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Recharging with American Indian Literature

February 28, 2012

Professor Zachary Benavidez blogs about why he’s taking a break from teaching Creative Writing.

For the first time in about five years, I’m not teaching a creative writing class. I miss the sketch assignments, the workshops, and the enthusiastic students who want to be writers, but I’m always thinking about them even as I indulge (finally!) in my own reading. My courses are taught on the foundation that writers are readers first, so I’m using this break to read and discover or rediscover useful writing techniques starting with American Indian literature.

I love American Indian literature. My graduate thesis was on American Indian women writers and their uses of the oral tradition. What brought me back to AI Lit this time, though, was Paul Chaat Smith’s non-fiction book, Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong. Smith is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He writes about AI representation in film – the “How” Indian of Hollywood – and he finds problematic how white America and Indians themselves have adopted some of Hollywood’s stereotypes. He is funny and sarcastic throughout. He has an entire essay on the death of Irony, personified. A dose of non-fiction is good for the fiction writer’s soul, I think. It helps to keep us balanced, something I might tell my students.

After his book, I rekindled an old friendship with the work of Louise Erdrich. Her novels, Tracks and Love Medicine, along with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, introduced me to Indian women’s writing. I just finished Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace, which is a continuation of Love Medicine; together, the books delve into the same Ojibwa characters, families and tribal histories, demonstrating a technique of “layering” (character development) that I want to show my students. I also just finished The Antelope Wife, a complex family drama where the narration largely depends on understanding each character’s lineage. In most of Erdrich’s novels, she offers a family tree, but often you need the family tree and the stories to figure out both! Next, I’ll read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, a novel about a priest who is actually a woman.

One idea I will take back to my creative writing students is the design and uses of family trees. Family trees can be a great way to ground characters. Having students discover the kinds of families their characters come from and the histories of their families would help with character development and storylines as well as foster ideas for other projects. Several chapters in The Antelope Wife are narrated from a dog’s perspective. Personification is not new, but this dog has a family tree too, one that goes all the way back to “Original Dog,” thereby making this particular dog much more interesting and intriguing (an endearing).

I miss teaching creative writing, but I’m spending a lot of time preparing for my next group of students. Erdrich has a lot to teach us regarding technique, and I’m looking forward to discovering other lessons from other authors awaiting me on my bookshelves.

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