Native nonfiction authors experiment with form in new anthology

In a collection of essays, writers defy expectations and examine place.

 

It’s a heart-racing thrill to meet writing that doesn’t want to hold your hand. Take Billy-Ray Belcourt’s experimental essay in Shapes of Native Nonfiction, which meshes poetry and memoir in an all-caps extravaganza, resulting in prose that practically tumbles over itself, shouting both urgently and intimately. Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation) has described his work to the CBC as a kind of literary mashup: “a manifesto, a prayer and an instruction manual for something like a queer Indigenous future.”

This genre-bending piece is one of 27 “form-conscious” essays in Shapes of Native Nonfiction, a new anthology of Indigenous nonfiction, essay and autobiography that seeks to defy the conventions of writing as well as most readers’ expectations of what Native nonfiction should be. Shapes of Native Nonfiction is unique — perhaps the only creative nonfiction anthology by Indigenous writers that uses experimentation with form as its organizing principle rather than focusing on theme or content.

“The basket. The body. The canoe. The page … to speak only about the contents of these vessels would be to ignore how their significance is shaped by the vessels that hold them,” write editors Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton. The anthology’s essays are all ordered around the process of basket-weaving — with its sensuous coiling, plaiting and twining — thereby emphasizing the connection to craft while reminding readers that content cannot be separated from form. Washuta and Warburton’s selections invite a deeper reading of Indigenous literature: essays by and for a Native audience that experiment with form and innovative storytelling, moving away from presenting Indigeneity as merely content — “Native information,” one might say — to focusing on form and creating a “dynamic process of ‘Native in formation.’ ”

Through their chosen vessel — whether lyric essay, shape-shifting prose or avant-garde travelogue — the writers still grapple with the repercussions of colonization. But raw, emotional essays dealing with childhood traumas live alongside lively, witty takedowns of the English language — simply because a space has been made for them to.

Like form and content, in many of these essays, place cannot be separated from self. The prairies, forests and mesas in Shapes of Native Nonfiction are themselves contours of deep emotional landscapes — landscapes that are tied to the inevitability of family, the past, of reckonings and homecomings. In “Tuolumne,” Deborah Miranda’s (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation) tribute to her troubled father, the river isn’t just a place her ancestors once fished — it’s a power that redeems.

Such places aren’t always pure, either, or even places that exist in the “real world.” Natanya Ann Pulley (Diné) describes a canyon — her canyon — with “slate gray” walls and a bottom “covered in bats, engines, spoiled batteries, and broken glass.” She goes there when she “feels through with things — with the pressure or the nothingness I think of this canyon and wonder how close to the edge I am. Then I take a step back. Then another.”

This anthology does a good job with this kind of interior world-building, showing how it is knitted into the world around us. One moment, you’re peeking into someone’s subterranean inner world; the next, you’re reading something else entirely — excerpts from broken treaties, or reports of environmental disasters on Native land. But it’s all related. When you’re done, the texture of that connective tissue stays with you.

Something else that stays with you is the concept of land as body; when both have been subject to an oppressor’s violence, decolonization becomes a process that is felt viscerally. As Bojan Louis (Diné) navigates his way through night terrors, addiction, and self-hatred in “Nizhoní dóó ‘a’ani’ dóó até’él’í dóó ayoo’o’oni (Beauty & Memory & Abuse & Love),” he concludes that “decolonization is violent, it is spiritual unrest, it is for me the other side of the river, the western lands.”

Language, culture, family — the loss of all of these are felt, and felt deeply, in these essays. But woven into the shape of the stories are also pleasure and rejoicing in resilience — like Inuit/Taino writer  Siku Allooloo’s rich description of her food-coma-induced bliss while feasting on tunktu (caribou) with her relatives in “Caribou People.” 

There’s also outright humor. Eden Robinson (Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations) imagines her profile on an imaginary Indigenous dating site called “Snag Beach” (in powwow culture, she explains, “snag” is slang for a hookup): “Eden Robinson, 49, matriarchal tendencies. ... Her smoked salmon will most likely not kill you. … Swipe right to check attached genealogical records to see if she’s your cousin.”

Part of what’s so satisfying about reading a mosaic of poetry, essay and memoir of such breadth is the experience of surrendering your expectations about what is coming next. Shapes of Native Nonfiction introduces the reader to a unique collection of voices, telling stories that shift from lost to living language, from history to lived experience. These shifts create new shapes for Indigenous writers to inhabit, explore and share. In this anthology, that shaping makes for a powerful read, and an absolutely necessary one.

Amber Cortes is a writer and radio producer currently living in Seattle. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...