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Know the West

Seeds of atonement: an interview with writer Shann Ray


The short stories in Shann Ray's first book, American Masculine, reflect his lifelong interest in forgiveness and redemption, as well as in basketball and the American West. Ray's characters struggle to live up to their families' expectations and look up to those who are "more ready to give and forgive."

Ray, who grew up in Alaska and Montana, played basketball for Montana State University and professionally in Germany before earning his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Alberta. For the past 15 years, he has taught leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. He's also a practicing psychologist. American Masculine (reviewed in our June 11 issue) won the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize. Rowman and Littlefield will publish Ray's first scholarly book, Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity, in November. HCN writer Jenny Shank recently spoke with Ray.

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS: You've said that redemption is one of your favorite themes in literature. Why is that?

Shann Ray: I think people are hungry for it. Coming out of modernism and branching into postmodernism, we have a glut of irony, cynicism, nihilism and characters that are difficult for people to identify with -- characters that are so interiorly dark or shattered that they're not going to rise to any type of redemption, they're just going to fall and make the reader feel like that's just life and that's what you have to do. Last century was the bloodiest in history, with 120 million war-related deaths; I think that we can see why (contemporary literature) would want to emphasize the nihilism and the emptiness of life.

But I believe there's a need for balance. I feel like a lot of the new territory in writing will come from attending to the desolation, but not ignoring the consolation, not ignoring the notion that there is in each person the seed of the potential for atonement or redemption.

HCN: One of the stories in American Masculine that made me think most about redemption is "How We Fall," in which Benjamin Killsnight and his wife, Elsie, are alcoholics. Benjamin gets sober, and Elsie does not and leaves him. After many years, she sobers up, and Benjamin unexpectedly takes her back. Why did you decide to have these two characters get back together?

Ray: Working with people as a psychologist, you see so many moments of atonement, forgiveness and redemption that I think the average person just walking down the street does not see. But if you look through your generational family, there are probably people going through recovery, or coming to an epiphany in their lives. So in that story I was trying to emphasize that. In Montana growing up, and I think just with alcoholics in general, there's often the feeling that life stinks, and then it stinks some more, and then you die. But there are a lot of people who live through major desolation and then come all the way up to a full consolation with their loved ones and with life.

HCN: Speaking of your growing up, you spent part of your childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. Is this something that haunts you?

Ray: It's still something that I look at from 20 years ago when I was on the reservation to now. My dad coached various Native American basketball teams, on the Crow Reservation and the Northern Cheyenne rez. When I go to a tournament with him -- and he still plays, at 70 -- Native American cultures always honor elders. If you actually invest your life in the reservations, the returns of friendship, laughter and love are immense. I recently went with him to the Charlie Calf Robe memorial tournament on the Blackfeet rez. They had an entire halftime devoted to my dad, and he didn't even coach on that reservation. They presented him with a beaded belt buckle and an Indian blanket, which is a symbol of being welcome in that tribe always.

And there are hauntings in my own family -- different people who didn't make it out. One of my closest, beloved cousins -- she fell all the way into the depths of drug culture and died in a drug shootout in Billings. So that, combined with a lot of my boyhood heroes, Native American athletes, a lot of them died, and that sorrow haunts me. I placed many of them right into American Masculine. I put in their direct lives and names as a way of honoring them.

HCN: You've said you're working on a novel about an "open-border L.A." Do you want to say anything more about that?

Ray: In my book, there is a Latina senator from California who succeeds in forwarding this bill that entirely opens the border with Mexico. In the context of that chaos of the open border, she eventually becomes the governor of California, and she decides that instead of all this retributive justice that we've been practicing, let's start blending in some restorative justice, similar to what South Africa did after apartheid. So basically they start taking people out of prison and give them the opportunity to face the families of the victims they killed, and setting them free after that basic confrontation. That's the novel I just finally handed in to my agent. I don't know if it's quite ready yet. We'll see.