Not your grandmother’s Native American fiction

Not your grandmother’s Native American fiction

How speculative Native American writers are changing the landscape of Native fiction forever

Native American literature as we know it begins fairly recently with the 1968 publication of N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn.” Though certainly lesser-known poems, stories and novels by Native peoples pre-date this modernist take on life on a Native reservation, in many ways, this is the novel that puts not just Native American fiction on the map, but for many, Native American people.

In the mainstream, Natives have written almost exclusively in the genre most commonly called literary — but one that might more accurately be named realism. With marked exceptions — like speculative and crime writer Martin Cruz Smith, of Pueblo descent, and Choctaw crime writer Todd Downing — our commercial creative works have rarely deviated from the conventions of realism.

Until recently.

An explosion in speculative Native American fiction is gaining commercial ground, and as a result, changing the way that non-Native and Natives think of Native people.

“I think in a lot of ways, there is a bias for readers to put our stories in the ‘Native American’ basket and leave it there, dissecting them at a distance, when in reality we are talking about universal issues with universally-understood motivations of love, and family, and loss, and resistance — only we’re doing it from our perspective,” Métis author Cherie Dimaline said. “When you add magical realism/science fiction and fantasy/speculative to the ‘label,’ it doesn’t allow for such an easy distance. And even if it’s only for a minute, this gives the stories that minute to detonate from a close range.”

Sign up for our newsletter

The existence of Native peoples today has been largely erased for many living in America, though events like Standing Rock have done much to counteract this fact. Ignorance about what constitutes everyday Native life, coupled with a cultural obsession with “authenticity,” roots perceptions of Native peoples to a distant past. Drawing artists from reservations, urban areas and every in-between, Native American literature stands at a fascinating nexus of issues in contemporary Native America, offering both perspective and futuristic imagination.

Ultimately, what many Native nations are striving for — and achieving to some degree — has to do with sovereignty, or the right to self-determination, something that though not depicted in popular media, defines our very existence. This right, in relation to identity and backed up against genocide, cultural erasure and the still-lingering effects of colonization, is contentiously debated. Sitting at the intersection of much history and hurt in Indian country are issues like citizenship in a Native nation, blood quantum, language, land, right to spirituality and the idea surrounding who should be able to make Native art. Our creative works — speculative fiction, in particular — have the ability to center these ever-present issues of Native peoples without tethering us to an imagined, one-dimensional and stereotyped past.

Realism is wonderful for the purpose of humanizing peoples that have otherwise been mystified or fully removed from popular culture. It allows us to pull back the cool curtains that a police procedural (in crime literature) or a space opera (in speculative literature) might provide to reveal what’s very human: the bare bones of our flawed actions and their terrible and wonderful consequences, our flourishing and decorative prose, the failure or success of the structure in our stories.

Writers like Louise Erdrich (whose work also occasionally verges into magical realism) are transcendent. When it comes to her prose and her characters, Erdrich is an undisputed, glittering master. Even writers like Sherman Alexie — who was exposed for his predatory and gatekeeping behavior — are wonderfully funny. Alexie’s work illustrated that which had never really gotten a fair shake: the world of the rez, which, in his case, often did verge into the almost-magical worlds of magical realism.

But those works are limited to this world. And because they are meant to represent the more literal, material worlds that Native people inhabit, often — through no fault of the author — the work ends up becoming a cultural guide or lesson of some sort, overshadowing the art of the piece. From commercial science fiction and fantasy (SFF), to horror and magical realism, speculative work splits from strict reality to disrupt, on the face of it, the ideas that so many non-Natives have about Native people.

“Native American stereotypes already seem to be something of an unofficial genre, so adding an official genre label up front immediately challenges any preconceived notions,” Cherokee citizen and science-fiction author Daniel H. Wilson said. “It’s especially delicious to write science fiction, which people typically associate with the future, from a Native perspective that people often associate with the past.”

Wilson’s distinction points to how speculative literature breaks new ground, taking away an element of fetishization often associated with more conventional literary fiction by Native writers. In other words, if you put Native people in a spaceship, more than likely, that ship is hurtling towards Mars in the future, and it can’t be stuck in the past, the way that so many notions of Native people are.

“Pan-Indianism is so set in people’s minds, I think we’ll have to write in the genres for the next seven generations to wean people off the material they think is ‘authentic,’” Haisla and Heiltsuk speculative writer Eden Robinson said, noting the power of ingrained expectations surrounding Native American literature.

In the recent speculative fiction boom, the writings of authors like Robinson, Wilson, Dimaline, Rebecca Roanhorse, Stephen Graham Jones, Darcie Little Badger, and even, to some degree, Brandon Hobson rocket us into something so wildly imaginative that their audiences are simply not able to push them back into the dark corners of the past or relegate their novels to cultural “lessons.”

“The fact that increasing numbers of SF/FH books, stories and comics by Native writers are being published is really cool,” Lipan Apache speculative writer Darcie Little Badger said. “And it disrupts the completely incorrect notion that we’re little more than an absence in the wake of a tragic history.”

To be clear: The past and our daily, lived reality matter, and there are times when cries of “poverty porn” or “tragedy porn” belie the fact that genocide and colonization have deep, lingering effects on Native life. Life expectancy on Native reservations is lower. Rates of suicide are higher. And Native writers should have space to incorporate these facts, alongside loss of language and culture, into their creative work. But there comes a point when — especially for Native audiences — it’s important for us to have other, imaginative, positive and, frankly, more wide-ranging portraits of Native life. It’s troubling when what non-Native audiences come to expect of Native written works has more to do with death and sadness than it does with our ability to create new, imaginative worlds — ones in which we live and thrive.

“I think the more we center the deviations, the less stable the perception of ’reality’ becomes, and then more and more stuff either is possible, or it seems possible,” Blackfeet horror author Stephen Graham Jones said.  “I want to walk through a wardrobe, into another world.”

“Art is not that which is labeled art, it’s that which shows us the barriers we thought were walls were only shadows after all.” – Cherie Dimaline

Until recently, speculative genres, however, have not been particularly friendly or inclusive towards Native American characters or writers.

“These are fields that have never included us as active protagonists, only as tragic victims or the source of horror, which are both attempts to work out settler feelings about theft of land and colonization,” Pueblo science fiction/fantasy author Rebecca Roanhorse said, going on to note how disrupting this notion ripples outward. “When you center Native stories and voices in genre, it is inherently disruptive. So disruptive that sometimes other Natives don’t even know how to respond.”

Roanhorse makes a salient point: When Natives themselves begin to disrupt the status quo in art, even their peers in realism can be thrown off their game. But the payoff — an immediately, rich, nuanced, imaginative and contemporary portrait of Native life — makes up for it. As Dimaline said: “Art is not that which is labeled art, it’s that which shows us the barriers we thought were walls were only shadows after all.”

“I feel like art informs the human condition and often makes us feel ways we don’t normally feel,” Cherokee citizen and magical-realist author Brandon Hobson added. “I think Coleridge said good art should have a sense of strangeness to it, and I like that.”

When it comes down to it, the Native literary world is too large to be contained within realism or experimentalism — or even magical realism. There are so many of us, and no matter how much we try to police one another, or how disappointed the public expecting the same, polished, pretty-but-limited pan-Indian stereotypes might be with the new reality in Native lit, we are full-to-bursting, and we’re finally finding the room to grow, wildly and without boundaries, as artists.

“There isn’t anything I try to do to anticipate or manage anyone’s expectations about the fact that I’m a person with a Native background who writes science fiction,” Wilson said. “Sometimes I think maybe I’m wasting some kind of chance to subvert expectations and contribute to breaking old stereotypes.”

He continued: “It says on the back flap of my books that a guy with a Native background wrote this. I hope that fact alone is enough to widen expectations about who writes what.”