Monday, July 8, 2019

A Conversation with Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton

When I first heard about Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, I fell in love. I couldn’t hear enough about the anthology. I scoured the internet for scraps of information. Contributors, essays, organization: I wanted to know it all. As an essayist, one particularly interested in form, one that distrusts the canonizing actions some anthologies enact, I didn’t realize how greedy I was for this anthology until I knew it existed. This book collects forms, shows how forms can communicate content, can communicate emotion and intention, but the collection is more than the sum of its parts. In gathering contemporary Native nonfiction, this book elucidates the roots of the form-conscious essay and brings together the exciting current work of Native writers. In a sweeping decolonizing gesture, this anthology challenges the nonfiction canon as it’s been taught and creates a porous new space in its place. Ander Monson and I were more than excited for the opportunity to talk with Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton about the creation of this important anthology, which will be available July 9th, 2019.  —Maddie Norris


Ander Monson: One of the concerns of this book is focusing on form rather than material. You go out of your way to talk about it both in the proposal and in the introduction to the anthology, and I'm wondering if you would talk a little bit more about why, as an orientation to the anthology, that was the approach that you took.

Elissa Washuta: The idea came about when Regan Huff from University of Washington Press asked me if I had any ideas for books that the press might be interested in considering and, as one's mind does in situations like that, mine came up with this anthology. I said, “oh, I want to make an anthology!” I had been teaching Native literatures at the time, and teaching Native nonfiction specifically, and finding it so hard to teach. I thought I was coming to understand so much about nonfiction and coming to understand it as a Native writer, and yet when I started to approach the class, I felt like I didn't understand it at all, based on the materials available. The anthologies that were already out there took such an ethnography-type orientation to the material that my burgeoning interest in form was not reflected at all. The need was clearly there. We needed a new Native nonfiction anthology; the time was right. And so I thought, “What about innovation as a focus, formal innovation, particularly?”

Theresa Warburton: I'm coming from it so similarly, but I'm not a creative writer. I'm a literary scholar, and so Elissa and I—just in the course of our friendship–talked about how, in the field, there's not as much discussion between literary scholars and creative writers. So, one of the things that we were interested in doing as collaborators was doing that work between a creative writer and literary scholar. And because we were both nervous about asserting ourselves in those spaces, part of the discussion was Elissa asking, “Do you think you could support some of the things we're talking about through your knowledge of the literary field?” But also, just in teaching, I had the same experience teaching nonfiction. I've been doing work about Native memoir, in particular, and the secondary material available for that as a field is extremely limited and most of it focuses on the 19th century. I teach some of the time at Western Washington University, where Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are, and so it was clear to me that form was part of the bigger discussion about creative nonfiction in general but there's not a sort of corollary discussion of form and contemporary nonfiction in Native literary studies. There’s an ethical component to it, which is to say: we really need to push people to see Native writers as practicing craft. And as we talked about the collection, that became the thing that we wanted to assert. Not that the content isn't important, but actually Native writers are talking about a whole variety of things in the world. The things that they’re writing about are politics, bodies, economics, all kinds of things that get pushed away when people just say, “what are Native writers saying about Native people?”

AM: Red Dead Redemption 2, for instance.

TW: One of Elissa’s favorite topics!

EW: We were talking about it before you joined us.

TW: Exactly, like “what might Native authors be telling us about video games?” I see it all the time: students come in to a Native lit class wanting mythology: Origin stories, the tale of two wolves, or whatever. And then they read an essay by Elissa that’s about Trump being elected, and they're like, “what is this?” So part of it was creating both primary texts and a secondary text that could be used as an analytic framework for students to guide them through. And not just students, but we're hoping that it goes beyond the classroom, and that people are interested in the book beyond academia.

Maddie Norris: You all talked a little bit about how this anthology breaks new ground, but I'm wondering, too, how it's in conversation with anthologies that you admire, that are doing work that you're interested in.

TW: That's a good question because I feel like a lot of our discussion was about anthologies that we didn’t like.

EW: Yeah, I know!

TW: So many of the anthologies that are Native nonfiction are done by one author, most are focused on autobiography, and most of its contributions are from authors who primarily write fiction and poetry, people like Leslie Silko or Simon Ortiz, nonfiction writing by them. The way we read those anthologies was that they're meant to be supplemental to the fiction, to say, “Oh, this will help us sort of analyze the fiction better.” But I'm not sure we talked as much about anthologies that we really appreciated. We were looking a lot at online journals and these other venues that were publishing these Native essays. We felt like, “why isn't this being anthologized?”  Elissa, maybe you can speak more to it, but we liked Next American Essays and those kind of anthologies that were centering nonfiction as a literary craft. But, that anthology has only one essay by a Native author.

EW: Yeah, I don't think we were so much. I mean certainly there's anthologies that I have liked and I have used. Of course, John D’Agata’s Next American Essay is one that was foundational to me when I was learning about the lyric essay in grad school, so I think that was the anthology we talked about most. John really talked about his methodology in the beginning, and we were talking about what we were going to be doing differently in regards to form and Native writers. But we did talk a lot about the publications where we had seen a lot of these essays; Yellow Medicine Review is one that's been publishing great work for a long time, and when I was at The Rumpus, I published some of these essays that eventually ended up in the anthology. We were talking about the idea of what was already out there, and I know we had a lot of conversations—this is kind of getting off topic, but—on Twitter, or in casual conversations, I would hear people say “where are the Native writers? What's out there? I need to teach something. I want to put somebody on my syllabus who's not x person.” People had an interest, and people wanted more. It was already out there, but every November, there was a new set of lists on the literary websites saying “10 Native writers you need to read right now,” and two of them are dead. There seems to be this real need that we thought we could fill with an anthology of these essays that were amazing and stunning and important and already published a lot of the time, and Native writers who are already doing this work and perhaps hadn't published it yet, and this interest in innovative nonfiction, form-focused nonfiction, and work by Native writers.

AM: Why do you think that it’s the online publications that are the ones that are publishing more of the Native writers, or at least the essays that you are thinking about? Do you consider the work of your anthology-making a gathering of these works published online in what many folks think of as a more transitory or less permanent space, and trying to sort of consolidate that into a book? Or is it that Native writers are just publishing more interesting works online?

EW: Well, some of it is from print journals; we have quite a few pieces that were originally in print journals.

TW: And some brand new pieces that had never been published. We have a couple of those that were written for the collection.

EW: But thinking about online spaces, I think that for a lot of us—I, of course, don't want to speak for all Native writers, but I know a lot of us have, at times, been burned in the editing process or, at least have at some point been frustrated by the editing process, asked for markers of indigeneity or supposed markers of indigeneity by non-Native editors. Many of us like to be able to look around and see who's been published in a place before committing our work to it. And that's so much easier with online journals. There’s less of a time and monetary investment than looking into a print journal and seeing who's been published and seeing how their work is presented. So I think that may be part of why the online journal spaces are featuring more Native writers right now, but I'm not sure. I think that probably there are a lot of pieces appearing in print journals as well. And I just haven't kept up as much, maybe.

TW: I feel like part of it, too, is about the processes of gate keeping. As someone who isn’t a creative writer but works with contemporary writers, I hear a lot about who's in control of editing processes in certain places and who you need to know to sort of get into those spaces, and this collection is really a testament to the community that Elissa, in particular, is part of. The authors that we asked for pieces trust us as editors, and Elissa, especially. They know her work; they know her. Some of the people in the collection are people that Elissa worked with at IAIA, so they already trust her, not as an arbiter of Native anything, but as a writer who will do justice to the work, and I think a lot of the people that agreed to put their work in did that because they really were excited about being in a collection of other Native nonfiction writers for the first time, instead of having to be the Native writer in a collection. But it’s also because they trusted that the way that we would frame it would be something that spoke to what they were trying to do. There was that element of trust, and to connect back to Maddie's question about anthologies, I’ve learned from a lot of feminist anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back or Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism that these spaces are really about community and showing that this isn't individual authors doing something. This is whole communities of people who are having these conversations. In Chip Livingston's essay, for instance, he mentions Elissa's work, and there are a number of cases in the anthology where one of the pieces references another author in the anthology. That might be one of the reasons that not just online, but more quick publication spaces have been a place that some of these Native authors have been publishing more, because there's that level of trust. At least for me, in academic publishing, I have no idea who reads my pieces. With the collection, University of Washington Press was really great about saying who would be the right kind of reader, because there are some people that would read this collection and really disagree with it. And so we could have that trust and then authors could have that trust. So it's really a community based project.

AM: That's fascinating. Online is more reactive, collaborative, social, rhizomatic, I suppose, and it's easier to see where things connect, so that makes a lot of sense. In thinking of the book, a lot of things you're talking about regarding collaboration are fascinating.

TW: I think of this book as a reflection of all of the things that have been happening instead of this rupture point of something “new”. We had a conversation about not wanting to put new in the title or anything like that because this is actually not new. Native nonfiction is foundational to the history of Native literature. Some of the earliest Native texts are nonfiction. So it was important for us to say, this not this brand new thing that just started happening in the past 10 years.

MN: In the introduction, you talk about how there is so much exciting work, and you've been talking about it in this conversation as well, so I'm wondering how you narrowed down the essays that you wanted to include.

EW: How did we do it? You know, there were a bunch of essays that we already knew–

TW: We were like, “This essay! This essay!” I just remember sitting at my kitchen table, and Elissa and I being like, “what about this one? Or this one? Or–?”

EW: Off the top of our heads, we had a list of a bunch of essays. And then with some writers—like Billy-Ray Belcourt, for example—we didn't have anything in mind from those writers, but we knew we wanted something from them. Billy-Ray is an example of somebody we reached out to and asked whether he had any work that we could think about for inclusion. We had in mind essays and writers already who were doing the kinds of work that we knew would be a fit. We talked about opening it up to submissions, but we didn't talk about that for very long because we knew we wouldn't be able to take really anything because of what we already knew was out there.

TW: From the beginning, we had so much. And actually, a couple of them, like Ernestine’s piece and Stephen’s piece were talks that had been given, and Billy-Ray is known mostly as a poet, but his piece in the collection is a very interesting genre-bending piece of nonfiction. And so a lot of it was: okay, instead of just saying, “who is doing nonfiction,” saying, “who are the people who are transforming nonfiction,” and “who are the people thinking about form in this creative way?” And that meant taking some of these orations that had been given, which again is a really foundational part of Native literature, in a way that isn't like “oh Native literature is an oral culture,” but in a way that was showing oration in literary way. We really just sat down, and a lot of this we did through Google docs and texting. A lot of it was like fifteen texts back and forth, like “oh yeah this person” or Elissa had seen Kim TallBear read part of her piece at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference and she texted me immediately and was like, “Oh my God, we have to ask Kim about these ‘Critical Poly 100s.’” So a lot of it was organic. We were just talking the other day that the whole process has seemed a little suspiciously easy because it was so exciting, and we worked so well together and the pieces we just sent out. I think we only had two people say no.

EW: One person said no because the essay we wanted is going to be in a book, and he doesn't want it in an anthology first, which totally makes sense.

MN: It might be hard to pick a favorite essay, but if you have one or one that feels crucial to the anthology, could you talk about why?

TW: I really love Bojan’s piece about being in Singapore. It's a travel essay essentially, and I love that piece because people think of Native people as not moving around the world at all. Because there’s this connection to territory and place, it becomes static. There are numerous times in the essay, “Fear to Forget & Fear to Forgive: Or an Attempt at Writing a Travel Essay,” where he hasn't written in it for months and then he's like, “Oh, I'm getting back to it now.” It's very dynamic; he's moving, the piece is moving. You get a real sense of the temporal dynamics of it, that it's taking months. And I love Elissa’s essay, but I love everything Elissa does.

EW: Aw!

TW: Elissa and I are twins. Can you tell?

EW: We buy the same clothes.

TW: When we met, we were both wearing all black. And I brought her up to do a talk at Western and she met me in my office, and we both had these glasses on, and we were like, “we look the same.”

EW: After a while, we realized we were unintentionally buying the same clothes and then intentionally started buying the same clothes.

TW: Just yesterday, we texted about buying the same clothes! Okay, Elissa, what is your favorite essay? We haven't even talked about this.

EW: I don't know. It's really hard. Michael Wasson's is probably my favorite. I solicited that when I was an editor at The Rumpus, and I had no idea whether he would have nonfiction, but he either had that or wrote it. I've taught that essay several times. I've read it over and over and over and over, editing it twice now. And, of course, both times, it's been perfect. It just feels like it has this endless mystery at its heart. It's an essay that I don't feel that I can fully understand and yet I also feel like… or maybe I feel like I can't fully access it, but I can still appreciate the meaning of it and I can still understand it in ways that are gently challenging.

TW: I was just thinking too about Joan Kane’s essay. In that essay, she uses asterisks throughout to help space the essay, and it was really funny editing this with a copy editor from the press. Because some of the things that were happening in the essays, they were like, “should these asterisks be centered?” and Elissa and I were like, “no.” I have a soft spot for some of those essays, like Joan’s, that challenged the editing process. Like in Bojan’s work, he uses a lot of Diné language, and they asked to italicize Diné words because that’s the policy with foreign languages and we have to say, “no, they're not foreign words.”

MN: Thinking about how the anthology challenges things, you quoted Muscogee writer Joy Harjo and Spokane writer Gloria Bird, hoping “to ‘turn the process of colonization around,’ so that Native literatures ‘will be viewed and read as a process of decolonization.’” I'm wondering if you can talk more about how this does that work.

EW: One of the things that I've been thinking about–and, Theresa, I've been wanting to talk to you more about this, apart from my random text messages–but–

TW: Elissa and I text a lot. We joke that this collection was done all through text.

EW: It’s a joke, but it's true. Most of it was done via text message. I have been thinking about–this is going to be a roundabout answer, but we'll get there. I've been thinking a lot lately about wanting a new term for the lyric essay, because that term is just not working. It seems like it can be understood at face value in a way that it can't. Lyric essay is not the same as lyrical essay. I've been thinking about this a lot, as I'm teaching lyric essay and talking more about it, and I've been wanting a new term. As I was thinking and tweeting about all this, I got back to our introduction, looking at the proofs, and I realized we already came up with this new term that's exactly what I wanted in exquisite vessel. Because it's something that's able to encompass not just gap-based composite essays, or however we describe the lyric essay, it's able to encompass what I'm seeing more and more of in work that is thought of as the lyric essay: seamless work, work that doesn't have the gaps, that is very form conscious, but work that is conscious of its seamlessness. That’s something that’s happening in the essays in this collection. We have essays that are form conscious but do not have gaps, that are coiling. I've been wanting a new term that is not accidentally misleading, and I realized exquisite vessel is the term I wanted, and this is terminology that is not just for Native nonfiction. This is for everybody. To me, that feels like a decolonizing gesture, that we could come up with this term that is based on our approach to basketry and to aesthetically exciting objects and vessels, and we can apply it to Native nonfiction, but it's a term that can be used by all writers. What do you think, Theresa?

TW: Yeah, sometimes I feel like Elissa and I set each other up for these things, but I swear we did not talk about this beforehand, but I was going to say the exact same thing. I'm assigned to teach American literature classes, and when I do that, I always say, “how might the study of American literature look different if we considered Native literature foundational to the field in the way that Native land is foundational to the United States?” The US is built on Native land, and what happens when you reframe it that way instead of Native literature is this niche interest within that? We’re trying to work against that niche. We're saying that what Native writers are doing with form is actually transformative for the field itself, for how we understand the essay as a form. In Native studies, one of the basic premises of decolonization is this great essay by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang called, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” In that essay, they talk about how decolonization has material realities, that part of what decolonization has to be is the return of Native land to Native people, which will lead to these actual material changes  not just in Native communities but everywhere. Part of what that requires is, as a non-Native person, developing a different way of relating to Native people and Native land than the way that's been given to me through settlement. Part of working on this essay collection has been Elissa and I trying to figure out, as a Native and non-Native writer, how we are building a relationship, a personal relationship and a professional relationship that is trying to get out of those ways that we've been taught to relate to each other. One of the things that we talked a lot about, in the introduction especially, was: we're writing in one voice, we're writing as the editors, but there are times, for instance, when Elissa wants to talk about Native writers as a “we,” and I'm not part of that “we.” So how do we, Elissa and I, navigate that relationship? To me, that's very much where the decolonization part of this comes from. To say, this is relevant to everybody, because everybody is part of that process, and non-Native people need to learn different ways of relating to Native literature, for instance, and then that on a bigger scale. We're hoping that this does that by insisting that Native writers are foundational to the field of nonfiction, not, “the lyric essay happened, and then Native writers started doing the lyric essay, and now they're really good at it.” Not at all. Those genealogies of the things in this essay go all the way back to Zitkála-Šá, people that are part of a different genealogy than the typical genealogy of the essay that is popular.

EW: My first personal essay was a lyric essay, and I had never heard that term before. I had not read lyric essays. It was written for an anthropology class, which was kind of wild. I was the only Native person in the room. At University of Maryland, Anthropology the only department where I found a class on Native peoples. Our final project could be a creative project, and a lot of people presented horribly offensive ones. I wrote a personal essay, shared it with the professor, and refused to share it with the class because it was intensely personal. That ended up being part of my first book, and it was a lyric essay. It was about my identity, my confusion about my identity, my family history, violence, all these things. I don't know where I got the idea to break it into fragments because I didn’t encounter those fragmented essay models until later.

TW: I have that happen now. I had a student last semester, a Kanaka student, and she wrote this beautiful final project about Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is this American military National Park, but it's also a place that her family has a strong connection to, and she wrote this beautiful essay and said, “this is my final paper,” and I said, “this is an essay.” I sent her Elissa’s “Apocalypse Logic,” and I said, “Do you see the connections?” She ended up publishing it. I said, “this is a nonfiction piece; send it to this person,” and she published it as an essay. This goes back to your question about decolonization; these are storytelling practices that are familiar and again come from a different genealogy. The student couldn't write without talking about her personal connection to place, but that also meant she had to talk about her father, her grandmother, and her mother. Then to also bring in this military history about Hawaii, there was no other way for her to tell that story. To circle back to what Elissa was saying about the term exquisite vessel and needing a new term for lyric essay, there's so much about like, “this is when the lyric essay became popular, and this is what it looks like, and this,” but we're trying to say, “how might we refer to these storytelling practices that predate that and maybe parallel it or intersect with it in ways?”

EW: In talking about the lyric essay, there's so much talk about sourcing and material and not as much talk about time, and for me, what's appealing when I look back at the work that I do and why lyric movement works is that there's a sense of simultaneity. In different Native cosmologies, there's different conceptions of time and overlapping timelines and simultaneity, or circularity or all sorts of different ways of understanding time. I was raised to function within competing ways of living inside time: things taking the time they take, clock be damned, is often in conflict with scheduled American culture. I’m constantly trying to make a moment stretch, always getting out the door late, and I think that’s how the joke of being on Indian Time is an unfortunate truth for me. The bent and mixed timelines I work with in the essay are completely different from the linear time I attempted to represent in conventional fiction, when I was still writing it. In the essay, every second can be as densely packed as they feel like they are, or could be, in life. I think that the lyric essay, or whatever we call it, is a way of getting that onto the page. Just right now, what we're doing, talking into the computer, is not the only thing that's going on. My past is happening because I'm talking about it.

TW: And I will say, just talking about the term exquisite vessel, when we first started this book, Elissa said, “this book has been living in me and what it is called is exquisite vessel.” The book isn’t called that anymore; that's the title of the introduction, and we got to a place where we agreed with the editors that as far as selling the book, that made sense. But it was a term that we had to fight for in the introduction that one of the reviewers didn't like it at first. In the introduction, there's a part where we make really clear what we mean by the term exquisite. The reason we wanted the term was the sense of craft; something really exquisite is delicate and created with intention. But there was some worry about that term, which made us have to really identify and be able to argue for what it was about the term that made us invested.

EW: Another part of what I love about how we defined the term and how we talked about the word exquisite was that idea of the exquisite pain and exquisite ache. When David Shields talks about literary collage, he talks about calamity, and I think that that's the feeling of intensity and necessity and urgency of creating. The press board and the editors worried that the term exquisite vessel was going to call to mind The Well Wrought Urn.

AM:  Is that a bad reference?

TW: I don't know if they felt like that was bad. They were like, “that is what people are going to think,” or they were worried that people were going to think that the book was about baskets. That's why there's not a basket on the cover. We originally wanted a photo of Ed Carriere’s basket that we talk about in the introduction, but they thought people were going to think that the book was about baskets. And the new cover that the press designed is something we love. The art director did a really good job invoking the basket, but without it being only a material thing. We did have a lot of discussions about like what that term would bring up for people, The Well Wrought Urn was one of them, and just material objects in general. I don't remember if they thought that was a bad reference or just not what we're going.

EW: I think it was the latter. I’m still going to use the term.

AM: We've been looking at some of these essays, tracking them down in various places online, and a number of them have images. Are the images showing up in the anthology? did some of them get stripped? Did none of them make it?

EW: The ones in The Rumpus probably all had images in the online publications, but none of the essays came in with images. That's just something that The Rumpus does. There’s always a header image and then they invite writers to include more images to break up the page. Some of those have images for that reason, but there are no images in the book.

TW: I think that goes back to this question about online publication. I had an article come out with Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, and they published it in the journal, and then when they republished it online, they asked me for images because they said that breaks up the page a little bit for readers. I'm not that deeply a technological person, but it's important to the format, I think. None of those images that were included in those essays were built into the structure of the essay. A lot of that I think was added for the online format. Byron's essay had specific symbols in it that we had fought to keep. We didn’t have to fight hard, but we had to say, “no, another symbol isn't okay,” and we had to import it as an image file, even if it's not what we think of as an image.

AM: It's a thing that we've started to think about in my class. It's a conversation we've been having about, “is this the author’s image? Is it part of the essay?” Often not, but sometimes yes. That's useful to think about.

TW: We were really careful about editing. We did a lot of back and forth with authors saying, “Is this what you want it to look like?” So, even if there weren't images, we did a lot of work on the visual appearance of the text on the page. That was a lot of the editing with the copy editor. We did have to do a lot about spacing. Those aren't images necessarily, but there was a lot of discussion about the visual elements, about how we wanted it to look. We started this project three years ago, so part of what's going on Elissa and I are thinking back.

EW: Our lives have changed completely in the last three years.

TW: We were both living in Washington, and now Elissa is in Ohio, and I'm in Rhode Island.

AM: People don't think a lot about the duration of these projects and how the project changes over the course of that. In some cases, anthologies come out of a decade of conversations or perhaps even longer.

EW: And there are so many writers publishing exciting work now. That’s partly why we want a second one, but I hadn't read, for example, Danielle Geller’s work when we were choosing essays. I think I had met Danielle, but I didn't know her work at all. There are just so many other Native writers who that’s the case for, too.

AM: One of the cool things about the anthology is it comes at a really good time. This is maybe in part due to the to the rising influence of the IAIA low-rez. All of a sudden, I'm much more aware of a lot of Native writers all in conversation with each other, a lot of them online. Creative nonfiction is a pretty recent genre in the academy, especially, so it seems like it's still under negotiation in a way that fiction and poetry are not, so this feels like a very fortuitous time to have this anthology do this gathering work and this space-making work, and I feel very excited about it. It's one that I know that Maddie has been really excited about from the get-go.

TW: There have been a couple of articles that have come out about this time, calling it a “new Renaissance,” which I sort of dislike because I don’t really like the term “Native Renaissance” in the first place for Native Renaissance. I do think with the popularity of books like Terese Mailhot’s and Tommy Orange’s, combined with public attention to Standing Rock, I think there’s a higher familiarity with or awareness. It’s not as much as we'd like, but I feel like it's a good time to articulate that there's a connection between literature and political movement, and this is, for us, a political project. We're not like, “oh no it's just literature.” It really is connected to these things, and it is a really exciting time. I hope that it is signaling a more devout interest in the field.

MN: Terese has this quotation that I really love: “the writers before me seemed to do the work of looking at being indigenous, so we could look through it.” I wanted to hear you all talk about how this collection looks through it and what it sees.

EW: So many conference panels seem to be focused on just Native identity, and we were tired of talking about it, and yet it still seemed to be something we needed to talk about. There was a lot of resistance to this expectation that we just keep talking about identity, and yet it's such a core conflict for so many of us, an inner conflict, that it seems like a natural subject for the essay, but we wanted to be able to do it on our own terms, rather than having to write into the non-Native expectation that we would be talking about identity again, especially because a lot of other Native writers have already done this work. I was looking through old books today by Leslie Marmon Silko, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Paula Gunn Allen and seeing that some of the things that we're still writing about have been written about so thoroughly so many years ago, and it feels like this is a moment where finally we're able to get some recognition from the publishing industry for work that doesn't ask those same questions about where you live, whether you live on the reservation or not, where you grew up, your appearance, do you speak the language, are you in ceremony, these same fights on the page; we don't have to do that anymore. We can talk about Twitter like Tommy Pico does; we can write about Red Dead Redemption 2; we can write about travel; we can write about whatever we want.

AM: Bush.

EW: We can write about Bush. Sometimes there are editors who only reach out to me when it's Native American Heritage Month, or it's Columbus Day. But the Bush essay came about because the editor who solicited it had been listening to me talk and talk and talk about Bush one day, and he said, “Bush is coming to town. I want an essay,” so I feel like there's a lot more opportunities for us to branch out now into writing about what we actually are concerned about, rather than the same old stuff that has already been done and that we may already have answers to. Instead, we can essay into the questions that we’re actually curious about.

TW: There's a quote in the introduction that we explicitly took disagreeing with Krupat; it says something like, Native nonfiction is grounded in a fascination with authenticity. And it’s true that there is this obsession with authenticity in evaluating Native writing, and we are not interested in that question at all. Thinking about teaching this collection or teaching Native lit in general, there are real misunderstandings about indigeneity, where it really only gets conflated with race or ethnicity but that’s not what indigeneity is. So many scholars, like Kim TallBear who is in the collection, have pointed this out endlessly. It’s really thinking about a relationship to place and to each other, so kinship and thinking about relationship to land. To me, that’s what the looking at versus looking through is about. I always tell my students that we're not looking at Native writers. We're looking for what they say about the world and how we can learn about the world from what they say. Sometimes the way that Native literatures are taught and read is that the only place they're allowed to look is at each other or at themselves. And we wanted to say, “no, they're open to the world and looking at the world and engaging in this.” Red Dead Redemption might look very different to me than it looks to Elissa. Or like, non-Native people can’t seem to understand all the things bound up in casinos, which might look very different to non-Native people than to Native people.

EW: When we went, you had a good time though!

TW: We had the best time. Elissa and I went to the opening of the Cowlitz casino together, and it was so hilarious. I did get chided though because someone was like, “I haven't seen you before, so you must not be a person that comes to council meetings.” I was like, “No, I'm not a deadbeat; I just–” It was funny. I do think we'll have a big chunk of Native readers. I really hope that this is a collection, though, that non-Native people read and see and say, “Oh, this is a different way of relating and I have a responsibility to listen to the ways of relating that are being laid out here.”

EW: As a member of a gaming tribe, I feel like I have this language around Indian Casino humor that doesn’t often totally translate to non-Natives. Gaming is a significant economic activity for us, but of course we joke—joking and teasing are just standard modes of discourse for us. I love to joke about the Indian Casino: the buffet, the musical acts that come through, what we’re going to do with your money. I knew you could appreciate the layers of seriousness and absurdity, and could love and respect all of it. To me, that’s what this collaboration and this book are all about: approaching Native writers’ work with a willingness to engage on the terms the writer sets, and doing so with the care and patience to see us as who we are and what we love.


Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

Theresa Warburton lives in Lummi, Nooksack, and Coast Salish territories in Bellingham, WA. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Washington University, where she is also Affiliate Faculty in Canadian-American and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Ander Monson is the editor of Essay Daily.

Maddie Norris is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in creative nonfiction and was previously the Thomas Wolfe Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work can be found in Essay Daily, Opossum, and Intima. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about her dead dad, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and the impossibilities of wound healing. 

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