Native American literature’s shapeshifter

Novelist Stephen Graham Jones on how he transcends stereotypes.

 

Stephen Graham Jones has published more than 20 books and hundreds of short stories in genres ranging from literary fiction and horror to science fiction and crime. Among other honors, he’s won a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and the Independent Publishers Multicultural Award. Jones, who grew up in West Texas, is currently a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he lives with his family. His father is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and Jones often accompanied him on childhood visits to the tribe’s Montana reservation.

Jones’ most recent novel, the tender, funny and fresh Mongrels (William Morrow, 2016), tells the story of a boy growing up in an itinerant family of werewolves who travel the Southwest, moving whenever their lycanthropic behavior causes trouble. In December, the University of New Mexico Press will publish The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones, a compendium of critical essays about his work. Jones said wryly, “It’s scary to think about reading it. I don’t know if I really want to know what’s inside my head.”

HCN contributor Jenny Shank recently spoke to Jones near his home in Boulder.

Author and English professor Stephen Graham Jones in his book-lined office at University of Colorado in Boulder.
Anthony Camera

High Country News: You’ve said that you “got really tired of people asking in interviews, ‘What’s supposed to be Indian about this?’ ” and that in several books you’ve disguised elements that come from Native culture.

Stephen Graham Jones: My book Growing up Dead in Texas (MP Publishing LTD, 2012) only has the word “Indian” once in it. But to me that book is so Indian. It’s the life patterns that are Indian, not the skin tone or cultural heritage. It’s a way of existing in the world, a world you don’t always plug into the way you feel that you’re supposed to. 

HCN: You’ve said, “American Indians so often get cast as the werewolf in so many stories.” What do you mean by that?

SGJ: The first time I saw this was in an episode of CHiPs, where Ponch and Jon get on the trail of this Native dude. He’s typified like Indians often are on film, in denim jeans, a flannel shirt, and a headband. I guess I shouldn’t wear a headband! (Laughs.) But they almost have the mystery solved, they decide the Indian dude is responsible, and they look up and he’s a wolf — there’s a wolf there where the Indian dude was standing. I’ve seen it in so many things, such as the movie version of The Wolfen. It has Edward James Olmos playing a Native dude, and he goes out and pretends to be a werewolf.

The reason that happens, I think, is because of the stereotype that Native people are super in tune with nature, and werewolves are super in tune with nature, so that elides them both.

I wrote Mongrels right after teaching Art Spiegelman’s Maus (the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel in which Jewish people during the Holocaust are depicted as mice). It made me think, how would an Indian get drawn in Maus? Of course, it would be as a wolf. That’s just how people think of Indians.

HCN: When your novels include explicit Native American characters or themes, how do you subvert the expected?

SGJ: I once read an article called “The Homing Pattern in Native American -Fiction.” It documents the difference between Western novels and Native American novels. In Western novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s about one person rising up above the crowd to exceptionalize himself and say, “I matter, listen to me.” Whereas in American Indian novels, they take an exiled or banished figure, starting out on the periphery of the community, and then that person spirals into the center of the community and finds wholeness by reintegrating with his culture. Ceremony (by Leslie Marmon Silko) and House Made of Dawn (by N. Scott Momaday) work like that. I felt that was a dangerous sort of essentialism to subscribe to because it presumes that the culture you’re reintegrating with is automatically good. What if that culture is bad? To presume that all Indians are good and all non-Indians are bad is the same kind of stuff that they’ve laid on us all the time.

So I wrote The Fast Red Road (Fiction Collective 2, 2000) about a guy who’s working as an indentured gaffer in the porn industry in Provo, Utah, and has to come home for his father’s funeral. So he’s doing that same pattern of cycling back into the community. But he gets to the center and finds out that his dad and this so-called Native community is a total sham and is corrupt.

HCN: What do you consider to be the difference between Mongrels and “real horror”?

SGJ: Mongrels is about family, life and coming of age. Horror takes as its main push to disturb someone, to make them not want to turn their lights off at night, to make them suspicious of everyone around them. Horror tries to unsettle you, whereas Mongrels tries to situate you in a family. 

HCN: Why do you enjoy writing horror?

SGJ: I just like to hide around the corner and scare people. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. At home, I love to put masks on and call the dog for a treat and scare the dog. (Laughs.) I just have that impulse. Horror fiction, unlike any other genre, can elicit a visceral response from the reader.

I think we need horror. We (humans) grew up on the savannah. Everything wanted to bite into the back of our skulls and kill us. The world was full of teeth. The world is getting more and more sterile — we’re shining a light into all of the shadows. Nevertheless, we’re programmed as a species to need those teeth in the darkness. Horror keeps us aware of the shadows.

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and McSweeney’s.