The writers read their own excerpts aloud and discussed the experience and challenges of being a Native American writer.
Adam McPhail, collaborating photographer
At a virtual event hosted by the Connecticut Literary Festival on Wednesday, Indigenous writers read excerpts from their own works and offered thoughts on what it means for a Native American author today.
Three authors, all representing different Indigenous nations, participated in one of the organization’s Lit Talks: Natasha Gambrell, member and tribal councilor of the East Pequot Tribal Nation; Marcie Rendon, member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation; and Deborah Taffa, member of the Quechan and Laguna Pueblo nations. During the hour-long discussion, the three authors discussed the challenges of being an Indigenous author and how they imbue their personal experiences into their stories.
“One of the things I love is that the organizers of the literary festival chose people from three different genders,” Taffa said. “So we have poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and the demands that those things place on us, to me, are interesting – how we shape our stories and why we choose the stories that we choose.”
Each author shared a brief reading of one of their own works. Gambrell, a teacher and graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University, read a poem called “They Were Celebrating.” Rendon, a renowned detective novelist, read excerpts from her award-winning novel “Girl Gone Missing.” Taffa, director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the Institute of Native American Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, read “My Cousin’s Backyard,” a nonfiction short story. The discussion was moderated by Sandy Grande, Professor of Political Science and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Connecticut.
All authors agreed that writing is an important form of personal and tribal expression that allows their voices to be heard. Nevertheless, they also identified that it is difficult to publish literary works concerning Indigenous characters and themes. Often, they said, publishers aren’t as interested in their stories as they are in stories written by white authors.
Now, however, the authors agree with Taffa, who says they’re trying to push back the typical narratives of Indigenous peoples. Not only are they writing stories about their native cultures — which Rendon says hasn’t always been the case — they’re also writing about new topics and sharing the stories of those who haven’t been characterized before.
“I feel like we deserve to have narratives and counter-narratives,” Taffa said. “So nothing I say is prescriptive in terms of what I tell other people that I think they should do. What I have to deal with is my own family and my own stories.
One theme, in particular, that is often associated with the writing of Indigenous peoples is trauma. Some of the writers were conflicted about the relationship between trauma and their writing. Taffa said that when she was writing her novel, many publishers and literary agents expected her to focus on the trauma of her experience growing up as a Native American in the United States. Taffa, however, wanted to write about the growth and healing she has since experienced as an adult. Grande also noted that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish or separate trauma from joy, since they are so intertwined in the Native American experience.
For Gambrell, trauma was initially the source of many of his works. For example, on October 12, 2005, the United States Department of the Interior refused to recognise the existence of his tribe, the Eastern Pequot in Connecticut. Gambell explained that this event inspired her, in particular, to write the poem which she read aloud. Feeling helpless, Gambell said poetry gave her an outlet to share her perspective. Now she has said she is moving away from using trauma as the main emotional source of her poetry.
“As much as I write about trauma, sometimes I’ve had to walk away from it because I’m more than trauma,” Gambrell said. “When I write poems now, I look at the stories of my elders. I like to talk about those mighty warriors who were here and are not here anymore, but allow me to be here.
Although they all agreed that Native writers, in general, are not as well known as they should be, some expressed optimism about the future of Native American literature.
“I think with the internet and Zoom and all the new technology, it’s a lot easier for natives across the continent to connect and find other people’s work,” Rendon said.
In Connecticut, schools will be required to teach Native American studies by the 2023-2024 school year. With legislative changes and increasing audiences, the authors hoped that Indigenous voices would continue to proliferate and establish themselves as an essential part of the literature studied. For Taffa, people should read and care about Indigenous voices all the time rather than as a “trend”.
“[Indigenous authors’ writing] isn’t always in the public eye or of interest, white gaze, but it’s absolutely still there and still growing,” Grande said.
The Connecticut Literary Festival Lit Talks are produced by students and staff of Central Connecticut State University.