It’s Not a Literary Renaissance When You’ve Been Telling Stories Since the Dawn of Time

AP Photo/Michael Probst

The Native literary community suffered a very public loss when author Sherman Alexie admitted to sexually harassing women. But Alexie was only one of the most visible indigenous writers. Many Native people have written strong literary work for a long time, from Leslie Marmon Silko to Joy Harjo to N. Scott Momaday. At BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen reports on the new generation who is redefining indigenous literature, and how these writers are reclaiming the means of production in the form of their own creative writing programs.

Traditional MFA programs are very Eurocentric, just as American commercial publishing is Eurocentric. Native American tribes have ancient oral traditions, proving again and again that there are many ways to tell stories outside the Western tradition. Now Native American writers have the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) MFA program to provide room to create art unburdened by white aesthetic standards. Founded in 2012, two-thirds of IAIA’s faculty are indigenous, and two of its graduates, Terese Marie Mailhot and Tommy Orange, have recently published searing books that have gotten people talking. In addition to education and encouragement, the program aims to “claim visibility,” because, as the author notes, “Many people in the US have never met a Native American; they don’t see or interact with Natives in their everyday lives. Natives aren’t characters in the books and films and music and art they consume.”

“One of the reasons I wrote a polyphonic novel is that I come from a voiceless community,” Orange told me. “And in a similar way, with IAIA, I want to usher in as many new voices as possible. We’re just trying to get to the baseline of humanity, and not be a textbook image that’s remembered and spoken of in the past tense. That’s where our urgency comes from.”

For Mailhot, Orange, and so many writers I spoke to at IAIA, it’s not just about the book deals. It’s about what they call Native Excellence — and creating a path to it with its own expectations and standards, instead of relying on those established by white academia or publishing.

“I think it’s a type of arrival, when you get to make those decisions for yourself,” Mailhot said. “It’s very different for indigenous people, and black people, and people of color, because we are so often told to doubt ourselves, and our aesthetics, and what we do, simply because some of us are not traditionally taught how to write. And even if we are, we are looked at as if we don’tknow how — that we’re not authorities of our own work. And I just don’t buy it anymore.”

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