David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by the Tin House writers workshop which is now accepting applications for its 2021 Online Summer Workshop which will take place this July and which will feature short fiction, novel, poetry, and non-fiction classes. In addition to its general scholarships, Tin House will offer awards for trans and indigenous writers, for independent booksellers, for writers over 40, and for those born outside of the United States. Tin House will also be waiving all application fees and offering a scholarship for Oregon BIPOC applicants. The deadline to apply is March 22nd with more information available at tinhouse.com/workshop. During today’s episode with Brandon Hobson, though we focus primarily on his latest novel The Removed, we also end up talking quite a bit about a short story of his that is the lead story in the latest issue of NOON, the magazine founded and helmed by Diane Williams and about the ways being edited by Diane Williams over the years has been an influence on Brandon’s own writing. I definitely suggest seeking out Diane’s appearance on the show as a great follow-up to this conversation with Brandon. In fact, I’m sure there is no better episode in the last 10 years addressing the meaning and mystery within the syntax of a sentence than the episode with Diane. I’ll include a link to that conversation in the show notes. I was happy that after our conversation, Brandon decided to read that very short story, A Man Came to Visit Us for the bonus audio archive. This joins past bonus audio from Layli Long Soldier, Terese Marie Mailhot, Ted Chiang, Teju Cole, and from Diane Williams herself. Subscribing to the bonus audio is just one potential benefit of transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter. All supporters get a resource rich email with each conversation and get to participate in our ongoing mind-blowing collective brainstorm about what dream guests we want to see on the show going forward. There’s just a ton of other potential benefits—collectible items from Nikky Finney, Ursula K. Le Guin, Rikki Ducornet, Forrest Gander, and others, to becoming an early Tin House reader receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. To find out about all of this and much more, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Brandon Hopson.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is the Novelist Brandon Hobson. Hobson earned a doctorate in creative writing from Oklahoma State University and is a professor of creative writing at New Mexico State University. An enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma. Hobson is also our writing mentor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. This year, Hobson is also a judge for the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards. His fiction has garnered a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in McSweeney’s conjunctions NOON and American short fiction among many other places. His books include The Levitationist, Deep Ellum, Desolation of Avenues Untold, and his last book Where the Dead Sit Talking which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction. Long listed for the International Dublin Literary Award, named the Best Book of the year by Kirkus, Southern Living, and NPR Code Switch, and which won the Reading the West Book Award. Chiara Barzini says, “I fear and ferociously admire everything Brandon Hobson creates. He is the only person who can describe the way an object becomes whole when we have enough time to look at it or the presence of a loved one in the air even after she is gone.” Brian Evenson adds, “Where the Dead Sit Talking is a tender and unflinching look at shell-shocked young lives as they try in the eddies of foster care to keep their heads above water. Hobson writes with a humane authority but without giving his characters any alibis. What we have instead is a careful look at what it means to be physically and psychically scarred, abandoned by parents, Native American in a white world, haunted by death, and on the verge of becoming an adult. A wonderful, harrowing novel.” Thus, the arrival of Brandon Hobson’s latest book, The Removed, comes with much anticipation with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, Tommy Orange calls The Removed, “Spirited, droll, and as quietly devastating as rain lifting from earth to sky.” Jonathan Lethem says, “Hobson delivers an act of regeneration and solace. You won’t forget it.” Molly Young for Vulture adds, “Hobson’s last novel, a Cherokee coming-of-age novel set in 1980s Oklahoma, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I’ll eat my pajamas if his new novel doesn’t get a nom too.” Finally, Marcela Davison Avilés for NPR SAYS, “The story in this book is deeply resonant and profound, and not only because of its exquisite lyricism. It’s also a hard and visceral entrance into our own reckoning as a society and civic culture with losses we created, injustices we allowed, and family separations we ignored. It’s a path of renewed mourning, meditation and trauma which at once seeks the vitality of what once was, and justice for what was taken.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Brandon Hobson.
Brandon Hobson: Thanks for having me.
DN: Your last two books are very different in many ways. But they do share several broad attributes in common. They both, unlike your previous books, explore Cherokee identity, history, and cosmology. They both begin narratively with a death. They both are set within or engage with the foster care system. But the ways you engage with Cherokee identity, the details around the deaths in each book, and the way the foster care system is portrayed in both are very different. I was hoping we could start with the origin story for The Removed, how the real-life killing of natives by police became the impulse to write the novel. I was hoping we could start with you talking about what you were feeling and thinking that led to The Removed to be set 15 years after the character Ray-Ray’s death unarmed at the hands of a police officer and placing us as readers with his family who live in the present day of the book in the long shadow of his murder.
BH: I was interested in thinking about the aftermath of violence against natives, how long that goes on and how people are so affected for such a long period of time. This goes back hundreds of years, the violence against natives but it’s still happening. Also, thinking about the AIM movement, the American Indian Movement in the late 60s and early 70s which began out of a retaliation against police violence against natives or as Russell Means calls American Indians, whichever term you want to use there. But the American Indian Movement was something that I’ve been thinking about a lot for and have always thought about. When I began writing The Removed, I didn’t want to go into too much detail about the killing other than Ray-Ray, other than just the fact that he’s shot by a police officer. That 15 years later, of course, this is still very much on the family’s mind naturally. But how it parallels the violence from 200 years ago when Andrew Jackson sent the soldiers to remove tribes out of North Carolina and Georgia to move West. Those were all the starting points of what I was thinking about. I thought I’ve got to write a novel about this.
DN: Yeah. When Natalie Diaz was on the show, we talked about her poem American Arithmetic which engages with the statistic that natives are more likely to die by police than any other racial group. I suspect one reason this poem needs to be written is because this isn’t what most people would think if they were to guess. We went on to talk about how there’s a hypervisibility around the suffering of black Americans in this regard. That black suffering and the perpetual lack of being treated as fully human is served up almost as entertainment and certainly, as a spectacle. We all know the names of unarmed black people who’ve been killed from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Breonna Taylor. Their bodies are on the news. Videos of their deaths filmed in real time are either delivered up as news or just one click away on YouTube. But for natives, it seems like the mode instead of spectacle is that of silence and erasure. Not just around police violence where I suspect most people can’t name a single native person killed by a police officer but also, the epidemic of disappeared indigenous women across North America which also doesn’t make the news. Not making the news and the lack of any response, I suspect, becomes a self-reinforcing prophecy making native women more of an appealing target for predators if there’s no consequence or even narrative or story. I was also thinking like lately, there was a tweet by Lucas Brown Eyes where it said, “88% of the missing children in South Dakota are Native. That’s systemic. That’s racism.” To me, the silence seems part of the violence. That’s what I found interesting about the NPR blurb that I read at the beginning that framed The Removed as an opportunity for a societal reckoning. I was both curious if that was part of the impulse for you of writing The Removed, to write into the silence. Also, if you had any thoughts about the silence in the first place.
BH: Yes, I read that Lucas Brown Eyes’ tweet and I followed him. I’m a fan of his. Yes, that’s a lot of the reason, is the silence. The silence not just around police shooting, police brutality against natives or violence in general against natives but also, the silence around the missing and murdered indigenous women. Not just in the United States, I mean Canada has a huge problem. First nations up there. I’m hoping that people are starting to talk about it more. This is, in no way, to take away from Black Lives Matter, of course, and the police violence against any people of color but specifically to draw it toward natives is a way for me to write this book. Russell Means is gone. He’s passed away. Dennis Banks is gone. He’s passed away. These were very big activists for natives. I think on Twitter, we certainly get to see more people engaging in conversations and being able to draw attention to these issues. In my way, I want to do it through my art which is writing fiction. That being said though, as a fiction writer, it’s not the only issue I’m interested in obviously because I have other work out there. But it is a big part of these last two books. I wanted to really, really focus on writing into that silence, absolutely.
DN: In your Roundtable rapid fire interview at Lit Hub, when asked to give words to describe your book you said, “Memory, police brutality and its effects, the mistreatment of Cherokees, visions, loss, healing.” In light of us talking about erasure and silence around police violence against natives, talk to us about memory and its relationship to The Removed.
BH: I was thinking in terms of memory with Ernest, the dad who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, losing his memory. When Wyatt, the foster kid comes to the house, he begins to get his memory back. Wyatt serves in a way as a healing mechanism for his Alzheimer’s because he can recognize spiritual Ray-Ray. He can recognize the Ray-Ray spirit is among him. That begins to take manifest in miraculous ways as I was thinking about memory there but I was also wanting to draw attention to the memory of the removal of the tribes and memory in terms of the old traditional stories. Cherokee, the old stories that really arrived in Oklahoma where I’m from, obviously, it’s been my whole life in Oklahoma. Those stories arrived there not written but they arrived at oral tradition. Then [inaudible 0:17:12] and James Mooney ended up documenting a lot of those over 100 years ago. But those stories need to be around. I wanted a place for them in contemporary fiction. I think they’re important to think about.
DN: The Echota family, 15 years after the death of Ray-Ray is in a tough place in many ways. You mentioned the father suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia, literally losing memory. The son Edgar is deeply lost in addiction. The daughter Sonja is in what seems, at least, at first to be a self-destructive pursuit of love with a white man. The mom is trying to hold things together. But really Ray-Ray who’s holding things together, their shared memory of Ray-Ray, the ways he is collectively kept alive in each of them. One of my favorite conversations you had for this book so far is with Rebecca Makkai for PEN America. Part of what was satisfying about it for me was her attention to the formal choices you made as a writer. One of them being that Ray-Ray dies on the same day as the Cherokee National Holiday that commemorates the constitution written by the Cherokee Nation after their forced removal to Oklahoma. That each year, the bonfire the Echota family has acts as a double act of memory. It’s a time to gather and remember Ray-Ray but at the same time, as they are remembering the removal of the Cherokee from their land. One of the uncertainties of the present day of the book is will everybody in the Echota family show up this year? There’s so much going on. Will they come together as a family and be there for the bonfire? But what Rebecca points out, which I think is true, is that the way you’ve structured the book, you’ve created this ticking clock to the story. The book takes place over six days that will culminate with or without a bonfire at the end. Those formal structural decisions allow you to attend more to the atmosphere, character, and to language over plot and to the ways memory affects each of these characters for instance. Because the form becomes the engine that moves the book forward almost as much as the story. I was wondering if there was a journey for you arriving at the form for The Removed. If so, what that journey was like?
BH: I’m always more interested in language than I am certainly in plot. Most of us who write literary fiction are interested in experimenting in more ways than just looking at it, especially a traditional storyline or plot that we all learned in school. But one thing the language in this book is written purposefully in a way that I hope that reflects what I’m trying to do which is to focus on how each character speaks but also, to culminate in this unified issue of separateness, I guess. I know that sounds weird. Some of the language, I have some Cherokee, I have some symbols but I also have some syllabary. I hope that the language focuses more importance than the plot does.
DN: It feels like there are at least three different syntactic languages in the book or rhythms to the book. I’m thinking of the language of “normal everyday life”, then the language of the Tsala sections which are ancestral, then the language of being with Edgar in an altered state, also, in potentially an altered place which we’ll talk about later.
BH: Absolutely. Yeah, you’re much better at talking about this than I am. [laughs] The language reflects for Edgar. The fact that he is in this completely mythological space that exists only to pursue an escape, I mean for him to try to escape this torture and racism. I think that the language of Tsala, I try to focus much more traditionally by using a little bit more of Cherokee language. Then certainly, Sonja and Maria more everyday. Maybe, as a reader, I read for language often and focus less on resolution. I like ambiguity because I feel like so much of the world is ambiguous. What’s not spoken is often more interesting than what is said. There’s nothing worse for me than reading somebody who’s written something that’s overwritten. You feel like it’s very long. You think, “This could have been 100 pages less. It’s just overwritten.” I guess it depends on who it is but some people say that I tend to underwrite, but to me, it’s that unspokenness that I’ve always– and people like your former guest Diane Williams have been a mentor to me. J. D. Salinger. Writers like that. The unspoken, when you come away from the work, becomes as fascinating as what’s on the page.
DN: Yeah. I like that. As you mentioned the Ray-Ray being removed from the Echota family echoes against the ancestral trauma of the removal of the Cherokee themselves from the Southeast when gold is discovered in Georgia. Because of this discovery of gold, all the previous treaties were voided and the Indian Removal Act was passed and between 15,000 and 20,000 Cherokee were forcibly moved and removed on the Trail of Tears to modern day Oklahoma. A removal that killed around 25% of the Cherokee population due to exposure disease and starvation. I think often about how the absence of memory that seems particular to the subtler culture of North America presents a challenge to me as an interviewer. I imagine it must also present a challenge to you as a touring author. I can’t presume that listeners have a shared collective memory or understanding or knowledge about most historical things. Perhaps that’s understandable when I’m talking to Jenny Erpenbeck about East German history or Nnedi Okorafor about the Biafran War. But it seems equally true when we’re talking about our own history, whether the details of the Korean War or the details of the Trail of Tears. Because I suspect that guests are asked over and over again to do the labor of explaining the historical trauma of their own people, my imperfect solution is to include details within my questions like I just did. I don’t know that it’s a solution. But I wanted to ask you about a different aspect of cultural amnesia or even cultural dementia. That is the question of how Native Americans are both perceived and portrayed. If nothing about a contemporary indigenous person’s experience visibly enters the mainstream cultural consciousness, if we don’t regularly see contemporary native people portrayed in art or in visible positions within the media, it seems that all that’s left are—especially in the absence of historical knowledge—all that’s left are stereotypes to fill the void. Stereotypes that are frozen, like museum relics or mascots for sports. You engage with this phenomenon directly in The Removed. But I was also interested to hear about how it affects you as a writer because I’m thinking of your recent conversation with the Cherokee Poet Santee Frazier where you said you wanted to include ancestral voices in The Removed without them seeming hokey. Santee shared how similarly, he would never include talking animals in his poems based on how he knows it would be received by a non-native audience, confirming and reinforcing the stereotypes he’s probably having to deal with on a day-to-day interpersonal level. I was wondering if you could talk about this, how you navigate it and how you keep it from paralyzing you, the anticipation of how something might be received by others in this context.
BH: It’s an excellent question. It’s a very important question because so much of what we do is looked at as a stereotype among others. I grew up in Oklahoma and so did Santee. We’re both enrolled Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. I think everything that people see in Hollywood points to stereotype. No other culture, it seems to me, has been so obvious about that, about pointing to stereotypes. If you look at television, there has not been a Cosby Show for a native family or a family ties for native family or anything necessarily. It seems like to me, so far, Hollywood has done a terrible job at portraying Native Americans. Even in the new movie, the Tom Hanks movie News of the World, there’s the white savior idea. They’re not Urban Indians who are portrayed in the media, it seems like. You can drive down to see in town or something to see a lawyer who’s native or you see a native congressman, congresswoman. That stereotype is very very dangerous. As a writer, you can’t help but think about it and try to write through that with the Echota family. I try to show yes, they’re an Oklahoma family who are about to celebrate the Cherokee National Holiday but they’re also a very urban normal family who goes about their normal lives. To go back to Tsala’s sections, when I was writing Tsala’s sections, I was thinking about that more than anything. I was thinking about stereotypes. Part of the avoidance of the stereotype for me was part of what drew me to write even more about Tsala, if that makes sense, to avoid this stereotype. Yes, I do have part of like the talking wolf that he shares, but that’s from the old traditional mythology, in the same way that we read stories of Greek Mythology which we all read in school. But those are still an important part of what it means to forgive, what it means to be human, how we look at nature, how we treat animals. That was more of anything, I mean part of this book is heavily focused on nature too. One of the things I talked to Santee about is through each different character, I tried to think in terms of color also. Edgar’s sections being a little bit more hazy and smoky, whereas Maria’s sections are very colorful. Then Edgar’s sections become more colorful as he gets out of the Darkening Land. I’m trying to write through that and get away from stereotypes as much as possible. But it is a challenge because nobody’s helping us do it.
DN: Yeah. Now, the questions raised by you and Santee reminded me of a Mother Jones essay by a past Between The Covers guest Terese Marie Mailhot called Native American Lives Are Tragic, But Probably Not in the Way You Think. She talked about the Native American Journalists Association which had created a BINGO board, designed to catch overused and hack-need ideas employed by newsrooms over and over again. It included the words alcohol, poverty, then the phrases vanishing culture and dying language. But she goes on to say, “This may be helpful for reporters, but what of us Native authors and artists who want to express the truth of our lives, which are sometimes affected by, yes, poverty and alcohol? These conditions are not unique to Native people, of course, but when they are applied to us it feels definitive.” Then later she says, “I don’t want a joyous future nearly as much as I want the freedom to present the tragedy in our lives and not be bound to it.”
BH: Yeah. First of all, Terese, I’m a fan of hers. Her book is amazing.
DN: Yeah, I think so too.
BH: But I think that stereotype of natives living in poverty on the reservation is often what people think about in terms of alcoholism. Whereas, so many of us did not grow up on a reservation like me. I lived in a more urban environment growing up, area right outside of Oklahoma City along with many, many other native kids. So the idea of the urban native in Tommy Orange’s book certainly addresses that in Oakland. But it’s everywhere, the urban. That is a very important thing for people to think about. Part of it is they’re not seeing it anywhere. We’re just now starting to read about it. They’re not seeing it on television and movies, not reading about it so much. Yet, I do hope that’s changing. The more students, especially native students that I work with who are writing about it, continue to bring hope for me that things will change.
DN: You’ve said explicitly, and you’re saying it here now as well, that you’re trying to complicate these stereotypes and dispel these stereotypes. For instance, portraying native families who aren’t on reservations is one way to do that. But I’m wondering what about this question of Native American in a bigger sense, that you’re received as a Native American writer and perhaps even asked to speak about the state of Native American literature which seems to have a subtext that Cherokee experience is interchangeable with the Navajo or Hopi experience?
BH: Right. That’s not true, I mean every tribe is extremely different. I say extremely, every tribe is different. There are so many tribes out there. I don’t consider myself any more of a Native American writer than I do just a fiction writer. I consider myself a fiction writer. I think for people to say, “Here’s American literature,” then, “Here’s Native American literature,” can draw an issue, as if we’re put into another category. Here’s all the American literature but then we have the Native literature over here as if we can’t be a part of the overall American Literature. I guess to get back to the idea of breaking through the stereotypes, in my last book Where the Dead Sit Talking for example, Sequoyah is a young Cherokee boy. There’s some gender issues that he’s thinking about. He’s exploring the way he dresses, for example, and in some ways is interested in Rosemary’s clothes much more than the clothes he wears. Those thoughts that are going through the mind of a 15 year old boy, whether he’s native or whether he’s white or black or whatever, those are the things I was interested in. Not just him being, his name is Sequoyah, he’s a Cherokee boy, he probably looks like this in the reader’s mind. I’ve always been interested in trying to break through, in different ways, that stereotype.
DN: One of the secret joys of your books is the way you slip in references to things that you don’t need to notice to understand or enjoy the book at all. But if you do, it adds this other dimension. I’m thinking, for instance, you bring up Sequoyah who’s named after an incredibly important person in Cherokee history who invented an effective written Cherokee language. One of the only cases in recorded history of an individual in an oral culture, creating an effective original writing language. This one apparently raised the literacy rates really quickly of the Cherokee in the 19th century to a higher level than the surrounding settler communities but it also inspired the development of 21 other writing systems used by 65 different languages. That was all really interesting to explore. None of which you would need to explore. But you do a similar thing with the Echota family. With the name Echota being the old capital of the Cherokee Nation pre-removal but also part of the name of the treaty that would call for Cherokee Removal. I guess what I’m thinking about is in terms of memory, erasure, and the flattening that happens with the term Native Americans, I have to imagine there must be real differences between different subsets of Cherokee. Certainly, between the Eastern Band still in North Carolina and the much larger Oklahoma Tribe. But perhaps I’m imagining between the old settlers, the Cherokee who came voluntarily versus the ones who were forced to move later. But one of the things I was wondering about memory and specific to place was how much of Cherokee contemporary spiritual practice engages with the land and the landmarks from the Southeast versus Oklahoma? How much of it is a reference to a lost homeland to keep it alive in memory versus an immediate engagement with the physical and biological features of Indian territory now?
BH: Some of that I can’t speak to. I will say I can see this. The attention in this book that I wanted to draw to the land, to nature, and to animal life—whether that’s bird life or deer, wolf or dog—is as important as human life. Nature itself, animal is spiritually as important as the humans in this book. They’re all on equal levels. I think that’s all I can really probably share about that. I’m an enrolled citizen with Cherokee Nation. There are three bands of Cherokee. There’s the Eastern Band in North Carolina. There’s us, the Keetoowah. Also, there’s a third in Tahlequah Oklahoma which is where Cherokee Nation is. Two of them are in Oklahoma. The third is the Eastern Band. In Oklahoma, people will come to me and say, “I’ve always heard that I’m Cherokee.” That happens a lot in Oklahoma because of being such a large tribe. If I’m digressing a little bit, I apologize but I do want to say that Cherokee, sometimes among natives, becomes the go-to like, “We’re going to jab at Cherokee a little bit,” because everybody says they are a little bit Cherokee.
DN: Right. Most famous recently, Elizabeth Warren.
BH: Right, Elizabeth Warren. In her defense, like a lot of people in Oklahoma, they’re not enrolled. But they have been told, as she probably was, that her ancestors were Cherokee. So she’s not saying that out of a place of anger or of dislike. I think she was saying it proudly that my ancestors were part of this. I know a lot of Cherokee people who were angry about that.
DN: Yeah, I mean I think the problem ethically comes in if you’re securing a job or your university is looking at you as a diversity hire when someone else might have actually gotten that position if you hadn’t have done that.
BH: I think her Harvard Law School application said Cherokee, I think. That takes the spot of someone who actually was enrolled, for example. But yeah, in her defense, I do think that it came from a good place.
DN: In your first three books if we include your chapbook, you’re not dealing with native themes. You’ve said that you didn’t want a bio or photo in them. That you wanted the work to stand on their own. You didn’t want the work marketed based on your personal history or identity. But each of the last two books increasingly has embraced your heritage, your ancestral history as an integral part of your storytelling. It made me curious if there was something that happened in your life or changed in your mind or heart that led in that direction. I don’t know if I answered it when I came across this really great essay that you wrote about your grandfather and about his sudden death and the notebook that was laying open in his lap that has changed the trajectory of your life. I have no idea if the timeline matches up with the way your books have changed. But could you talk to us about the notebook or at least about the notebook in the way you do in the essay? What it contains and what it has meant for you as you’ve moved forward since that discovery?
BH: Let me address when I think of the picture first, if that’s okay. One of the reasons I went ahead and allowed my picture to be shown in the book—there are so many pictures of me online. I’ve provided pictures—but I think with that book, I cut my hair. I had a relatively short haircut. I felt like that picture was not following a stereotype. I did feel like one of the things I was trying to do, whether it’s talking is break through that as we said earlier. So I thought they really wanted a photo and I thought, “Well, if they’re going to use a photo of me, I should do something interesting here.” So I tried to use one that didn’t fall into what I guess a stereotype would be. I think now, I’m not interested in my picture being on any of my books, whether they address native issues or not because I mean people can find a picture of me, they know what I look like. But also, I am really interested in the work standing on its own. That essay, part of that was part of The Removed. That whole piece from conjunctions. Some of it is a little bit embellished. That’s not entirely non-fiction. Some of that is fictionalized a little bit. But part of what I think drew me to writing, I think that piece was the interest in finding the old reference to the old traditional Cherokee stories, my interest in mythology, my interest in how those stories found their way to Oklahoma, how they have impacted my ancestors, my family members and ultimately, how they influenced me. The truth is I didn’t really know my grandfather at all. That’s not an entirely truthful piece.
DN: Yeah. Is the notebook a real book?
BH: The notebook is not one that my grandfather kept. I’ll say that. Again, I didn’t really know my grandfather. I don’t like to talk about my life too much. But I can say that my book came out of a very strong interest in learning more about my family.
DN: So the sections in the book that are Tsala, are they connected to what you’ve been exploring about your own family history?
BH: Not so much because so much of Tsala’s story to me is a ghost story. I wanted to write a ghost story. One of the things Santee and I talked about was the interest in wanting to know so much about the ghost here in my book are the questions that we don’t ask of Hamlet’s father’s ghost or Shakespeare’s ghosts. [laughs] I think there becomes an interesting conversation in why the Native American ghost becomes more fascinating too to non-native people.
DN: Yeah, I mean I wonder if it’s connected in a similar way to the Magical Negro phenomenon whenever you see the positive, powerful black person in a movie. Like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost is somebody who wields these magical powers and isn’t really fully a dimensionalized human being even when it’s a positive portrayal.
BH: We can continue to blame Hollywood for their portrayal of these things. One of the reasons Marlon Brando refused the Best Actor Oscar in 1973 was because of the way that Hollywood was not portraying the American Indian. What Hollywood figures out there can native kids look up to? That continues to bother me. I have two sons. What native actors can they look to on the big screen? Who they can look at as a role model? What athletes out there? And part of this book is I make reference to Jim Thorpe—again, playing on the stereotype, the idea of stereotype—Jim Thorpe being arguably one of the best athletes ever having played professional baseball and football, then got his olympic gold medals taken away because he was receiving money for professional athletes. Wes Studi, he’s a Cherokee as I am. He’s a native actor. But there aren’t too many. [laughs] There certainly aren’t any young ones. Since 1973, you would think it was something as bold as Marlon Brando’s refusal of it and giving the finger to Hollywood which was such a wonderful great thing that he did. Sacheen Littlefeather, who’s still alive and still writing by the way, getting booed. I think the crowd was probably booing Marlon Brando. But Tommy Orange writes about that a little bit or has written about that moment. But it’s such an important moment, yet this is almost 50 years now since that moment, I don’t know that anything’s changed.
DN: Yeah. It doesn’t seem that way. I would love to have you read one of the Tsala sections. But before we do, I just want to say I’m impressed by the way you seduced me with that notebook story as truth based on my own, whatever biases I’m coming to about what I want to read as the ghost in the Cherokee story versus the ghost in Shakespeare to the point where I’m completely credulous about what you wrote.
BH: I know I’m being a little bit of a trickster there.
DN: I like it. [laughter] I think it’s great. In a way, it makes me complicit as a reader, maybe, you’re playing into the stereotype around your own journey as a writer in that story.
BH: A little bit, yeah. This may be revealing that secret here because I haven’t admitted to that yet until this show. [laughter] But yeah, that’s exactly right. That idea of playing into that.
[Brandon Hobson reads from his new book, The Removed]
DN: We’ve been listening to Brandon Hobson read from his new book The Removed. In your ambiguously fictional essay, [laughs] you say that you always believed that the Cherokee tradition was like interesting myths. Then after finding this notebook which may or may not exist, you were trying to live based on Cherokee traditions going forward. But what I wanted to ask you about isn’t that. I wanted to ask you about vocabulary and your feelings about different vocabulary in terms of the way reviewers or readers approach your last two books. First, thinking of the word “myth” but I’m also thinking about how the white foster parents in Where the Dead Sit Talking want to make Sequoyah comfortable by constructing a teepee even though the Cherokee never had teepees. I suspect some of the ways labels have attached themselves to your work have been equally well-meaning and yet inaccurate. The most common way I see this book framed is a book that is utilizing and exploring Cherokee folklore, but I also see people talking about magical realism or simply magic. I wanted to hear your thoughts about the terms mythical and mythology, magical realism and magical, and folklore. Are some of these more acceptable or more problematic to you in your mind?
BH: No. Magic is problematic. It’s a little cheap way of talking about it. Certainly, folklore and mythology don’t bother me at all. The teepee, I put that in Harold, the foster dad who’s non-native. I put that in on purpose. Yes, Cherokees did not live in teepees. The reason I had him build a teepee is to show in his own clumsy way that he’s trying to connect at the end. He’s a well-meaning foster dad, again, falling into stereotypes, we have these native foster kids so maybe I can help you build a teepee in a clumsy way. Maybe I am trying to poke fun a little bit. I’m glad you caught on to that, a lot of people didn’t catch that. But that’s certainly what I was doing, is trying to show how easily people fall into stereotyping. They’re all stories basically and stories, whether they’re real or whether they’re not real. I can be offended by something in the Bible, for example, or something in a religious text. There might be something that I don’t think is literally true but that still has power on me. If there’s a biblical story for example that maybe I feel like, “Oh, it’s an exaggeration,” but it can still be meaningful to me. A lot of the stories in mythology, they don’t necessarily have to be completely true, they can be embellished. Ultimately, what do we come away with? Some kind of understanding about the human condition or something about how we live in this world, and how we treat each other. That’s the importance of storytelling and a lot of what I’m trying to do in The Removed.
DN: Yeah. One of the reasons why non-native readers might inappropriately reach towards the word magical versus mythical is that there’s a lot of signs within the book that seem to suggest an active hidden meaning to the world, perhaps with no one more than the foster child, Wyatt, who the Echotas take in and which you describe some of the things that happened earlier, you described it as miraculous. The foster situation is super different than in your last book, a white foster family with a Cherokee child and this one has a Cherokee family taking in a Cherokee child. But Wyatt coming into their lives causes them to think very much of Ray-Ray, but there are also many things about Wyatt that make him and his appearance seem almost uncanny to the Echotas, so much so that the father believes that he is in some ways the return of Ray-Ray. Things start to happen to people, as you mentioned for instance the father’s reversal or at least temporary reversal of some of his memory loss that seems almost miraculous. I was hoping maybe you could just talk to us a little bit more about Wyatt. You give him a lot of signifiers that make him seem like he’s removed from the contemporary world, which also imbues him with a certain sense of meaning.
BH: Those sections are from Maria’s point of view.
DN: That’s important to say.
BH: I think that Maria also holding on to this idea of hope and spiritual healing that, in a way, is unreliable, of course, but again, we’re only getting that through her perspective. It’s not me, the author, or the third person, omniscient narrator, or anything. It’s through her own perspective. Part of that is as she clings to that such heavy grief, I was trying to show that she’s in some ways just barely hanging on 15 years of watching her husband decline, her son decline, and not having her oldest son even there has completely just bombarded her with such heavy grief. There’s this hope that anything as slight as a memory that he shares starts to feel miraculous. Hanging on to that possibility of hope, is he somehow coming out of this terrible disease? The way his deterioration of the mind, is he coming out of that? If so, what’s contributing to that? It has to be something with this boy, the Wyatt coming in, and being very different. I wanted him very different from Sequoyah because Sequoyah is very sad and brooding, dark, and unsure of who he is. Wyatt is coaching the football team, he’s even reffing it. He’s organizing these guys over here and you guys over here do this. He’s very outgoing, very animated, and theatrical. They see Ray-Ray in him. That idea of, “Is it just her or is it something more?” That ambiguity I like that I’m playing with.
DN: Given that you portray these two very different foster care situations and how fraught foster care has been for native children—going back to the founding of the Indian boarding schools, I was looking up the founder of the Carlisle Industrial School who coined the phrase “kill the Indian to save the man” and your long time work as a social worker for many years—can you speak into the ways in which you see the foster care system, particularly through the lens of native children and the outcomes that you’ve seen, or challenges that you’ve seen with the foster care system in that regard?
BH: Based on my own experience, especially long-term foster care that native kids feel in their community and within their tribe, they thrive very well in that way, but I’ve seen native kids in non-native foster care that did just fine, urban, when I was working. I worked in and lived in more of an urban area closer to Oklahoma City which is away from the Cherokee nation. It’s a little bit different. There are many native kids out there, especially short-term and older teenagers are so hard to find a foster placement with. The Indian Child Welfare Act allows native kids to be placed with other native communities. Part of that was I wanted to show the mix of cultures there and how they react with one another, their own flaws. I’m always trying to do something different. I’m always wanting to shake the tree a little bit. That was a big part of that book. Seven years, I was a social worker before I went on and did a PhD. At some point, it just became such difficult work and I didn’t have the community of writers around me. I needed a community so I went on to the PhD, that’s really my passion. My mom was a social worker, basically, most of her life. People like her, it’s just astounding that they can do that kind of work. Seven years is a long time. I realized that there are people who have done it for 30 years. It just blows my mind.
DN: Yeah. It was interesting looking at the situation pre-Indian Child Welfare Act. It makes sense to me that narratively, it would be particularly interesting to put a native child in a white foster care family and of course, there would be situations where that would be a good placement. But the statistics were really mind-boggling to me when I was looking up pre-Indian Child Welfare Act. For instance, in the 70s, up to a third of native children were either in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions with 85% of them placed outside of their extended families or communities, which is just remarkable that it would be almost 9 out of 10 that would be placed outside of a native scenario pre-legislation.
BH: Absolutely. It’s just like finding a safe space. When I was in first grade—my dad tells this story because I obviously don’t remember—I had a friend over who was a native. At some point, I went inside for the night, ate dinner, and went to bed. The next morning, my dad woke up and was going outside to go to work. There was my friend who slept on our porch. He had a terrible childhood. Part of the town I grew up in was somewhat urban because it was close to Oklahoma City. But there was a lot of poverty, not just with native kids but with all kids. There became a time where we just need a safe space for this kid. If there’s not a native family, is there a white family for a seven-year-old? My youngest son is seven, and to think how sad it is for a seven-year-old to sleep on a porch somewhere because they don’t want to go home, that’s the stuff that drew me into thinking about being a social worker was how you can make a difference there. But it also informs my writing because that friend later ended up in prison. I wasn’t at his uncle’s funeral but my dad was there, and they brought him, and he was in shackles. He’s just had an entirely sad life. His entire life has been extremely sad. At some point, if you’re in a town like mine, we need a safe place for this kid to go. We don’t care where it is. Is it a white family? Is it a black family? Is it a native who can take this kid in? There was a lot of that going on so I’m not surprised even before the Indian Child Welfare Act because that was probably it, how do we find a safe space.
DN: I want to return again to the craft and to the Rebecca Makkai conversation. She marveled at how much your book contains, at a pretty short length—from foster care to the Trail of Tears, to police brutality, to Alzheimer’s, dementia, to drug addiction—without the book ever feeling rushed or over full or undercooked. She felt like you accomplished this with the way there were these overlays that permeate the present day—the ancestral story and voices, and also the virtual reality of the video game, and the alternate reality of the Darkening Land which we’ll talk about—but part of your answer to her, bringing this up, was your love of attention to the sentence and compressed prose with particular attention to language. You mentioned magazines that I also love—Conjunctions and NOON—which you get published in with some frequency. Furthermore, the experience of being edited by the founder of NOON, Diane Williams, who comes from this Gordon Lish school, with its attention to syntax. I was just hoping maybe you could share anything that comes to mind about the experience of being edited by her—what it’s like, and what you’ve learned from it—given there’s a lot of writers who are listening to this show. She is such a unique figure and engager with language.
BH: She really taught me how to edit by being so thorough with my work and by challenging me to do two things. Number one, to look at how crucial is this sentence? How is this really informing the story or moving the story forward? How is it really telling us something important about the character, or is it just static? Like I said earlier, so much long fiction out there is just static that, to me, feels like it could be shorter. That’s the first thing. The second thing she taught me to do was to really shake the tree and push it, where she says, “This idea, push this idea. This is interesting. Don’t be afraid to push this idea.” Facing, confronting that, I might not have thought of it because there might be some, “Can I do that? Can I say that?” She really taught me that, those two things. For that, I’m grateful. It spills over into my work as I’m working on something. I often think about her. The books I write are generally short. The Removed is 280 pages or something but it’s not like it’s tiny print. Word count-wise, it’s maybe just over 70,000 words or something, which is not a big novel. It’s about an average-sized novel. Certainly, Where the Dead Sit Talking is a little bit shorter than that.
DN: When she was on the show, we talked about something that she’d said, “The sentence cannot be overemphasized, neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not. Missed opportunities are there regardless.” I reached out to her to see if she had a question for you today. Unsurprisingly, she wanted to ask you about a sentence of yours and how you arrived at this sentence. [laughter] It’s a sentence from a short story that is going to be the lead story in the next issue of NOON, which she very happily, for me, sent to me called A Man Came to Visit Us. I was so blown away by the ending of this story, and its power, and how it seems both imbued with meaning and resistant to meaning at the same time. I want to ask you about the ending. Diane wants to ask you about the story as a whole and about the sentence, but my question returns us to the question of “magical” versus more of a true spiritual cosmology, as the story is about a white man who comes to visit a native family and lures the child outside with the promise of something magical. But when the child closes his eyes and holds the magic rock, what happens seems to be something else entirely. That something else entirely both seems wondrous, true, sinister, and deceptive at the same time. You’re not really sure if it’s either or both. But either way, I’ll quote what Diane said to me in the email, and then maybe you can talk both about the sentence she pulls out on the story as a whole. Diane says, “A Man Came to Visit Us is an especially stunning and haunting story, and I would be fascinated to hear anything Brandon can share about its origin, and his experience of writing it. And how did he come up with this inspired line, for instance, ‘outside the full moon looked like a big white fist in the sky.’”
BH: Wow. I’m afraid anything that I say will come as a letdown after you’ve built up that story. [laughter]
DN: It’s so good really.
BH: Thank you. That email from the brilliant and mentor to me, Diane Williams, who by the way, deserves a MacArthur Genius Award because she’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s such one of the honors of my life, it’s been getting to know her, and working with her on my work. The big white fist in the sky very much comes out of the idea that the universe is against this kid. As he looks up in a way to the sky for help after this horrible experience with this white man—who came to visit in the middle of the night, who dragged him, who lured him in a very mysterious, and deceptive way—he looks to the universe and the universe shows its fist.
DN: [laughter] If I could be sitting at your feet learning storytelling, I wish you could teach how you pulled off that ending which does feel like an amazing act.
BH: Do you mean the dialogue after that?
DN: No, the juxtaposition of two things that seem incompatible with each other.
BH: Oh, you mean the moon and the fist?
DN: No, what he sees when the boy closes his eyes holding the so-called magic rock, and then what you’re allowing the reader to imagine might actually be happening instead.
BH: Yeah. Allowing ourselves to really access those parts of ourselves, I don’t know how to explain it really.
DN: Yeah. Part of what’s so great about that ending is, I don’t think you can explain it as a reader either and I don’t think that’s a flaw. It’s held in a place of paradox and contradiction that is very evocative but can’t be reduced to comprehension.
BH: Thank you.
DN: That’s what I love about it.
BH: That means a lot that you say that and that Diane asked that. It really does mean a lot to me. I’ll say this, she challenges me, and I think writers should be challenged to really look deep inside themselves, and explore the darkness as much as they can, or their fears. She’s taught me that.
DN: I want to ask you a question around your writing and your influences, in light of questions of authenticity. When you were talking with Santee, you talked about your fears of not being native enough to write what you wanted to write, to tackle some of the material you wanted to tackle, and Santee pointed out how these authenticity narratives from the question of how much are you, or how native are you, to the measurement of that, and the quantification of that by blood, are all the results of a colonial overlay. It made me think of this controversy from 30 years ago between Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich when Silko was reviewing some of Erdrich’s early books from the 80s in a very pointedly critical way. I’m thinking about your interest in Diane Williams and Christine Schutt and also in William Vollmann and Roberto Bolaño. The latter two, I think, feel like influences in The Darkening Land sections which I want to talk about after this. I was reading an article called Postmodernism, Native American Literature and the Real by Susan Perez Castillo. Castillo looks at Silko’s uneasiness at influences on Erdrich’s work that Silko seemed like, “academic, postmodern, so-called experimental influences” and they were ones that foregrounded the interaction of words according to Silko, and de-emphasized their referential dimension and that these influences stay within the language and within the individual mind in comparison to the oral tradition which by nature is shared communal experience according to Silko. Castillo had an interesting critique of that and I’ve seen other critiques of that, too, of Silko’s stance at the time. I have no idea what her stance is now, and that’s what I’m also curious about, but what Castillo says is, “In the field of Native American studies, one pernicious effect of regarding individual groups in a somewhat idealized fashion as threatened bastions of authenticity is that it often results in a reverential, sycophantic approach to Native American texts.” She goes on to critique Silko’s position which she characterizes as a position that characterizes ethnicity as stable and unchanging and falling into a historicism. I’m not one to say but my first impression reading this 30 years later is that the discourse within native American literature has moved far from this position. There seems to be a celebration and encouragement of the differences of approach and of multi-varied influences. But I don’t know if that’s true. I wondered if The Removed gets critiqued within the indigenous literary world from a position of how “authentic” it is, or whether that’s not happening, or if you had any thoughts about this controversy at all but I’m interested if you do.
BH: I haven’t really heard anybody critique it yet so much. My friend, Tommy Orange read it and gave me that wonderful blurb. My friend David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a native and read it and also gave me a blurb. The book certainly does come out of different influences and styles that are based on me as a writer and not so much out of any tradition of thinking about native Americans, American literature, or anything. What was the quote exactly that Silko said?
DN: She was thinking that the academic and what she called so-called experimental influences were imported influences in Erdrich’s work, her experiments with form and that they were suited for an alienated Western mind where the language was the only way people connected. But it seems to me, I wonder if that to view the native identity as being completely not part of a fragmented world, like you say, the portrayal of urban natives versus “Do natives need to be preserved in this authentic pre-colonial state? Are you participating inadvertently in a stereotype by defending the purity of what a native text would be?” Those are the questions that Castillo’s raising about this.
BH: Yeah. Those are questions that we could talk about all after. What I could do is go open a bottle of Scotch. [laughter]
DN: Let’s do it.
BH: I’ll put it on the dark side of the moon. [laughter] We could talk for a long long time about that. Anything that I say here would probably upset someone to answer that question. I don’t know that I’m fit to give a good thorough answer to that except to say, look, I’m just trying to incorporate my own style, my own books in my own way. I’m not trying to necessarily say this is the voice of what a Cherokee novel should be, for example. This is not the defining Cherokee novel or work that should define anything. I just happen to be a Cherokee writer doing my own thing that in this book, addresses violence against natives, certainly, but that’s a really hard question to answer that I’m afraid would come across as me looking way worse than I want to be looked at. [laughter]
DN: I saved my favorite part of the book for last and that is when we are with Edgar the brother who’s struggling with addiction and ends up in a place that is similarly uncanny to the ending of your story on NOON. It seems to be both the site of a live-action video game that involves racist holograms, and which is full of smog and toxic waste and menace. Also a place called The Darkening Land, a place from Cherokee tradition where spirits go and wait until justice is served. It’s an overlay of two things simultaneously. This Darkening Land is also filled with musicians who have died of suicide, from Kurt Cobain to Phil Ochs to Elliott Smith. All of this is cast into doubt what we’re experiencing because Edgar himself is on drugs. Where we are and how solid our footing is, feels very unstable. I imagine this was super fun to write because it’s really amazing to read. I was hoping maybe you could talk about creating this world that feels sinister, contemporary, ancestral, and otherworldly at the same time.
BH: It was the most fun to write as a fiction writer. Science fiction writers get to create their own universe and their own laws. I really talk about, when I talk to students about trying to find pleasure in writing, you’ve got to have fun with it. David Foster Wallace talked about that a lot. He talked that there’s so much joy that should be experienced when writing. This Darkening Land was a place that I could do that. I did put in some pop cultural references in there. You have to also remember this was made especially for Edgar who has an unreliable memory because of his situation, and being on drugs. Entering this place, in a sense, I got to create my own very evil video game and even wrote out the manual for this game which I had much longer and my editor is like, “Okay. This is going on too long. I know you had fun with it,” [laughter] but she let me keep some of it which the Torturous Radioactive Mud Pit going TRMP. [laughter] Making those little jabs that I thought were fun and in some ways, funny because it’s such a dark story that I wanted to put some of that in there. Part of it is Edgar just wanting to go die and finds himself on a train into this underworld, this seventh hell, or this darkening land and happening to see an old classmate here. This guy turns out to be as evil as any of them. Jackson Andrews is making this game based on the stereotype. Jim Thorpe game, “You look like Jim Thorpe. You’re native. Here, hold this basketball and dribble it, and let me film you doing these things. I’ve got these holograms of your brother.” Part of that all fits into Edgar thinking, “Am I going to die in the same way that my breath died by shooting?” Those fears, throughout the book, Sonja, at some point, finds herself in a violent situation. Part of the mythological Darkening Land also was for me to play with, I really got to play with some surreal imagery, and think about climate change, and think about people coughing dust, and they’re walking ghost-like. This is like Tsala sections in a way kind of a ghost story. He’s not reliable as he tells us those. As a fiction writer, you can just go wild with that. Ottessa Moshfegh is really great at writing the unreliable narrator. She’s one of my favorite young writers out there who’s doing some interesting stuff and has always done interesting stuff. I really enjoyed that.
DN: Me too. Sometimes the moments were both terrifying and hilarious at the same time.
BH: It’s that balance. I’m interested in the line between terror or even sadness and humor. What’s terrifying and what’s just to be humorous. What’s sad and what’s humorous. It comes out of that anxiety about are we supposed to laugh at this or am I supposed to be terrified because this is terrifying or really sad? As a recipient of art, I like being challenged in that way. I like watching something, reading something, looking at something in terms of art, and thinking. I’m challenged here as I find other people are laughing, but I’m finding it extremely sad or vice versa. What does that say about me?
DN: Yeah. It’s a very transgressive and dynamic place.
DN: I want to ask you about doubling in your work at large because we get a lot of doubling here obviously, not just virtual reality and holograms, or Edgar or Sonjam, both siblings, fearing they’re going to end up with the same fate as Ray-Ray, or so many different people in the book seeming like doubles of Ray-Ray, or overlays of Ray-Ray, or the two homes of the Cherokee people before and after removal. But there’s doubling everywhere—in Deep Ellum, there’s a replica of New York rebuilt in Texas, in Desolation of Avenues Untold, there’s an elusive lost film reel of Charlie Chaplin which may or may not be a sex tape and the main character unrelated to Charlie Chaplin is named Chaplin, and there’s a Michael Stipe look-alike who has seen the sex tape, a transvestite named Echo, and the siblings in both Deep Ellum and Where the Dead Sit Talking have an uncanny connection to each other. What is this attraction to the double and the doppelganger?
BH: The simple answer is that comes out of my fascination with reading Nabokov, probably, and being a huge fan of his work. That’s the simple answer. In some ways, I’m fascinated by what it says about culture or about identity. With Desolation of Avenues Untold, that’s more of an experimental novel. That was actually my creative dissertation at Oklahoma State when I was doing my Ph.D. I wanted to do something really quirky, fun, and experimental so I wrote that book. I don’t know how many copies there are but I’m guessing it’s in the double digits, maybe it’s triple digits. [laughter] There aren’t too many out there, I can say that. It went out of print very quickly, but very small press. I’m avoiding answering the question because I’m just fascinated by, or at least in that book, how people see themselves and others, and how they see themselves in other things. They want to see the sameness in the other, they want to see things that are alike, that idea. In terms of nativeness, every tribe is very different. The non-native culture generally thinks when you’re native, you must be like every other. All native people have the exact same beliefs but that we don’t all look alike. We all have different upbringings, we all have different beliefs, and each tribe is very different. For The Removed, in terms of that doubling and thinking more about that, not so much with Desolation.
DN: I wanted to end with another doubling, and that is also a doubling about goodbyes. Wyatt the foster child with the Echotas who reminds everyone in different ways of Ray-Ray. At one point, Wyatt says goodbye using a Latin phrase that means hail and farewell, and it’s the same phrase that Ray-Ray used the night before he died. I had my own theories about it but what significance does this phrase have for you?
BH: The Latin?
DN: Yeah. That you give it this unlikely synchronicity to the two boys?
BH: Again, I wanted to draw attention to language. Here’s Latin. It’s not Cherokee, they’re not saying goodbye and hail. They’re not saying that in Cherokee. They’re saying it in Latin. You can’t just draw attention to the idea of separateness and sameness. Again, I’m very interested in ambiguity and what they want to believe.
DN: Was it not connected to the Roman poet, Catullus?
BH: That’s where the phrase came from.
DN: The way I went with it was that poem is addressing his dead brother who was taken prematurely. The reason why I know about it is only because of Anne Carson and Knox, where supposedly, this poem is nearly untranslatable. It’s considered an untranslatable poem. She uses her attempt and failure to translate it as a connection to the untranslatable grief of losing her own brother.
BH: You’ve really done your homework here and you’ve become the best. [laughter] I’m not able to pull any tricks off with you because you’ve dug deep, David. Yeah, that’s where it all came from. That’s the particular phrase. Absolutely. I thought about it because of the idea of the dead brother, basically.
DN: In a way, you could see Wyatt saying those words to Ray-Ray across time, saying hail and farewell or as another translator puts it, “I salute you and goodbye,” or as Anne Carson translates it, “And into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.” As we go out, can you talk about what you’re working on now, or do you need to keep that in a hermetic place?
BH: I can say this because I have two things that I’m working on right now. One of them is for younger readers. That may not sound very exciting to people but it may be the only thing I do for younger readers, for kids that I’m doing, fiction. That will happen. That will come. Then the other thing is a novel which is too early in its stages for me to note, or to talk, to say anything about. But I’m excited by what I have begun with that novel. I’m excited about both. I’m always wanting to do something different, something new.
DN: How about this? When you did your Lit Hub interview and you just gave one-word answers like you’re supposed to, could you give us some words about that novel, just one word, a list of one words?
BH: Let me just say this. There’s an excerpt of it in the most recent Conjunctions.
DN: Okay, great.
BH: It’s called, Yonder Shines The Big Red Moon Over The Devil’s Lost Playground. That’s the title. It’s a very long title.
DN: That’s a great title.
BH: That is an excerpt from what I’m working on. You’ll see a lot of the same things as you see in The Removed, more Darkening Land stuff, the weirdness for now because that’s where I feel the best as a writer. The Book-of-the-Month Club readers who aren’t necessarily jiving with what I’m doing, they’re not going to like the next one so much because it’s a little bit more on the weirdness scale.
DN: On the William Vollmann side of things?
BH: A little bit more on the Vollmann side. I don’t know if I mentioned him, he’s been an influence on me as well. The thing is that his stuff is long but there’s some long stuff that doesn’t feel staticky or unnecessary. He’s absolutely brilliant. Wallace, and [inaudible 1:51:04], and Pynchon are three, I think Silko too, they can write these really big books and they’re just like, “Wow.” They’re very difficult and strange and smart, funny in places. It’ll probably be a lot before. I’m doing the young readers’ book first which I hope will be fun, too. It’ll be fun.
DN: Yeah. Thank you for being on the show today.
BH: Thanks, David. I appreciate it.
DN: We were talking today to Brandon Hobson about his latest book The Removed. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was not recorded at the studios of KBOO, but at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Brandon Hobson’s work at brandonhobson.com. Brandon adds a reading of his new story from NOON magazine, A Man Came to Visit Us, for the bonus audio archive—joining bonus material from Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Carmen Maria Machado, Richard Powers, Jenny Offill, and many more. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter of Between the Covers at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so by PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team. You make this show run as smoothly as it does—Elizabeth DeMeo, Alyssa Ogi, Spencer Ruchti in the book division, Jakob Vala in the art department, Yashwina Canter in publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the summer and winter Tin House writers workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating this outro. Their album, Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie, can be found on iTunes, and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.