Writing beyond the reservation stereotype

A Native author creates characters who are making a life in the urban West.

 

Erika T. Wurth is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and grew up near Denver, Colorado. She now splits her time between Denver and Macomb, Illinois, where she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University. Her debut novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor, 2014), is informed by her youthful experience — the community she both was drawn to and eager to escape (reviewed in HCN, 5/25/15). It follows Margaritte, a drug-dealing 16-year-old Native American floundering in a Colorado town haunted by poverty, unemployment and drug abuse. Margaritte’s examination of her life — and those around her — is both tender and fierce, whether she is considering her cokehead boyfriend, her good-hearted but troubled cousin, her alcoholic father, or her own problematic future. Wurth recently spoke with HCN about her characters, her communities and the future.

High Country News How important has your heritage been in your life and writing?

Erika T. Wurth I was bused to school in an area with a cultural mix: Natives of all tribes, Latinos, working-class whites — the common denominator being the mullet (which I did not have). I think that novels from Native perspectives of all kinds are necessary, but I wasn’t seeing mine. Over 70 percent of Native people live off reservations, in cities like Denver and the outlying areas. Where were the novels about that?

I take great inspiration from where I come from; I feel that you might as well poetically render what you know (and what you can imagine). Also, the larger Native writing world has been incredibly supportive. Writers like Susan Power, Eden Robinson and Sherwin Bitsui have given me a wonderful peer group. 

HCN Communities can sometimes bind or hurt an individual. How does Margaritte experience her community’s limitations?

Wurth Margaritte is much “cooler” than I was in high school — she has friends, sells drugs, has sex — and I was essentially a loner. What we have in common is this: the strong desire to leave your community, with the added burden of honestly knowing that you deeply come from it and have love for it. I did not want to write a book wherein the character “went back to the reservation and found herself.” I wanted a different narrative. I wanted to write about someone who could stay and find a way to live authentically as a human being.

HCN In a review, Sandra Cisneros notes that you “chronicle the poor with compassion and respect.” Readers automatically root for Margaritte, but her future, frankly, seems pretty bleak. What are your thoughts on what the future holds for young people, particularly Native Americans?

Wurth Social media is something that is making the larger population aware of our greater issues. When most people think of Native Americans, they think about stereotypes. Social media has rallied a lot of Natives, made us feel that we are not alone, and there has been real progress on issues — the mascot issue, rape on reservations by non-Natives, the trafficking of Native women. I think that Natives are beginning to feel collectively and increasingly that our languages, our values, and our political issues are something to fight for, and I see a strong sense of intellectual and creative activity around these issues. 

Courtesy Erika Wurth

HCN How do you see your work as fitting in the larger scope of work set in the contemporary West? Have urban life, teenage pregnancy and contemporary issues been given their due?

Wurth I think that when people think about the West, they think about cowboys, or, perhaps in the case of Colorado, of biking, hiking, skiing. Pregnancy and drugs and these kinds of issues have been talked about, but not in a way that’s sensitive and sophisticated and literary, at least not when it comes to people of color. Young people deserve more than black-and-white life lessons. 

HCN What are your hopes, in that regard? What would you like contemporary literature to look like, and what will be your role in that? 

Wurth The feedback (for my new novel) is that it’s unrelentingly dark, when most of my white male peers write dark subject matter and are lauded for it. What’s ironic is that so many publishing companies are losing money, but they keep on publishing the same thing over and over — either stereotypical subject matter about people of color or the same white middle-class stuff. What people want is interesting and dark and sophisticated literature, and the publishing world needs to stop risking nothing and gaining nothing.

HCN What’s next for you?

Wurth I hope my agent sells my novel, which is about Native American gangs. There’s no other novel like it out there. It’s literary and sophisticated and human and dark. Where are the Philip Roths of this generation? I see the postmodernists, and I see genre folks, but where are the people writing big novels about American life? There is a place for it still.

Laura Pritchett is the author of several books, most recently the novel Red Lightning (Counterpoint, 2015). More at www.laurapritchett.com.