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Interview

Diane Glancy is professor emerita at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she taught Native American literature and creative writing.She has published more than sixty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as screenplays and plays—and increasingly, as in her new book, Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job (Turtle Point, 2020), she is blending genres in innovative ways. Her work has won numerous awards, including the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Juniper Poetry Prize, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Minnesota Book Award, an Oklahoma Book Award, an American Book Award, the Native American Prose Award, and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Oklahoma Center for the Book and the Native Circle Writers of the Americas. In 2018 Publisher’s Weekly listed Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears (Harcourt, 1996) as one of its ten essential Native American novels. Glancy has held visiting professorships at Kenyon College and Azusa Pacific University and currently teaches creative nonfiction in the low-residency MFA program at Carlow University. She lives in Kansas and Texas. She was interviewed by A.M. Juster.  

Image: Let’s start with two lines you wrote about your father: “My father’s Cherokee heritage tucked under / some sort of shame.” Did your father ever reconcile his conflicted feelings about his heritage?  

Diane Glancy: Not that I know. But we didn’t always communicate in words. Often I picked up on what he didn’t say, which was most of what he said. He died in 1972 at the age of sixty-two. So I have to go back. He faced the past with silence. I was just together with him. I was part of him. He didn’t need to tell me much. He didn’t want to share the parts he kept to himself.  

There had not been much said between my father and his father either. Later, I took a DNA test that connected me with a relative in Arkansas I didn’t know I had. She told me that my father’s mother was the third wife of an older man who had many other children. She said that by the time my father was born, his father was probably tired of children. He died when my father was a teen. Soon after his death, my father went to Kansas City, where he worked in the stockyards where some of his half-brothers had gone. I was with him when he died, and he went though some inner struggles as he sorted back through his life. By that time he was no longer able to speak, so he took that with him in silence.  

I would say he has been a major influence in my life. When I was in Pittsburgh in January for the beginning of the low-residency program at Carlow, we made a fieldtrip to Saint Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the suburb of Millvale. Maxo Vanka had painted florid murals on the walls and ceiling of the small church in 1937 and 1941. It was a working-class neighborhood—originally home to miners and steel-factory workers. One of the angels wore a gas mask. The heaviness of the religious iconography took me back to my childhood, though I grew up in the modest, undecorated Trinity Methodist Church made of Missouri limestone.  

One of my first notes at Saint Nicholas read, “It was my father at the summit of my going. Always my father, my Maxo Vanka, who painted my world. I was the bare walls of his church. He painted a mural of the world upon me. Instead of a paintbrush he had a cattle prod. I understood the world was driven by it, and from it, he protected me.”  

Maxo Vanka, St. Nicholas Catholic Church, Pittsburgh, PA

 

Image: When you were a teenager, how did your feelings about that heritage differ from your father’s—and were you able to influence his thinking?  

DG: He influenced mine. He had a work ethic and was a decent man. He took us to church. He said, without specific words, that we would get along in this postcolonial world of work and industry and doing what was necessary. Just be quiet and do your work. It served me well. When I went to Minnesota in 1988 to teach at Macalester College, I thought of him going from Arkansas to Kansas City in 1928. He was transferred several times—Kansas City to Indianapolis to St. Louis to Reading, Pennsylvania, back to Kansas City to St. Joseph, Missouri, to Denver to Chicago to Sioux City, where he died. I have moved many times, from Missouri to Oklahoma to Iowa City to Saint Paul to Kansas and Texas to Gambier, Ohio, for two years to Monrovia, California, then back to Kansas and Texas.  

My father did not explain his heritage to me. In grade school I asked him what nationality we were because I had been asked by a teacher. He told me Cherokee, but it did not come with an instruction manual. We just were. We often visited my mother’s English and German parents on their farm in Kansas, but visits to his mother in Arkansas were rare. She died in 1951 before I was old enough to ask her anything. She may not have answered. They didn’t share thoughts and feelings. They didn’t talk. My parents were married in 1933 during the Depression, and I was not born until 1941. My brother followed in 1944. My parents waited until the hardships were past to start a family—but they carried the weight of it—or they carried a general weight, whatever it was. I felt it and carry some of it, too. Some of it was the loss my father’s people had known. It was better left alone. I’m not sure I thought about heritage when I was young.  

It was not until I moved to Oklahoma in 1964 with my husband after graduation from the University of Missouri that I began to recognize where I had come from. I am still working through it. The title poem of my 2019 book, The Book of Bearings, reads: “They fed us with stories of their world that would include us / if we followed their God / who shuffled over those who would seek him / on other terms than his. / The harrowing. / The winnowing. / The changeableness of knowing. / In the meantime, the unused land is ours. / The animals their pelts and cries.” 

Image: What tensions have you felt between your Cherokee heritage and your Christianity, and how have you resolved them? In particular, I was wondering about this line from one of your poems: “There are times, even with Christ I am not happy.”  

DG: Any culture that has undergone assimilation is not happy. Imagine a foreign country imposing itself over your land, not being allowed to speak your own language, suddenly having to follow their customs without understanding why. Add to that the killing of sixty million buffalo, on which your lives depended, and the introduction of diseases to which you had no immunity, which wiped out half your population.  

Yet the positive aspect was that salvation came through assimilation. An early poem, “Homage,” from Ado(ration) (Chax Press, 1999): 

It was not that we did not know \ the wagons \ in visions \ would cover the land. From ours was \ not theirs \ but how their lives spread. Wolves ran from \ trails of them. Buffalo \ soon on the ground. The blue coats \ horses of them \ worked \ later \ praises from our eyes. Seeing not anywhere \ that which they fought. Ours the opening \ the clouds over our heads topping. It was them who drove us \ first to paradise. 

I realize that many Natives—probably most—would not agree with my opinion about the main benefit of assimilation.  

I continued to sort through some of the reasons for the difficulties of reconciliation in The Book of Bearings. The collection includes a voice from a mission school in Alaska in the mid-twentieth century, and the voice of a student in the Cherokee Female Seminary which was founded in Indian Territory in the mid-nineteenth century, then later became part of Northeastern Normal School and eventually Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. There is much baggage that travels with one, along with the baggage one picks up on one’s own. There is a great difference in tribal reaction to Christianity—it depends on the denomination that tried to evangelize and their methods. Many Cherokee are Christian. I hear “Amazing Grace” in Cherokee at gatherings in Tahlequah. I’ve also attended conferences in which I’ve heard Natives—mainly northern tribes—speak of boarding school experiences and harsh treatment on the road to assimilation.  

I’ve heard the bitterness, and I’ve heard the statement that no one can be both Indian and Christian. It has distanced me from those set against Christianity. Nonetheless, Sunday school and church have been a continuing and integral part of my life. I could not have endured without Christian faith. During my difficult marriage, a neighbor took me to her fundamentalist, Pentecostal Bible church, which was very different from my sedate Methodist church. I still attend a Bible church when I’m in Texas. When I’m in Kansas, I go to a large Methodist church. I like the difference possible in Christianity.  

I’ve written about the effect of education on the Native American in both nonfiction (Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education) and poetry (Report to the Department of the Interior). Currently I’m interested in the effect of Christianity on the Native American. I have a writer’s fellowship coming in July at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. I want to research the Praying Indians of the early colonies, as they were called, the history of Deer Island, and some of the early responses to Christianity among the eastern Indians. I’ve done some preliminary work on Tatamy, the Munsee Delaware interpreter for the missionary David Brainerd. And some of the Fort Marion prisoners who were converted to Christianity between 1875 and ’78.  

The one thing I know is that Jesus Christ is Lord. I have felt his power as well as his quietness throughout my life. I see a continuum between scripture and Native belief. This is Zechariah 1:8: “I saw by night, and behold a man on a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees in the bottom; and behind him were there red horses, speckled, and white.” The book continues with Zechariah’s visions. This is from the book Black Elk Speaks (after his visions of horses):  

And as I looked and wept, I saw that there stood on the north side of the starving camp a sacred man who was painted red all over his body, and he held a spear as he walked into the center of the people, and there he lay down and rolled. And when he got up, it was a fat bison standing there, and where the bison stood a sacred herb sprang up right where the tree had been in the center of the nation’s hoop. The herb grew and bore four blossoms on a single stem while I was looking—a blue, a white, a scarlet, and a yellow—and the bright rays of these flashed to the heavens. I know now what this meant, that the bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit, we must find another strength. 

I see the red man as the visitation of Christ’s story to the Indians, which happened during the Ghost Dances. Black Elk Speaks is a sacred book to the Oglala Lakota. I may not have the right to talk about this as I am not Lakota. But I see Black Elk as a prophet to his people. I think he told them about Christ. And as with many prophets, his words were interpreted in different ways. 

Image: When you published your historical novel Pushing the Bear in 1996, very few Americans knew about the Trail of Tears. What kind of reaction did you get to the book at the time? Anything that surprised you?  

DG: That people didn’t know about that part of American history. I remember a woman in one audience who couldn’t believe that such an event had happened. She remained in denial. When I read from the book in Tahlequah, there was acceptance. Mostly in a silent nod, or just silence. It was an event that was part of recognized history. I don’t remember any displeasure at what I read in the Cherokee community.  

I do remember another woman at another conference who said it didn’t happen like that. There always is dissent. You can’t make everyone happy. Let her write her own story. There were many voices during the trail. I wrote about the ones I heard.  

I remember having trouble reading several parts at first—especially the crossing of the Mississippi River on rafts in the freezing wind. Maritole, the main character, has a vision: “One morning I woke with the taste of peaches in my mouth. I heard the soldiers preparing to cross the river. We had always been toward the front of the line. We would be among the first to cross.” Subsequently, on the raft in the tossing river, Maritole sees:  

. . . the spirits eating from my feather-edged dishes. I heard them in the wind. They put down their knives and forks. They came and held the sides of the tossing raft as we stepped onto it, some falling, others crying out. The spirits wore bright tunics and turbans, and I couldn’t see beyond them as we crossed the river. They held the raft steady as it jerked between large pieces of ice. I spooned more cornbread to them, more squirrel meat and peach cobbler. I had cooked it just this morning in my dream. “Hold on. Hold on,” I heard them say as we crossed the river, their ghost voices laughing to the freezing wind

That is about faith seen in Native light. Surely visions are part of the Bible.  

Pushing the Bear is such a mix of historical documents (how many miles they walked each day, where they stopped for supplies and fodder, the compensation claims, the letters, the facts) and the imaginative parts (dialogue and thought, and also the animal transformation of one woman who refused to walk the trail). There were three main issues in the book: gender (the removal was harder on the men, who lost their way of life, while the women still had families to prepare meals for); religion (the Cherokee who converted to Christianity and those who believed in the Conjurers); and political issues (three men who signed the treaty that gave away their land in the southeast were killed when they reached the new territory).  

Pushing the Bear has been a pattern for some of my later books in combining different voices and different writing styles within one work—most recently Island of the Innocent and an as-yet unpublished nonfiction manuscript, Acts of Disobedience, in which the disobediences are the unorthodox way of writing, maintaining faith in an unbelieving world, and the inordinate amount of driving I do.  

I bought a Ford Edge on April 25, 2019, and at this moment I have 28,912 miles on it. I would have more, but so many conferences and readings have been canceled because of the coronavirus. Next Friday I was to have given a reading and workshop at the Poets House in New York and visited Mark Larrimore’s seminar “Performing the Problem of Suffering: The Book of Job and the Arts” at the New School—canceled. The Native American Literature Symposium in Minnesota—canceled. The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Michigan—canceled. The annual meeting of the Chrysostom Society, a Christian writers’ group I have belonged to for years—canceled.  

Image: What should readers be pondering about the Trail of Tears that they probably have not pondered? 

DG: That the land carries memory of those who walked the trail. It contains memory of the massacres and struggles that happened upon it. The land is a book that carries the stories of what happened. If you research a historical event and travel to the place where it happened and stand there long enough, you can pick up traces. Does not the Bible say the blood cries out from the ground? I could not have written Stone Heart, a story of Sacajawea, without going to the Mandan village in North Dakota and continuing across Montana, Idaho, and Oregon to Fort Clatsop. When I wrote The Reason for Crows, about Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth-century Mohawk, I traveled to upstate New York and across the Canadian border where the Jesuits had established a village for converted Indians. 

Image: You have written a number of plays and worked with significant actors and directors. What were the pleasures and frustrations of moving from the solitary life of a writer to a more collaborative role? 

DG: I prefer writing by myself in my study. I am an introvert. When I present a script to a theater company such as Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles, where four of my plays have been produced, I am there in rehearsal for rewrites or clarification, and on opening night, but mainly it is the director and actors who take possession of the words. My job is finished when I hand the script over.  

I wrote a play, The Leveret, about the history of the San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles, which Native Voices did not accept. Nor did they take my one-woman play, A Line of Driftwood, about Ada Blackjack, Iñupiat, who went with four Anglo explorers to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Sea in the early twenties and was the only survivor. I mention it because I think rejection is a great part of writing. I write plenty of things that never go anywhere.  

I’m working on a new piece, Decoy, about a Native academic and his struggle between his culture and the rigors of his job, which are antithetical. I also made an independent film in 2009—The Dome of Heaven. It is about a mixed-blood girl in Vici, Oklahoma, who wants to go to college despite the poverty of her family and her low self-esteem. Some of it is still on YouTube. One night two of the actors, Wes Studi and Noah Watts, were playing their guitars at a dinner a church in Vici made for us, and a title came to mind, When Everett Was Still Dancing. It will be my next film, about a traveling gospel musician, if the opportunity arises. 

Doug Bauer and Noah Watts in The Dome of Heaven

 

Image: Many poets have a signature style—in a blind test I could probably identify a new Kay Ryan or Billy Collins poem. You would be a challenge. I see recurring themes—connection to the land, long drives to sort out the world, the need to get history right, to name just three—but nothing in terms of language. I see everything from plainspoken free verse to language poetry to postmodern experimental poems, and even an occasional formal poem. When you start a poem, do you have a sense of the kind of language that will be right for the subject matter? How often are those initial decisions about language the product of intuition, and how often is it a more analytical process informed by your scholarship? 

DG: Writing is integral to being. It begins with intuition. I wake in the morning and know which project I will continue. I love language. The brokenness of it. The wholeness of that brokenness. Does not the mind work in the same way—moving from one place to another and back again?  

When I worked on Island of the Innocent, there was something primal in its accrual. I read the Book of Job, of course. I listened to it on tape. I wrote poems on Job’s suffering. Native history soon intruded. I thought, this doesn’t make logical sense, but the mind has other roads to take. I wanted to follow. Association was important. I also included my own travels—my own driving on long journeys—my own Jobian experiences. I loved the more experimental parts, like Part Two, which is called “More than Content Is the Manner in Which It Is Held.” It was satisfying to be able to track the wellspring of thought within language. Intuition comes first, but then the logic of arrangement and order is needed.  

I wrote two explanation tales for the book:  

The title of the book appears only in the King James Version of the Bible—When men are cast down, then you shall say, There is a lifting up, and he shall save the humble person. He shall deliver the island of the innocent and it is delivered by the pureness of your hands—Job 22:29–30.  

This is the Revised Standard Version—For God abases the proud, but he saves the lowly. He delivers the innocent man; you will be delivered through the cleanness of your hands

I like the wobbliness of translations. The instability of something there when viewed in a certain way, and not there when viewed in another. I like the other uncertainties—Who has clean hands when even pride was found in the upright Job? And where is the island of the innocent?

I began exploring these issues. Of course, no one is innocent, as we know from other scripture. On earth, there is none righteous, no, not one—as it says in Romans 3:10, for instance.  

At 207 pages, Island of the Innocent is one of the longest books I’ve written in a while. But Native history began to appear around the edges of the manuscript in progress, and I wrote about it in another explanation tale at the beginning of the book: 

I wanted to explore the Book of Job with poems and poetic prose until the fissures appeared. Other times and places bled into the story. Among the first to disrupt the text were the Indians and the history of America. Feathers appeared over the ridge of a hill. The feathers were on headdresses. The headdresses were on heads. The Indians were foreign to the story of Job, as far as it had been understood. But—if ever there was trial and suffering, six thousand years didn’t matter. The Indians could step back, Job could step forward—current to whatever circumstance there is. 

The explanation tales are important when writing. They serve as maps. You have to write them later anyway when the book is published, but it is helpful to write what you’re about during the process. It is necessary when you are working on a manuscript of disparate parts that need a reason to be together.  

Image: You wrote a play called Salvage that begins with an auto accident on a Midwestern road. Did that play germinate on one of your long drives across the prairie? Does that play relate in your mind to the Book of Job and the testing of faith? 

DG: I was following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition around 2001 or 2002. I was working on Stone Heart, my novel and play of Sacajawea. I passed a salvage yard somewhere on Highway 2 in Montana, and there was Wolfert wanting a ride. He wasn’t really there—but the idea for the play got in the car. I didn’t have time for it then, but it stayed in the trunk until it was time. I’m not sure how it relates, but all the work is somehow interconnected. The accident, by the way, was between two Natives. It wasn’t a white versus Native story. 

Image: In Island of the Innocent, how did the fleshing out of the character of Job’s wife, who is not even mentioned by name in the Bible, play into what you were trying to achieve?  

DG: I think I’ve always had a calling to give voice to those who did not have a chance to speak. Biblical women certainly. The ten women I wrote about in Uprising of Goats. Earlier I had written about Sacajawea and Kateri Tekakwitha. I’ve always wanted to give voice to those whose voices were not recorded. Especially the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears in Pushing the Bear, which has been my main work.  

Job’s wife was there with him. She lost ten children and saw her husband’s suffering. She heard EliphazBildadZophar, and Elihu talking with Job. Did she not have reason and thought? Maybe she wanted to speak about suffering and its cause. Maybe she was tired of being ignored. Maybe she wanted to be in the community of those who were trying to find a way through Job’s suffering. The section titled for her, “Jehorah,” begins with mystery: “Someone is in the garden—no one I can see.” It continues with a record of events—“In the night wind shakes the house.” The section includes her anger—“Should I tell God my viewpoint on unfairness? We have differing opinions.”  

I kept writing about her imagined reactions to the events in the biblical text. I wanted to see from her point of view—or her imagined point of view, or her point of view from my point of view. I wanted to give her presence—a place in the book. In Native terms, there is not much distance between past and present. The old ones are with us. I let that thought enter my writing. I could write as though she were present. There is tribal memory. We carry memories of those who came before us. They are not surface memories, but buried tendencies or inclinations or shades of thought. We know more than we know.  

I felt this on my trip home from Carlow University in Pittsburgh two Januarys ago. I always drive to the residency. I take papers and projects and materials for the nonfiction class. On my return to Kansas I was caught in a snowstorm. There was nothing to do but keep going. I drove 840 miles in seventeen hours. It was a mystical time. The experience is in the piece “Travel from Pittsburgh” in Island of the Innocent: 

 

3.

PorismIn ancient mathematics a geometrical proposition variously defined; specifically, a) a proposition deduced from some other demonstrated proposition; corollary, b) a proposition that uncovers the possibility of finding such conditions as to make a specific problem capable of innumerable solutions. 

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, 
College Edition, 1966 

 

4.

A re-version of the journey—

January 11, 2019, I left Pittsburgh after my last class at Carlow University in a low-residency MFA program. The morning classes were over at noon. I didn’t stay for the rest of the day, but drove from downtown Pittsburgh to 376 west along the Allegheny River to 79 south to I-70 west at Washington, Pennsylvania, across a narrow slice of West Virginia into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, the border of Kansas. It was a road I was familiar with. I had driven it before. More than once before. By 5 p.m. in Illinois it was dark. East of Effingham I saw a haze in the headlights of the eastbound lane. It was snow. It was still snowing when I reached Kansas City at 5 a.m. January 12. I drove over the road with the slow patience of Job. Exit ramps were filled with snow. With a ridge to get across if a snowplow had passed. I got off only for gasoline. The snow coming toward the car was a circle of orbiting stars. Snow fell steady on I-70. Sometimes it sounded like sleet. Sometimes a brief respite. But it continued to snow. I crossed the bridge across the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers at St. Louis. The Missouri River again at Booneville midway across the state. The limestone bluffs were white walls. It was a closed-in world. A terrain of white. Trucks and a few cars passed. A small caravan of Job’s camels from Uz. Some in the ditch ahead. The snow covered lane markers. But I knew the buzz of tires in the warning grooves at the edge of the road and the driver got back on the road. Slowly. And more slowly. 250 miles across Missouri at forty miles an hour. Sometimes less. Never more. It was a time of cold and darkness, yet the snow was lit as if by a dim nightlight. It was a time of slow momentum when the old world showed itself. I continued into the snow as though knowing always it was there to be taken to be used when the world I knew came to an end as maybe at the end of life when the driving was driving home. 

5.

The old ones traveled with the car. I followed them through the snow. I knew they were with me. They were the car. The snow. The way through the snow. I heard their old stories in the voice of the snow. The brokenness held together with stories. I almost heard the voices. They called the snow to hide the animal behind the storm. A terrapin walked with it. The storm was an old being. Many had walked in it. The cold is a predator. It stalks its prey. Biting first the toes. The fingers. Then working its way to the heart. The car is a hunter. The car is a spirit. I am the car that continues on the road. It is the old ones holding the car there. The car is an island in a white sea. The car is old migration trails. It is a sledge—not a hammer but sleigh or sled moving through the snow. How often words are at war with themselves, carrying meanings that have nothing to do with one another. How often the car leaves the road and connects with old journeys. How often one meaning becomes many. 

 

Image: What were your concerns about achieving authenticity for the voice of Job’s wife, who you call Jehorah 

DG: I’m always concerned with a sense of transgression. I always question my right to extrapolate, to expose, to augment, to arrange, to write missing words. My first concern was opposition to the only words she was given in scripture, “Do you still retain your integrity? Curse God and die.” Maybe she was impatient with his suffering—just get it over with. But Job says to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women.” That reminded me of the Apostle Paul, who also writes of foolish women. I wanted to explore what else is within foolish women, or the women who were called foolish. What else was behind or within? Surely rounded-out characters are important. I wanted to discover Jehorah’s hurts and strengths. Her estimation of the journey on which God was leading Job through some rocky terrain of the human interior. I wanted her to woman-up to her own interior. 

Image: When you entered the literary world, there were huge obstacles for women and minorities in both the academic and literary communities, but it was usually easy then to be a person of faith. Obstacles for women and minorities are still there, but it seems to me that they are smaller than they were. On the other hand, it seems to me that prejudice against people of faith is on the rise in these communities. Do you agree with that assessment, and, if so, do you have any thoughts about constructive responses to prejudice against writers of faith?  

DG: Oh yes, I agree on both counts. I have seen the opposition to Christianity in academia and elsewhere. The last thing you can talk about is Christianity. Everything is acceptable but fundamental Christian faith—by that I mean belief that Jesus is the savior of the world. He is the way of salvation. No one comes to the Father but by him. But to mention Christ in academia is not allowed.  

I remember once hearing a Muslim colleague talk about ultimate reality as a state. I thought, no, ultimate reality is a person—Jesus Christ. As a Christian you are treated as one who has not gotten beyond an imaginary friend from childhood. I once heard a colleague in the religion department call Jesus an imaginary friend. This is all very difficult. I believe in inclusion. In tolerance. I believe in otherness. But that belief has its limits. As a fundamentalist Christian, I would point out that the Bible does not say there are many roads to heaven—the heaven I want to go to anyway. It seems to say there is one way (in John 14:6, for instance)—which is faith in Jesus Christ, a point of decision that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

Image: I sense a strain of loneliness in your work. For example, you seem more connected to your Cherokee heritage than your European ancestry, yet you are not a documented member of the tribe, which I understand can make it hard to feel a full part of that community. Is that fair, and with new technologies is it becoming easier for scattered Native Americans to build stronger communities?  

DG: I suppose so. It was through DNA testing that I found a relative in Arkansas who had names going back to my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Waters, who is on the 1835 Cherokee census. Therefore, I am a member of the First Families of the Cherokee Nation—#1255. There was disagreement over land in the late nineteenth century. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah has documented the dispute over many years. Some of the family, including my great-grandfather, Woods Lewis, moved to Arkansas before the Dawes Rolls, which determine Cherokee citizenship; therefore I am not enrolled.  

Yes, I think there is a loneliness in my work. I’ve been on my own for many years (I was divorced in 1983). I am between cultures. Christianity does not fit into the more fundamental Native thought. I am separated from the center of Native Americanism and its activism. My paternal family was ostracized historically. Creative writing does not fit into fundamentalist Christianity. I doubt many people in my little Bible church in Texas or the larger church in Kansas know I write. Island of the Innocent is too bizarre to show them.  

But there is fellowship with work. I’m looking to a new manuscript with the working title The Poetics of Faith. I always have various projects on my work table. Some of them go nowhere. I have my family—a son and daughter, a son-in-law and daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren. I travel back and forth between Kansas and Texas where they live. I have fellowship with the Lord. It takes aloneness on the road to connect with the voices I want to write. 

And yes, technology draws the Native community together. On Facebook I’ve been watching young women dancing in their jingle dresses and young men in regalia dancing healing dances for the coronavirus. 

Image: I’ve heard you say that you believe in the Christian imagination. Can you expand on that?  

DG: I believe in the Christian imagination, though there are many warnings against the imagination in the Bible—in fact most of the statements about the imagination are warnings against it. There’s only one statement for it that I can think of right now—I Chronicles 29:18, where David tells the people to keep the history of their dealings with God in their imagination: “O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, our fathers, keep this for ever in the imagination of the thoughts of the heart of thy people, and prepare their heart unto thee.”  

Though I am not Catholic, the bizarre, eruptive, overwrought murals of Maxo Vanka in Saint Nicholas Church spoke to me. I have the violent past of Native history painted on the walls of my memory. Though I wasn’t alive at the most disruptive time, part of memory must be water, running everywhere—even generation to generation. The plain, nearly monastic life I lead by myself in my study when I’m working, and the opposite nomadic life on the road (though I’m alone there too) when I’m driving. The absolute plainness of my early life in Kansas City in the austere Trinity Methodist Church and the plainness of school contrasted with the underpinning of violence in World War II and my father’s work in the Armour stockyards with its killing floors and the sometimes violent labor union disputes. The upset of my father’s transfers, always in a new place, ties cut to the past, though through them he moved from laborer to plant superintendent. Yet there was brokenness in moving on. A mold into which I eventually fit as a zealot, a pilgrim, a traveler on a distant road. 

 

 

 


A.M. Juster’s tenth book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry). His work has appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, Hudson Reviewand elsewhere. 

 


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