Writing a Story Inspired By Another Culture (AKA Why My Newest Novel Celebrates Indigenous Mythology and Culture)

As of today, I am beginning the process of querying my latest novel, Iri and the Spirit World, a Young Adult Fantasy set in Tdhoro, where explorative tribal cultures coexist with mighty elemental spirits whose power comes from their color.

Much of my inspiration for this novel comes from my lifelong study of Native American mythology, especially that of the Cherokee (or Tsalagi). You see, I grew up with the knowledge that I am Cherokee myself through my father’s side. The problem? My parents divorced, and that side of my family faded from my life altogether. I have never meaningfully had the opportunity to learn about the culture of my ancestors from them, so I had to teach myself. From childhood forward, I read books and stories about the indigenous peoples of North America. I fell in love with the idea of my ancestors, and when I thought about the stories I ultimately wanted to tell, a fantasy inspired by the myths and cultures of the Cherokee and peoples like them lived first and foremost in my mind.

Why? A few simple reasons:

  1. To Celebrate Unique Cultures –
    If you aren’t familiar with the myths and histories of North American tribal cultures, you are FAR from alone. At least in the USA, if you say “Native American” or “American Indian,” the variety of references that come to mind for most people include little of what actually made those people fascinating and beautiful. Many would probably mention the “crying Indian” from the 20th century ads (Fun Fact: that actor was not Native American at all) or various sports teams that are using the names of, or references to, these peoples as mascots. Neither reflects the rich depth of civilization that countless tribes developed over centuries. I wanted to celebrate the unique beauty of the Cherokee, Sioux, Potawatomi, Iroquois, and numerous others by embracing common elements and themes of their mythologies and cultures.
  2. To Create Something Different Than Traditional Western Fantasy-
    If you tally up every Young Adult Fantasy novel ever written, you would undoubtedly find that the vast majority feature worlds inspired by European culture: swords and shields, castles and ramparts, wizards and dragons, etc. While I truly love those settings (I nearly pursued a doctoral degree in Medieval literature criticism), they have become inescapable, and I want to experience something new. Thankfully, many terrific authors have been sharing their new stories inspired by other cultures, but still very, very few have taken inspiration from North American tribes to create a brand new world. I finally couldn’t resist the temptation to do so myself.
  3. To Give Kids of Color, Especially Those From Native American Tribes, a Protagonist of Their Own –
    I grew up in a very small town in the Midwest, where I was literally as ethnically diverse as things got (which isn’t saying much) for basically my entire education. I got made fun of for being different, called racial slurs, and the like. That sucks, and I know that I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as countless others. As I’ve grown up, I’ve found that despite such stupid, petty hate, having a hero who’s like you can make a world of difference. Iri, the titular character and protagonist of this novel, would be called “Native American” should this book have been set on Earth. In fact, every single person in Tdhoro would. They are a lovely, vibrant, and noble people. I hope that some kids in need of reassurance can find some in my world.
  4. Because I Needed To –
    This is the final reason I’m going to share today. Sometimes writers begin a project because they had a fun idea or because they were paid to. Sometimes they write to escape the world or in efforts of making a better one. Sometimes it’s all of these or none of them. And, on occasion, the artist creates because they have no choice. The project lives behind their eyes, playing out in their thoughts without ceasing. It begs, whispers, sings to be made. Iri and the Spirit World roared through me like wildfire. I had the first spark 6-7 months ago, which quickly connected to several other inspirations I’ve been nursing for many, many years. I was in the middle of planning for the next novel in my Sci-Fi Cyberpunk series, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Iri. I needed her, Tdhoro, and this story of identity to exist as more than an idea in my head.

I hope that gives you a little more insight into why I created this new world, and why drawing inspiration from the Cherokee and other Native American tribes is SO important to me. I want you to see the beauty that I do and feel emboldened to celebrate who you are, regardless of where you come from.

I am beginning to query Iri and the Spirit World today. With God’s grace, I hope to find the perfect agent to help me bring it to all of you. And then we can celebrate together.

Side note: Now that I’m done writing and editing Iri, I’ll be posting more often again. Sorry about the long break! I think next time will be a discussion of why this new novel…has no villain.

Talk to you soon, fellow dreamers.

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