November 5, 2018KR Conversations

Erika T. Wurth

Erika T. WurthErika T. Wurth’s publications include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, 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 Boulevard, Drunken Boat, the Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing, and South Dakota Review. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver. An excerpt from her essay “Forcing His Body to the Water” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Forcing His Body to the Water”?

It started in a really funny way. My agent hadn’t been able to sell my novel to a big press (I eventually placed it with SUNY) and since my fiancé and family is in Denver, and my job in rural Illinois, my agent proposed that I give a nonfiction proposal a shot, so that if it sold, I could spend more time at home writing the fiction after completing the nonfiction manuscript—because nonfiction can make more money. But nonfiction makes me nervous. I think especially as a Native, there’s something creepy about it, at least for me, because what we are, our myriad daily lived lives, still doesn’t really make it into the larger American framework. At least in fiction, the story isn’t supposedly about me. In nonfiction, it makes me feel like I’m making myself an object for inspection, and Indians are already that. Dear God, look at the Warren fiasco. It was like a three-day social media migraine, where white folks were either like well, she showed him! Or OK, now we’ll line these Indian experts up and they’ll show us who the real Indians are! It’s part of why when I was asked to write nonfiction for magazines, I would dip into the personal, but I always wrote around a certain political and/or scholarly matter. But I thought long and hard about what I could write that I would care about, and that folks would care about. I decided to interview two people about the pipeline: Hughie Tweedy, a white guy in his 60s who lived not far from where I’d been teaching for years, and Alana Eagle Shield, a young native from the Standing Rock Reservation. Both of them had been affected by the pipeline, and terribly. I did, and I put something together, and my agent just really didn’t like it. But something came together when I was going through the whole Alexie drama. I’d pretty much quit writing poetry, and I was thinking about Hughie and Alana and how deep their experiences were, and somehow that made it into a kind of semi-poetic piece about me, and them, and what was at stake in our lives.

This quote on your website stuck out to me: “That’s what’s funny about being an Indian woman. We don’t need their respect. They need ours.” Do you feel like this sentiment is echoed in this piece? In your other work?

This was a pull quote from a Rumpus interview—I thought it might be striking for the site when my web designer was updating it. I had to go back to the original interview to remember what the HECK I meant by it—but I think ultimately that this is our country. Not to go back to the Warren issue, but, it really does touch on what matters for Native people. Like sovereignty. We are in a termination era under Trump and it is frightening. So much is at stake, and keeping our sovereign territories—treaties that we have with the government that make it clear that we have ceded land in exchange for certain territories in this country to be self-governing and for certain rights on that land. That is why so many Natives are saying that it’s not about blood or race. My feelings might be slightly different because I feel like race is like any other thing: an awkward way to talk about a gigantic thing. In this case, a conglomeration of genetic factors that arise for a community living for thousands of years in a certain territory. And I agree that sovereignty comes first. Our right to self-determination—that includes our land, our culture, our way of life, our languages—but if folks are to say that it’s not about blood, well, not one Indian Nation does it that way. It’s all based on deeply inadequate rolls that were created during short periods of time that included the descendants of the original inhabitants of this country. If it’s not about blood, then we’d have to have another criterion—like, you have to live on that land, speak the language, participate in all cultural/spiritual activities. But that’s the thing: you can’t dictate those things, and even if you did, very few people could comply. People can’t borrow against their homes on the Rez—the land is ours, but the homes are not—they are government property. So how do you get a small business loan? You can’t. So our economies are suffering. But there is a reason why 60% of white Americans claim to be Indian, with zero sense of our daily lives: they know it is our country, and there is guilt. I think that’s in everything I write. Vonnegut said you only have to write for one person, and for him, that was his sister. That works for me too, because I think it’s important that Native writers don’t have this imaginary white audience in their minds—it wrecks the art, even if you pull the politics out of it.

The disparity between “objective journalism” and the work this narrator is doing comes up more than once in this piece. Where do you see the value in objective journalism versus in journalism driven by personal interest and perspective?

In the time of “fake news” faith in objective journalism is paramount. I’ve thought on several occasions that what I’m seeing on the news would’ve easily—easily—made it as a “South Park” episode a few years back, but here we are. And working with NPR about the Alexie situation, reading the Washington Post and the New York Times, they are lessons in what power and dignity objective journalism can hold. But we’re also in the time of what I call intellectual clickbait. There are countless writers—many of them creative writers by training, who unlike their predecessors, did the MFA route, not the newspaper route. I love that there are so many smart, interesting folks from different backgrounds speaking in a forum that is so singularly accessible like Facebook and Twitter. Then there is the other side of that, when you look at how Russian hackers who influenced our elections. But for me, all of it brings home the fact that I am NOT trained in that regard, and that my job is not to write objective journalism—to think so would be dangerous. I am trained to craft a character and shape metaphor and struggle with structure—and I care about the truth in the world deeply, it’s why I read the NYT or the WP. But my job is to move people in a different way. And because I’m a fiction writer, I know the crafting that goes into any creative piece. And that’s why it’s important to me to really speak to that in a piece like mine, to make it clear that I am aware of that crafting, and that you should be too.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I think, and this is a dry one, that I’m far more aware of how much I have to pay attention to structure. Like a lot of writers trained in workshops, I was given great advice about crafting language and metaphor and character—and it’s not like I wasn’t given advice about structure, but it was always harder to absorb. It’s sold as this easy thing, and it’s true that people think “having a good idea” can lead you to write a novel—when the first thing you have to take care of is characterization, otherwise you’re just pushing your characters along on an unnatural track. But having my boyfriend, who has made strides as a writer—and who started later in life and bought all of those how to write a novel books that I turned my nose up at as a young writer—has really helped. Because he’ll say, Erika, OK—OK—what’s your conflict? I think I know what it is, and I certainly found, after trying to write my first novel for ten years, that I had to ask myself what my character feared or desired the most—and make them journey through those things. But structure is not easy—you’re pulling it all together for three hundred words, and holding structure for that long—I’ve found that I can keep a lot in my head, and have plenty of room for surprise along the way but, I have to write down some big plot points, look at each section of the book and decide what’s going to happen in there to keep it together. One of my favorite books in this regard is Ben Percy’s Thrill Me (Read a review on KR Reviews here). Like me, he grew up in a rural area and like me, fun non-realism books saved him. So he’s got a strong sense of story, and I think even if I’m someone who has to work at it, it’s OK to recognize that it matters, that it’s what draws a person forward in a book, and that there is great pleasure and meaning there.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m working on a couple. I’ve finished a middle grade novel, just for kicks—a Native Nancy Drew of sorts. I’ve got a comic book proposal I wish Marvel would take a look at, and I’m halfway through a science-fiction novel (I want to call it speculative to make it sound fancy, but I think it’s sci-fi). Right now, though, I’m taking a collection-turned-novel—and revising hard. It’s about a woman whose mother left her when she was two days old, leaving her to care for a father who eventually gets into a car accident (as he’s never gotten over her mother) and has brain damage. She hates her mother, but when an old letter that intimates that her mother’s father might have tried to murder her mother and sister resurfaces, it spins her into trying to find out more, with the novel culminating in an incestuous encounter in the past between the two sisters who don’t recognize each other, except by instinct.