadvantaged, marginalized, and unrepresented in literature. This relates to the question of whether someone can represent that community with dignity and compassion in a way that does not misrepresent, trivialize, or homogenize those experiences. One viewpoint is that authors should not speak for others, particularly when others of that community can do so. However, others affirm that it is acceptable as long as the author is respectful and acknowledges the communities that are being represented.
This context is pertinent to Raquel Rivera’s young adult novel Yipee’s Gold Mountain because the two protagonists are Yipee, an American born person of Chinese descent, and Na tio, an indigenous boy. As Rivera comes from neither cultural background, this could raise critical questions about the ways in which she represents these characters. To a degree, Rivera does succeed in representing the Chinese and indigenous communities sensitively and avoids trivializing or whitewashing their experiences. Her portrayals of Yipee and Na tio will evoke reader empathy and identification since readers will identity with these feelings of being left out, lonely, or excluded from their community or peers. However, where it is potentially problematic is the extent to which readers can clearly see Rivera’s intentions in her work. Based on her novel, some readers may acquire a particular impression of Chinese and indigenous communities as a whole, when that may not be its intended effect. The novel’s approach to the subject matter is distinct and unique in a number of ways, but some shortcomings could detract from its positive impact.
The novel, itself, is crafted effectively in terms of its stylistic aspects and narrative technique. For the most part, the entire novel alternates between these two characters’ viewpoints, with one chapter focusing on Na tio’s perspective, followed by a chapter that focuses on Yipee’s perspective. Na tio’s story is told from a third person viewpoint, whereas Yipee’s story is told from a first person viewpoint. This narrative strategy allows the story to be told through the unique perspectives of the protagonists’ respective backgrounds and personalities, thereby providing a richer narrative that highlights the heterogeneity of personal experiences. The first person perspective may encourage more immediate empathy from readers because they can identify and imagine themselves from the perspective of the narratorial “I.” In contrast, the third person viewpoint may more likely instill a sense of separation between the narrator and reader. Although this could potentially create the effect of a disjointed story, Rivera’s novel does draw both narrative threads—Na tio’s and Yipee’s—together into a cohesive narrative.
The novel starts by depicting Na tio and Yipee with their own separate lives and communal circumstances. Because Yipee is about to lose her job with Mrs. Hall, she prepares herself to venture to Arizona to find work, possibly as a cowhand. As for Na tio, he feels inadequate and wants to prove himself as a warrior. However, eventually their paths cross when Yipee saves Na tio from a wolf and eventually travels together with him. From there, the story proceeds as a unified narrative that is conveyed from two different narrative viewpoints. Although it is clear which protagonist’s perspective is used in each chapter, some readers may find this slightly jarring because of the continual shifting between the first person and third person perspectives. As the book progresses, most readers may grow accustomed to this narrative style which rarely appears in children’s and young adult novels. Nevertheless, this narrative technique may prevent certain readers from becoming fully immersed in the story because attention is drawn to those narrative shifts.
The novel’s most positive aspect is that it does challenge the assumptions and stereotypes that people may have about the behaviour of indigenous or Chinese communities. This is exemplified most directly through Rivera’s representation of its Chinese and indigenous protagonists, Yipee and Na tio respectively. She conveys them as complex individuals with their own needs and desires rather than as caricatures, stereotypes, or one dimensional characters with simplistic motivations and reactions. Indeed, Rivera mentions in her interview that it is difficult to find historical examples of Chinese cowboys; instead, Chinese men and women appear constrained to specific occupations in the “Wild West”. As such, Yipee provides an alternative perspective on the history of Chinese immigrants by depicting her as a cowboy—an occupation that people may not typically associate with the Chinese community or with women in particular. In relation to this, Rivera portrays how the characters’ historical circumstances adversely impact their lives as economic and social barriers prevent them from integrating and participating fully in mainstream society. For example, the first chapter shows how these characters face barriers to financial mobility. Mrs. Hall praises Yipee for her diligent work ethic but affirms that she cannot keep her employed when white people are out of work. As a result, she asserts that she has no choice but to let her go.
Rivera’s representations of indigenous and Chinese communities are further enhanced by her portrayals of other characters, such as the indigenous man Goylah, which reveals how she avoids idealizing Na tio’s and Yipee’s lives within Canadian society. Although Goylah is working in the white community, he is not entirely content about his situation. Instead, he appears resigned to his current circumstances as he recognizes that this is necessary for his physical survival and that he can probably never return to his previous way of life. As a result, this conveys poignantly how the concrete realities of characters’ circumstances compel them to adapt, but that this comes at the expense of losing their connection with their cultural and communal heritage.
Other moments in the novel that challenge these assumptions and stereotypes are the white characters’ interactions with Yipee and Na tio. For example, readers are made aware of the stereotypes that the white characters hold against indigenous and Chinese people when a rancher asks Na tio if he is a “good Indian,” a question which draws attention to the fact that Indians have been historically regarded as heathens, immoral, and, therefore, untrustworthy. Despite her apparent goodwill towards Yipee, even Mrs. Hall harbours negative attitudes as she warns Yipee to watch out for the Apaches during her travels. Yipee, herself, has developed these same attitudes because she wonders whether any Apaches are hiding and watching her.
The book further challenges these assumptions and stereotypes by depicting other non indigenous and non Asian characters who behave in ways that have been associated with those two communities. For example, one of them skins the scalps of others for profit. There are also references to the reality of being female in that historical context, since one is vulnerable to being taken advantage of by men. At the same time, Rivera depicts some white characters positively, such as the ranch owner Jack who saves Na tio and Yipee from being hanged by the other ranch workers when they are blamed for the buster’s accident. These contrasting representations of white characters provide a more heterogeneous and realistic portrayal of the society in which the protagonists live.
The back of the book contains an interview with Rivera as well as her acknowledgements, both of which provide useful context about the motivations behind her portrayals of Na tio and Yipee. To an extent, these additional sections alleviate readers’ potentially negative impressions about her novel, particularly as the Chinese and indigenous communities have experienced extensive racism and discrimination historically in North America. Rivera mentioned in the interview that she wanted to convey an empowering representation of the Chinese community by depicting a Chinese girl in a non traditional role. At the same time, she stated that she would like to show the specific historical contexts that pertain to these two protagonists’ lives. The book’s acknowledgements show that she has conducted a significant amount of research and has consulted with knowledgeable people about her novel’s subject matter, which lend credence and authority to her fictional representations. For example, Rivera consulted people with historical expertise, people from the grassroots level, and scholarly publications about the Chinese community’s history in the United States.
However, where Rivera’s novel seems to fall a bit short is in its character development. Her novel could be stronger in terms of its cultural richness and the extent to which these contribute to these two protagonists’ characterizations. The plot, itself, is engaging as its intended audience will likely be drawn to these two characters’ experiences; furthermore, children’s and young adult stories may have a greater tendency to orient more heavily to a plot driven narrative, which, in itself, is not an issue. In this case, the two characters are each growing up in a specific cultural community and in a particular historical era that is characterized by racism and discrimination to those groups. For both Na tio and Yipee, few culturally specific details appear to be present that would identify Na tio as Apache or Yipee as Chinese. Na tio’s experiences and those of his community relate to activities that are characteristic of many indigenous communities, such as hunting, fishing, singing songs, making blankets, and so on. His perspective on his experiences and community’s history are touched on, but not extensively dealt with, apart from the fact that he feels he cannot be a great warrior like his father and that he feels like an outsider in his own community. The acknowledgements do indicate that Rivera has consulted with someone who has expertise on Apache heritage, and so the story would have benefitted from establishing a more explicit link to that heritage or otherwise providing some context for readers who are not knowledgeable with it. Explanatory notes, a glossary, or something equivalent might help to address this issue and would also be useful for teaching purposes since some students may lack familiarity with that cultural context.
Similarly, Yipee’s Chinese heritage does not seem to significantly inform her experiences or her perspective on them. The Chinese counterparts in her community, such as Crooked Mah and other adults, add some cultural depth, but these characters share things that readers may already know about Chinese immigrants. It is known that they have immigrated to Canada to become financially prosperous, as embodied by their reference to Canada as the “Gold Mountain.”
Furthermore, it seems that something has shifted in the narrative once Na tio finds out that most of his community has been killed by what appears to be white settlers, an explosion, and rock avalanche. From that point onwards, the novel appears to be more plot driven as less space is devoted to character development. Instead, a significant section of the remaining part of the novel focuses on Na tio’s and Yipee’s time on a ranch where they try to earn a living. However, the novel’s resolution does convey a positive outcome as it symbolizes a sense of reconciliation and healing between indigenous and white communities. This is exemplified when Yipee and Na tio find a young white girl named Mary who is the sole survivor of her family in unclear circumstances, whether it is an accident or murder. Despite Na tio’s grief around his community’s massacre at the hands of whom he believes to be the white population, he decides that they should take care of Mary, who has also grown attached to him and Yipee As a result, Na tio is able to move beyond his hatred of the white community in order to nurture the survival of another person from that same community.
Teachers could include this book in a social studies class as part of a historical unit about minority cultures or the development of the Wild West. As part of a literary unit, teachers could also encourage discussion about the two protagonists and ask students to consider the relationships between them and how they are developed. Similarly, students could delve into the prejudices, racism, and discrimination that permeate both of these characters’ experiences and how they are augmented by their gender as well. For example, Yipee’s having to hide that she is female shows the precarious nature of life for women in those times.
It would also be important to contextualize the characters’ experiences with the historical context of Chinese and indigenous communities as these inform their choices, actions, and perspectives. Historically, the Canadian literature scene of canonical texts has excluded these voices that fall outside the “settler narratives”. Works such as Yipee’s Gold Mountain are valuable as they validate alternative perspectives about those historical time periods, thereby providing more complex and heterogeneous representations of those eras. Therefore, teachers could also frame the work in relation to Chinese Canadian literature in children’s and young adult fiction, such as by considering how the work is indicative of contemporary developments in Canadian fiction that acknowledge the value of diverse experiences and viewpoints.
As a whole, Yipee’s Gold Mountain does contribute to the existing field of children’s and young adult literature with Rivera’s portrayals of characters of Chinese and indigenous heritage—a rare combination for any book in this genre. The book’s positive impact seems somewhat affected by the issues that I have discussed earlier, but it will prompt readers to reflect on their understandings of the Chinese and indigenous communities and will help to stimulate constructive discussion in the classroom. Although it is beyond the scope of this review, one question to consider is how writers from the Chinese and indigenous communities would narrate this story. Avoiding the trap of essentialism, this is an important question as it raises the issue of how much these communities are able to represent themselves in fiction and the extent to which the publishing industry, itself, has given these communities the opportunity to represent their own stories. Nevertheless, perhaps novels such as Yipee’s Gold Mountain will, at least, contribute to the step of encouraging more mainstream exposure and acceptance for these types of stories to be told and, subsequently, for more writers from those communities to be heard.
Raquel Rivera is a Montreal based writer who has received awards for her works. Her official website is at http://www.raquelriverawashere.com.
Huai Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time in Edmonton, AB.