Review: Shapes of Native Nonfiction

Below is a short review I wrote for the Fall 2019 issue of News from Native California. I remember writing this around the time my daughter was born almost a year ago. 

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is a collection of essays by twenty-one contemporary writers. Edited by Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) and Theresa Warburton, Shapes emphasizes the equal importance of both form and content in essay writing.

ShapesWashuta and Warburton utilize a basket weaving motif to illustrate this concept: “Just as a basket’s purpose determines its materials, weave, and shape, so too is the purpose of the essay related to its materials, weave, and shape.” With this, the collection is structured into four sections: technique, coiling, plaiting, and twining.

Technique focuses on craft essays, in which prose and poetry are often combined. An apt example is Stephen Graham Jones’ “Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself.” In this series of numbered prose poems, Jones (Blackfeet) advises novice Native writers on how to write from an authentic place while circumventing colonial labels and expectations.

Coiling holds essays that appear seamless and connected. Like coiled baskets woven so tightly that they can hold water, Washuta and Warburton note, the essays in this section unify content far ranging in time, place, and meaning.  Deborah Miranda (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen/Chumash), illustrates this style perfectly in “Tuolumne,” which uses the Tuolumne River as the center of spiral rounds that connect periods of her father’s lifetime and familial influence beyond death:

“But my father never told me what he was thinking that day his dad took him back to the river. What I do know is that in 2009, when my father was dying, he gave my brother this command: ‘Take my ashes back to that river. Scatter me on the Tuolumne.’ He told our sister Louise the same thing over the phone, calling her in San Jose from his hospice room in Everett, Washington.”

Plaiting contains segmented essays from a single source, such as from the author’s life. Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) plaits prose with 100-word prose poetry segments in “Critical Poly 100s,” which draws from Tallbear’s polyamorous experiences with multiple human loves and “other-than-human loves,” such as various knowledge forms and approaches to life.

Twining focuses on essays comprised of material from different sources. As with twined baskets, the co-editors write, essays in this section display flexibility in that they combine the author’s personal experience and narrative style with researched material, such as in “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” by Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) who correlates the historical etymology of depression with the effects of colonialism:

“I’ve heard one person translate a Mohawk phrase for depression to, roughly, ‘his mind fell to the ground.’ I ask my sister about this. She’s been studying Mohawk for the past three years and is practically fluent. She’s raising her daughter to be the same. They’re the first members of our family to speak the language since priests beat it out of our paternal grandfather a handful of decades ago.”

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is a vibrant, form-conscious essay collection that does well to challenge conventional expectations of what Native nonfiction can and should be; it goes beyond simply providing “Native information” and shows instead “Natives in formation.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s