Clear Waters: A Conversation with Louis Owens
Educator, scholar, novelist, Louis Owens has numerous volumes to his credit, including the highly acclaimed Other Destines: Understanding the American Indian Novel and two critical studies of John Steinbeck. He also has a collection of essays--Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place--in production, due for a Fall release from the University of Oklahoma Press. I will leave the listing of his novels to the scholars who follow in this special issue of S.A.I.L. However, I will mention that he has yet another, Dark River, due for release next winter, also from Oklahoma.
The following conversation took place at Owens home, in the mountains near Albuquerque. Louis and his family--Polly, his wife of twenty-three years, and his two daughters, Elizabeth and Alexandra--are gracious hosts, and their home--surrounded by juniper and wildlife, its horse corral below, and its clear view of the Sandia Mountains--the comfortable setting for this, the last installment of four days of wide-ranging discussions of fly-fishing and politics, espionage and University of New Mexico basketball, contemporary higher education and the environment.
John Purdy: So, where to begin? Lets start by talking about your novels. How did you start writing fiction?
Louis Owens: The first novel I wrote was Wolfsong. I began it in my attic room in the Forest Service bunkhouse in Darrington, Washington one fall after the snows came and almost everyone else had left for the year. I wanted really to write a novel about the wilderness area itself, the Glacier Peak Wilderness, making the place the real protagonist of the novel and the characters ways of giving the trees and mountains and streams and glaciers a voice.
JP: Did I tell you the story about the first time I used that novel, at Western [near the locale it describes]? I had a student in the back who, when we first began discussing it, furrowed her brow and said: "Where is this town, Forks? These characters seem familiar." I asked her where she was from, and she replied "Darrington" [the community that is the model for that in the novel].
LO: Well, actually, I named it Forks because I wanted to disguise the town. Also, because the rivers [the Skagit, Sauk, and Stillaguamish near Darrington] come together [ultimately], and that is symbolic. But I had somebody who actually made a pilgrimage to Forks and came back to tell me how great it was to find the town where the novel is set. [Forks is on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.] I didnt have the heart to tell her that it wasnt Forks.
JP: Well, Forks is a lot like Darrington. Theyre both small, logging communities.
LO: Darrington may be meaner, at least way back when I lived there in the 70s. The first words spoken to me there were by these three loggers who wanted to know if I preferred to have my hair cut off with a chainsaw or burned off with kerosene.
Anyway, that's how I started writing the book, and then I put it down and went back to school, where I picked it up again to work on while I was writing my dissertation. Bill Kittredge was a writer in residence at U.C. Davis at the time, and Bill read a draft of it, liked it, and did me the great favor of sending it off to his agent. It was read by Gary Fisketjohn, who I think was at either Random House or Knopf at the time, and he said he liked it and that he was sure they'd publish it. I thought, "Who says being a writer is so hard?" But the novel was turned down, nominated by Fisketjohn for the Pushcart Press Book Editor's Award---which it didn't receive--and then reconsidered and rejected a second time. That's when I put it on the shelf for about a decade. Basically, I was young and had my heart broken as a writer. I was pretty naive.
Wolfsong was finally published because I happened to be talking with John Crawford of West End Press one day, and he asked if I had any work he might consider. I said that, well, I did happen to have a novel somewhere, and that was that.
JP: And The Sharpest Sight?
LO: I started The Sharpest Sight in '82. Actually, I'd started it years before with a short story about a friend in high school who committed suicide. I tried to write about him in a hundred different ways and just couldn't do it. Finally, his story became embedded in an invisible way in The Sharpest Sight, a novel that is primarily about my brother who vanished in the U.S. after three tours in Vietnam. I worked on that novel off and on over the years as I also did other more academic things--the things you do to get a job, get tenure, and so on. During that time I also wrote Other Destinies, a critical book, plus a couple of books on John Steinbeck.
JP: Scholarship and fiction? Different voices . . .
LO: In a way. Anyway, it got published rather strangely, too. Oxford [University Press] was interested in it. They said they wanted to publish it, but they kept stringing it along without a contract for six months or a year. I can't really remember. By then Oklahoma was starting its new series, with Gerald Vizenor as editor, and I ran into Kimberly Wiar at a conference. She asked me if I had any work they could consider. I sent her the manuscript of Other Destinies and she got back to me within a couple of weeks saying they wanted the book. So I withdrew it from Oxford, probably ruffling some feathers in the process, and officially submitted it to the University of Oklahoma Press.
While talking about Other Destinies, Kim--who is a senior editor at O.U. Press--asked what else I was working on. I said a novel, and she surprised me by asking if they could consider it. That's how both Other Destinies and The Sharpest Sight came to be published by Oklahoma, in the American Indian series.
JP: That was announced at the M.L.A. [Modern Language Associations annual convention] in San Francisco that year. I remember the reception, and Vizenors speech.
LO: That was a good reception. Its a good series. These books [the two novels] were really written for myself, but they were published with these presses because I happened to bump into the editors; things happened to come together at the right times.
JP: Ive wondered about that--the time frame itself--but also the publication, the writing of Other Destinies. I remember it came out so closely to Sharpest Sight. And that would be a question: do you see the work on fiction and criticism as a balance to one another or do they interact in some way?
LO: I think . . . inevitably they will interact. They have to. The mind works as a whole, so, to say while writing a piece of fiction that the ideas from reading and writing criticism dont work in somehow would be dishonest. It may not be conscious, but it has to have some effect. Gerald Vizenor is perhaps the best at making it obvious, at blurring the line between the two in the minds of his readers.
JP: One of the things he does is to take that whole universe--academics, scholarship--and put it into his fiction: Arnold Krupats there, youre there, the whole lot of us.
LO: For Jerry, the line between fiction and non-fiction does not seem to exist. For him, his fiction is certainly meta-fiction, that generates its own theory.
JP: Well, that takes us through Sharpest Sight.
LO: Lets see. Bone Game. I remember the first time I went to Santa Cruz in the 70s. The place had a feel to it, a--I dont know--a dark presence. I had forgotten about that, but when I moved back there [to teach] in 1990, I felt it. I could feel it in those mountains and canyons.
JP: You could feel it in the place you lived?
LO: No, we lived about seventeen miles north, in Boulder Creek, deep in the redwoods. I felt okay there, but Santa Cruz had a definite, haunted feeling for me, and I began researching the history of the place. What really stood out for me was what seemed like a pattern of almost ritualistic violence spanning almost two centuries. I came across a reference to the killing of a Spanish priest at the Santa Cruz mission in 1812, and I found an interview conducted with the son of one of the Ohlone Indian men who killed the priest. That became the genesis of Bone Game.
That book was very different from anything I'd written before. I wrote it in a small room I'd built into my garage, about a hundred feet away from our house, off in the trees. Instead of working in the mornings, which I prefer, I found that I had to write that at night because if I got up at four a.m. to write, my young daughters would inevitably get up with me. So I had to work after they went to sleep, usually between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
JP: The witching hours.
LO: Yeah. It was scary, actually. There was an owl that took up residence right outside the office, that would hoot all night.
JP: Thats a haunting book. I remember when you came to my N.E.H. seminar [summer, 1993] and read from the manuscript; it was eerie.
LO: In some ways it's my favorite of my novels, the one in which I took the most risks and experimented most radically. I wanted to write a non-linear novel, one that worked rather like a mosaic. I imagined it completely before writing it--though of course many surprises happen when you write, and that is maybe the greatest pleasure in writing. But I wanted it to be a story in which all times and all actions coexisted simultaneously. I felt that I couldn't convey the fabric of violence in that place any other way. It can be confusing for a reader who may have trouble figuring out when or where or within what consciousness he or she is at any given moment.
JP: So, its a geospecific place that is deep with the history of violence.
LO: And to convey that.... I wanted to explore that sense, the enormous sense of loss that the indigenous people of the Santa Cruz area, the Ohlone, experienced. Within a single generation--the matter of a few years, even months--so much was lost, changed forever, as the result of the coming of Europeans. That's why the novel begins with the lines, "Children. Neófitos. Bestes. And still it is the same sky, the same night arched like a reed house, the stars of their birth." I wanted to convey in those lines the extraordinary shock of recognizing that the world has not changed at the deepest, most important levels, though one's people or culture may have vanished. It's a haunting sense to me.
JP: Then the killing of the priest is the apt, the perfect act to precipitate the events in the novel, the evil that came with the change.
LO: Yeah. Thats how I felt. And in a way, Santa Cruz is a microcosm for the U.S. Theres been so much violence perpetrated in its history.
JP: Yesterday, we were talking about the possibility of making films from your novels. You said you thought Wolfsong would be the easiest to film; do you see Bone Game, then, as the most, or one of the most, difficult?
LO: I think it would be the most difficult, given the time shifts, but Wolfsong and perhaps Nightland might be easily filmed. In fact, Nightland has already been optioned for a movie. Bone Game would probably be very scenic, or filmic, but structurally it's complicated by the non-linear plot. Nightland, on the other hand, was an experiment for me in writing as purely a linear plot as I could. In that novel I wanted everything to follow rapidly from the single event in the opening scene--a body falling out of the sky. I tried to create a feeling of an inevitable rush of plot beginning with the first line.
JP: Well, its certainly dramatic enough. A body falling from the sky; it gets the reader right away.
LO: It should hook the reader. It hooked me as a writer, actually. The whole novel began with a vision that came to me one day of a body falling from the sky. I'd also been reading a newspaper account of buzzards attacking barnyard fowl in west Texas, a true and strange account, and that merged with the image of a falling body to create the opening scene. Of course, for Cherokee readers a body that looks like a buzzard and comes from the west will have some disturbing resonance.
JP: Well, producers or directors seem to be looking for that kind of hook, but one that has another level of meaning is even more interesting.
LO: I guess I didnt impress them. (Laughter.) Seriously, though, I dont know what they really want. Does anybody? Filmmakers or publishers? Trying to figure them out would probably drive you crazy, or make you write what they want instead of what you want. Thats probably one of the few benefits of having a job, to have the luxury of writing what I want to write.
Nightland was written in large part for my Aunt Betty, to whom it is dedicated. I'd written about my father's people, who are Choctaw, and drawn on our family's experiences living in Mississippi and California, but I hadn't written anything about my mother's Cherokee roots. My aunt, who is the last surviving member of my mother's family, called one day to ask if I'd do some research for her on her Cherokee family. That made me realize that I should write a story about Cherokee mixedbloods like my aunt. Perhaps my mother's death about ten years ago had made that kind of writing too difficult until now.
At any rate, the mythology that structures the foundation for Nightland is Cherokee, not pan-Indian or anything like that, but Cherokee. And I knew my aunt would recognize a lot that most readers of the novel will miss. I never believe in explaining my own writing, though I happily explain other people's, but I will say that the Thunder Twins, or Sons of Thunder, are very important mythic figures in Nightland.
JP: Those are the things that weave their ways through the narrative.
LO: Sort of. Anyway, I did some research, for her, so she told me what her grandfathers name was and her grandmothers, which she thought since she had no written record. Actually, only half the familys on the Dawes roles, and theyre all on the 1910 Oklahoma Indian census. It occurred to me that I really should have written a book about my mothers family, too. The Cherokee side. And thats how a body came to be falling from the sky.
JP: So your aunt helped put the context to your falling body.
LO: I figured that, maybe, one percent of the people who read the book will get that, if anyone does at all. [The tie of the present with the older stories.] But she read it, and wrote back, in one of her few letters, saying "Youre a real writer!"
JP: Did she ask where she was in it?
LO: No, but she did mention that "Theres some bad words in it."
JP: Well, it has some of the same qualities of your earlier novels, that sense of layered time and events. What happened in the past is being felt in the present.
LO: Yeah, that's true. I guess one thing I'm working on in most of my writing is the way America has tried, and continues to try, to bury the past, pretending that once it's over we no longer need to think about it. We live in a world full of buried things, many of them very painful and often horrific, like passing out smallpox-infested blankets to Indians or worse, and until we acknowledge and come to terms with the past we'll keep believing in a dangerous and deadly kind of innocence, and we'll keep thinking we can just move on and leave it all behind. That's a reason that one of Nightland's protagonists, Will, ends up living on a ranch containing a world of buried things, including even a smashed Range Rover.
JP: Out of sight but still a part of the story . . .
LO: Right. But hes going to stay there. You cant run from that buried history.
JP: In a way, that rings of Santyana--those who dont know history are doomed to repeat it--and Faulkners "dead hand of the past," and Silkos, "if you dont know the stories, you dont know whats happening now."
LO: Its about processing the past, consciously and unconsciously. James Welchs work deals with it, too. Fools Crow, and one of his best, Winter in the Blood.
JP: It has one of the great lines, the revelation that comes when Old Bird farts.
LO: An epiphany carried on the wind. We just talked about that in class. Thats a great novel.
JP: So, now you have the new novel in production, Dark River.
LO: Dark River will be published by Oklahoma next winter, and incidentally I'm very pleased to be back with Oklahoma after an unpleasant foray with Dutton Signet who published Nightland. Dark River is very different, again, from what I've written before, and I'm sure it also is very similar. I wanted to overturn a lot of conventions in this novel, disrupt stereotypes in comic and violent ways, with the emphasis upon the comic.
JP: I see what you mean. I like how you play with them. The "week-end warrior" who is out there trying to experience the "thrill" of war . . .
LO: The militia . . .
JP: Yeah, but even more insidious than that in some ways, less blatant. The professional person who comes from the urban center to learn the ways of the "wilds" and to hunt humans. Then the convention of the Vietnam veteran, the Black OPS type of characters, and you take them all apart.
LO: Well, good. Im glad you think that. And actually, the militia were inspired by a group of guys I ran into when I was backpacking on a reservation. They were wearing camouflage uniforms, out practicing war. Disneyland with weapons. I know there are people like that, practicing violence against others. By the way, those weekend militia guys were white and they were on the reservation illegally, but in such a remote spot that nobody else probably would have come across them. There is quite a bit of violence in the novel, but I like to think it has an almost slapstick quality to it, disturbing and comic at the same time.
JP: That group is an interesting group because it has such a wide array of characters; theyre all participating in the same type of activity, but operating from different backgrounds and values, so there are these moments of crises for some of them: "Are we going to kill these women, or what?" It is no longer a game, and they have to decide.
LO: Ironically, in a group like that the most violent are often the individuals who never experienced war.
JP: They havent had to live the aftereffects.
LO: Well, yeah. You were in Vietnam. You know what Im talking about. I wasnt but my brother was there for three years and a lot of my friends were there and a number of them died there. It seems to me that it is almost always the people who havent experienced the immediacy of violence who are capable of getting involved in it as a game.
But thats just a part of the novel. I wanted to bring together a whole convergence of different characters. Stick them all in one place and see what happens.
JP: And it has such a wide array; I mean, not just the characters in the canyon, but on the reservation, too. In fact, a little while ago you were talking about the genesis of that reception in the casino; it came from one you attended on a reservation once. Thats marvelously funny: "stranger than fiction."
LO: Well, I hope theres a lot of humor in it.
JP: There is, all the way through. And I wont ask about the conclusion since the book has yet to be released, but I like how you bring those various conventions from several genres together.
LO: You know, its a strange conclusion and some people will probably be unhappy with it and some people may not. I like it myself. At the end of the novel, I sort of wanted to deconstruct the novel, I suppose, and the whole process of storytelling. Explore what it means to say stories have no ends. And I wanted to take apart all the clichés, and thats why I have this major character in the novel, one I really like, whos running around shouting Italian phrases at women. This was a character actor in Hollywood who learned his Italian from Sal Mineo and other actors, and says Sal didnt speak Italian very well. Hes a very good friend of Iron Eyes Cody, and has Codys cat. And wig. (Laughter.)
JP: And that poor cat. (More laughter.)
LO: A grim fate.
JP: Before I ask you about that collection of essays you have coming out, and I do want to talk a bit about it, I have to ask you: you have a lot of fly fishing in your novels . . .
LO: I like to fish. . . . Well, you know water has always been an obsession. I guess Im really obsessed with it. Jerry Vizenor pointed this out to me recently. You see, hes obsessed with tree lines, for some reason, and for me its water. Ive always lived near water: by the Yazoo River in Mississippi, the Salinas River and Coast Range creeks in California, Ive always fished. My earliest memories, really, are of fishing. I could barely walk. And my teen-age years, adolescent years, I was obsessed with it. I spent all my time on that water. And Cherokees have a medicine, called "Going to Water," which is one of the most powerful of all medicines. I think maybe thats why weve survived this long. Waters really important.
Of course, I lived in the North Cascades, where youre wet all the time, and thats another aspect to it. But I love to fish. I love to try to imagine what the fish are thinking.
JP: When you use it, it seems to be a very positive characteristic or quality for people who have other problems.
LO: I guess it is. Its clearly an escape, in a way. I like to go fly-fish a river by myself, backpack in, and Ill start fishing in the morning, and the next thing I realize, its dark. Ive lost a whole day, fishing and reading the river all day, and thats as close to any kind of a Zen experience Ive ever had. I try to give that to my characters. And its a connection, clearly, trying to connect to something.
The nicest moment in Thoreaus Walden, is the description of fishing at night. That connection.
JP: He does it in The Maine Woods, too. His journals of his trips up there.
Then, of course, some of us connect and others dont, or more often. (Laughter.)
LO: Youre more obsessed than I am!
JP: Well, what about the collection of essays. You told me about it while you were working on it, but we havent talked about it since.
LO: Its a collection of essays Ive written over the past several years and new essays put together. A really eclectic bunch of pieces that deal with mixed-blood identity, representations of Indians in films like Dances with Wolves, theres an essay in there on the invention of John Wayne, which actually came out of a request from a magazine to write about Wayne from a Native American perspective, as a hero. I went back and watched a lot of his films, so I became a minor expert on John Wayne; its fascinating, that evolution. So, I have Wayne and Kevin Costner, and a fairly severe critique of Dances with Wolves, I guess. Invariably funny, because you cant help but be funny when you talk about that movie.
And about three environmental essays, one called "How Native Americans Can Save the World." Im looking at indigenous attitudes toward the environment and Native epistemologies. There is a sense of responsibility that I think is a tradition to many Native Americans--traditional Native American beliefs that stress responsibility to the world we live in, which is the only way were going to survive as a species. Somehow, we have to learn this, and unfortunately most of us have not learned it. Still bulldozing and cutting, no real sense that if you clear cut a rain forest in Brazil, you affect the climate of Scandinavia.
And I have several autobiographical essays in there as well, along with about fifteen or so photographs of my family that go back to about the turn of the century. Pictures of my mothers family in Indian Territory, log cabin. Mixed-blood Cherokees hanging out in the Territory. Just surviving.
What fascinates me about that, looking at these old pictures, is that you end up with this rainbow coalition. One photo is of a family, a neighboring family of my mothers great-grandmother, her neighbors, a mixed-blood Indian family, with about six or seven kids, and they form an arc, like a rainbow, parents in the middle. Theres one little boy whos brown as a coffee bean and beside him is his blonde brother, and they look just alike, but theyre different colors, and the rest of the family is a range of complexions and hues. A wonderful, beautiful picture to me. It seems to me that what these people were doing down there in Indian Territory was creating their own borderland. They were living everything we like to write about and theorize about today, as in Gloria Anzalduas book, and they were doing it just out of necessity for survival. No one making a big production out of it. Just living as human beings, and I really admire that.
JP: When you were talking about Bone Game a few moments ago, and the California experience, that dramatic, world-shifting, world-changing interaction in one generation, you wonder how humans can respond to that, react and accommodate that type of an experience. But here, youre suggesting that in other places, then, that can be handled generationally, that it is done through generations as an act of survival.
LO: Its a totally human act, you know. In the Southeast . . . well, a lot of people dont really understand; the Cherokees, for example, are the butts of many jokes: "I had a Cherokee grandmother who was a princess" right? And a lot of blonde Cherokees running around. The fact is that the Southeast tribes met, married and intermingled with European traders very early, Irish, English, down in Mississippi and Louisiana there were the French. The Welsh came in, Scots. And thats why you find the repetition of those European surnames among the tribes, and that was a process that took place over many generations. Thats why you find a Cherokee principal chief named John Ross. Ross becomes a big name among the people, or McCurtain, or Garland. Thats fascinating, such a different history from those of the plains tribes or Northwest, or inland nations.
Thats what fascinates me about this whole area of study and why I keep doing it in spite of a lot of misgivings--that is the diversity, the complexity, in the contemporary Indian world is so profound. Im trying, really, in my writing to get at that. Im trying to point out that not every Indian in America is riding a spotted pony across the plains chasing buffalo. That there were people who didnt arrange their teepees in circles, but instead lived in towns with roads and cabins--the Cherokee or Creek, for example--or they lived in long houses or reed houses like the Ohlone in California. Theres a tremendous diversity; today I think more than half of Indian people live in cities. They dont live on reservations, and most are mixed-bloods, so theres this extraordinary range of experience that needs to be represented in art in all ways.
I dont have any patience at all with the essentialist attitudes that say non-Indians shouldnt read things [written] by Indians or talk about Indian literature or whatever. Certainly, you have to have respect and be careful, but its absurd to say things like that because writing is about communication, and art is about dialog, and thats what we are trying to do. Its almost criminal when someone who doesnt know a culture will come in and exploit it, whether its in writing or art, visual art, or anything else, just to make money. Its using Native Americans as an extractable natural resource. And you dont have to go very far to find examples, but at the same time, we write books, that have to be for everybody, and I think every artist should have the right to work with whatever medium he or she wants to work with, but some of the results will be bad, and some of them good, some of them will be honest and some of them dishonest. You cant tell somebody that if youre a woman you cant write about men or if youre a male, you cant write about women; if youre Black you cant write about white people or if youre white you cant write about Indians or vice versa. That would make it impossible to have a Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Scott Momaday, anybody.
JP: Thats interesting in the context of Dark River, with the New York anthropologist who knows all the old ways and the language.
LO: Yeah. The anthropologist is more "Indian" than the "Indians." Hes done his research and hes hell-bent on living traditionally according to a static idea two hundred years old. The Indians, of course, just want to get by. They want to have a four-wheel drive pick up and a microwave oven, if its handy, and want to live like real human beings today, but he wants . . . he comes up with the idea of a theme park . . .
JP: Right. Thats a marvelous exchange . . .
LO: He wants the Indians to turn their reservation into a theme park to live like they did two hundred years before, and theyd get all sorts of grants, of course, to do that. But the first idea the tribal council comes up with is to hire hippies to imitate them. The Indians decide to live in Scottsdale [Arizona].
JP: I just about fell out of my chair when I read that; that was a hilarious council meeting.
LO: Well, you know, its satire, so that stuff is always a little extreme; its beyond reality, but its to make a point.
JP: When we laugh, we laugh at some of the odd ideas we have, so its all worth it.
LO: Well, I read recently, came across a statement that Sherman Alexie made; he was talking about Adrian Louis and he said that whenever he sees something Adrian Louis writes he knows its true because Adrian lives on a reservation. Adrian happens to Piaute, I believe, but hes living on the Lakota reservation, and if you follow that logic out, that would make anthropologists the best novelists, the most honest, "truest" writers because they live on reservations, too, and they study the cultures intensely, so maybe anthropologists should write all the novels. Make our movies. (Laughter.) Some are, actually. There are "Indian" novels by anthropologists.
JP: Or anthropologists partners, like Theodore Kroeber. Well, there goes the syllabus; well have to redesign the whole neighborhood.
Anyway, whats in the future. Want to talk about anything youre working on or want to work on?
LO: I dont know whats in the future, although Im interested in perhaps writing another book about John Steinbeck, believe it or not, as a very early ecologist. I think thats an aspect of Steinbeck that has never been appreciated enough.
JP: You worked on him for your dissertation.
LO: I did a couple of books on him, actually. Hes one of my favorite writers, and the funny thing is that if theres one writer I can count on Indian people in Indian country having read, its Steinbeck. Hes very popular.
JP: I wonder why.
LO: I think its because his worldview is very close to what you might find in those communities, and what Steinbeck is arguing in his writing is that we have to be responsible for what he terms the whole thing, known and unknowable, in a very deep way: that if you step into a tide pool, you have to realize that that step has changed the entire universe, and that will fit neatly into what Silkos arguing in Ceremony, the whole sense of having to be careful, to walk in balance, to be responsible for knowing that every single act of humanity changes the world. Steinbeck was arguing that sixty years ago, before anybody in white America really was, so Im thinking about going back and doing some more work on Steinbeck, as in critical, and then as far as fiction is concerned, I may not write any more. Or, I may write about international espionage.
I dont know. It is a very frustrating thing, I think, trying to be a writer is extremely frustrating. I always tell my students that they should do it only if they cant help it . . . because I think writing is rewarded for all the wrong reasons. In order to be a successful Indian writer, and I talk about this in the essay collection thats coming out, you have to give the New York editors, agents, public what they expect to see. Its like Ellisons Invisible Man: Black people, as Ellison says, are visible only if they are what the white world wants to see. And if they dont fit that cliché, they are invisible. Thats why his narrator is invisible, has no name, and I think thats true for Indians. To be Native American in the United States youve got to conform to the stereotype which, as Gerald Vizenor has been pointing out for years and years, was invented by the white world . . .
JP: The Invented Indian.
LO: And thats why people like Jamake Highwater are so successful, because he looked the part and wore fringe and leather, buckskin suits, did all the things and fit the images that the world expected the Indian to fit, and I think that is really central to Indian arts today, especially writing. Youve got to, basically, write stereotypes. Basically have to construct clichés in order to be seen by a publisher, and thats very disheartening. That means you cant really do anything original.
JP: But thats one of the things I like about your fiction. We could go right back down the list chronologically, but say Dark River; you recognize that but then you take a cliché and tweak it.
LO: One of the many things that drives me crazy today is the fact that you really have to manufacture what Charles Newman has in a book called The Post-modern Aura defined as "pre-sold fiction," with the huge publishing conglomerates now, and the fact that the whole industry is run by money managers, people who dont know anything about literature to start with, looking for commodities that have obvious, pre-sold value, and as far as indigenous writing is concerned, the value is determined by what has sold before, and the stereotypes arise from that. The people in New York don't know a damned thing about indigenous people, or much of anything beyond Manhattan, so they look for what they already know, and what they know is created by Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohegans, Disneys Pocahontas, Fenimore Cooper, and Larry McMurtrys Blue Duck, all the later psychopathic breeds like in Lonesome Dove. And if you dont give them what they have manufactured themselves, quite frankly, they dont understand it. And if you create an anthropologist who is more Indian that the Indians, thats not what they want to see. If you have somebody who is a hair-spray addict, they think he sprays his hair all day because they dont know whats going on on reservations.
JP: Falls beyond their realm of comprehension.
LO: Exactly. And its very frustrating. I see a number of novel manuscripts by young Indian writers that just are not going to be published in New York, and they are among the best novels I see, the most honest; they are dealing with tribal people today who are in reservation communities, or in cities, mixed-bloods, or full bloods, or whatever, but they are writing about real experience, whats happening today, which includes working on your car, or having a microwave oven, the realities of life today and not being a mystical shaman. Not to say that ceremony, and traditions and spirituality are not terribly important, because they are in the communities, but what New York and Hollywood want to see are warriors, shamans, mystical medicine women, and anger, and above all, self-destruction. Dysfunction and self-destruction are marketable commodities.
JP: A long-standing convention, right?
LO: Yeah, the new version of The Vanishing Indian; whether its written by Indians or non-Indians, its a way of neutralizing Native Americans because the Euroamerican world looks at these books and sees Indians destroying one another and sees them as no threat. The anger is turned inward, with a lot of internal colonization going on, a lot of self-loathing, and a lot of the art depicts that and it doesnt go beyond that, and thats the problem. Of course, these things exist, and youve got to deal with them. There is dysfunction, it exists in all communities, and certainly alcoholism, and drugs, and abuse are big problems, but theres a whole lot more that needs to be written about, and thats survival.
JP: The center of Vizenors canon.
LO: Yeah. I think Gerald Vizenor is a genius. I think hes the most brilliant American writer, period. And thats not to say that hes easy to understand, or process as a reader, but hes way ahead of almost everybody. And his writing, I think, paradoxically, is more "traditional" than anyone elses, and Ive said that in print. Hes certainly writing out of a tradition of trickster stories, and what trickster is designed to do: to heal us, challenge us, and attack all our false values and stereotypes and everything thats static, and so the clichéd Indian doesnt stand a chance in Vizenors writing and that upsets a lot of people, both Indians and non-Indians alike. Because he doesnt leave well enough alone.
JP: Or bad enough alone? We were talking about Victor Masayesvas film, Imagining Indians, yesterday, and thats one of the things I like so much about it. Theres that sense of clowning in it: to cure. The main character, an Indian woman in an Indian Health Service dentists office, takes away his drill and reinscribes the lens, then tips over the camera at the end. Playful in a very profound way. That sense of attacking and taking over the mechanism, the instrument, and rewriting the image.
LO: Thats wonderful, and of course its what Victor, the director, whos in control of the camera, is doing.
LO: And theres a lot of promise in the future with him, and people like Aaron Carr, whos a great filmmaker and writer, and absolutely well beyond all the clichés and stereotypes, and writing brilliant stuff. And Thomas King. Tom is writing about serious issues with such wonderful humor. And hes writing about tribal people in a community, who have real lives, who may be photo-journalists, whatever.
JP: Well, he caught me with Harlen Bigbear; Ive been a fan ever since.
LO: Harlens a great character. I love Medicine River. I teach it whenever I can.
JP: Thats a good direction to take this conversation. Do you know of any new writers, any young writers who may not have been published, but who you see as promising?
LO: There are quite a few, a lot of promising writers who have been, or are being published, like Gordon Henry . . .
JP: Oh yeah . . .
LO: Incredible talent that hasnt been recognized enough yet, such as Betty Bell, and here in New Mexico, Aaron Carr is going to be an artist to be reckoned with for a long time, Evilina Lucero, from Isleta Pueblo, and theres a Creek, a Muskogee writer in Oklahoma named Vince Mendoza who has a lot of talent that hasnt quite been realized yet. LeAnne Howe is a wonderful, extraordinary writer. Don Birchfield. So many people who seem to be on the cusp of doing something really great. The problem is, they have to make a living, and that surely gets in the way of being an artist. So, who knows if those people will finally be able to achieve the greatness they are capable of . . . but maybe.
JP: Well, I hope so.
LO: Me, too. And I see young writers all the time, who are writing really wonderful works.
JP: You mentioned at the beginning that Wolfsong and, well, Sharpest Sight and Other Destines are all in the Oklahoma series; thats been an influential series and one that can publish things that New York doesnt understand, and its made money, a benefit for the Press but also for this body of literature.
LO: You know, Gerald Vizenor gets the credit for creating that series. I joined him as a co-editor pretty late in the series, its Jerrys series, and he created it exactly because he felt there was a whole body of very valuable writing that would never be published in Manhattan, and of course he was right. They have nearly thirty volumes in their list now, and its a place where writers can publish without worrying about whether theyll pay off their quarter of a million dollar advance, whatever, because unfortunately they dont get that kind of advance. Itd be nice if we all did. I think O.U. Press has been absolutely fantastic. They have great people. They have integrity. I dont think all the works in the series are at the same level, aesthetically, but thats always going to be the case.
I really like publishing in that series. In fact, with Dark River I wanted to publish it at Oklahoma from the beginning, and had no plans to do otherwise, and if I write another novel its going to come out with O.U. because I can write exactly as I want to write; I dont have to worry about what an editor in Manhattan who has never been West of the Mississippi is going to think about what I write, and I don't have to put a shamanistic warrior in it . . . so it is a tremendous liberation. So, I am pleased with that series, and I think it is important; its going to be very important, historically.
JP: A lot of the small presses in this country have been carrying it for a long time. And some of them have been doing very well with it, with good reputations of doing some of the best work in American literature, period.
LO: And look at whats happening today. The mid-list has virtually disappeared in the area of publishing. I know people, very successful writers, publishing with places like Knopf, for example, who arent getting published anymore, because theyre mid-list writers, literary writers, so they dont sell a lot of copies. Some small presses have folded over the last several years, with some notable exceptions, like Holy Cow! Press . . .
JP: Gray Wolf . . .
LO: Gray Wolf, thats the one I was trying to think of, but university presses have stepped in. Nevada is publishing people like Frank Bergon and Gerald Haslam. University of California Press is publishing fiction now, Georgia, Colorado, Wesleyan, Minnesota, and of course Oklahoma. I think university presses are taking over.
I mean, when James Joyce, and people like Becket, had to go to Paris to publish--they couldnt publish in Ireland or England--today I think writers can go to university or small presses, and have to more and more, which is not to say any of us are James Joyces or Beckets, but because these presses are filling that vacuum, that void, and obviously there is some money in it because they at least break even. Writers dont make any money off the books. But its a chance to write what you really want to write, the way you want to write it, and know youll have an audience.
JP: Very fortunate. Glad that it is so.
LO: And Im very proud of the books in that series . . .
JP: And hopefully therell be some new names in the list soon.
LO: There will be. Hopefully well have several new Native American novels within the next couple of years. If it works out.
JP: Well, well keep good thoughts about that.