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.”

Review: Land of Our Ancestors

mission sugar cubesA popular rite of passage for many California fourth graders is the “mission unit,” an element of the state’s History / Social Science educational framework designed to help teachers navigate the complexities of the California mission period. Unfortunately, mission unit lessons often devolve into little more than scale mission models made of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks. The 2016 update to the framework denounces the literal sugarcoating of mission history and provides instead content standards geared more toward researching the experiences of the people who lived in and around the missions.

With that in mind, teachers looking for more mindful material for mission unit lessons may want to consider historical fiction works, such as Gary Robinson’s novel Lands of our Ancestors. Robinson (Choctaw/Cherokee) wrote the book for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and notes that while the story focuses on characters from the Chumash Nation, it represents what happened to the Indigenous people from nearly forty tribes who encountered the Spanish priests and soldiers that came to the region to establish religious missions and colonial outposts. Robinson also notes that the Chumash depicted in the book lived in the Santa Ynez Valley and spoke a Chumash language called “Samala.”

land of our ancestorsLands of Our Ancestors begins as a light-hearted coming-of-age story during the California mission period. The protagonist, Kilik, is a twelve-year-old boy who trains to become the “ideal Chumash man” like his uncle Salapay, who is as knowledgeable and strong as his name implies. As the narrative progresses, however, an uneasiness sets in.  Kilik’s father reads the night sky and sees an inscrutable change coming for his people. There is anxious talk between Chumash villages of strangers who “speak an odd language and wear odd clothing that covers their entire bodies.” Readers knowledgeable of California mission history will know who the strangers are and what they want. What they won’t know, however, is what happens to Kilik and his family after encountering the strangers. Along with other narrative draws—including relatable characters, high stakes, good pacing, interpersonal conflicts, and balanced syntax—the unknown ending, the open loop within a known history, makes the Lands of Our Ancestors a definite page-turner.

The novel includes in its introduction an overview of relevant Chumash words, character names, and tribal history, but also refers readers to the accompanying teacher’s guide for further exploration of the Chumash people in pre-Columbian California.  Created by Robinson and Cathleen Wallace, the guide also includes highlights of Chumash cultural revitalization work, images of traditional Chumash life, critical thinking prompts, additional vocabulary, and project ideas designed to meet fourth grade History / Social Science Common Core Standards, per the guide’s description.

History has been whitewashed for various reasons, some more insidious than others. Land of Our Ancestors strikes a great balance in its effort to provide another perspective of California mission history to young people and their educators.

A Bohemian Rhapsody Review by LRK

By LRK for Deets and Geets Podcast

The dictionary definition of bohemian (aside from pertaining to the actual place Bohemia):

a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices.

Dictionary definition of rhapsody:

  1. music . an instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation.
  2. an ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm.
  3. an epic poem, or a part of such a poem, as a book of the Iliad, suitable for recitation at one time.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” seems a very fitting title for the life of Freddie Mercury as it is shown to us in this movie and the eponymous Queen hit which was written by Freddie Mercury in 1975.

Rami Malek breathed life into Farrokh Bulsara-turned Freddy Mercury, showing us someone who was insecure and brazenly flamboyant at the same time. I didn’t know too much about Freddie’s personal life or personality before watching this movie and I don’t know to what extent it was fully accurate, but I was feeling it throughout. It gave off the essence of someone who felt lonely and suffocated, but liberated and in his element while he was performing.  That’s exactly the vibe of the song.

Before this movie came out there was controversy surrounding it with people saying it was going to be whitewashed or straightwashed or it was going to erase his HIV and none of those things were true. After the release other criticisms were levied on it such as bisexual erasure, because after Freddie tells his long-time girlfriend Mary “I think I might be bisexual,” she says “Freddie, you’re gay.” To me, this wasn’t the film taking a stand on his sexuality, it was an example of the context he lived in and the ways that the people around him who he loved couldn’t fully understand or support him and may have inadvertently caused confusion or suffering to him.  That scene also seemed to be more about Mary’s self-preservation, like she had to believe he was incapable of being attracted to her to reconcile still staying in each other’s lives.

Freddie as an individual was deeply layered, complex, and uncommon on all levels especially in his time.  There doesn’t seem a way you could fully do justice to everything he was in a two-hour-and-some-change film. There’s any number of directions that could have been further developed including his Parsi heritage and how that affected his personality and his beliefs, but this film is also about him as an artist and about Queen as a band. I think on the whole it did a good balancing of showing his personal life and his professional life and his pathos as an artist.  If anything I would have liked to see more of the creative process that went behind the music, such as different versions of the songs and how they got edited; I’m sure it wasn’t quite as linear as they showed it sometimes.  Also although I didn’t see the film as vilifying queerness, I do think it’s a fair point that it did come off as a PSA for Queen and for the almost-nobility of Mercury’s band members as being a thorough brotherly support system that themselves never got into drugs or had any negative lifestyle influence on him.

I’m happy that Freddie Mercury has been put on the map of public consciousness as a Parsi Indian and that he was played by an Egyptian American.  He was also shown having sexual and romantic relationships at least one woman as well as men, and that’s more than what we generally see.   Other than that, the storytelling itself isn’t something super original or groundbreaking but if you’re a fan of the music, there’s really no reason you shouldn’t enjoy watching the movie.

Check out the enhanced video version of the review below: