The process of decolonization. We hear this a lot, and if you’ve taken a Native studies class then you’ve likely thought about this in different aspects of society. So what does this look like in literature? I’d like to take a close look at decolonization and talk about the importance of allowing people of color to bear witness on the page, to show readers what it’s like to live through sometimes brutal circumstances, and to highlight the dangers of silencing people of color in a Neo-colonial program to whitewash our experiences.
“You can’t miss-experience,” was a phrase I often heard in the Indigenous Liberal Studies Program (ILS) at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I minored in ILS with a BFA in Creative Writing. Because of my educational background, I’m experienced in examining the intersections between literature and decolonization. Being a literary fiction writer myself, I’m hyper aware of how I execute these dynamics on the page.
When I wrote an entire chapter of my Master’s thesis at the University of Oklahoma on N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn, I did so with the lens of decolonization–in how the process serves characters in Native stories. Where Momaday writes his main character, Abel, being viciously attacked on the streets of Los Angles by corrupt police, it was an important lesson for me as a Native writer. Here was this explicit scene of male on male violence, and to top it off it was government instituted violence. The scene powerfully shows the residuals of colonization and its effects on Indigenous peoples.
The scene above reminded me of something that happened in my own childhood. In fact, this is one of my earliest memories. I was around three years old. My parents were driving us back from Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico and heading toward Oklahoma in the United States. We were stopped by Mexican police in a remote area of Chihuahua just south of the Texas border. What happened next would stay in my memory for the next four decades. I’m 46 years old now and can still remember it in vivid detail. Both my mother and father were harassed and extorted by the corrupt police. In the end, my mother would be the ultimate victim in a horrendous situation I don’t care to relive now.
Fast forward four decades. I’m working on my debut novel, which has strong themes of hyper masculine constructs. My memory of the above situation coupled with my influence from Momaday inspires the first chapter in the debut. I’m not going to give away any deep spoilers. The first chapter of the novel is available to read through Buzz Books via Publishers Marketplace. I needed to capture a real life moment of Neo-colonial violence–especially one executed from a government institution. Why?
The crux of the novel has the main character, Ever Geimausaddle, seeking to overcome a building aggression. I didn’t want to give readers a history lesson on colonial violence in America (that had already been done), but I wanted to give readers a strong sense of how colonization continues to disrupt and fracture Native communities. I was also interested in extending or stretching out our perception of Indigenous communities to include all of Latin America. So my memory of my parents being targeted by Mexican police fit the situation perfectly.
So I did what I always do with my writing, I take a real life experience and modify it–I make it fiction. In the version I used in my debut novel, I made the main character’s father, Everardo Francisco Carrillo-Chavez, the victim to corrupt police. Very much in the same way N. Scott Momaday uses it in his novel, House Made of Dawn. Here was a perfectly executed example of how Natives are targeted by police, and an example of continuing trauma Natives must heal from, aka decolonization.
How does the main character factor into all this? Ever Geimausaddle is present during the attack. He’s an infant–much in the same way I was only three years old when I witnessed what happened to my mother–and the main character is forever affected by the incident. I’m not giving away any spoilers here. This is the first bite. This scene leads the reader deeper into the crux of the novel, where we must find out if Ever will find his way out of a cycle of violence. If so, who will guide him? And what will it look like from an Indigenous lens?
Often I think about situations on the border, and how it can be a corridor of terror for families. One event that sticks in my mind is when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez drowned alongside his two year old daughter, Angie Valeria, while trying to get into the U.S. via the Rio Grande River. At the time it happened, my own daughter, Hadley, was two years old. I imagined the panic and desperation. And saw myself and my own daughter in those photos. While it was hard to look at the photos of Oscar and Angie, it was important for people to witness the atrocity for themselves.
“I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.” ― Black Elk
Because violence is a very real experience for people of color, I can’t express enough the importance to bear witness on the page. Especially for us literary fiction writers, who are tasked to be advocates for change. There is a real danger in silencing artists, or the attempt by the privileged who’ve never had to experience violence in the first place. What would’ve happened if we asked photographers to not take pictures of the Native American Holocaust? When N. Scott Momaday writes about police violence over a half century ago, and a Native writer like myself shows readers the continuation of this government sanctioned violence today, we must remember that Natives have been enduring brutality for hundreds of years.