An Interview by Désirée Zamorano
Toni Jensen’s most recent collection of short stories, From the Hilltop (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), is an organic and evocative collection of voices from across the country, predominately the mid- and upper-Midwest. Simply wrought, with interpersonal tugs on every page, Ms. Jensen brings an eye for nuanced detail and a sensibility for the undertone of hidden emotions.
She is Métis. She deeply enjoys teaching at the University of Arkansas, and in addition to crafting essays she is currently at work on her second collection of stories. We chatted at length about racial constructs, misrepresentations, and the politics of her writing by phone and email. Our conversation has been condensed for the reader.
The last time I heard you speak was at an AWP panel. I loved the short story you read [forthcoming at descant]. You also remarked that “race is a social construct,” as many of us know, but of course the implications of race are complicated.
That was an interesting panel. There’s always somebody in the audience—and it’s always a white person, never a Latino or Asian or African American person—who asks how do they incorporate Native characters into their writing? We got this question during that panel from a white man even though we had specifically said we don’t want to address that question, that that’s not what this panel is about. No matter what you do at the level of aesthetics in a panel or in a work, someone will pose that question. So I think that is interesting. It’s a frustration, I will admit, it is a continuing frustration for me that we don’t get to talk as much about how race gets constructed because the conversation includes this question from well-meaning white people, and the focus, then, is always going to be about their needs and their wants and desires for Native people in their own work. So there’s less time and space for the conversation I want to have: aesthetics and interior questions of race.
Tell me more about those questions you want to answer.
Speaking specifically from my own experience, anytime we’re asked to contribute to broader conversations on race, for Native people, the questions are either pan-Indian, about all tribal backgrounds versus our own particular background, and/or they’re just sort of broad questions about racism. I think those broad conversations can be useful, but increasingly I’m questioning their efficacy. Who are those questions for? What groups are they serving? They never get as in-depth as conversations we’re having internally within our own circles, and so it feels like a repetition and a skimming of the surface. Who is the conversation serving? Is it primarily for a white audience?
I see this work as service work, and I’m interested in serving my own community first and then other minority communities. And not until that work is finished comes education for the purpose of helping white people come along on their issues of race.
I can see how a young Native writer or reader coming up in the world might be served by those questions, but I’m not really interested in doing this sort of educational, broad, pan-Indian or broad cross-racial awareness. People in each community are doing good, in-depth work. If whites want to be in that conversation, they need to be reading that work. Never in the world has it been easier to become educated and understand the nuances of the world. If people aren’t bothering to do that work, then I’m not interested in surface questions. I can’t go back in time for these people and shift for them their upbringing and how they see the world. Go on Twitter. Google. Get a book—it’s just not that hard.
How to rewrite the questions, then, and to really get in there and be sure that the forum you’re working in, that the moderators understand the questions they’re asking, and if they don’t, and you’ve offered them the rewritten questions and they’re not receptive, then that’s not a space I’m interested in. I’m not trying to be prescriptive for how anyone else wants to operate, but I’m only really interested in service to certain communities right now. I think in this time where everyone’s moving towards doing more social justice work, that’s service, too. So for me the boundary or line has to be pretty well drawn.
What is your work in other spaces?
We have guns allowed on our campus, starting this fall, and I’d already been writing essays about guns and gun violence, so now I’m writing more, even, about guns and gun violence. I’m as active as I can be in showing up for anti-gun forums and issues, and I write about environmental issues, as well, and their intersections. I’m also working on a book of stories about the trafficking of indigenous and other women and sexual exploitation of women around the fracking/pipeline culture. I’m very interested in all sorts of broader issues, and I’ll engage in those points across any and all lines. Especially with the gun and violence issues, I think that having people of color and people from underrepresented groups, which is the case for me, as part of those conversations is crucial.
We’re dealing with the NRA for gun issues, the Breitbart/Heritage Foundation people, which requires a lot of energy. White people can come along and educate themselves on questions of race if they want to be part of those conversations. It’s not up to the rest of us to read or network on their behalf. And that’s not even how that works. When asked, I often have to say to people “There’s no magic syllabus for racism.” It’s not what you teach so much as how you teach it. That requires a shift in mind set.
How do you address the pervasive invisibility and blatant misrepresentation of Native people?
It is the worst for Native people, and that is statistically accurate. And this is hard because I have a child. Google “Native American women” and you're going to get the earth mother type, some people in tribal regalia, some non-Native people at Coachella and festivals like that, with the head dresses and the dyed feathers from Hobby Lobby. You’re going get the Pocahotties; you go to any Target and they’re selling a little teepee for kids to play under. It’s difficult, too, because what that does for Native people who don’t look like anyone else’s idea of Native is... it’s further erasure. For those people who are visually identifiable as Native, it’s further stereotyping. It demoralizes children and contributes directly to instances of poor performance in school and suicide attempts. It’s a complicated issue. I do wish America would come along better in popular culture, in particular, because it matters.
The erasure of physical markers also ties in. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know the tribes who are nearby, coexisting or predating them on the land where they live.
Thinking about land and place is not just an exercise in thinking about who was there first, but who continues to be there and live there and thrive there. And struggle. The narratives always move to struggle, for Native people. That’s also a misconception that there isn’t anyone thriving in Indian Country, but of course there are people who are thriving.
Your characters come from multiple tribes and face both different struggles and outcomes. Can you tell me a little of your intent in your stories? What are your motives for these portrayals?
At the level of craft or structure or choices that I’m making, especially with the first book, From the Hilltop, and it’s going to continue in the second book, not all of the stories are realist. A couple of the stories don’t adhere to realism and that continues in many stories in this next book. I’m interested in stories that sit on the boundaries between real and unreal; but my characters are Native characters and are going to behave as people. Particularly in the first book, I was interested in characters living in rural spaces where in America many people are not necessarily aware that Native people occupy any of these spaces in any kind of a way in a regular life. My characters go to the mall and the gas station and to work. In that collection my stories were preoccupied with indigenous bodies in these rural spaces, off-reservation but not urban.
That continues in the second collection because it’s about fracking. One of the stories is set in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, but mostly rural spaces in the next book. It’s hard to know, it’s hard to say, because you talk about intent as a writer and that’s a little bit of a false concept. When you sit down to write you don’t think, “Well, I’m going to do this thing.” It’s more like I write a story and the thing recurs and recurs and recurs. It is equally important to me that Native people be represented broadly and widely and that they not always be heroes or villains but that they be complicated characters who live regular lives, but of course whose lives are complicated enough for interesting fiction. Full of conflict, interpersonal relationship conflict, sure, but also characters who have jobs, who work. I think a good chunk of indigenous fiction deals a lot with family and with family structure, and I think that’s wonderful, but I’m also interested in showing Native characters in their jobs and day to day lives.
There’s this sense that there’s abject poverty for Native people, that their lives are always a plight, tragic and dark. Then there’s the romanticizing of the environmental Indian, the wise, the “please teach us your ways,” the spiritual Indian. I’m interested in the continuum, all of the spaces in between those two false extremes.
Casual racism is a note in every story...
We’re more aware of this perhaps as a country, but casual racism is not news to any member of a minority group. Native Americans have always been aware that casual racism is just a part of native life in America.
If you’re on a reservation what that looks like is slightly different. If you’re in an urban area depending on whether it’s known to be an urban Indian center, the way that’s calibrated, operated, what it looks like is different place to place. But it’s everywhere. Rural America is slightly different, I would say, especially the stories I set in Texas. It’s so casual because there’s such erasure there that it’s just an ingrained part of the myth of the West. It’s a large part of how Texans operate. Whereas the stories set in the upper-Midwest, in Minnesota, there’s a lot more understanding and knowledge of indigenous people, but because of that there is also a lot of racism, different from the racism in Texas. In the Minnesota setting, I had characters who encountered people who thought they understood Native issues, but they didn’t understand them at all, of course.
Because I’ve lived all over the country, I think my perspective is slightly different. I’ve taught at a couple of reservation schools but I haven’t lived deeply embedded in any reservation culture, so I’m not going to write those books. There are plenty of other people for whom that’s their experience and those books are for them to write.
How can we be political in our stories without being didactic?
I think there’s the myth of being apolitical, first of all, in fiction or nonfiction. Everyone is making a political choice when they write. If you’re choosing to put your characters in a very white suburb and they never encounter anyone who’s not white—they work at their upper-middle class jobs and the book is about their ennui—that will be seen as a wonderful book and will be celebrated as literature. It can be lovely and moving and terrific, but that’s a political choice. It’s political to only include the suburban, the white, the upper-middle class. That’s a political choice.
This notion that writers are political in some books and not political in others is abject nonsense. The act of writing, right now in particular, is a political act because we’re in this historic moment in a culture that is not valuing the contributions by and large, from any of us.
I think it’s always been true for indigenous people and underrepresented groups that our very existence is political in this country. And, of course, any expression of thought is going to be read through the lens of the culture and politics, no matter what you’re writing.
I’m wondering about your background in the Métis language
I am interested in learning more about Métis language because I’m interested in the intersection of language and thought patterns—for my own life and my own reasons, but also in order to write about characters who are more and more embedded in traditional culture.
Talk to us about your aesthetics as you write.
For me and for my aesthetic choices, I feel I have all the history of the world of writing available. Yet I also have, concurrently, cultural predecessors whom I feel should be honored and shown respect. In my work I explore traditions that are coming both from my Métis culture but also from the broader culture and community that I’m a part of as a writer. I think my resources are like a rich, huge Craftsman toolbox. Here’s the very big drawer of image and language in my toolbox, Louise Erdrich and her fine work, for example. Over here I’m influenced by the plot structure of mystery writers, Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos are two of my favorites; over here, two or three drawers’ worth of poetry because that’s my primary reading, Native poets as well as non-Native poets. Toni Morrison gets her own drawer. Then it builds and it builds.
When I sit down to write a story, I’m going to write any story I want read—I’m going to write it any way. Increasingly the work I’m interested in writing sits on the cusp of the real and unreal. I did so much research for this book on trafficking—and yet this isn’t an exposé. I wanted to have the language right, and the experience of being in the places right. I’m interested in language in particular. I’m interested in sentences that are using a mix of elevated diction and lower diction, for example. I’m interested in pushing the envelope towards strangeness. In structure, at the cusp of the real and unreal, and in language, how can language be shifted toward strangeness, towards the less expected. From there the stories are imaginative. It takes a very long time to write stories sometimes!
In talking about influences I’d like to emphasize the poetry. This generation of poets, native and African American poets in particular, are hugely influential to me in the writing of my prose. Because of what they’re doing with language and the way they’re crafting the political and personal, I look to the poets because they’re showing the way for that. People like Layli Long Soldier in her new book, Joan Naviyuk Kane in all of her books. David Tomas Martinez, Chen Chen, Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, Ada Limon, Gary Jackson, Geffrey Davis. Looking at their work, how they’re crafting lines, has been very influential in how I want to craft a sentence, getting me to think about what’s possible in prose. It’s because their work is so personal and political in a lot of ways and because it’s equal parts lovely and fierce.
Toni Jensen’s story collection, From the Hilltop, was published through the Native Storiers Series at the University of Nebraska Press. Her stories and essays have been published in journals such as Ecotone, Catapult, and Denver Quarterly and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of the Southwest, and Best of the West: Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri. She is working on fiction, Cowboyistan, about fracking and sex trafficking, and a book of essays about gun violence called After the List of Names. She teaches in the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas.