Features Aug 30, 2017 at 4:00 am

Is the novelist nominated for a 2017 PEN Literary Award really who he says he is?

The prolific author and academic John Smelcer has built his career on dubious claims. Illustration by James Yamasaki


All this hand-wringing... So how was the book? Hillerman wasn't Navajo, and he wrote some mighty fine books about injuns...
Interesting. I'm in two minds over this Smelcer affair. Clearly he is an exaggerator of certain things. Yet there's no doubt he's also achieved a certain amount, with big publishers and small presses alike. He also probably had access to many of these famous writers through Rosebud, where he was the poetry editor for 20 years. The fake agent thing though does kind of stink. But then so Marlon James in the same Facebook post say Aetna language is "invented." BTW Pen Center America stands for the following: "PEN Center USA’s mission is to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally."

Here's James' complete post:

"If you were at the Wilkes MFA, when I was, then you know full well the living con job that is John Smelcer. 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. So a few days ago PEN Center USA (PEN America) nominated his novel "Stealing Indians" in the category of Young Adult. Let's leave the title for another day. This 2016 book has a blurb from Chinua Achebe. Achebe died in 2013. This is the motherfucking fuckery we keep talking about. Why does this alway happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes? You werent conned, you were fucking lazy. Seriously, the quotes all over his site from dead people didn't tip you off? The shadiness of his name? You couldn't have done one stinking google search? Nothing? Nothing at all? How can you claim to listen to us, when you keep making the SAME MISTAKES all the time, like the one you made the last 15 times we spoke to you. If this isn't rescinded, I'm done with PEN. Consider my membership over. Real talk."
Man, it's a good thing that the leader of the free world doesn't do this sort of thing. You know, the continuous pathological fabrications bordering on actual confabulation, the reflexive portrayal of oneself as a victim in response to any investigation or criticism, the invention of a talent agent suckputter--I mean, sock puppet--to talk up one's own reputation...
sure is good that we don't live in a world where the people with the nuclear codes don't pull this kind of puerile bullshit.

"This 2016 book has a blurb from Chinua Achebe. Achebe died in 2013."
👽a👽y👽y👽l👽m👽a👽o👽 how is anyone this stupid
@1: The problem isn't that a non-Native wrote about Native characters. The problem is that a non-Native pretended to be a Native and wrote about Native characters under that false and duplicitous persona.
@4: Well then. He can be black next.

Fair enough, but I'm still kind of wondering whether the book is a good read or not, you know?
From his web page:
By all applicable laws of the United States (tribal, state, federal), most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA; 1971, 1987 Amendments), the largest indigenous legislation in American history, I am Alaska Native/Native American. 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. The State of Alaska issued me a license (based on federal laws) authorizing me to create and sell art as authentic Native handicraft. For years, I was the tribally-appointed executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. In addition, I am one of the last speakers on earth of our severely endangered Native language, having learned it from every elder who spoke Ahtna. In 1998, I published a dictionary of our language. (Click on dictionaries on the menu to watch Youtube episodes of me teaching Ahtna.) In 1999, Ahtna Chief Harry Johns held a special ceremony to designate me a Traditional Ahtna Culture Bearer, a term usually reserved for elders with significant cultural knowledge. These facts should satisfy any curious person about my ethnicity. So what is the controversy?
All lies?
I just want to point out that there is no such thing as an international database of all PhDs awarded worldwide. I work at a university and know for a fact that we do not contribute to such a database and some aspects of my work would be way easier if such a thing existed.
Blond and blue eyed? Not in the pictures of the guy in his 20's. Lot's of sour grapes here, but it's par for the course for The Stranger.
Is that Grape Jealousy I taste?
Are his books any good? Go read the guy's website. Does any of that crap look like the work of a good writer? It reads exactly like Trump talking about himself, rambling on congratulating himself for one superhuman achievement after another. Little asides here and there, about that time for example when Ghandi called him a great humanitarian, just like great writers like to have in their great writing.

Did you dig up Smelcer's young adult criminal history? He was in some trouble in Alaska, at 18 or 19, back when he was supposedly learning at John Gardner's feet.

The amazing thing about these pathological liars is how you can't ever corner them. It doesn't matter how many lies you uncover. They'll just shrug and move on to the next lie. They will never acknowledge that they aren't trustworthy, and will be freshly taken aback each time you confront them about another lie. They expect you to compartmentalize everything you know about them.

This is one of the reasons Trump can't understand his "enemies". He thinks everybody owes him the benefit of the doubt as if he had no history at all. You can catch him lying to you in the beginning of a sentence but he'll be offended if you're skeptical about the rest of the same utterance.

Their brains are wired that way. No shame at all.
Sigh...I get this is a feature and an interesting read but I miss the good old days when the Book Editor for the The Stranger mostly reviewed books and interviewed authors.
The database I was referring to is called Dissertation Abstracts International. When that database did not turn up any record of Smelcer's PhD from Oxford, the Wilkes faculty member also checked the British Document Supply Center. Neither source had any listing of a PhD degree for John Smelcer.
@6: It may well be. But if he can write a good book, why does he feel the need to lie?
I have no problem with Gentiles writing about Jewish culture or history...but I'd be offended if a Gentile posed as a Jew and invented a whole Jewish origin story and wrote some Jewish literature. It's the deception that makes the offense.

@7: I don't know. But the thing is, there's no way to corroborate those claims without doing some serious digging. He COULD be telling the truth. He COULD very well be lying. And given his record of proven fabrications, he no longer gets believed at face value.

@12: This.
He has a 2011 PhD dissertation online from Binghamton University


no documentation in the material there of anything from Oxford.

If he is an actual Ahtna shareholder that is facty for his status if not truthy for his cultural cred.
Oh yeah I used to hang out with Allen Ginsberg too, and also Nabokov, who was basically my mentor. I showed him my poem once and he said it was the best thing he ever read. I also have a blackbelt and speak a very rare language but no one can verify this because I'm the only one who speaks it. But it's all definitely real. My girlfriend could tell you but she lives in Canada.

So you haven't read it either, eh?

I mean, I know I haven't, which is why I'm still wondering whether or not it's a good read.

Not a single person discussing it here seems to have read it, including the author of the post, so I suppose I'll just have to reserve a copy at the library and see for myself.
So he identifies as a Native American PhD author? That's all just social construct anyway, right? He should be applauded for living "his truth!"

Now, keep applying that to all situations, folks, and see where it leads...
Thank you for this well-researched expose, Rich. Honest self-promotion is one thing; blatant duplicity is another. We're all entitled to some errors, both of oversight and moral judgement. But we should aim to acknowledge and improve, not cover our tracks a bit and then repeat the same lame tricks. How sad John Smelcer seems so addicted to appearing famous and successful that he cannot see how profoundly he's compromised his integrity.
I read STEALING INDIANS last year. Generally speaking, Americans know little about the government boarding schools established in the late 1800s. If Smelcer's book had provided accurate information, my review would be different than it is. Facts are facts. In fiction for young people, those facts--especially about topics that aren't well known--must be accurate. His book is not. Because it is a finalist for the PEN, it will add to the stereotypical ideas most Americans hold about Native peoples, and it gives them factually incorrect information about the schools. Some notes here: https://americanindiansinchildrenslitera…
Nice sleuthing!

I do think it's crucial to know whether an author/academic's bona fides are real, particularly if they're representing themselves as a member of an indigenous community or a community of color and their work speaks to that, because there is an extra layer of experience there that's being reported and which will be considered. Usually, though, people aren't crazy exhibitionists who push their profiles this far, and so one wouldn't think to check--Smelcer did this to himself because *he* was trying to sell himself too hard. (Weirdly, Sherman Alexie always seems to be in the middle of the orbit of the lying white people (see also Nasdijj from 1999 and Yi-Fen Chou from 2015). That must be annoying for him.)

White people who want to pose as people who belong to groups that have historically been, well, murdered by white people, are creepy race fetishists or batshit or both. It's Rachel Dolezal all over again, except with a pretend publicity company and dead authors. Awesome read. The fake blurb from Norman Mailer saying his poetry is inadequate compared to Smelcer's was just...perfect.
This is nothing more than sour grapes by one or two people that sold it to the Stranger Book "Editor" - who apparently does not actually review books. Debbie Reese @21 blathers on about inaccuracies but like the author of this hit-piece provides nothing more than salacious innuendo. What a steaming pile of shit, and how more and more typical of The Stranger's "offerings".
LOL, Hey there John!

Honestly, I CANNOT be the only person that assumed from the comment #1- and all but concluded by #23 - that "Arty Zepp" is our good friend John Smelcer. One, THERE IS NO WAY a dude like that is not obsessively refreshing this story; desperately trying to reclaim the narrative and hide his sad, mediocre, profiting-off-others, ass. (Sorry dude! We see ya!). The whole strategy reeks of image-management: essentially picking picking one or two claims from the article (comprehensively supported claims, at that) claims out of a laundry list that stretches all the way to Ian Somerhalder's home, pretending that was the only issue, and then offering a weak refutation before he all but screams REDIRECT! REDIRECT! "Hey, but what about the book, is it good?" The idea that anyone would want to read more than a paragraph from this dude, much less support him, when they could just as easily select an excellent book by a ACTUAL native author is mindblowing, but I could believe it. "Hey, that Reese lady and her salacious, SCANdalous blog! Guess this is how things are now! Sexting & the Kardashians & hookup apps & now THIS lady with her blog on Native Americans in Childrens Literature. Typical. Just more innuendo. Sad!" This dude is on a roll, throwing a whole host of tools from the Lame Troll Manipulation Arsenal: accusations of jealousy, pouting about the PC-police, and my favorite--vague statements that position himself as an insider with the implied level of experience, access, and knowledge to definitively disparage the information, the journalist, the publication, fellow commenters, whatever!. I, for one, hope he keeps going to see what else we get, and if he enjoins others in the fight! (Side note: Really wishing right now that I would've started a Stranger account a few years ago, I could probably sell some pro-Smelcer comments for a pretty penny right now. Credibility! Or the Smelcerized version, anyhow.)

If I'm seeming overly confident of my Arty=John theory, its because I vastly prefer it to the likely alternative: White Dude in Comments Section Again Provides Reflexive Defense of White Dude Facing Accusations. Either way: Arty, dude, if you ain't Smelcer, his publisher, or someone in his crew, then you should probably get your bullshit meter recalibrated and/or get paid for your efforts. Godspeed.
@24 Yeah, I was beginning to wonder the exact thing about "Arty Zee."
Arty usually prefers to haunt the I, Anon column. Seems he's trying to expand his trolling territory...

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