An Imagined Anthology of Contemporary Creative Non-Fiction by Native American Writers
This book does not yet exist. But I feel it coming into being. It’s almost already here if you are looking for these voices, if you are listening for a future. In anticipation of Layli Longsoldier’s Whereas (March 2017), in response to Standing Rock and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman (MMIW), and as means of survival for the coming years, Native American non-fiction writers are ablaze. Check out Toni Jenson’s “Women in the Fracklands: On Water, Land, Bodies, and Standing Rock” at Catapult and Byron Aspaas’ “Nádleehí: One Who Changes” at The Rumpus. Jenson’s cycling and Aspaas’ circling through violence, land, and fear are essential reading for all of us.
Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz
How I came to it: I enjoyed Ortiz’ memoir Excavation (2014), have seen Bruja promoted on Facebook, and was also interested in what non-fiction writers write after writing a memoir.
Recommendation notes: For anyone interested in innovative creative non-fiction, dream-truths, and non-linear identity explorations. It’s dark and weird, but not always unsettling. Sometimes it feels like a type of normal we try to ignore. Also, the cover is bad-ass. I’m definitely adding this to future classes as experiments in non-fiction form and diverse voices is my jam.
Nesting notes/requirements: Short prose pieces that can be read quickly or slowly, distractions that might make the piece harder to piece together (unless you are the type of reader where distractions don’t pull you out of a story/voice, but instead pull the “real” world into your headspace), check out the index.
I’ve been looking forward to reading Bruja for some time. The idea of a “dreamoir” was intriguing, but it also made me nervous. I’ve often reminded my students that dreams are rarely interesting unless we know the dreamer (and sometimes even then). This claim usually comes when talking about description that needs to move forward or how dreamlogic works (and doesn’t) or how to not end the story with “and then she woke up.” But, once again, I was proven wrong in the most delightful of ways. The scene- and sound-scapes of Bruja are intuitive sense-making at its finest. I know this dreamer through a mirror world and in the mirror world, I cringed, laughed, cried, worried, sighed, hoped, and tore at life too. I burned up again and again. What I thought was impossible is possible and I’m humbled by it.
Descent by Tim Johnston
How I came to it: Browsing front and center picks at a local bookstore.
Recommending notes: For suspense readers with an ear towards tone and sensing (rather than hard, fast plot) and anyone looking for a well-written page-turner. I’m not familiar with the literary genre, so I’m not sure how it stacks up to other favorites. I’ll also probably pick a few lines or paragraphs (or a chapter) for my students when discussing description that moves the story and provides emotional depth skillfully.
Nesting notes/requirements: Time (it’s the longest of all my reads), pencil/pen for marking good lines, bookmark (wasn’t easy to find where I left off. I think it could be read during travel and commutes.
Confession: I picked up this “national best seller” to see what a contemporary suspense novel looked like and if it was worth turning off the auto-play feature on any of the number of detective/thriller shows I watch. Also, well, I am skeptical of plot-focused writing and was somewhat hoping to not like it and to fall comfortably back into reading the non-linear and watching thrillers and crime stories. I was wrong. This is a beautiful read. The description and sentences are lovely with moments I read and re-read aloud just to hear it fall off the tongue. The characters take their best cues from a Cormac McCarthy novel and I did barrel through looking for—with half-hope/half-dread—resolution. I will say there’s a female character that is more husk than person, which I found myself questioning and if weren’t for another female character—so true to being—I might have wanted to give up the read. It’s a welcoming balance of beauty, story, and plummeting complex characters.
The Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Book One) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Author) and Brian Stelfreeze (Illustrator)
How I came to it: Both from posts/articles from comic readers/writers and from literary articles and announcements. I don’t read comics with the same thirst as I did in my youth, but I do look for ones that I can incorporate into teaching, look like my cup of tea, are by notable writers/artists or offer up visions from underrepresented people.
Recommendation Notes: Yes, please everyone read this. For comic-lovers and for those wondering what comics can do (even the superhero kind). Will be teaching this in the future. If you’re a literary scholar who has yet to acknowledge comics, maybe this (or Roxane Gay’s future contribution to the series) will get you there.
Nesting notes/requirements: I always need to slow down my reading and take in the images (even after all this time/experience reading comics). But it’s still a quick read and you’ll want to talk to someone about it. Read it with a friend and check out Coates’ interviews/articles on it.
Good Lord, Book Two needs to come out right now. I’m so caught in this book: with the fusion of technology and the tribal, the range of political upheaval and citizen responsibility, and the rich backstory and threading of characters, this is a world where every detail unlocks or leads us somewhere. There’s so much to soak up here, but what I enjoyed most about a comic that everyone has an eye on (and also has with it unfair expectations and pressures) is that it is a good story with many entry points and moments of possibility. I’m not sure what is going to happen next. I haven’t followed a new comic series in full for a long time (my interest wanes sometimes in book three, sometimes in book ten), but I can’t see how this can fall into rote storytelling or generic world-building unless it’s handed off to the wrong person. But if the coming books keep the stakes high and the narratives full and thrumming, I’m in.
The Warren by Brian Evenson
How I came to it: Evenson is always on my radar, but I was also looking for novellas to add to my CW classes. I was particularly excited for a thoughtful, but slim sci-fi narrative.
Recommendation notes: Sci-fi readers that like work that pushes or skews the genre, philosophers that enjoy weird fiction. I had a hard time not calling up my Frankenstein and mind/body Romantics scholar buddy about it, Evenson fan (naturally). I’ll be teaching it particularly for its ability to balance genre, narrative, and questions of being.
Nesting notes/requirements: I had a love affair with many passages and lines. Tried to pull every last bit of delight out of them as they rolled around in my head (or mouth and ear when I read them aloud). It’s still a quick read, but there were many happy sighs and recorded moments. At times, I had to go back and re-read parts for clarity, but in the best way—in the “Oh oh, maybe it’s this” sort of way. You may need a hug afterwards. For me: couch, blanket, sleeping dogs, and hot beverage were essential. Stronger, more focused readers might enjoy it on-the-go, but I needed my nesting space.
I settled into this last man(men)(person)(being) story ready for the strange-but-enjoyable discomfort that comes along with reading Evenson’s work. I’m always held close and still by his narration, like the words and world is being whispered to me—to only me, but all the while feeling othered, separate, even alone. It feels told only to me not out of an invested familiarity with audience, but out of necessity. Because the world is falling or imploding or covered in poison and I’m the only ears left. I’m the last thing (important or not) to hear it. When I thought all the last man or post-apocalyptic stories had been told, I was floored upon encountering this one. And it’s this one that won’t leave me. And it’s the that won’t leave me. It’s both a truth and a nightmare and someone else’s lie, but also something sad, like knowing a song is going to end. Swallowed by an unforgiving silence.
We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People by Dao Strom
How I came to it: AWP. Dao Strom was visiting tables while I was hosting one. We didn’t talk about her book, just about what excites us about reading. She was present and kind. She gave me a small promo item for her book when I asked for her card. The next day I sought it out (the last on the shelf!—I think I nearly toppled over myself to get to it.)
Recommendation notes: Readers who crave more from non-fiction than memoir and linear storytelling. Readers who like mixed mediums and collage. Readers interested in female writers of color (and understand the necessity of such a line is both good and bad). I’ll be adding this to my teaching as well for its beauty, construction, and the continual ebb and flow of narrative, self, and family.
Nesting notes/requirements: It’s 8×8 inches and the author makes great use of the space/spread of the page; I needed room to see it in front of me and to inspect it. Additionally, I needed a lot of light because of the photos and because some of the text is small. Finally, I needed space for my focus and room to feel through shifts and the shaping of text. It’s demands attention and the type of space I consider ceremonial. Room for transformative reading.
Another confession: At times, I worry my non-fiction reading will dry out. I’ll tire of where the individual meets the collective. I’ll find that all stories are as similar as they are different. I’ll spoil on these narratives as I have spoiled on so much throughout 2016 and the fear I have in the years ahead. Thank God for Doa Strom. This is art as protest, as medicine, as reality-making. It’s a progression of photos, prose, lyrics, explorations, and space. This is exactly how I see non-fiction needing to be: a collection of self, and the self shown to us by others, and the stories that formed that self laid out for us like a map. And the stories of people of color and women especially demand structures like this that say: “I will not put it all together for you. I will not put myself into the type of sense you need to understand it. It is all here in the images, sounds, ideas, and in the gaps and shapes of the thing. This is my story.”