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On Books

Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune, where she has worked since 1996.

Minn. writer Marlon James blasts writer claiming American Indian heritage

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.

Two Minnesota writers finalists for PEN Literary Awards

Kao Kalia Yang and her father, Bee Yang. Photo by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Kao Kalia Yang and her father, Bee Yang. Photo by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

PEN Center USA has released its list of finalists for its annual Literary Awards, and two Twin Cities writers are in the mix. Kao Kalia Yang of St. Paul is a finalist in creative nonfiction for her memoir, "The Song Poet," and Sun Yung Shin of Minneapolis is a poetry finalist for "Unbearable Splendor," published by Minneapolis publisher Coffee House Press. Graywolf Press also has a book in the running with Solmaz Sharif's "Look." Shane Bauer, formerly of Minnesota, is a finalist for long-form journalism for a piece he wrote for Mother Jones.

Here are the finalists:


Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking)

Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb Of Heaven (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Bonnie Nadzam, Lions (Grove Atlantic)

Martin Pousson, Black Sheep Boy (Rare Bird)

Creative Nonfiction: 

Brian Blanchfield, Proxies (Nightboat)

Lily Hoang, A Bestiary (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House)

Kao Kalia Yang, The Song Poet (Metropolitan)

Research Nonfiction: 

Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Edward Humes, Door To Door (Harper)

Mason Inman, The Oracle Of Oil (W.W. Norton)

Elizabeth Letts, The Perfect Horse (Ballantine)

Sun Yung Shin

Sun Yung Shin

Sun Yung Shin


Ari Banias, Anybody: Poems (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Solmaz Sharif, Look (Graywolf)

Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor (Coffee House Press)

Safiya Sinclair, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press)

Young Adult:

Calla Devlin, Tell Me Something Real (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

Stacey Lee, Outrun The Moon (GP Putnam's Sons, Penguin Books for Young Readers)

Neal Shusterman, Scythe (Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

John Smelcer, Stealing Indians (Leapfrog Press)


Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Confessions by Rabee Jaber (New Directions)

Philip Boehm, The Fox Was Ever The Hunter by Herta Müller (Metropolitan)

Geoffrey Brock, Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jordan Stump, Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga (Archipelago)


Shane Bauer, “My Four Months As A Prison Guard” (Mother Jones)

Pamela Colloff, “The Reckoning” (Texas Monthly)

Christopher Goffard, “Framed” (Los Angeles Times)

Eli Saslow, “The White Flight Of Derek Black” (The Washington Post)


Boni Alvarez, Bloodletting (Playwrights’ Arena)

Michelle Carter, Rose In America (AlterTheater)

Lisa Loomer, Roe (Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

Will Snider, How To Use A Knife (Capital Stage Company)

Winners will be announced in September.

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