What Can We Steal From Francine Prose’s “Going Native”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Going Native,” creative nonfiction
Author: Francine Prose
Date of Work: 2002
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The essay was first published in Issue 19 of Creative Nonfiction.  Editor Lee Gutkind subsequently chose to reprint the essay in In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, an anthology of particularly important pieces from the journal.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Objectivity

Discussion:
While attending a Holiday pageant at an elementary school in upstate New York, Ms. Prose noticed a few Caucasian children from a poor and rural area who had appropriated African American culture in their dress and ways of speaking to each other.  Why? African American culture was “voicing their alienation, their disenfranchisement, their sense of being exiled to the fringes of a society that would prefer they didn’t exist.”  Ms. Prose goes on to analyze several other examples of people who, for whatever reason, “go native.”  These folks embrace “a myth of what a culture represents and makes it one’s own myth.” By the end of the essay, Ms. Prose has built up to the best kind of conclusion: a big, messy one that eliminates any easy answers.

I don’t know if Ms. Prose was inspired to write the essay by her encounter with the children, but there’s no doubt that it serves as a fitting and intriguing introduction to her essay.  Like any great author, Ms. Prose had her eyes open and was prepared to see something that would inspire her.  How often do we walk around wearing blinders?  A lot.  Especially if someone just cut us off on the road, right?  The job of any writer is to absorb the experiences of humanity and to arrange them in some meaningful way; how can one do that if they’re not taking a close look at the men, women and children around them?

Another reason that “Going Native” is so great is because Ms. Prose examines the issue like a scholar.  We all have our biases and preferences, but Ms. Prose is largely ignoring hers.  While she acknowledges that those children at the pageant are probably not going to “grow up to be campaigners for civil rights,” she keeps her focus on her essay’s claim.  It’s a matter of rhetoric.  Ms. Prose establishes early on that she is primarily going to use logos—logic and reason!  If she suddenly burst forth with some big, emotional judgments, then she may lose credibility with her reader and will veer away from her topic.

What Should We Steal?

  • Look at the world in the same manner as an anthropologist.  No, you shouldn’t ignore the fact that you are also a human.  But you most definitely should try to understand why the people around you are doing what they do.  Why is that guy eating a candy bar with a knife and fork?  (Remember that episode of Seinfeld?)  What about that woman over there…what do you think she’s telling those children?
  • Leave the judgments to Judge Judy.  Even if you feel very strongly about an issue, you may wish to avoid making too many strong judgments in a piece.  You must decide: are you trying to engage a reader’s mind or heart?

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