An Ode to Desire and Dogged Determination
I often tell people I’m hopeful about the future of American letters. And every time I do, I feel a little embarrassed that I would make such a grand proclamation. American letters? Who even talks like that, and since when did I become an optimist? That’s before even getting into the complexities of who has traditionally been considered a part of any canon or what it means to be both an American citizen and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. For a long time, if you paid any attention to mainstream media in this country, in publishing and beyond, you would have had little to no idea of the diversity of experience, voice, and style of Native writers. In fact, most folks couldn’t even name more than one or two Native writers. That’s changing.
Over the past year, Cherokee citizen Oscar Hokeah’s Calling for a Blanket Dance won the prestigious PEN America/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. Penobscot writer Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize, and the New England Book Award. Chelsea T. Hicks, an enrolled member of the Osage Nation, published her debut collection A Calm and Normal Heart to great critical acclaim. She and Talty were both recently named National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honorees.
And these are just a few people off the top of my head who debuted literary fiction this year! Each of them, I might add, either attended or teach at a tribal college or university. We know that we are following in the footsteps of Native writers who have long deserved wider recognition. To borrow a phrase from Billy Joel, we didn’t start the fire. But publishing, and the world beyond, is finally starting to see that we are not a monolith, and the world of letters is flat out better when we share that space. Despite our collective pride at the success of our Native teachers, colleagues, and friends, this isn’t about accolades or book deals. Sure, all of that is important broadly and can also enable an artist to support their family and community while they make more art. But what I want to talk about is where it all starts: a writer with a pen and a desire to communicate a thing and a belief that the pursuit matters. A dogged determination to make that initial mark on the page and to hone it, through craft, through trial and error, through reading and listening, through starting over again and again. When we tell our stories, we are taking part in something much bigger than ourselves. We are joining a community of storytellers that goes back to our very beginnings. What a brave, beautiful thing! What an honor and a privilege it is to share space with all of you all embarking on this journey.
I’m struck by the talent and variety I found in this year’s contest. In poetry, you’ll find a poet who longs to be the subject of a poem. When I came across the line “I know the burdens of carrying an anchor in a dried up sea,” I knew I would be thinking about it for a long time. In a poem that pulsed with rhythm, the line “we dizzy on flesh all summer” demanded to be read aloud, written on a scrap of paper, and worn like a pendant. And another poem came to us in the form of a direct address full of complexity and righteous heat, a letter to the Bluebird Flour company.
One short story, an unlikely love story of sorts, took me to the shores of Lake Superior in humidity that was palpable. The specificity of details in this one: one lost flip-flop, fancy leather car seats that spew AC and make you think you’re peeing yourself, roving burn-barrel marks in the yard, and Baby Adams, so loved. In another story, one driven by dialogue, two seasoned firefighters tell the new guy that he can’t dwell on the people they don’t save, using humor to mask the inescapable moments of loss that come with the job. And our last fiction selection contains a bit of dialogue that might make George Saunders jealous for all of its humor and complexity:
“Will you ever drop me?” he said.
I paused. “Honestly…probably?” I replied.
“Hi oh,” he expressed, a slang term in our language that means something along the lines of wow, okay, geez.
In creative nonfiction, you’ll find an essay full of contradictions that are not contradictions at all. Seemingly inconsequential prayers and great big ones live side by side for the author’s mom whose prayers pull from Christian and Ojibwe traditions. There’s humor, but that humor is getting at a great big heart, full of love and connection. In another essay, this one beautifully compact, the author who has lost their sense of belonging takes up their grandmother’s weaving combs, spindle, and battens. And finally, a young “Indigenous introvert” has 19 freezing miles to go as they walk home from their college class one January evening. This one sings:
I go into a silent meditation as I walk and begin to sing songs that survived for centuries that beat like a drum keeping my culture alive in 2023. I raise my voice and the heavens open up and there I can see my ancestors looking at me with pride. That is a lie, unfortunately I am part of the generation that can sing K-pop songs better than I can sing in my own native language. Not to mention I am an introvert and doing that would make me want to disappear. I skip the music today and instead I listen to the rez dogs barking somewhere behind the only trees that flourish year-round in these parts, elm trees.
I hope you, too, are heartened by these poems, stories, and essays. Not necessarily because they are uplifting in content, although some certainly are. And not because you should spend one bit of time thinking about things like American letters. But because of the talent, determination, and care that brought these pieces into being and because there are so many more where these came from. We are, indeed, in good hands.
Kelli Jo Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the author of Crooked Hallelujah.