Response to one of the PEN USA Literary Award finalists, which were announced Aug. 10, has been loud and angry, playing out, as so many controversies do, on social media.
"Stealing Indians," by John Smelcer, was one of four finalists for the prestigious national award in the young-adult category. The book, published by Leapfrog Press, is about four native American teenagers who are sent to boarding schools.
The book was published in August 2016, and the book jacket contains a blurb from Chinua Achebe ("A masterpiece"), who died in 2013. Other books on his Amazon page claim blurbs from Frank McCourt, who died in 2009, and Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012.
Claims of plagiarism, misrepresentation of his ethnic background and misrepresentation of his education have dogged Smelcer for years. The Kenyon Review last year apologized for publishing two of his poems, which they said contained "damaging stereotypes of Native people."
On Facebook, Minnesota writer Marlon James recounted knowing Smelcer back in grad school: "If you were at the Wilkes MFA, when I was, then you know full well the living con job that is John Smelcer," James posted today. "This is the man who at our class reading invented a language, claiming that it was an ancient Native American tongue, and he was its last speaker. ... Why does this always happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes?"
The blog American Indians in Children's Literature wrote about him at length in 2009.
Today on Twitter, one of the PEN judges, Kami Garcia, wrote, "We're working to get it pulled. As a former teacher, I'm disgusted."
PEN Center USA issued a statement today, stating: "PEN Center USA has become aware of concerns expressed by some within the literary community regarding the nomination of John Smelcer's 'Stealing Indians' for the 2017 PEN Center USA Literary Award for YA. Our staff takes these concerns seriously and is 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."
On his website, Smelcer includes a lengthy statement about his ethnicity. "I am Alaska Native/Native American," he writes. "I am an enrolled member of Ahtna, Inc. and the Traditional Native Village of Tazlina, a tribe recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs." Calls and emails to PEN, Garcia and Smelcer's agent have not yet been returned.