How do you make decisions about writing prose and writing poetry? How do you traffic between genres?
That’s a good question. The biggest secret I have is that very often I will take about a dozen poems—or maybe two dozen poems—and work them into a novel in some way. Or vice versa. There are chapters sometimes that don’t work in a novel and I’ll throw them into a folder and a month or a year later and eventually get a poem out of a chapter that didn’t work in a novel. There are some short stories that are more borderline than others, obviously. As in my latest book, Fun & Games. Some of the older things are certainly more borderline—bridging the two forms—than others.
Does teaching nourish your writing?
I think so. In terms of my life, it gives me a way of getting out of the loneliness that surrounds writing as an activity. And I feel that it’s a good balance, a good intellectual balance. It’s a good way of going into the world and being involved in the world. It’s constructive and educational. As long as I feel that I’m learning something, then it’s useful; I have a kind of selfish motive to teaching: I love to learn. Teaching is important for me in that sense; I feel engaged.
What do you actually teach when you teach creative writing?
Well, I’m not teaching writing, really. Usually when I’m teaching creative writing I’m trying to conduct—coordinate, really—a workshop in which there’s an atmosphere generated, an atmosphere, when it’s working, that should give the participants the opportunity to discover what they need to discover in order for their writing to go forward. When I’m dealing with people who have a lot of talent and a great need to write, then it’s ideal, because that’s when the method works best. When I’m dealing with people who will probably not become writers, then my goal is to try to create the same atmosphere and hope that they will come away from the workshop experience as better readers, at least, because they’ve learned how a text is put together, and how it’s taken apart. That’s all I expect from those who aren’t specializing in creative writing. In all cases, it’s a worthy goal.
I want to shift gears and talk about some of your work more specifically. In your novel Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar, published in 1988, the material is drawn from the life of a Zuni woman living on the fringes of her native culture. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
It came out of the failure of another novel I was writing at the same time. That novel was about an Afro-American singer, and I realized that I needed some distance from it—some cultural distance—so I needed to be able to look at culture the way you would look at a chessboard, maybe, or at a foreign language—let’s put it that way—that has understandable, structural parts. So, there was my fascination with the Zunis.
I lived in Colorado for twelve years, teaching at the university, and I spent a lot of time in the Southwest and on the Navajo reservations. I became accustomed to the culture, and absorbed a great deal. Essentially, the novel came from another route. I had been fascinated with the Zunis for a long, long time because of their history. There’s a mystery there. No ones know, for example, where their language comes from, for one thing. They may be the descendant of the Aztecs; that’s one theory. But I was especially interested in their rebellious nature, and in their resiliency. Anyway, I had enough distance so that I could look at them as I would look at something under a microscope. There was a kind of structure, a kind of system, that was attractive to me. So I did the research, which took a couple of years, and I took my previous character and changed her a great deal. She evolved into Painted Turtle, but she became a very different kind of person, though she retained the sadness—but she also lost a lot of the despair; although Painted Turtle has some despair, she’s triumphant. She transcends her condition, and she has much to deal with but she doesn’t give up.
What about the role of the male narrator, Baldwin Saiyataca?
That was a purely technical decision. The first time, I tried Painted Turtle in a first-person narrative, and it didn’t work. I tried it that way and I could not make it work in her voice. Saiyataca was in the story, so I resolved the problem by rewriting it from his point of view. Maybe because I felt more comfortable with a male narrator at that time, I don’t know. Anyway, he was a half-breed—half Navajo and half Hopi, and as such, he was in trouble. And Painted Turtle was in trouble, too. They were both in trouble; they couldn’t find a place to be anywhere, and I think that’s really one of the subtexts of the novel—it may not be a subtext, actually; it may be the main point. But they’re looking for a place and a way to be.
I noted, too, a recurring theme of shame in the novel, and this interests me a great deal. Was this theme a conscious construction, or did it evolve out of the characters themselves?
I think it evolved naturally out of the situation the characters were in. Shame is an essential element in all human experience, I think. I used to think of shame as a Judeo-Christian phenomenon, but as I learned that it’s universal, that shame and guilt seem to be motivating factors in the formation of a great many systems of thought, feeling, religious expression.
I’m reminded of a poignant scene in the novel where Painted Turtle is riding the bus to Albuquerque and a young blond girl is sitting in the seat next to her. The girl turns to Painted Turtle and asks her, “Are you Indian?” and Painted Turtle says, “Yes.” The little girl then asks her, “Do you live in a tepee? Do you wear moccasins? Do you dance?” The young girl has her particular set of assumptions about the world of the Indian, and Painted Turtle is sealed off from the world of the girl because of those assumptions. And Painted Turtle is shamed as a result of not being able to bridge that gulf between her culture and the girl’s.
I think that’s one of those unfortunate things that gets in the way of seeing how we are all essentially, at the deepest level, the same, except for our cultural differences. What happens is that the cultural differences become, somehow, more visible, rather than the equally significant universal elements.