A tradition of storytelling The new landscape of Native literature
THE NEW LANDSCAPE OF NATIVE LITERATURE
Literature about Native Americans, whether written for children or adults, by Native people or non-Native people, has tended to feature characters anchored in romanticized ideas of the past. Stereotypical portrayals tend to show Natives as either noble savages or romantic mystics; modern, sometimes more complex portrayals often still rely on the image of the Indian as an alcoholic or addict. “But what I’m seeing now, with students and with young Native writers going on to publish, is that they aren’t allowing other people to define who they are anymore,” said author Joseph Boyden (Métis), when asked by
Pasatiempo about the state of Native American literature. “We’re getting the urban Indian experience, Indians writing science fiction, writers breaking down barriers.” “But what I’m seeing now, with students and with young Native writers going on to publish, is that they aren’t allowing other people to define who they are anymore. We’re getting the urban Indian experience, Indians writing science fiction, writers breaking down barriers.”
Boyden was born in Toronto and now lives in Louisiana, where he teaches at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of a short story collection as well as three linked novels: Three Day Road (2005), which won the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, Through Black Spruce (2009), and
The Orenda (Knopf, 2013). He teaches in the low residency master of fine arts in creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, as does Joan Naviyuk Kane (Inupiaq-Inuit), author of the poetry collections Hyperboreal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) and The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife (2009). She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and is a 2017 judge for the Griffin Poetry Prize, a lucrative Canadian honor for a single collection of poetry published in English.
Pasatiempo spoke to Boyden and Kane about how and why Native literature is changing, and which Native writers they think people should be reading — or keeping track of — so they can buy their first books when they are published. Both immediately named the poets Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota) and Sherwin Bitsui (Diné). Long Soldier’s first collection of poetry, WHEREAS, will be published in spring 2017 by Graywolf Press, and she has already been honored with a 2016 Whiting Writers Award, as well as the 2015 NACF National Artist Fellowship and a 2015 Lannan Literary Fellowship. She earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at IAIA, and her master of fine arts at Bard College. She recently returned to Santa Fe after several years living in Arizona. Bitsui, also the recipient of a Whiting Award and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, has published two books of poetry, Shapeshift (2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009). He teaches in the MFA creative writing programs at IAIA and San Diego State University.
When recommending more established writers, Boyden emphasized a few Canadian First Nations authors who he said deserved to have a broader American audience. Richard Wagamese (Ojibway/ Wabaseemoong First Nation), of Kamloops, British Columbia, has written several novels, including Medicine Walk (Milkweed Editions, 2015) and Indian Horse (2012), and the memoirs For Joshua (2003), One Native Life (2008), and One Story, One Song (2011), which won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. “He’s purely a good storyteller,” Boyden said. “He was part of the Sixties Scoop, which happened in the 1960s and ’70s in Canada, when thousands of Native children were taken from their families by social
Because most if not all the students in the writing workshops at IAIA are Native, participants are able to move quickly past elements of their work that can distract non-Native students, such as cultural issues that are mentioned but aren’t integral to the plot.
workers. He’s led a tough life, but what he’s done with that tough life is he’s created really beautiful stories.”
“Lee Maracle is someone indigenous writers and Canadians really look up to,” Boyden said of Maracle (Stó:Lo Nation), a faculty member at the University of Toronto and one of the founders of En’owkin International School of Writing. Her novels include Celia’s Song (Cormorant Books, 2014) and Daughters are Forever (2002). She has also written a short-story collection, Sojourner’s Truth and Other Stories (1990), a poetry collection,
Bentbox (2000), and non-fiction works that include I Am Woman (1988). Thomas King, who Boyden described as a trickster who makes you laugh while getting at important matters, wrote the novels Medicine
River (1990), Green Grass, Running Water (1993), Truth and Bright Water (2000), and The Back of the Turtle (Doubleday Canada, 2014), as well as two short-story collections, several children’s books, and the nonfiction work The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). “He’s actually Cherokee and Greek from the United States, but he’s lived in Canada for many years and has become sort of an elder statesman,” Boyden said.
One of the main sources of the change Boyden and Kane see happening is right here in Santa Fe, in the MFA creative writing program at IAIA. Because most if not all the students in the writing workshops there are Native, participants are able to move quickly past elements of their work that can distract non-Native students, such as cultural issues that are mentioned but aren’t integral to the plot.
“Some non-Native writers think a workshop is their opportunity to talk to a Native person and want to know all about, like, their ceremonies instead of their work. The kinds of things we are able to focus on at IAIA are more craft-oriented and not about educating a non-Native readership,” Kane said. “If they are interested, they should go read an anthropology textbook, or a sociological study, because when they can’t move past this, every conversation devolves into very autobiographical, personal questions that most white writers don’t have to deal with. I don’t necessarily want to talk about my content — I want to talk about how this stanza or this line works. With all the scholarly and anthropological work that has come out of our own communities, the novels and poems no longer need to be the authoritative texts to answer all the questions.” Terese Mailhot (Seabird Island First Nation, Canada), who writes for
Indian Country Today, is among the May 2016 graduates of the IAIA MFA program. Mailhot, Kane said, “asks the hard questions about what Native American women face — the staggeringly disproportionate amount of crime that Native women are subjected to. Her writing intersects with data on these issues.” Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, is working on a novel about urban Indians whose lives intersect improbably at an Oakland powwow. Kane and Boyden both spoke enthusiastically about Chee Brossy, who is working on a collection of short stories.
“He’s a young writer with a bright future,” Boyden said. “He writes of his experiences as a Navajo man in his fiction without making it archly Indian. He writes about the experience in a very contemporary and universal way. He’s tremendously talented, and meticulous as a writer. I’m really very excited about his writing.”
Brossy is the alumni and constituent relations manager at IAIA. Though his poetry has appeared in several journals, including Prairie Schooner and Denver Quarterly, he does not yet have any published fiction. He expects to be finished with his book in about a year, at which time he can start sending it to literary agents. “Nine stories are done, but there are about five that I need to revise some more,” he said. The stories are set in Red Mesa and Lukachukai, Arizona. Some of them are just a few pages and others are longer, and they all concern people in moments of crisis, such as the aftermath of a car accident, or a mishap with a gun. In one story, a boy’s grandmother talks to him after he witnesses his parents fighting. “The world is laid bare for that boy,” Brossy said.
Among Brossy’s favorite writers are the luminary Native novelists he grew up reading: Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, and Louise Erdrich. “I recently ran across some short stories by Silko that I’d never seen before,” he said. “I found out she has mastery of that form, too.”
JOAN NAVIYUK KANE