on September 25, 2008
If you have not yet sampled Native American Lit, I strongly recommend it, and Reckonings, Contemporary Short Fiction by Native American Women is a great place to start.
The term Native American, of course, comprises many different nations with their diverse cultures. Not all American Indians grow up on rural reservations. Many live in urban settings. Some maintain strong connections with their native culture, some don't, and some rediscover their cultures later in life. So why even break out Native American writing for classification? Because, in general, most Native American writers share two things in common. They straddle two worlds, and they come from a story-telling tradition that reveres elders who pass those stories down through generations. Both of these aspects lend a richness and depth that this reviewer, at least, sometimes finds lacking in contemporary mainstream and literary fiction.
Some of the authors included here, like Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko, have reached a wider audience. Two of Erdrich's stories are actually excerpts from her popular novel The Antelope Wife. Others, like Paula Gunn Allen (deceased since my original reading of this collection) and Joy Harjo, are sometimes read in American Lit classes. Still others coming from various parts of the U.S. and Canada were as unfamiliar to me as they will be to readers coming to NA Lit for the first time.
Readers do not need an in-depth knowledge of Native American culture and history to appreciate these stories or Native American Lit in general, but it helps to know something beyond "the Europeans came and took the Indians' land." Actually, the rich and detailed history of what took place from the reservation period on is as important as pre-reservation history in appreciating these stories. The Dawes Act , boarding/residential schools in the U.S. and Canada, the large percentage of American Indians serving in the military, the high rates of diabetes, alcoholism, depression, and suicide, inform these stories as much or more than buffalo hunts and whaling. Another good reason to start with this collection is that some footnotes are provided.
A word of caution. When pre-ordering on Amazon I accidentally chose the hardcover version that turned out to cost a whopping $94 US. The only reason I can think for that ridiculous price is that it is used as a textbook. Happily Amazon has a good return policy and I was able to purchase the paperback at a more reasonable price.
No, Reckonings is not worth $94, but the paperback version is an excellent place to begin your journey into Native American Lit, a journey you will find rich and rewarding.
on July 17, 2010
Understanding the role and history of the anthology genre in the publishing of Native American literature is key to appreciating this new collection of previously-published short fiction, mostly by established writers. Familiar names such as Paula Gunn Allen, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich dominate the collection (the list of 15 authors contains only two under the age of 50). That it is unquestionably an academic product is obvious, but a mixed blessing to be sure.
The excerpts from Linda Hogan's novels (Power, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998 and Solar Storms, Simon & Schuster, 1995) are a breath of literary fresh air in this uneven collection and should urge any reader first stumbling on her work to get thee to a library or local bookstore immediately for the full immersion experience.
And Janet Campbell Hale's long piece, "Claire" (Women on the Run, University of Idaho Press, 1999) , the delicate portrayal of an elderly woman who escapes the "old people's home" she says she is an "inmate" of by borrowing the clothes of a male resident and sneaking out a window to a life of freedom, beautifully combines graceful writing with cultural exploration; no polemic needed to make a point in this powerful piece, that's clear.
But familiar excerpts from Leslie Marmon Silko's primary body of work (Almanac of the Dead, Simon & Schuster, 1991 and Storyteller, Seaver Book, 1981) pay homage to this grandmother of the genre yet leave one, in 2008, aching for something new.
Assembled by an Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley (Hertha D. Sweet Wong), the chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at City College of San Francisco (Lauren Stuart Muller) and the author of articles on Native American literature and culture (Jana Sequoya Magdaleno), it boasts, as any proper anthology should, several pages of introduction explaining its purpose, biographies and bibliographies of the included writers, an index (not to mention footnotes throughout the works which explain various cultural terms) and a thorough (and thoroughly impressive) list of Native American Literature anthologies.
The anthology concept itself, in the realm of Native writing, serves the dual purpose of collecting important examples of literary output but also, as the editors put it, "for community building and stewardship that characterize the work of the Native American women included in this book." (Notably, the editors state in the front of the book that all royalties will be donated to the InterTribal Friendship House in Oakland, California, which has been dedicated to "improving the lives of Native people in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than five decades.")
Rather than simply appreciating for its literary merits each individual work of creative short fiction (the editors reject the term "short story" as a linear European American literary tradition that is not inclusive enough of the "retellings of oral narratives, story cycles, networks of short stories, anecdotes, conversations ..." etc. that these works contain) they've been collected for the purpose of providing a context to the abundance of Native literature, particularly in the 1990s.
A section titled "Historicizing Anthologies of Contemporary Native American Literatures" offers a capsule history of contemporary Native sociopolitical events linking political activism with the copious output that is Native women's literary production. From the 1968 birth of the American Indian Movement to the First North American Native Writers' Festival in 1992 and several key anthologies that were published since then, the editors draw a compelling picture of the inextricable links between the political and the personal.
All this academic baggage attached to the pieces--many delightfully lyrical, some unfortunately tending more towards the leaden but all of them intense excavations of life lived in a culture-within-a-culture--can make absorbing this book sometimes seem like a ponderous chore. The good news is that there is much valuable information to be gleaned from the editors' somewhat heavy-handed dissection of the genre, and it serves its purpose well in terms of enhancing the reader's understanding of the context in which these works appear.
The editors go to great pains to explain their own methodology in creating this particular collection. They delineate the four overlapping and recurrent themes they've identified in the stories (mythic cycles, life cycles, cycles of resistance and healing cycles) noting that "the writings in this volume reconfigure both myth and history, highlighting story as profoundly regenerative."
Additionally, they offer explanation for their choice of authors (a challenge due to the explosion of creative short fiction by Native women available today, yet ultimately a disappointment to me for their reliance on the standard bearers), the way they've organized the selections (from oldest, most established authors to the younger emerging voices) and their approach to tribal identities and tribal enrollments (a labored discussion about ethnic legitimacy that could--and probably does--fill several books on its own).
And they note, most importantly, that Reckonings "is a confluence, sometimes a collision, of voices and visions ... the intermingling, overlapping, interfacing, contradicting voices of tribally enrolled, deculturated, disidentified, misidentified, and self-identified contemporary Native women writers."
Ultimately, such a "collision of voices and visions" means the reader has some choices to make with this particular anthology. Do you enjoy fiction--well-written or otherwise--that explores complicated cultural realities? Do you appreciate having a handle on the full-blown academic discussion that precedes publication of same? And, perhaps most notably, how important is that academic discussion to your enjoyment of the work you're reading? The choice is yours.
on March 3, 2014
These are raw, moving, incisive, insightful, words that sear, move, teach, and bestow insight. For all Indians and First Nations people, including mixed bloods and metis, and most especially women, who will both understand and have buried understandings brought to the surface. Wopila! Mitakuyasin.