Before Fake News Became a Thing: Reflecting on the Career of J Marks

Years ago, I came across a YA novel titled Rama: A Legend by a writer who called himself Jamake Highwater. Even back then, in the 1990’s, I wondered how come someone with a Native American-sounding name, writing about mostly Native subjects in an authoritative sounding voice, would choose to turn his attention to a retelling of the Ramayana. I didn’t know any Native writers personally at the time, but it seemed odd, somehow.

What gave this man, I wondered, the authority to fictionalize the Ramayana? Still, he seemed to bear the stamp of approval from the publishing world. The book was published by Henry Holt. Publishers Weekly called it “an authentic adaptation and abridgment of the original for an American audience,” so who was I to quibble? Anyway, over the years, I became preoccupied with other subcontinental story tropes being hijacked and hopelessly hacked, to great approval in the very market I was trying to submit to. Who had the time to worry about Jamake Highwater?

Later I heard there was something scandalous about him, something to do with his lack of authenticity, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Hoaxes of this kind had been in the air for decades, it seemed, witness The Education of Little Tree.

Then recently, pottering around the Internet, while avoiding the novel that has been beating me over the head, I stumbled upon this article in Indian Country Today. Excerpt:

In 1984, Hank Adams (the Native American activist) sent an astounding exposé on the “Indian expert” Jamake Mamake Highwater that we published in the pages of Akwesasne Notes. (Vine Deloria acted as a go-between to get it published and Suzan Harjo did some research.) What Hank Adams had uncovered was that the Native American author (who claimed Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage), a noted intellectual, a recipient of Ford Foundation grants and major publishing contracts, was not a Native American at all, but a writer named J Marks (J, Jay or Jack Marks, born Jackie Marks). 

Adams’s exposé was published in 1984. A decade later, in 1997, I may have been seeing the shapeshifting efforts of a man who was trying to retool the focus of his authority from Native traditions to Southeast Asian ones with a fictionalization of the Ramayana. Was it based on sources from Java or Bali, or maybe on the Thai Ramakien? I don’t remember and none of the reviews still available saw fit to mention a source.

A cautionary tale, this. A reminder that fakery has been with us for years. In our children’s book industry, it can leave long lasting footprints.

[Image source:]

Beyond the Monomyth

CampbellI have spent years being aggravated by all the hoopla over Joseph Campbell-Christopher Vogler-that-everlasting-hero’s journey. My thinking didn’t fit into its straitjacket. I thought it was just me. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough.

Then I began reading criticism of Campbell’s mono-myth theory. But that assessment from the field of folklore scholarship wasn’t percolating into the world of literature and film. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I’m a Star Wars enthusiast. But I couldn’t buy the idea that a single Eurocentric version of story was somehow fused into everyone’s synapses.

During the 25 years in which I have been writing and publishing in the children’s literature market, writing teachers I know and love have insisted that the Call to Action, the Refusal, the Mentor, and so on, are necessary ingredients of story. Campbell himself cast the Ramayana in this Jungian framework. Really? Rama’s sad, benevolent rule after the tragic departure of his queen is supposed to be a reward for his heroic journey? And how about the woman in the story? There are many emotional and esthetic meanings to be drawn from Sita’s return to the Earth, her mother, but the concept of “reward” does not fit into any of them. Talk about stuffing a sprawling multilayered epic into a mass-market storage bin!

Over the years, all the Campbell worship just made my head hurt. So I’m delighted now to read this essay by Marie Mutsuki Mockett on what a story can be. She writes:

I suspect, if you are reading this essay, you too are at once a cautious but adventurous reader looking for something other than the same experience over and over again. You too are looking for a story that feels like a story, but isn’t necessarily a clone of something you have read before. You want to be immersed and moved. You want real and you want authentic. And you want a story to work.

Mockett looks to Japanese film and story for alternate models, and she finds them in all their complexity. But the gift she gives us is the permission to set aside a single version of story and create our own. Structure is necessary but it doesn’t have to be only one kind. There is no one default version of “story.” The richness of being human is that we are not all alike.