There’s a problem most of us have when we look at Native American literature: Too often, we read Native American literature for the braids, beads, and buckskin “Magical Indian” promulgated by certain tropes and ideas of the prevailing culture in this country. I talked with writer and educator Erika Wurth about this, between March 25, 2019 to November 14, 2020, in person and via email. We also talked about craft, dystopias, stealing time to write, and more.
Erika T. Wurth’s publications include two novels, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and You Who Enter Here, two collections of poetry and a collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Buzzfeed, Boulevard, Lithub, The Writer’s Chronicle, Bitch, Waxwing and The Kenyon Review. She will be faculty at Breadloaf in 2021, is a Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Scholar, attended the Tin House Summer Workshop, and has been chosen as a narrative artist for the Meow Wolf Denver installation. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver, where she lives with her partner, her two stepchildren, and her extremely fluffy dogs.
I noticed that you use a lot of poetic techniques in especially your short stories. Could you talk a bit about that?
I’m primarily a fiction writer who is interested in people’s inner lives, and I’m interested in the stories they tell themselves – or the unreliable narrator, is the more traditional way of putting it. I also notice when people will put certain labels on my work (which I don’t entirely object to), like narrative writer or experimentalist. I will say that I do like structure, and I like story. I’m interested in form and content. And, you know, I’m interested in people’s inner lives – and the way that pressurized language can illustrate those lives. In other words, I’m not interested in one particular methodology, I am interested in what kind of form the content needs.
It was one of Toni Jenson’s short stories that influenced that for me. Borrowing poetic techniques, like repetition, or even visually with something like block stanzas, and sonically with deep attention to language, and that paired with what characters would say if they could tell themselves the truth – if their deepest inner voices could have some sort of microphone.
I saw this inner voice–microphone happening in Buckskin Cocaine – people who aren’t normally self-aware, or don’t seem self-aware, have the stage monitors turned up into the red.
I’ve always wondered if you could get people in a room where they’re incapable of lying, but at the same time incapable of getting upset about it, what would they say? This is my way of getting at it. When you’re forced to just wipe everything away, what you’re left with is human behavior, and you have to do a good job of showing why that’s compelling and dark.
We’re talking about writing in different forms, and I want to connect that to genres, too. What are some of the boons each of the genres have to offer? Is there some significance we can glean from trying out many written forms?
Even though I write creatively, I have two articles on form – one on poetics called “The Fourth Wave,” the other on narratology called “The Fourth Wave in Native American Fiction,” both of them relating to Native American literature. To me, the term “literary” has been synonymous with realism, and it has become kind of synonymous with almost a post-modern aesthetic. But if you think about it, literary simply means: depth of theme, complex characterization, and attention to form and language. In my opinion, if those are there, the work is literary. Until recently, genres like crime, romance, and speculative fiction have been deemed not-literary. Personally, I think it’s important to experiment with different genres in different forms. And to read in different forms and genres as well.
What are your thoughts about dystopias in science fiction?
People are in love with dystopias. And though I love SFF, I’m not interested in writing a dystopia. I’m interested in writing about other worlds in relation to our world, and I am verging into speculative literature. My friend Rebecca Roanhorse does write dystopias however, and I think they’re fabulous – fun, sharp, and revolutionary. It’s all in the execution, and I can understand the obsession, right now we’re living in a kind of dystopia.
I feel like I’ve seen a lot of writers hyper-focus specifically on place, and they don’t necessarily delve into the internal workings of their characters. It’s more like: “This is what I’m saying about myself; this is what the people around me are saying about me; these are my actions.” We get a sort of surface-level view of who our characters are as they move through whatever landscape.
Place matters. My work is always located. That said, though I think structure is incredibly important, I will always believe that characterization comes first. Structure is so important, and of course I’m in love with language. But it’s people that we read fiction for.
I remember reading some of your short stories and thinking that the characters and situations there paralleled certain situations we are currently discussing in literary community nation-wide. For example, in the short story “Barry Four Voices,” there’s a man speaking at a podium, and he’s having a lot of inner turmoil, but also staring at it head on. He is able to see it in ways that such a person in real life might not be able to. This story was so powerful for me because it was something that us, as spectators or observers don’t usually get to see.
I’ve always pictured that story as a person who has four inner voices, and all of those voices are competing to get to the top, and his dominating self is spinning out of control. The inner voices are pushing the dominant self all the time. That story is weird to me because, let’s say: there’s this ex of yours who was horrible to you, and you want to read their social media posts and old emails – that story for me is like that.
What were you like when you were young? Has that changed? How?
I was so uncomfortable as a young person. But once I got to college, at least I make friends with people who liked to read. And over time, I think like a lot of people, I ended up with a stronger and stronger sense of who I am, in relationship to where I come from. And I think you can see that in my work.
In one of the articles I read about you, you talked about having to steal time to write. I think that’s a really important point because you are a stepmom, have pets, teach, and it looks like you work relentlessly. When I first hear something about how someone has to steal time, I think it’s easy to believe that the work is going to come really slowly. But, you have a huge body of work. So, I guess I am wondering, what are some of the ways you steal time?
It’s not ideal, and it’s not romantic, but I remember the first time I got together with my boyfriend; he was finishing up his MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and he was going through a divorce, which is a brutal thing – and his novel got stopped for good reason. He kept saying that he didn’t have time to write because he needed hours and a certain environment. I said, “Dave, you have to sit down even if it’s twenty minutes, and write.”
I teach a lot, and have countless other projects going on at any given time. But I get up, I brew a cup of coffee and I write – and I juggle projects so that I have time to write in the morning, at least an hour. Unless it’s an emergency, I make time for the writing. That’s what my boyfriend started doing. Sometimes he would get up at 4 AM. I’m not saying you have to do that, but it did work for him – he now has a novel out with Ecco/Harper Collins.
Are there any parts of writing you find particularly challenging?
I struggle with structure. The last novel was a short story collection turned terrible novel. I sent it off to agents – and it took about a week or two before the dread set in. I had been too hasty, and I hadn’t really paid attention to what the structure needed to be. I’ve subsequently burned that novel down four times, I’ve rewritten it possibly 100 times. But it’s better because I started being very deliberate with structure. I don’t know if I’m going to get a new agent, but I know it’s better. And it’s kind of a ghost story.
A lot of people will tell you that if you identify as a literary writer, you must care only about language. Personally? I think people need to stop pretending like structure is for Hollywood. If you’re doing something really traditional, or if you’re doing parallel structure, or something high-concept, you still need to have a concrete sense of what you’re doing. And it’s really hard.
How would you define the term “Literary Citizenship”?
Let me just speak to the way in which I am a literary citizen. Though things are changing, especially as a Native American writer, and certainly as a WOC, I have had to experience how hard it is to break into the industry. So I make time to mentor other writers – many of them make friends with me on social media because they’ve read something of mine, and I try to point them to magazines that I think they would be a fit for. I also review for Publishers Weekly, because if I didn’t, and it took a while to get that opportunity, non-BIPOC would continue to be the only ones who would get rave reviews and starred reviews. And that stuff affects your career. I write articles for places like BuzzFeed, about super contemporary Native American writers. I talk about other writers on social media, and I keep in contact with my students, for years and years afterwards if they have an interest in writing. I also think it’s important to celebrate your peers and friends even if they’re becoming more successful than you are. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be. Personally, I’ve had literary agents, and I’ve had successes – and I’m not complaining, but I have yet to break into the Big Five. But I celebrate those who have, all the time.
I remember seeing something on your Facebook page about, and it was reiterated in one of the articles I read about your work, that you want the literary landscape and overarching culture to just let us write from our own experiences, and stop trying to essentially monitor and censor what the experience we’re writing should be. Could you say more?
Well, for example, Indigenous Canadian author Katherena Vermette wrote a fabulous novel called The Break, which takes place in an urban setting and with multiple tribes. Some characters are “mixed,” some have Indian parents on both sides, some are from the reservation, and some are urban. I really don’t know how a book like that would be published in the states at all, even on a small press. The dynamic she speaks to is woven into the book so organically, and I feel there’s something about American culture that really seems to want people of color, and absolutely Natives, to speak to the same simplistic tropes and big binaries like: “I’m from the rez, and it’s terrible, and tragic, and I had to leave, and I’m not authentic.” I’m really tired of that. Not everyone’s experiences align with those tropes, but people just really push for that stuff, and it doesn’t help, and it isn’t real. Even if fiction is a lie, this is not real at all.
One of the things I notice in American culture is a tendency towards homogenization. We see this right down to our foodstuffs. But, people are living full lives that aren’t a cheeseburger.
I don’t want to retreat into further binaries, but something that makes me so uncomfortable is when writers of color in general have to explain that they aren’t from the ghetto, or not from the rez – which is awful. But, there are people who are, and it is my job to lift them up. It’s my job because I have these tiny privileges, and I’m going to use them to wedge these people up whenever I can because that’s the right thing to do. And here’s the thing: even if folks are from the ghetto or the reservation, their lives do not fit into these predetermined binaries.
Would you consider this part of your activism?
I feel very weird about that word. The last time I was written about in Denver Westword, they used that term. I told the reporter that I was not an activist, and she said, “Yes, you are.” I think I feel that way because I am Native American, and people just immediately think of BIPOC that way. A lot of my resistance to the term isn’t because I think it’s a bad thing, but because there are people who really put their lives on the line. People who went to Standing Rock, for example.
If there is activism that I do, it is showing up to the panel that includes the prof who works at the MFA program my student is trying to get into, and saying something to help my student into that program. It’s mentoring my former students, or people that I find on social media, who are young Native writers who need help being pointed in the right direction. It’s writing those articles I was talking about. That is what I’m able to do. That is what matters to me, but I didn’t put my body on the line.
I think that activism takes many forms, because there are so many instances where people are silent or where they don’t have the words, or they are unable to see beyond a certain point. I think that’s really cool that you’re helping folks to get to those next levels when they don’t have that.
It’s lonely otherwise, this is what I’ve never gotten about Native writers who want to be the only one. I guess they don’t mind the loneliness. Also, it’s cruel, and it’s boring when you’re the biggest, only Indian writer.
I do want to ask about institutionalized racism because, well, I’ve definitely experienced it, and I’m just starting. What do you think are ways to break that
I’ll probably be struggling to answer that more concretely for the rest of my life. I think you do have to stand up. The hard part is that a lot of it is unconscious. No one is going to call me a prairie ****** like they did when I was kid, but what they’re going to do is create spaces where they feel comfortable. That is: white folks are going to feel more comfortable with white folks, and they’re going to make friends in their institutions, and they’re going to do each other favors, and they’re going to unconsciously assume that you are lazy, even if you out-publish them, even if you do all kinds of work. They’re going to talk down to you, and you have to consistently figure out where to engage and where not to, to give yourself the most peace and power in a situation.
Who would you recommend reading?
There are so many amazing reads on the Native level alone. If you want to find out about the numerous fiction writers in the Native world that are coming out and forming a new Native renaissance, do look up the article I wrote for BuzzFeed that I mentioned earlier.
Personally, I’ve become really re-enamored of speculative work, and I am absolutely in love with Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. And of course there is the work of Stephen Graham Jones.
What’s a question you wish interviewers would ask?
I wish interviewers would ask more about craft. Whatever your background is: Black, Latinx, Asian, Native; more than likely you’re going to talk about that – it’s going to be interwoven organically throughout your conversation. But our work isn’t there to just deliver bits of flattened culture to a white audience. Our work is art, and we employ a lot of craft, just as any artist does.
What is your biggest pet peeve in literary community?
I think it’s the literary camps that seem the most useless to me. If you’re an experimentalist, be concrete about why that is – and don’t imagine that that’s the only place craft and what’s literary exists. Someone could write a post-modern fantasy novel. Read widely. Don’t be a snob.
Tameca L Coleman is a singer, multi-genre writer, editor, itinerant nerd, educator, and point and shoot tourist in their own town. Currently, they live in Denver Colorado. Tameca has performed and recorded music with many bands ranging from punk-ska and avant garde to ambient and jazz fusion. They recently finished an MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile-High MFA’s creative writing program at Regis University. They have published or have forthcoming work at Heavy Feather Review, Colorado Independent, Denver Westword, Full Stop Reviews, pulpmouth, Inverted Syntax, Lambda Literary,Rigorous, and is looking for a publisher for two new manuscripts. For more information about Tameca’s work, you can follow @sireneatspoetry on Twitter and Instagram.