The Art of Telling; Stories are Medicine
I am honored to be the guest editor for the 2021 TCJ Student creative writing contest. And thankful to Ryan Winn, Bradley Shreve, and especially the student scribes who submitted their work to this year’s contest. The submissions in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry were outstanding—full of beauty, intelligence, depth, and insight. The works represented a spectrum of life experiences, diverse tribal perspectives, and showcased exciting new writers on the rise.
Art and literature have always been a reflection of our times, and serve as our record, and our memory. Writers bear witness and transcribe world events, political realities, social movements, and much more.
Writers and artists bore witness to the unprecedented events of 2020. The pandemic and devastating losses within our communities, the Black Lives Matter movement, landmark wins for Native sovereignty such as the McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, and the end to the Washington football Team name. We’ve seen Columbus statues toppled, the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior, the first Indigenous U.S. Poet Laureate, and we’ve ushered in a new presidency amid chaos and disturbance in the capitol.
Amid all the turmoil, losses, and triumphs, we’ve produced and created, we’ve put down words, committed ink to paper, made our marks, and risen to the occasion of our callings. We write to make sense of things. We write to discover. We write to communicate, persuade, and understand. Whether our work is characterized as political, about family, spirituality, environment, or history, or for entertainment and humor, intrigue or horror, whatever mode, style, or genre, its impetus and drive remain the same—that of story.
I can’t say that I had any preconceived criteria per se in making my selections, and it’s important to bear in mind that one’s response to art and to literature is entirely subjective. But I can definitely say that the selection process was difficult, as all of the pieces were excellent examples of craft, each shining distinctly in their own way. There was so much to admire among the submissions, and all were a joy and pleasure to read. If I could pinpoint in hindsight, what determined my selections, I’d have to say that over all I chose the pieces that provided the most solace and enjoyment; that embodied aspects of “healing” and “restoration,” which is particularly critical, considering the state of the world, and how part of our recovery necessitates stories and art—the telling, the writing of, the giving, and receiving. Stories are medicine.
The winning fiction entries, “Lessons in Motion” by Craig Poitra, “Scattered Threads on Dancing Winds” by Brianna G. Reed, and “Walking Through Ice Alaska” by Brittany Lea Hebert, all embodied a sense of healing, in that all these entries conveyed very specific and evocative details relating to “place.” Each story is firmly grounded, offering vivid and exacting qualities pertaining to the environments within the narratives.
Craig Poitra’s entry, “Lessons in Motion,” established a sense of restoration from the first sentence: “The sound of the stream flowing behind him was comforting.” The narrator conjures instructions from his grandfather, and calls upon the traditional values of his tribe to assist him under circumstances of duress. The deftly drawn descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings, coupled with the urgency of events, made for a compelling read which left me wanting for more. In Brianna G. Reed’s entry, “Scattered Threads on Dancing Winds,” the speaker’s dying grandmother leaves behind her sewing machine which years later is put to service sewing PPE masks for people on the Navajo reservation. “our heads were bent down to the sewing machine light in a kind of prayer to keep other families from unraveling too.” The story’s events, culminating in full circle along with the pandemic crisis in tribal communities, was immediate and poetically relevant.
“Walking Through Ice Alaska,” by Brittany Lea Hebert, struck me as similarly poetic and relevant in that the narrator’s experience of the ice sculptures exemplified joyfulness and wonderment. As a reader, I felt equally delighted. It was particularly poignant when the narrator was unable to take a photo of any of the sculptures unless they held their breath. Which seems like the absolute perfect metaphor for one’s exhilarating response to a piece of art.
“A Mother’s Strength,” a nonfiction piece by Shikiya Chase, perfectly captured the fear and heartbreak of waiting for a loved one undergoing surgery. Chase gently takes the hand of her reader and leads them along through the hospital’s corridors and straight into the heart of comfort and faith.
Similarly, teklu’s “glenora” speaks to aspects of faith, specifically, of their mother’s hands. There’s a powerful quality of timelessness to this essay as it reflects upon all the many ways the mother’s hands affected their lives. “As our mother, she handled and shaped that which we could only behold, and the movements echo through us every day in our actions and prayers.”
The entries were blind, so it was only later that I learned that I’d chosen two of Brianna G. Reed’s pieces after the winners were announced: “Scattered Threads on Dancing Winds” and “Sawedoff Shotgun”—so a special congratulations to Brianna! Both entries showcased a gorgeous poetic sensibility. What most impressed me, particularly with regards to “Sawed-off Shotgun,” was how strongly the voice came through. The telling came across with force and urgency, and the word choices and turns of phrase are equally adept and provocative.
In the category of poetry, I selected “(I Am) Her glittering Existence” by Alyssa Nakai; “Ogimaag Mitigoog” by Lucinda Wentworth; and “hūzíwí” by Nelson Alburquenque. I especially love and appreciate poetry that embodies Indigenous ways of being and presents traditional world views. There’s an immense amount of power and beauty in reflecting these forms, and I always feel stronger after hearing or reading such works. These poems, anchored by forces and shapes of the natural world, a spiritual sensibility implied, speak to the author’s tribal heritage and homelands. And although “hūzíwí” by Nelson Alburquenque, is a word in a language the author invented, and with details I assume are of an imaginary landscape and culture, they were entirely convincing and beautifully and skillfully invoked.
The world is made of stories, and Indigenous people from time immemorial have honored and celebrated a storytelling tradition. That is an aspect of Indigenous writing that I’m most proud of— that I’m carrying on the tradition of storytelling intrinsic to my culture. And I like to think that it makes my ancestors proud, that it makes the grandfathers and grandmothers smile. And bearing that in mind has given me the encouragement necessary to persevere in my craft.
Tiffany Midge (Hunkpapa Lakota) is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, an award-winning poet, and the author of Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s.