David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by The Blue Suit. In a world full of stuff, what do we choose to hold on to? Created by award-winning poet, Shin Yu Pai, The Blue Suit is a podcast about commonplace objects and the people who transform them into something remarkable. From a Chinese-English dictionary passed from father to son, to an old Califone playing records left behind by Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II, The Blue Suit showcases modern-day artifacts of Asian-America and re-examines what gets elevated to heirloom status. Start listening by searching for The Blue Suit wherever you get your podcasts. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s What We Fed to the Manticore; a debut collection of nine stories all narrated from animal perspectives which explore themes of environmentalism, conservation, identity, belonging, loss, and family with resounding heart and deep tenderness. Says Claire Comstock-Gay, “What We Fed to the Manticore is a work of incredible imagination and daring, asking us to recognize the inner lives of whales, donkeys and pigeons to be as complex and deep as our own. The stories in this collection are gorgeously written and richly emotionally textured; in Talia Kolluri’s hands, the familiar world we live in comes freshly to life.” Adds Aimee Nezhukumatathil, “Kolluri delivers a dazzling, daring bestiary brimming over with textured, tender lives. A most magnificent debut!” What We Fed to the Manticore is out on September 6th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. There are some writers I’ve interviewed that, as time has passed, have become much bigger, more well-known writers. Very early in my book interviewing life, back when the show was under 30 minutes and I was still getting my sea legs, I talked with Roxane Gay, with Colson Whitehead. My first ever interview was with Anthony Doerr. When people say, with incredulity, “Your first interview was with Anthony Doerr?” and ask if I were nervous, they don’t fully realize that these authors weren’t household names then, they weren’t so well known that your mom might be reading them, that you might find them in the airport bookstore, that really, I was nervous because it was my first interview, not because of the stature of who I was interviewing. I bring this up because well, of course, this is impossible to predict, I nevertheless feel like today’s guest, Morgan Talty, who is here for his debut story collection, is going to be one of those people; one of those people where I’ll be looking back in 10 years and pinching myself that I interviewed him back then, that we are catching a remarkable writer really early in a likely remarkable trajectory. Either way, whether I’m the next Nostradamus or not, I’m really excited to play my small part in bringing his first book into the world, Night of the Living Rez. Near the end of this conversation, we talk about blood quantum in relation to questions of belonging and native identity. “What does it mean to belong in relation to this colonial racialized construct of blood quantum?” is one of the animating questions of Morgan’s next book, his first novel. Because we talk about this, for the bonus audio, he chose to read for us an essay; an essay he describes as being at the far end of creative nonfiction, almost fiction, one called The Citizenship Question: We the People. This joins an ever-growing archive of supplementary bonus audio. Even just considering some of the contributions by past indigenous writers who contributed, the archive includes Natalie Diaz reading Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, Layli Long Soldier reading a poem written since her iconic collection Whereas, Jake Skeets reading and analyzing Luci Tapahonso’s poem Hills Brothers Coffee, Terese Marie Mailhot reading her essay Native Women Brilliance, Elissa Washuta reading from an essay Apocalypse Pathology, and Brandon Hobson reading a recent short story of his, A Man Came to Visit Us, to name just a few. The bonus audio is just one possible benefit of joining the Between The Covers community of listener-supporters. Every listener gets an email with each episode, sharing the most-noteworthy things I discovered in preparing for the show, the best talks, videos, or pieces of writing by the guest outside of the main book discussed, links to things we referenced during the conversation, and places to explore after you’re done listening. There are a ton of other things: the Tin House featured new release, the Ursula K. Le Guin tribute anthology, Dispatches from Anarres, collectibles donated by past guests and now offered to you. You can check it all out, and much more, at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s program with Morgan Talty.
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, Morgan Talty, is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian nation, received his BA in Native American studies from Dartmouth College and his MFAin fiction from Stonecoast’s low-residency program at the University of Southern Maine where he’s now himself on faculty, as well as recently accepting a position on the faculty of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Talty teaches both English and Native American studies, is the prose editor at The Massachusetts Review. His own stories have appeared everywhere from Granta to Shenandoah, been cited in Best American Short Stories 2020 and 2021, have won the 2021 Maine Literary Award in Short Fiction, have garnered him the 2021 Narrative Prize and the 2022 National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Prose. Talty’s here today to talk about his debut story collection, Night of the Living Rez, out now from Tin House. Not only one of the most-anticipated debuts of the year, but truly one of the most-anticipated books of the year, on all of the most-anticipated and best books of the summer list you can imagine, from The New York Times, to Time Magazine, Book Riot, to The Boston Globe, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Rick Bass declares, “I am not predicting literary success for Morgan Talty, I am guaranteeing it. He is a fascinating and powerful and singular writer.” Jim Shepard adds, “Morgan Talty is a master of the way dependency and pain transition from one body to another; the way both separating and refusing to separate become modes of saving ourselves; and the way, for all of our failures, we never stop doing what we can to provide each other hope.” Past Between The Covers guest, Terese Marie Mailhot adds, “Night of the Living Rez is true storytelling. It’s a book so funny, so real, so spirited and vivid it brought me back to my own rez life and the people who made me.” Finally, Tommy Orange says, “These stories took me in the same way Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son did when I first read it. The comparison here is meant in every way to praise Talty as a writer, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one who says so, partially because of his emotional precision, his stark, unflinching, droll, intoxicating style, and also because of a certain drug/addiction element at play here. But as I got deeper into the work, into the book, and came to understand these lives and this community, the further away it felt from my initial comparison with Johnson, and the more familiar it felt―our Native communities being bound by countless common threads, strengths and afflictions both―and only then did I understand the distinct brilliance of Talty’s voice as its own, and ours. I knew and felt for these people. Wanted to and knew I couldn’t help them, even as they did me. There is so much brutal, raw, and beautiful power in these stories. I kept wanting to read and know more about these peoples’ lives, how they ended up where they ended up, how they would get out, how they wouldn’t. It is difficult to be so honest, and funny, and sad, at once, in any kind of work. Reading this book, I literally laughed and cried.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Morgan Talty.
Morgan Talty: Thank you, David, for having me.
DN: I just have to say that over the last year, whenever your name would come up at Tin House, regardless of which editor it was or whether it was a book designer or a publicist, their eyes would just light up, and there was so much palpable love and enthusiasm for this collection that I found myself coming to it with an unusual amount of anticipation, which isn’t always a good thing as a reader, I think, to have such high expectations and the desire that comes with those expectations, but really your book blew me away and I wanted to start with a congratulations.
MT: Well, thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, I’ve been doing readings and talking with so many people and I tell them all, I’m like, “People read, they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s all these good reviews of the book,’” and I was like, “There’s this lovely one on Amazon that just says disappointing.” I always do that to everybody just so I can have a nice, balanced, everyone has an objective viewpoint here. [laughter]
DN: Well, in the spirit of you saying you’ve been talking to a lot of people, when I looked at your tour and event schedule, my jaw literally dropped. The only thing I could compare it to is when George Saunders’s Tenth of December came out. Right when that book came out, at a time when he was a writer’s writer, a beloved writer’s writer, but definitely not a household name, and then The New York Times magazine ran this cover story with the article, anybody would have died to have written about them with the title George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year and he came stumbling into the radio studio in the whirlwind of the aftermath of that article and he said to me that he just decided that for that year he was going to say yes to everything to fully ride the wave of what was going on. I looked at your schedule and went, “Oh my god” in a similar way. But I’ve also heard you say that you sometimes are teaching seven classes at the same time so maybe this isn’t exceptional for you. How are you holding up so far as this book comes out, but also as you go out with this book?
MT: I’m holding up alright. I had my first leg of my first book tour last week. The week the book came out, July 5th, I did an event at the Portland Public Library which was held at a brewery, had a great turnout. I was in conversation with Gregory Brown, the author of The Lowering Days. Then I did an event at the Bangor Public Library. Then last Sunday, I flew out to Brooklyn, did two events there, and then did two events in Massachusetts, and then I came home Saturday. Yesterday, I was just relaxing and I could feel the tiredness build up a little bit, the exhaustion but I’m still looking forward to all of the events and more have piled up outside of what Tin House has already publicized. But I’ve been enjoying it and I don’t think my course load in the fall will be seven classes, I think it’ll be fewer because I am going to, as Saunders said, ride this wave of book stuff and it’s just been fantastic to meet with booksellers, readers, writers, and young writers. I met young writers, undergraduate students at The Center for Fiction. I was like, “You need to email me, because I just love talking with writers. I love working with writers.” The business side of writing can be I think tiring and very anti-artistic in a way. But I feel like I’m trying to make this as artistic as I can and to fuel my desire to keep writing for the sake of writing.
DN: Well, I’ve been following you on the virtual part of your book tour which I’ve really enjoyed. In particular, and I think most deeply, I enjoyed your conversations with the Osage writer Chelsea T. Hicks, the author of A Calm and Normal Heart, partly because you share some animating questions in both of your books, but you make different choices and explore these differences together in your conversations. But also because the way you talk together was just distinctly different than with the other conversations you’ve had, often with non-native interviewers like me. But I wanted to start first with how you’ve been engaging with this book in relation to the unspecified general public at large. For one, you said it was important for you not to perform indigeneity on the page, not to dance for the colonial gaze, as you’ve said, and I suspect part of the pushback you do in these interviews when asked if these are Penobscot stories or if these stories reflect Penobscot life, when you say that no, these are human stories, humans who happen to be Penobscot, that they don’t represent the tribe, that perhaps this is connected to not wanting to be performative. When you were talking about this with a news station in Maine, you frame it around the notion of David Treuer of what he called exoticized foreknowledge and that it isn’t uncommon that people who are praising your book are falling into the trope of exoticized foreknowledge in the way that they’re praising it. I would love to start here, if you could talk to us about exoticized foreknowledge or what it means for you, and how this intersects, if it does, with the ways you do and don’t want to render characters who are Penobscot on the page in your collection.
MT: Yeah. I think that’s a great place to start. I don’t think about who my audience is when I’m writing per se. I do and I don’t. I think that’s a burden minority writers have, they don’t have the luxury of just being like, “I can write whatever to whoever I want to think about my audience,” and yeah, sure, certain genres with certain formulas, obviously writers think about who their readership is, but I feel like right now, there’s an overwhelming urge from readers I think who want to read diverse literature and I feel like for a very long time, major publishing, major advertising, has tricked people into believing what they want to read based off of this idea of exoticized foreknowledge in a sense, that we all carry certain things we think are true about another culture. That sells when we don’t challenge that notion. I’m reminded a little bit now of that really famous TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She had talked about going to Mexico, I believe, but before she had gone, everything that was on the news was about illegal immigration and all this stuff, and poverty and everything. She was so stunned when she got into Mexico when she got off the plane and she saw that people were smoking going to work, just living, being human beings. She was like, “Basically, I had fallen into the trap of thinking that these people had this single story.” She felt deeply ashamed and it’s something I think we all experience. For me, writing this book, I was like, “I want to focus on these characters as human beings, I don’t want to put culture first.” I feel like throughout the book, I don’t want to make a bet, but I don’t feel like there are any moments in the book where culture comes before their humanity, and doing so allows or disallows the reader from being able to position it that way. But there are still readers who will say, “Oh, this is representative of Penobscot people, this is representative of Penobscot culture,” and that I think says more about how we read rather than how a book is written. I’ve said it over and over again, and you even pointed it out, this is a book just about people who happen to be Penobscot. Anybody can experience these types of addiction and the type of trauma that appears here. There’s obviously colonialism that has affected these people in a particular way. We cannot not think about that.
DN: I was curious about the term so I went looking to where Treuer talks about it. It’s in his book Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, where he talks about an assignment he gave to students in his Native American Fiction class where he has them read a story by Sherman Alexie in which a character is described as shedding “Indian tears”. He asks his students what might Indian tears signify, and then he recounts his students’ responses with sort of an ironic amazement. He characterizes what his students found in the story as the legendary mist of Indian misery. Then he asks, “How does one escape this all-pervading thing, exoticized foreknowledge?” I want to use this question as a lens into your work further, including not only the role of symbols in writing but also working against the notion of native peoples as symbols. But before we step in that direction, using exoticized foreknowledge as a lens, I wanted to, at least in passing, bring up that you have in one story a white film crew filming, and Chelsea T. Hicks has an outsider film crew in her collection, and there’s also this motif of lenses within Tommy Orange’s book as well. I guess I know you say that you don’t think about audience but I wonder about these gestures as connected in some way across your books, that maybe they are animated by similar concerns, anxieties, or inquiries thinking about the lens versus the gaze. I wonder if that sparked any thoughts for you about either this notion of symbol and foreknowledge, or this notion of who’s reading your work or how you want your work to be seen.
MT: I think the notion of the film crews and all of that stuff, interestingly enough, I wrote that story, Night of the Living Rez, in 2015. That was way before There There came out, that was way before Chelsea’s book came out, A Calm and Normal Heart. The film crew was actually in the original story, so it had been on my mind, a lot about this idea of indigenous people being almost caricatures on a television and being symbols of something long gone, this imperialistic nostalgia that non-natives may feel. I feel like it was there subconsciously and when I wrote, I think I tried to nurture it as best I could without breaking the stories and turning it more into social commentary, staying more true to what I consider to be the principles of fiction. When it comes to symbol, for example, whenever I see a symbol start developing in a story, I just run the other way because I feel like if we feed into that symbol from a writing standpoint, I think we begin to miss an opportunity to get to metaphor and then an opportunity to ultimately get to a transcendental moment. The story, I don’t want to say becomes one-dimensional because a story that’s full of symbols can surely be transcendental, but I think it’s just very hard to get there. At the film crew and this idea of visuality, it came down to the scene and it also came down to language usage, the end of Night of the Living Rez, the story version, it’s almost like a curtain coming down, the way it’s described, at least how I visualized it. It was like being very conscious not to over pack the symbol because I think it would have ruined it. I think it would have robbed the story, at least that moment of the emotion, it would have took the focus away from the characters and that tragedy that occurs.
DN: This phrase “Indian tears” that Treuer brings up that is supposed to be a shorthand for what we think we already know about Native American suffering, it makes me think of the ways you’ve spoken toward wanting the book to be accessible and universal about the human condition. For instance, that the addiction you portray, as you’ve said, is something anyone who knows someone struggling with addiction can relate to versus it being a commentary specifically on Penobscot life. But I feel like you do this in a way that is very different than the shorthand, which itself may also be motivated toward trying for broad appeal. The shorthand, I wonder if that even also comes from a desire to be accessible and universal. But what’s interesting to me in reading your book versus hearing you talk about it is the book is very place-based, all of it is taking place on or near the Penobscot Reservation on Indian Island in Maine, but it’s also really attentive to the particulars of the life of these characters who, as you say, happened to be Penobscot. But there are many, many details in the book that arise very particularly from place and landscape but also from language, culture, and intergenerational trauma that seem very specific to who these people are; that the power of the book, even perhaps the way it finds universality or maybe what you’re calling transcendence, is not enriching towards universality but rather from staying very close to the specific.
MT: Yeah. I think there’s that, I don’t know who said it or even if it is a saying, I keep always using it all the time, but it’s like “No ideas but in things” or something like that. Specificity is so important to fiction writing, finding the correct details and using them in a way that they would exist in the real world. If we think of the Indian tears thing, yes, it’s a literal thing but it’s no different than just saying tears, there’s a connotation with it that the reader will make. You can give that line a lot of criticism. You can also, I think, not criticize it in a particular way being like, “Oh, well, maybe this is another way of going about evoking, like you said, that universality.” Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know. I think there are better ways to create emotion. For me, it was always like, “I’m just going to stay in the literal, and use that as a vehicle to get to the abstract.” Thinking about it, I feel like he does that but it’s just the way he used language there that I think I compare it to a cheat code. He put a little cheat code in to get to this emotion. But it is true, so many non-native readers have just these weird expectations about what fiction by indigenous writers might teach them. When I was at Dartmouth College studying, I think it was my senior year and for another course, I just took an introduction to native literature course, and I’d already taken a bunch of them, and it was with Professor Melanie Benson Taylor. She always asks at the beginning, and it’s a survey course so there’s about 50, 60 students in it, and she asks everybody, she’s like, “So tell us where you’re from, what you’re studying, and why you took this course.” This one kid goes, “Yeah, I took this course because I’m really interested in arrowheads,” [laughter] and then she’s like, “Okay, thank you.” Then we went to the next person. But those are the type of answers you’d get. We’re reading Louise Erdrich, we’re reading Stephen Graham Jones, none of them are going to give you a history on arrowheads. People expect some type of insight into being native with these books and I think that’s true that there is an insight. Any book you pick up that is written by another person, there is an insight, but I feel like it comes through the shared empathy that we have for being human and that we’re able to connect. Dealing with that universality is a hard thing. I thought about readership throughout the entire time I was writing a book, but not when I was writing. When I’m revising and drafting, I’m like, “All right, am I making any of this stuff performative? Am I making any of this stuff do the things that I am completely against?” I worry at times, I’m like, “Did I? Do I?” and maybe five, ten years from now I’ll look back and be like, “I learned my lesson not to do that, not to write in that way.”
DN: In the spirit of how much you attend to the particulars and the specifics, not to tour us or to satisfy curiosity, but to orient us to the material of this book, could you talk a little bit about Indian island as the place setting of this book and then introduce us to David who lives there?
MT: Yeah. The book is set on the Penobscot Indian Nation which is in real life, I think it’s a three-by-two mile island that sits in the middle of the Penobscot River and it’s where I grew up, ran through the woods, and all this stuff. All the stuff you see David doing as a boy in the book being outside, that’s what my friends and I used to do. In the book, it’s pretty much the same place. I think I expanded the place a little bit and added places that don’t exist just for safeguards for future works in case I wanted to keep building this place. The book is set there and the book focuses on David. It’s told first person and we meet David at two points in his life: we meet him as a child and we meet him as an adult who goes by Dee. Then the stories alternate. There’ll be a story told by Dee, there’ll be a story told by David, a story told by Dee, story told by David. They’re all short stories that are intended to stand alone and have, I think almost all of them have been published as short stories, they’re all connected in that way that they share the same narrator and character. But by the time you get to the third or the fourth story, there’s this question that emerges, “What happened?” Because you realize Dee is David, and because David is such a really good-natured boy and he’s as good as a boy can be and a child can be, and Dee is just the complete opposite, you’re like, “How did this happen?” It’s really a story about David and his family, his mom, his stepdad, Frick, his sister, Paige, his grammy, his friends JP and Tyson in the David stories, and then Fellis and his mom Beth in the Dee narratives. It’s really just this legacy of this character’s life really. By the final-final story, it’s David looking back, way back, so many years have gone by and he tells us one final story. It’s Dee and David all the way through and it’s just an attempt, I think the synopsis on the book jacket leaves out this line, but at the top of the line, on the top of the synopsis anywhere else, it says, “How do the living come back to life?” That’s really at the heart of this book is how do people who are suffering and struggling to live come back to life in order to overcome those difficulties?
DN: That’s really well said. As a writer, it’s interesting hearing about how originally you just had David stories, they were all organized chronologically, and you felt like the book was not very good, and that stumbling upon a character named Dee and then later realizing that Dee could be and then ultimately becomes an older David, and then this jumping back and forth between the younger and the older David really added something to the book. I wondered about your thoughts about that because given that we’re talking about the mysteries of, say, finding the universal within the specific, I also think about this gap between time periods that we keep leaping back and forth across and wonder if this is the place for the reader within that absence. Because this is where we ask, as you suggested, how did Dee, the older version of David, become this way? It’s interesting how I think the non-written, in a way, feels like it becomes the engine to want to keep reading, if that makes sense; that we leap over this unspoken part of his life over and over again, but the part that’s not spoken feels like it somehow is the thing that pulls us from one story to the next.
MT: For me, my approach to the short story is that the short story really, I cannot remember who said this, I’m terrible with names, but the short story draws its power from what’s left out. I think in the same way, poetry does. If we look at the spectrum of art, if such a thing exists, you have the novel, the novella, the short story, the prose, poem, keep going and keep going and everything gets more trimmed as we go this way and everything gets even more crucial to get. For me, writing these stories was always like, “Okay, what can I not say but the reader still knows is being said in some way?” It’s affecting the piece, it’s never said, “What happened to this poor boy? but we see it there by its absence,” which I find fascinating and also a very difficult thing to do. I think I got super lucky in just listening to the story and being like, “Okay, I think this is where it wants to go,” and then it being like, “Oh no, I don’t want to go there,” and I’m like, “Well, I’ll start over then and keep trying.” But there’s a lot of power in not saying something on the page. I don’t mean that when it comes to speaking out against something, but I just mean in general, there is a very unique power in just letting something be and maybe not explaining it, and sometimes not even saying something, I think it just forces the reader to think, it forces the reader to not just get sucked up in the story and hinge on every word. It’s like watching TV, TV, everything is just like you filtered through, you’re not really thinking per se. There are books like that that I love, everybody loves to read books like that too, but with this I was like, “I need to write something that readers are going to be like, ‘Okay, I’m reading this but I have to meet the author halfway,’” because I love books that makes me work too. I always trust that the reader’s smarter than I am so I feel like I have to be on my game all the time to try to get it to where I want it to be.
DN: We have a question for you from Rick Bass in Montana, but the audio he sent me sounds a little bit like he’s re-entering the atmosphere on the space shuttle, so I played with it a little bit to try to enhance his voice but he still sounds a little like he’s in a freight elevator in this, [laughter] but this is a question/benediction from Rick.
Rick Bass: Hi, Morgan. This is Rick Bass calling from Montana. So excited about your book. Your story is getting a claim that they are due congratulations. I have been thinking about a question that I would ask you and I think what comes to mind is the prevalence of smoke in your stories. We visited about it a bit in Stonecoast and I was thinking about it this morning, what I like about smoke appearing in your stories is that it metamorphoses, it becomes something other than a symbol. It would be a really easy symbol for it to be just the usual stuff, ephemeral, fleeting, ineffable, etc., an abstraction, a transitory veil between two worlds, blah-blah-blah. The more I think about how many different ways and different times you use smoke, I like that. I like how you use the opposite of the thing sometimes. It’s nurturing, not debilitating, it’s illuminating, not obscuring. Yeah, it’s fun to watch. I think what lies ahead for you is tremendous just from that observation there that you don’t ever let yourself get boxed in and repeat a thing. If you do repeat it, you make it be different which is therefore not repeating. Not much of a question, just a comment, observation. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear it. Keep rocking on with your bad self. Congratulations.
MT: Thank you, Rick, for those kind-kind words and the comments on the smoking and everything. Rick’s just phenomenal. I just love Rick. He’s so sweet, so kind. His work is brilliant. As for thoughts on the smoke, it’s funny because he had mentioned when we were at Stonecoast, we worked together, he was my mentor for two semesters. When we were talking about the collection, he was like, “I would cut out some of the smoking because it’s finally happening in one or two stories but it’ll become, like he said, this thing that’s repetitive and monotonous and just the same thing.” To hear him say now that it’s not, that makes me feel good because I did a lot of work. I listened to him and why wouldn’t I listen to Rick Bass? I remember revising, because smoking, growing up, for me was just always there. My mother had a cigarette lit, my sister had a cigarette lit, my dad had a cigarette lit, people were falling asleep with cigarettes. I’m driving in the car, someone dropped their cigarette. [laughter] One time I was in the backseat of a car and someone flicked their cigarette out the window and it came back in through the other window, went in my shirt, and I couldn’t get it out. [laughter] Cigarettes have just been a huge part of my life so they made their way into the story. It’s just because everybody was smoking. My friends and I would spend three hours figuring out how we were going to steal a cigarette from my mom or somebody else’s mom or dad, and so they just subconsciously had to be there, they had to be there. But then I understood Rick’s point being like, “Okay, everybody’s smoking, how do we make this different?” I remember going through and looking for places like, “Okay, I can cut that, I can cut that.” But then looking for places where I can go beyond the smoking, this activity as just being an activity, I think of The Blessing Tobacco, for example, there’s that extended period where David, after his grammy hands him a cigarette, was thinking about how he should smoke and he’s like, “Should I smoke like Paige who does it this way? Should I smoke like Frick who does it this way? Should I smoke like Mom who does it this way?” I really tried to look for opportunities like that to have the action of something so common define them. It’s interesting, there’s a lot of similarities the way people smoke but there’s also this uniqueness to the way people do it. I met with a friend I read at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Brooklyn on, well, I don’t know what it was, last week, and I met up with a friend who I went to school with at Dartmouth College and I saw her smoking. We went out and she had a cigarette and I instantly was brought back to Dartmouth. I was like, “Oh my god. She still smokes the exact same way she smoked there before.” I’m so glad Rick asked that question because I think this extends even beyond smoking, I think it talks about just the everyday actions that people do. There’s this uniqueness that people put onto things; the way they drink coffee, the way they may hold their mug, the way they may hold their glasses, the way they may hold their vape, all sorts of different things. I think as a writer, it’s so important to look beyond the easy way out like, “Okay, how do I find the right angle to present this at so it’s not just a monotonous repetitive thing but really is characteristic of this person?”
DN: Yeah. Also, he mentions that you don’t make the smoke in the air symbolic. I want to return to you saying that whenever something seems to develop into a symbol, you run the other way. Because some of the things that happen in the collection feel like they could take on the symbolic meaning of allegory. For instance, the opening story Burn, where the character Fellis is so drunk that he falls asleep outside and his hair becomes frozen to the ground, and the only way he can be free is to have his hair cut off. That seems to invite meaning making, but at the same time, you seem, in the way that you particularize everything, just like you said about everyone smoking different or how they hold the coffee cup, the way you particularize everything in the very matter of fact everyday way that things are delivered to us seems to be working against the impulse to take that event as symbolic rather than something that happened. But there feels like there’s this tension, in a good way, between the desire to make some symbolic meaning out of that event, and yet the mode in which you’re writing seems to suggest “Don’t do it.”
MT: Yeah. I like symbol. I think it has its place, it has its opportunities in writing. But I think one of the biggest cons with symbolism is that it simplifies complexion. I’m just defaulting to an example where an English teacher asks the class, “Oh, what does this blue couch mean? Why is the couch blue?” and then you ask the writer why it’s blue and he’s like, “Oh, it’s just blue.” The Great Gatsby, the green light across the way, that symbol, what I like about that one is that everybody’s still fighting about what it means. There is a good example of symbol I think going beyond simplification and somehow creating a sense of complexity in the work. But I think a lot of developing writers and writers who have their first books out, their seconds, their third, we have to watch out for just taking something complex and just symbolizing it because it just puts it in a little package and you can’t talk about it anymore than it just being representative of depression or colonization in that specific moment. You want it to extend beyond that one sentence where the symbol begins. You want it to permeate throughout, at least, that’s my approach to it.
DN: Well, there’s another thing I’m curious about that perhaps is in relation to Rick’s thoughts on smoke, and that was what felt like a recurring theme of rotting, I would say. There’s someone who hides out in a no-longer-used sweat lodge that smells of garbage and there’s the mass die off of caterpillars that cover the streets, that there’s the rotting porcupine, but most notably, the rotting turtle that is crawled under the house to die, the smell of which I think practically becomes a character in one of the stories, or at least becomes the atmosphere and the engine of a story in a really remarkable way. I find myself wanting to read things into this, about nature, about our relationship to the non-human, but I don’t think the story is telling me to do this but it does raise the question about the repetition that I see through these stories, if there’s something that’s attracting you to rotting, I guess, or to the employment of this overpowering non-human smells. Another thing I would just think around it also is just it’s a sense that you use really well, smell in your fiction.
MT: I think my answer to your question might be a bit disappointing, [laughter] because writers always tell you, “You have to employ the five senses.” Of the five senses, smell is the one that I forget the most. I’ll write a full draft and then I’ll be like, “There’s no smell in here.” I feel like I’ve become hyper sensitive to that fact in revision, but then also in first drafts, I’m like, “All right, I gotta throw some smells in here,” [laughter] and for some reason, my sick mind is like, “All right, what smells really bad? Let’s dial it up as much as I can.” But yeah, I think this idea of rotting and decaying, I find fascinating in and of itself just as an idea because everything rots, everything decays over time, just everything does and will. I don’t know. I just find it fascinating, how do we deal with rot and deal with decay, and ultimately, that is also related to death in and of itself, how do we deal with the loss of this thing that was once beautiful but is no longer “beautiful”? But can we find the beauty in this rotting thing?
DN: There’s a character in the book who I would imagine that a non-native reader would most want to be a certain way. Frick, the medicine man, or as Chelsea Hicks calls him, the problematic medicine man. David’s growing up with his mother and Frick is his mother’s boyfriend. He’s not some Stoic man dressed in full regalia and imbued with wild supernatural importance as we might see on any number of TV shows or movies. He’s drinking wine out of a box in his baggy pants, and in one story, he trips as he begins to do a ritual and the sage keeps going out and he has to continually relight it. On the other hand, it is very ordinary in every day and he seems very human and yet it isn’t clear how much he remembers or actually knows in the first place, I think. I guess I wanted to hear a little bit about Frick as a character from you. Surely, you must be aware of the ways people might want to position him in a particular way when you’re writing this medicine man or problematic medicine man character.
MT: Yeah. I think to his character dimension, there is that trope element I think or that stereotypical, “Oh, there’s an alcoholic native guy who’s a medicine man.” But the fact of the matter is that’s a true thing. When I first started writing these stories, and I’ll go all the way back to Rick Bass because he was one of the first few to read these stories a long time ago, and he was like, “Man, Frick’s going to make a great antagonist,” and I had never thought about it that way. It was only until he said that then I started to see readers being like, “Oh, I expect him to be this villain,” and in many ways, he is, but in many ways, I think all of the characters are villains and heroes to certain degrees. With Frick, I was conscious of that. I didn’t want to make him purely evil, and he’s not. He does some bad stuff and some unforgivable things I think, but to me, he’s this guy who is just I think suffering terribly from his past and he’s the way he is because of what’s happened to him. Then he tries to do good and can’t do good. He was just a fun character to work with, and to see his temperament, to see his attitudes, to see how he would step up when you think he wouldn’t step up, to see how he would do something terrible when you would think he would never do something in that manner, but yeah, my relationship with him is I feel like the same with the others, it’s like finding that balance of making them more than just that what people are comfortable with seeing. I think with Frick, he, out of all the characters, is the one that’s the most familiar in a sense but there’s also a very unfamiliar about him too that I tried to aim for.
DN: Your own mom actually had a boyfriend who was a medicine man and like David, you grew up on Indian Island among many other small details that connect the fiction and the nonfiction, but you’re really clear that these stories are, in fact, fiction ultimately, and I can see why this might come up a lot in interviews because of how attentive you are to detail, place, and mood. The stories just simply feel true, and by that, I don’t mean factual, but true in some deeper way to a lived experience. How would you speak to the relationship for you between your fictional stories in this way to your own life? Especially given that you’ve written some really great nonfiction pieces about both your parents, for instance. Were these stories always obviously to be fictional in your mind? Maybe also speak to why did you gravitate towards them as fictions?
MT: There are so many things from my own life that are not in this book, and to write about any of those as fiction, people would have been like, “Well, that didn’t happen.” But it’s true, a lot of people, there is this feeling of truth in it. I visited between Brooklyn and Massachusetts for my book tour. I stopped in Connecticut which is where I was born and I lived there until I was six and I visited my sister who I hadn’t seen since I think my mom’s funeral last year in July. I hadn’t been to Connecticut in 10 years and so I went and saw my aunt and they were all curious. They all loved it. They read the book and my aunt says to me, “I just have to ask, are you on methadone?” [laughter] and I was like, “No, I’m not. I’m not on methadone.” It was so sweet and funny. With the book, I’ll speak first to the Dee stories, with the element of addiction, with the element of lying, stealing, all of that stuff, those types of things that I just have a relationship to growing up, seeing that type of stuff, so it was very easy for me to work with. I did research for the book too. With Earth, Speak, for example, Dee goes for a period of time without his methadone and I had to really look up how long it takes for withdrawal to kick in and stuff. There’s obviously stuff in here that’s all fictional. Earth, Speak is purely fictional except for the opening image with the fog hovering above the trees. That was an image I had written down when I wasn’t driving but somebody else was and I told him to write it down. But the David stories I feel like are a bit more closer to, I don’t want to say nonfiction because there are stories in there that just did not happen, but I wrote those when I was just a young writer. Like I said I wrote Night of the Living Rez in 2015. That was seven years ago. That was the first story I wrote for this collection. Young writers tend to gravitate toward what they know, who they knew, who they know, and they change the names and stuff like that. The David stories are in that realm of me being a young writer, and Dee stories, I was also a young writer but I had matured a lot more when I started writing those. The interesting thing with this story collection is because it’s not a novel, it’s interconnected and I worked on the stories at all various stages, I didn’t write them in chronological order so I had no real allegiance to any type of personal arc of my life. I just was able to dip in and out of things that could have happened and I divert to a couple things. Burn, for example, the native guy who got his hair frozen in the snow is a story that I’d heard from somebody telling me that this guy got his hair frozen in the snow, and I turned that into a piece of fiction. Safe Harbor, for example, is pretty much autofiction all the way up until the part where Dee goes out to his car and runs and leaves and then everything bad happens. Because my mom had bad depression and had her problems. She used to go to these types of places, Crisis Stabilization Units, and I’d go and visit her and we’d have coffee, have lunch, color, and do puzzles, anything, and just hang out. She was always asking me to bring her cigarettes. I was bringing her cigarettes and when I was there, I saw her have a seizure and it was the most frightening thing ever. When I got home that day, I wrote out the whole day that happened, the exterminator that was there, that was walking around checking, all of that stuff was true. I ended at the seizure part and the quote in the story is real, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for,” or something like that, all of that stuff. I noted it all down. It took me a year to get that story right. I went from nonfiction to autofiction because I was like, “I’m going to extend this. My personal life wouldn’t allow me to extend it in a nonfiction center. I didn’t have the talent to do it, to push it in that way,” so I went to fiction. Safe Harbor, which is the story I’m talking about, was never really intended to be a Dee story. It was published in narrative and there was no name in the piece at all, there was nothing that connected it to anything else. That’s one story where I use personal experience. The In a Jar, for example, the jar with the corn, the hair, and the teeth, that was something my sister had found, she was up I think at the Mohawk Reservation and she was dating this guy. I think there was a woman who was jealous and she put corn, hair, and teeth in a jar and put it under the steps. She found it and her boyfriend panicked and everything. I used that as an element in the story. It was picking from these interesting things and then not making it about those things but using them as either background material or vehicles to get to something deeper.
DN: I was hoping you would read a small section from a story called Food for the Common Cold that features Frick in a disagreement with David’s mother that I’d love to unpack with you afterwards.
[Morgan Talty reads from his debut collection of stories, Night of the Living Rez]
DN: We’ve been listening to Morgan Talty read from his debut collection of stories, Night of the Living Rez. Part of why I wanted you to read this was because of Frick but also because of the debate over the headstone. I want to hear your thoughts about this impression of mine but I feel like another choice you make is to focus more on internalized colonization on the Penobscot Reservation than actually having white character antagonists; that this headstone debate or how jealous Dee and his best friend, Fellis, feel toward the drug dealer who’s getting off the rez and going to medical school, or when they decide to rob the tribal museum because of how much they see a club going for on the antiques roadshow—which is one of the funniest moments, when there’s the headline in the paper Native Man Steals History—that in some respects, you’ve decided to look at colonization that’s been brought within as a matter to just get on with life. The impossible situation of living is involving some of this internalization. But I wondered if that rang true to you and if that was actually a conscious choice to stay with these characters and the antagonism that’s been brought within them rather than having actual characters that were from outside, that would be performing the same function.
MT: It was, yeah. I think earlier I talked about this cowboy Indian-type narrative and I really wanted to, I don’t know if it was consciously in the beginning, I think consciously I set out, I was like, “I just want to write native folk, native people dealing with life, dealing with the consequences of this stuff.” When I write, revise, and edit, I’m so focused on character, I’m so focused on emotion, but I eventually get to a point where I’m like, “Okay, I wonder what’s this saying. If I were a reader, how might I read this passage?” That definitely came into play, looking and finding those ways to make sure I was still doing everything I wanted to do and not abandoning that for some type of commentary. But I think it’s something that’s starting to emerge I think in indigenous fiction, or I hope is emerging in indigenous fiction, is this conversation about the way colonialism has forced us to treat one another as opposed to how we have to respond to white people, how we have to deal with imposed white restrictions. There’s a couple non-natives in the character and I think the only one that really has any bearing is Marla in The Name Means Thunder who actually has some action in the story. But even then, we see a huge contestation from the entire family toward her. Even then, when we see a non-native coming to the scene, to further extend how colonialism is working, we have this huge pushback by these indigenous people being like, “Nah, we’re going to do what we’re doing even though you screwed us up,” basically.
DN: One of the things that Chelsea Hicks remarks upon is that you both have notes at the end of your books about your use of indigenous language within your work, but you both take different approaches. She doesn’t explain to her reader, when they encounter non-English words, what they mean. You sometimes do, and other times I think you let the context suggest what a word might mean. But one thing you go into in your note at the end is how Penobscot is traditionally an oral language and that you put the Penobscot words in the book phonetically, not as how they’re written in the Penobscot alphabet. You do this because of your desire for it to be accessible; that both Penobscot and non-Penobscot would encounter and be able to say the words the same way because we’re encountering them phonetically. But I wondered if there were other factors as well other than the accessible. For instance, to prepare for today, I listened to some Wabanaki radio, the Dawnland Signals radio program. I also listened to a really interesting interview with Carol Dana on the Mainely History Podcast about her becoming a Penobscot language teacher. She talked about the rupture around the language under the rubric of kill the Indian to save the man that largely destroyed the Penobscot language and where you were punished if you spoke it; that she learned it by approaching elders but also by hanging out with nearby tribes to hear them speak their languages. I read elsewhere that the last fluent speaker of the dialect of Eastern Abenaki that the Penobscot spoke historically, that person died in the 1990s; but that the language is very similar to the languages of the other members of the Wabanaki Confederacy who also spoke Algonquin languages so that Carol Dana could listen to these other tribes and hear proto-Algonquin root words from which Penobscot words were derived. She also talks about Frank Siebert who she described as an eccentric German with questionable hygiene who recorded Penobscot being spoken in the 1930s and is the person who made the first Penobscot dictionary and developed the written alphabet, and who also helped Carol. She described him as racist and sexist and also how he could be really possessive of the language he claimed to have made, and yet she took what she could to use for her own people. But she said there were people who resisted the alphabet because of him and that the language needed to be decolonized in other ways. For instance, notions of good and bad in the language were probably imported as there were no such value judgments. She mentions figures like Gluskabe who appears in your book who were sometimes referred to in written form as a liar, which she thinks comes from Christianity rather than from the actual stories. But of course, I want you to push back if I’m getting things wildly wrong, but this is also my way of wondering if it’s ultimately more than accessibility to make the words phonetic, if using the phonetics isn’t just about making things easier but may actually be a more accurate way to portray the way the language both is and isn’t alive today for Penobscot people, to portray the presence and the absence of the language, and maybe even has something to do with the skepticism around the origins of the written language.
MT: Yeah. It was for accessibility but it was also a historical marker in a way. I didn’t know how to use the alphabet system and so when I first started writing, I just spelled stuff phonetically. I don’t know if it was before Tin House bought the book, it was somewhere around that time, but for days I was thinking, I had this difficult decision to make, I was like, “Do I spell these words as they are spelled within the alphabetic system that’s used, or do I go with the phonetic spelling that is true to how I know the language?” The accessibility question, it was there. I don’t think I necessarily went for it entirely to be accessible but I think I’m thinking about a lot of Penobscot people who don’t know the language, who did not grow up on the reservation, who did not take classes, who may not have been around this type of these words, the words that appear in there. I’m pretty sure every word in there has the explanation of what it is, and in a way, I think for me—and this was just my stance and this is not any criticism towards any indigenous writer who chooses to just put the language there and have no definition—but for me, it was an opportunity like what if a young Penobscot boy is reading this book and he’s 15, 16, 17, he lives in the city, he’s an enrolled member or a descendant but he’s never encountered this stuff? If I were in those shoes, I feel like I’d be ecstatic to be able to pronounce a word that my ancestors said and also to know what it is. That was another reason why I chose to go with the phonetic was because I didn’t want to exclude people who didn’t know it, people who didn’t know how to say [Penobscot language] any of these words, if all they learn is poop and fart and shut up and sit down, that’s great, that’s reclaiming language.
DN: Yeah. It sounds like a good foundation to begin.
MT: Literally, yeah, everybody wants to learn the bad words before they get on to learning the other stuff.
DN: [laughs] For sure. As you thought about inclusion of Penobscot words, did you find yourself discovering more Penobscot words?
MT: Yeah. This is actually super interesting. The person who I believe worked with Carol and some other people, I was really young at the time, was a linguist named Conor Quinn who I think teaches at the University of Southern Maine. I think he did his whole PhD around the Penobscot language. He’s a great guy. He came to my reading in Portland and he came up and we were talking. I was telling him, I was like, “I found myself at times drafting and writing and typing out phonetically what I thought was a Penobscot word.” I was like, “Wait, is that a Penobscot word or am I just making that up?” I would email or Facebook message Carol Dana or Gabe Paul who also teaches the language and be like, “Is this how you say this?” and they’re like, “Yeah.” I’m telling Conor, I was like, “It was almost like I had buried in my subconscious this language that I don’t remember ever hearing [Penobscot language] which means come in. I don’t remember ever hearing that yet I knew it. It’s very surreal.” He’s like, “Yeah, the language is there, it’s just we have to awaken it in a sense.” I did find myself learning a lot more of the language because there is a Penobscot dictionary online and so I would type in something and I would see root words and different conjugations of verbs and stuff so I started teaching myself certain words. I never went to it being like, “I’m going to throw more words in here to make it authentic Penobscot,” throwing Penobscot words in there but I definitely did. It was a huge learning thing. I think I even say in the end that I have to be a better student, wanting to learn more, and use it more.
DN: Yeah. In my preparation I also came across a New Yorker article called The Passamaquoddy Reclaim Their Culture Through Digital Repatriation. It was about recordings made by anthropologists of the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot’s neighbors in the 1890s which were the first historical field recordings, but they were held for the next century by Harvard and lost to the tribe, that one wax cylinder had a funeral ceremony that was only intended to be heard within the community but which was made public through Harvard, and that some of the cylinders had registered facts about the Passamaquoddy commerce or geography that might have been helpful to tribal governments. But also that they contained audio of people’s grandmothers and grandfathers in a language that was increasingly endangered, and then eventually in the 1980s, cassette tapes were sent to the tribe and some elders were able to recognize sounds from their childhood. But what’s interesting for me in thinking about the setting of your book is that the tapes arrive at this really important time for both the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot because they had just successfully done an unprecedented lawsuit against the State of Maine for land seizure, and the money they received to buy back land had allowed for a lot of people to return home for cultural revitalization together. What was amazing to me about this, I’m sure you know all of this, but I just feel like I have to share for the listeners, what was amazing about the lawsuit and the settlement is that really, the Wabanaki Confederacy should have almost two-thirds of Maine. Treuer talks about this too, the Lakota win a similar lawsuit, and the judge agrees that legally, they should have all of the land stolen back. It’s ruled that way but it’s never offered to them back. They’re offered money but in the case of the Lakota, they refuse the money and I think it sits in some holding limbo now, a suspended state. But the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy take the money in and buy land, but it all makes me think of something you’ve said which gets back I think to this question of lenses and gazes, and the question of how to get outside of a certain all-encompassing frame. You said that it’s in regards to always being asked, “Do you still have connections to the reservation?” and how you’ve tried to stop seeing yourself as being different when you’re on or off the reservation, when you’re on Indian island, or where you are now 35 miles away, that really, it all is tribal land, that your thinking of yourself being more you, or more connected on Indian island, is perhaps a colonial construct itself. I don’t know if I’m saying any of this right but I would love to hear what this might spark for you hearing all of this back.
MT: Yeah. I think the word that the supreme court used in the Black Hills case which is the Lakota asking for the Black Hills back, was a transmutation, the action of changing something into another form. Instead of giving the land back, they were like, “We’re going to just keep the land but give you the value of it,” which to date is over a billion dollars that the US would probably have to borrow from somewhere to give to them, and for them it’s beyond the point. The point is that the land is that sense of identity, I really wish I knew, I can never remember the tribe whose language this is but there’s a word “ni” I don’t know how you pronounce it and it’s interchangeable. It means either the self or the land depending on the context. Again, another example of an indigenous language where land and self are just intertwined, you can’t escape it. For Maine in 1980, when these treaties were found, for folks who don’t know, what happened was in 1980, the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet in Maine were only state recognized and they had been just treated like garbage. In 1790, the Congress passed a number of Non-Intercourse Act which were meant for basically if somebody wanted to buy land, it had to go through Congress. You couldn’t make private sales from a state to a tribe. Then when Maine became a state in 1820, they took over all of the stuff from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and from 1820, all the way up until whenever they were making land deals, they’re doing treaties, somebody found all these treaties in an attic, and that led to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act because all of those treaties violated the 1790 and subsequent Non-Intercourse Act. Like you said, it made two-thirds of the State of Maine, technically, legally, not a part of the United States and so they were like, “Oh, my god, we got to do something and figure this out.” Their remedy was, “Let’s give them Federal recognition. Let’s give them $80 million. We’ll call it good, we’ll call it even.” Really, if you read the Settlement Act, it’s garbage, it basically just reaffirms how the state treated us and how they continue to treat us. There’s this line in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act that goes, “All bills or laws passed by Congress,” or something, “for the benefit of Indians will not be applicable to Maine tribes unless specified.” That is messed up. Who, in Congress, is going to write a bill and they’d be like, “Oh, we gotta put the Penobscot people in there too”? No, they say Indian nations, Federally-recognized tribes. But that, the state has used to be like, “Oh, that doesn’t apply.” But then if the Federal government were to be like, “Okay, we’re de-recognizing all tribes,” the State of Maine would be like, “Well, nothing we can do because of the provision.” The Settlement Act is problematic in so many ways. I could go on, there are just so many terrible things with it. But when it comes to feeling a sense of being home for the longest time, this was really like recent, people would be like, “Oh, do you still live on the reservation?” and I’m like, “No, I live 30 minutes away. I go there often to see my family and stuff.” But then I started to realize I’m still on the land my ancestors moved through and the reservation definitely has this big sense of home for me, I think it always will, but it’s almost like I’m beginning to appreciate this land that’s off the reservation, that’s state-owned, that has been reaffirmed by that Maine Settlement Act, it’s indigenous land, it’s land that the Wabanaki people, People of the Dawn, they were the first to see the sun come up. I do always feel a sense of home and people are always like, “Are you’re going to move away from Maine ever?” I’m like, “No, I just can’t. I just feel too connected here.”
DN: You’ve been talked about as the first writer of contemporary Penobscot characters in fiction, who is himself a Penobscot writer writing Penobscot characters. Given that the number of enrolled people in the tribe is around 2,000, that isn’t entirely shocking that that might be the case, but I wondered if you feel the weight of that, and I also wonder if you feel any pressure from other Penobscot. What I’m getting at is that it seems like it’s really common when there’s a significant under-representation of a group, or a significant misrepresentation of a group for the group to want to be seen in a certain way whenever they are rarely represented. For instance, this book, as Tommy Orange alludes to in his Denis Johnson comparison, it’s a wash in drugs and theft to get drugs, Klonopin, pot, methadone, and alcohol and probably the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of cigarettes smoked in one book, you could say, and you have, that this is a pre-existing trope, connected to the trope of the drunken Indian, as you mentioned earlier. I could imagine if you are the first or one of the first or the only high-profile Penobscot fiction writer, that people might say, “Hey, could you lay off on that alcohol in your stories? Or do you have to show or focus on that?” I just wondered if that is something that you’ve encountered like so many people from so many other communities have encountered when they’ve been foregrounded for the first time in some way.
MT: Yeah. When Burn came out in Narrative Magazine, I got an email from an indigenous person, very upset with my choice to depict the doctor as being very negligent of spirit, because in that story, Dee chooses methadone and then the doctor is like, “Well, you can’t do native spiritual practice.” I felt bad writing that. I did, because the doctor on the rez, we talked about it and I was like, “It’s not you. You’d never do anything like that.” I think that’s one of the few moments where it’s very shocking moment I think. That’s the only real backlash I got. I read the reviews on Goodreads and stuff and I see people say this stuff but it doesn’t bother me. But nobody’s been like, “Can you not show us this way?” I imagine there are Penobscot people who are probably displeased with the way this is, I don’t know if displeased with the way it’s written or displeased with the way people are talking about it. I was talking to a friend, she was like, “I’m bummed about how people are framing this book, it’s like a Penobscot experience,” because it’s not. This is a sliver of experience, an indigenous person’s experience on the Penobscot Nation. From my own personal background, my own personal experience, this is the stuff I experienced, this is the stuff I saw, and of course, I’m going to write about it because I have a deep emotional connection to it. But I am never going to try to monopolize the Penobscot experience or try to say, “Oh, this is what it means to be Penobscot.” My hope is that out of those 2,000-plus enrolled members, somebody else comes out with a book that’s completely counter to this one, almost like this book’s antithesis. Because the way I envision it is it’s almost like there’s this huge constellation of stories out there. The more stories we have, the more we have this great dialogue about what it means to be human. I think of anthropology’s approach, anthropology was always I feel like criticized for so long about not being a science because it was so hard to be objective because everything was subjective, personal notes and stuff, but they used intersubjectivity which was, “Okay, well, if we get this person’s viewpoint and this person’s viewpoint, then this person’s viewpoint, and this person’s viewpoint, we’ll get a more objective picture of what it is.” That’s what I hope happens. That’s what I want. I don’t want to be the only Penobscot writer getting a book reviewed in The New York Times. I want several. I want a dozen. I want all of these stories and experiences to be told.
DN: Then your story, as you suggest, will be contextualized differently as among many Penobscot or stories that have Penobscot characters.
MT: Yeah. It can position it in conversation with these books in good ways and probably bad ways as well. It’ll bring about conversations that are hard to have but should be had.
DN: Well, I’m going to propose something else that might be a stretch too. When I think of the title of your collection, the Night of the Living Rez, of course, I think of zombies, of the living dead. But thinking about how the notion of an Indian looms large in the white imaginary as a static, as you said, person from long ago, or a museum relic, as something from the past but something unchanging and not as people and communities that we live with and among that are modern and rural and everything in between, I wonder if the title the Night of the Living Rez is speaking to that and into that. I’m going to bring Treuer up yet again, hopefully, you like David Treuer.
MT: I do, yeah.
DN: Good. Because you sent me down this pathway with the exoticized foreknowledge. But I like when he talks about how natives are always seen as victims of history, never as actors or agents of it, and yet how there is no way an American can understand themselves without understanding the way the country has been shaped in relation to native culture and native history. Or how his own writing was stoked by and originated from seeing how a shooting was being reported on the news at Leech Lake where he grew up, about this tragedy that was happening on this down and out, mired-in-poverty hopeless place. It was always talked about like that when it wasn’t like that at all in his experience, that he wanted to write from a place of plenty, he says; that yes, there was plenty of poverty and plenty of structural violence, but also plenty of love, kinship, and ingenuity. Then in one talk he was giving, he says that in 1890, there were something like 200,000 natives in the United States down from between 15 and 30 million at first contact. But now there aren’t 200,000, there’s five million, and that natives were the fastest growing demographic, more natives in the United States by far than Muslims, for instance; that the story was one really of return of hope, of being present, of being here, and being alive; something the rest of the country seems invested in not acknowledging. One thing that I stumbled across in looking into Maine history was that natives couldn’t vote in the state until 1967. I bring this up not just because I like Treuer’s take but because it makes me think of your collection a lot, this sense of plenty; that the thing we come away with reading your book, I think has to do with plenty: plenty of care between people, because there are tons of fights, disconnections, horrible traumatic things, and impossible obstacles but it also feels like the characters stick it out with each other or stick together. Maybe I’m making this up, but somehow that feels connected to The Living Dead and The Living Rez.
MT: Yeah. I feel like there are a number of ways I can respond to that. I think first, I’m happy that you see it that way, that you see that there’s this care given even among bad situations, fighting, or whatnot. I’m thinking of Burn, for example, where when Dee gets Fellis home, he’s like, “I walked Fellis up the steps even though he looked fine.” Just that tiny little detail of him making sure he could get up the steps even though he could have, he’s still there for him. I think The Living Dead, I think that’s what, in a way, non-indigenous people are used to. If you go to Google Images and you type in Native American, you’ll see a picture of Deb Haaland and then maybe another contemporary person, but then the rest are Western plains, natives, black and white or colored with headdresses on. That has been people’s perception. This thing that is like if you don’t look this way, then you’re not indigenous. If you’re not dressed up, you’re not indigenous. I may just be going on a tangent right now but there was this court case, I think it was in Canada, and the state or whatever it was, was arguing against the tribe saying that the tribe’s traditional rights to hunting and fishing were no longer valid because they were using modern technology. Yeah, it is an absurd claim. I think the other side argued, “Well, if that’s the case, then this courtroom is invalid because nobody’s wearing those white British wigs.” [laughter]
DN: I love that argument.
MT: Yeah. Obviously, the tribe won because it was a ridiculous claim. But look at zombies, zombies are the same. If you think of The Walking Dead, they all look the same. That’s what people know when you say zombie, they have an image for it. I think Night of the Living Rez conjures some of that up a little bit, but then everything in the book I feel is counter to that image. There are definitely people who are “not alive” in a way because they’re suffering from afflictions, but they are alive nonetheless and they are probably way outside of what you may have expected.
DN: Maybe this is related to this question of plenty that Treuer brings up, but I’m not sure, but Brandon Hobson wants me to ask you a question about how you balance sadness and humor, which both feel plentiful. It does feel like we are often laughing at things that are also tragic, that we are feeling the pain of living and laughing within that at the same time. The balancing of sadness and humor isn’t always, “Oh, here’s the funny part,” and then an hour later, “Here’s the sad part.” To me, there’s an interesting way you balance it within the same thing.
MT: I don’t know how I do it per se. I think I try to pay as much attention as I can to the emotion but also to the emotions that may find their way into that sphere. If there’s sadness, is there something that’s going to get them laughing? I feel like everybody’s experienced this in some way. When my mom died, my sister and I were talking and crying, we were also laughing. It was just a strange mix of medicine, both of those two things. Doing it on the page when there’s something sad that happens, it’s really, really trying to not create the emotion as one-dimensional, it’s like, “How can I make this sad but then how can I also make this funny in a way?” Like with Fellis, getting his hair frozen in the snow, that’s actually a really sad thing but it’s also absolutely hilarious, to me, it is anyway. I think it’s just a matter of, again, coming back to this idea of symbol and going the other way, it’s like if we’re going to go down the route of sadness, we also want to go the other way at the same time, we want to see how much we can pack in there when it’s called for, that is, because for me, that’s the type of literature that makes me feel very alive.
DN: When you were on Dawnland Signals Wabanaki radio, the other part of the segment was with an artist Suzanne Greenlaw and master basket maker, Gabe Frey, who wrote a children’s book together called The First Blade of Sweetgrass. They were talking, as children books writers, of how they noticed that native stories for children were most often about how to get along and how to share, and that western stories were often about being first or becoming a king or a queen or being chosen. Then the host mentioned that this disconnect extended to treaties too, that treaties were seen by natives as a way to get along around resources. But how to get along, how to share, how to love even if you don’t love yourself, even if the person you’re trying to care for is trying to deaden something in themselves, maybe even especially then, that on the one hand, if you’re going to be very attentive to the real lived lives of the people in this world, it is going to describe a lot of trauma internal and external. But it does feel like the main gesture, not only between your characters, but from you to them is really a sort of love and care. I think back to this notion of Rick Bass with Frick saying he’s going to be a great antagonist, but really, he’s so much more than an antagonist. I wonder if that is something about love from Morgan Talty to the world that he’s created.
MT: I think it definitely is, yeah. Regardless of how bad somebody’s been or how difficult somebody has been, something in me has always kept me there, something in me has always felt like I needed to not abandon that person, and it is hard. How do we maintain a healthy, happy, loving relationship with difficult and dysfunctional people? I don’t know. All I know is that I always tried to be there and tried to stick around. I think in this book, this book is my attempt to be like, “We need to somehow learn to love each other better.” I hope when people are done, they feel that way. They’re like, “I can love this person more now. I can care for this person more now. I can also respect the space I need in order to love and care for this person now.”
DN: You could I think describe a lot of these stories, certainly not driven mostly by plot, but I think they’re driven by these sorts of questions. I think it was Jim Shepard, when he said in the blurb that I read, “The way both separating and refusing to separate become modes of saving ourselves,” to me that question of maybe not just saving oneself but saving the people we care about who aren’t saving themselves too, but that seems to be the material in place of event.
MT: I would agree. Every story I write, there’s a series obviously of events and characters do something, and then that spurs consequences that need reconciling. But for me as a writer, what pulls me to the page is I feel like I’m trying to articulate something that is inarticulable. I’m trying to unearth something about being human, and to do so forces me to ask these types of questions, I feel like, that are never posed, again, coming back to this idea of the stories get their power from what’s left out which are those questions, they could be epistemological questions, existential questions. I think about those and I take them very seriously. I try as hard as I can to use the art of fiction, the art, the principles of fiction, to construct it so that those questions are there and so I do definitely think about them. I think it’s easy to come up with a series of events that characters have to go through and come out either winning or losing, but I think it’s an entirely different thing to do that while also unearthing something that needs to be said or talked about. I don’t do it all the time. I don’t successfully pull it off all the time, but I’m going to continue to keep trying because that’s what I feel like is my responsibility, is to get at something that we all need to fill us. I get back to David Treuer’s thing, it’s plenty, and connecting it to what Brandon said, it’s almost like trying to find the plenty, that’s what I’m trying to do is really, really try to unearth something that is important to living.
DN: Well, I would love to have you read another section if you’re open to it.
MT: Of course.
DN: From the story The Name Means Thunder .
[Morgan Talty reads from his debut collection of stories, Night of the Living Rez]
DN: We’ve been listening to Morgan Talty read from his story collection, the Night of the Living Rez. One thing I noticed when looking into the notion of exoticized foreknowledge is that Treuer was looking not just at white writers but also at native writers, including iconic canonical writers: Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and he argues that whether written by whites or by Indians, cliches or inaccurate representations are excused by the culture at large because they fit these preconceived notions of what Indian life is like or supposed to be like. I know that other native writers are critiquing native art in different ways as well. I think of Terese Marie Mailhot. I heard she has a piece called I Cringe at What Passes as Native ‘Art’ These Days, which I don’t think is speaking to canonical native writers in any way, but at a more commercial level of art, but Chelsea Hicks also. I myself love Erdrich and Silko and I know you cite Erdrich as someone you admire. But putting aside specific people and thinking more broadly about generations of writers, I feel like we’ve seen a big shift in native literature, that something has really changed in what is being published or perhaps in what is being written in the first place or how it’s written. I wonder if this willingness to critique, if that is a healthy part of it. But I also realize that I’m not really the best person to say whether this is even happening at all, if what I perceive is really true, that something is changing, that maybe there’s something different about this new wave of native fiction that’s coming out now compared to a past generation. Do you feel like there’s a shift? When or how do you market as something that’s happening if you do?
MT: There’s definitely a change in indigenous fiction. I feel like indigenous writers have much more space to offer commentary. That would be a great essay to write, to look at the whole history of native fiction starting in the very early 1900s. I know you didn’t ask this but it’s like I would never characterize a one-time period as having better or weaker indigenous fiction. It’s all equal in my mind with the exception of maybe one writer’s work, but there is this shift I feel like, I think it was the critic Kenneth Lincoln who coined the term Native American Renaissance when talking about N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Alexie, James Welch, and all these other people. I feel like it was Alexie’s work that brought us to this strange place where I feel like we may have stalled for a bit what native fiction was. Obviously, Erdrich was still publishing, obviously, other writers are still publishing.
DN: When you bring that up, the stalling out, what’s interesting to me is if I were to, from my naive place, where I would mark the beginning probably inaccurately is when Tommy Orange’s book comes out and he kept saying in interview after interview, “I feel like people want to put me in the place that Sherman Alexie just was, that they’re looking for one writer that will always be the go-to writer for a certain type of contemporary Native American fiction.” He kept horizontally, it seemed to me, holding the door open. I don’t know if that’s your impression, his book itself and the introduction to the book, that all seems part of it also. But I also feel like very publicly, he kept naming a force within publishing, marketing, or journalism that really wanted to place him separate and above in a way that maybe his making that public allowed that not to happen. I don’t want to give him that much power but it felt like at that point in time, that didn’t happen. I can think of so many other names that are really being seen by many people.
MT: I’ve heard that was sincere that he did not want to become the next monopolizer of this generation. If you really think about it, he probably could have put out his second book already and it could have got all the attention and every other indigenous book that came out around that time or after that time was just in its shadow. I’m not saying he chose to not publish a book right now but I know, I feel like he just understands from a highly intellectual point that doing that is dangerous, monopolizing, again, coming back to the danger of the single story, having that one narrative can be so damning. There There, for me, the prologue that opens There There is this huge, I don’t want to say it sparked a revolution but it sparked a surge in storytelling from indigenous people that I think non-native readers didn’t know that they needed and wanted. That book, I don’t know, I keep imagining that cartoon where people are putting cement on a block and they put it in front of them and they walk and they keep doing it, that’s what I feel like his book started. He’s like, “Okay, here you take over,” and then somebody goes and then somebody else is like, “Here, you take over,” and you keep going and then Tommy comes back maybe and he’s like, “All right, I’m going to keep going.” It’s this ongoing effort, this community effort to continue to support one another, to continue to elevate each other’s work because we need all of those stories to create, again, that true picture of who we are as indigenous people, but also who we are as human beings.
DN: As we start to come to a close, I know your next book, your first novel explores questions of blood quantum and the question of native identity. I’m thinking back to when you’re saying when you image Google search and you see the black and white plains, Indian with the native headdress, unlike with most of your interviewers, this was something that you really grappled with, with Chelsea T. Hicks in various ways, this question of appearing native and native identity. You talk about a story of hers where a character didn’t necessarily “look” native and how to signal her identity as such. In other words, how could one perform their identity in a way that felt authentic and true versus the type of performance that you definitely didn’t want to do in your fiction for a wide audience. But she connects this to questions of blood quantum also when she says, “For appearance and blood quantum, many don’t want to examine their thoughts around the topic because the current ideas benefit them. For instance, the idea of blood quantum can either benefit settlers by making Indigenous people less of a problem by virtue of everyone who is less Indigenous under blood quantum; or it can benefit individual Natives who have a high blood quantum and so think of themselves as more Native. Ideas like blood quantum are very attractive in a society that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of Indigenous ways and choices. So my job in writing about appearance and blood quantum is to overcome the inherent resistance to the topic. To do this, I dramatized something that people do care about today, and that is signaling. I displaced the typical anxieties of signaling—body image, style, body language—onto belonging.” I guess I was hoping to use that as a step toward, maybe if you could talk a little bit about your interests around this question of signaling in Chelsea’s book, but bringing it into questions animating your first novel, the one that isn’t out yet, which I believe has to do with these questions around the colonial construct of blood quantum in the first place.
MT: I just love that about Chelsea’s book. There are so many moments in there, I think I said to her I was like, “You said things I have been unable to articulate for most of my life.” Even in Night of the Living Rez, I thought about that too. There’s that scene where Dee is taking Fellis to get ECT treatments (electric convulsive therapy) and he’s in the bathroom. The guy is like, “Oh, you’re from the rez or whatever?” and he says, “I didn’t know how he knew I was native,” but then he realized he was wearing a shirt that said Penobscot on it or something. Again, how do we signal? But with my new novel, I am really exploring this sense of belonging that comes with being on the census or having a quarter blood and being an enrolled member and be considered by the Federal government an Indian because I grew up on the rez and I had friends whose parents had married in and they were not native at all, they were white but they went to school with us, they sat in native studies with us, they learned the language with us. Obviously, it’s a little bit different than somebody having a mother who’s a quarter and then having a father who’s not and then the baby is not eligible to be on the census. There’s all this political stuff that goes with it; money, if we up the blood quantum, then that means so many more people are now enrolled, which means there’s more money that has to get funding and all that stuff. I get all of that. I do. But colonialism and using blood quantum as a tool has just screwed up so many things and has created this sense of belonging. This brings me back to talking about how I’m starting to sense that even though I’m not on the reservation, I still feel like I’m at home because on the reservation, everyone knows I’m native. But if I go into Danforth and just in the town over, nobody’s going to know I’m Penobscot. Again, it’s like how do you signal that? With my novel, it’s so far, I don’t know if it’ll take this turn, it is about belonging, but it’s also about the trauma that happens because of this blood quantum, because of not being an enrolled member, or the fear of not being an enrolled member because—and this really isn’t a spoiler, I don’t think—but in the book, it’s a non-native man who grew up on the rez who had a child with a woman who was a quarter blood and she lied and said that the child was another native guy’s child in order for her daughter Elizabeth to be an enrolled member of the tribe. It’s a whole story about Charles, the narrator, trying to give her this story that isn’t hers. He couldn’t live with it anymore. I was like, “What kind of weird situation can I create from the legal system to propel a narrative forward?” That was one of them and it’s not all about blood quantum but it is about belonging, it’s about what it means to be, I don’t want to say indigenous, but what it means to exist in a place and actually feel like you belong there.
DN: Well, I know you have yet another book that you’re working on that looks at the effects of the state child welfare practices on native peoples but when you were on Dawnland Signals radio, you talked about yet another book, a notional book I think, that you wanted to write a futuristic zombie novel 400 years from now where the indigenous peoples of Maine have reclaimed sovereignty over their land and they’re living sustainably and even thriving, but they don’t know what is going on outside their area. They don’t know whether the zombie apocalypse of post-collapse capitalism has subsided so they send out a team of scouts to find out. Please, tell me you haven’t given up on this project, Morgan.
MT: I have not given up on this project. I’m still jotting ideas down and thinking about characters and setting and trying to figure out the year I want to set it in because I have to do a lot of research on degradation, what degrades over time, and what things might look like. I’m so excited to write this book. This sounds super procrastinistic but I’m so excited but I don’t want to do it yet. [laughter] I just need to wait a little bit longer, but yeah, it is a project I have not given up on.
DN: Okay, good. Well, it was great having you on the show today, Morgan.
MT: Thank you so much, David. It was wonderful to be here.
DN: We were talking today to the author Morgan Talty about his short-story collection, Night of the Living Rez. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Morgan Talty’s work can be found at morgantalty.com. For the bonus audio archive, Morgan Talty contributes a reading of The Citizenship Question, an essay on blood quantum and belonging. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters who are ensuring the future of in-depth conversations like these. Supporters help shape who to invite on the show, get resource-rich emails with each episode, and there are many other things: collectibles offered from past guests, bonus audio contributions from everyone from Morgan Talty, to Layli Long Soldier, to Natalie Diaz. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer 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 the 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.