Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

From Graywolf Press: Native American Fiction

David Treuer’s Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual
Graywolf Press, 2006

I can tell you exactly, what the name of the first book that I read from Graywolf Press: Georgia Savage’s The House Tibet (1991). What I recall now, nearly twenty years later, is simply that The House Tibet stood out for me. And, when I discovered Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Of Carolina and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I thought they would make good companion reads for Georgia Savage’s novel.

That’s pretty much it; I have a terrible reader’s memory, so the details and even the story are lost to me now, but the Wolf stood out — though I only remember one of them on the spine of the book — and the small moving pack on their website is just as memorable for those discovering their publishing house in the digital age.

So when the Spotlight Series Tour of Graywolf Press was announced, I didn’t need to think twice. The House Tibet was one of the first books that I recognized as coming from a small press, an independent voice that had something stand-out to offer, in a reading world theretofore dominated by rearing horses, penguins, puffins and pairs of significant initials. Since then, I’ve read many of their offerings, with a particular penchant for their works on creative writing and bookishness and because I’ve been considering reading Louise Erdrich’s interconnected novels, I gravitated towards David Treuer’s Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual for this tour.

Treuer’s premise is simple. He believes that “The Indians people imagine, and the Indians that are created on the page, are much more active, much more present, than the Indians in life. The result is a very loud silence. Ours is a ghostly presence.”

And because this is true, we must remember that “most readers come to Native literature fully loaded with ideas, images, and notions, and that the process of interpretation needs to take this into account.”

He asks: “How does one escape this all-pervading thing, exoticized foreknowledge?”

This foreknowledge, Treuer believes fundamentally impacts the way in which works with Native characters are received by readers.

He considers many well known works (like Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, James Welch’s Fool’s Crow, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Cermony, Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, and Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Road) and challenges many of the commonly held beliefs about these works.

For instance, Erdrich’s writing is often said to mirror native culture and embody those cultural attitudes about storytelling, but when he actually considers the techniques that she uses in her fiction, they are techniques used by writers who have no native heritage, by writers like Faulkner and Garcia-Marquez. She is simply telling a good story.

“To try and read the book through culture or as culture is to miss the chance to interpret and understand what is wonderful and vital about the novel,” he says. And, although at times Treuer sounds critical, more often than not, he is highly complimentary of these works of literature.

Even about Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, which was exposed as a fake in 1991 (it was originally published in 1976 as an autobiographical memoir). “To ignore the links that Little Tree has with other Indian novels (and as a piece of writing, and this was the point of the essay, it is as Indian as any other Indian novel) is to weaken our novels and our criticism.”

If we ignore a book like Little Tree, he says, “we are committing the sin of not treating literature as literature. We are, in effect, saying that writing doesn’t matter.”

I just finished reading this Graywolf Press book over the weekend, so I’m still thinking about this; I’m not sure that I agree. What I am sure of is that Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual is the kind of book about reading that I truly appreciate. Treuer presents his thesis clearly and consistently, his passion for literature and books and storytelling is obvious, and I enjoy quietly debating where and how I agree (and don’t) with his ideas.

Because one of the few things better than actually reading a good book is reading a good book about reading good books. You got that, right?

Is this the kind of user’s manual you would read? What other books would you like to see a user’s manual for?

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11 comments to From Graywolf Press: Native American Fiction

  • Great post! You’ve also flagged up for me that I’ve never read any Native American literature, which seems like a massive oversight: any you’d particularly recommend? Love Medicine and Ceremony do look really interesting.

    As for ‘manuals’, I don’t think I’ve read any. I suppose the most similar thing I’ve come across is Edward W. Said’s Orientalism which is excellent; it deals with a wide range of issues (beyond literature), but has some great analysis of some well-known texts situating them within a context of social and historical views and the exoticisation of ‘oriental’ cultures.

    I would read a manual like the one you mention, but I think I’d only really read one where I already have some kind of awareness of the literature being discussed, a bit of background knowledge, so that I get the most out of it and don’t feel totally lost!

  • RE: “most readers come to Native literature fully loaded with ideas, images, and notions, and that the process of interpretation needs to take this into account.”

    All writers have to do take such cultural attitudes into consideration, but the burden is probably higher on “minorities”. I know I have, at times, tried to write while keeping my minority identities in the closet. Do you know of any Native American writers who have tried writing “in the closet”?

  • Hmm, I’m not sure what kind of user’s manual I’d want to read. This one sounds like a great one for making you think though. I’m all for that!

    Thanks for participating! I love those wolves too.

  • I have to agree that most people that come to native literature do have preconceived notions about Indians and their culture, etc. This was a great post, and I love Graywolf.

  • My knowledge of Native American literature is very meagre, so a book likt this would be useful. And I like books about books anyway. Of course I will aim to find and read books about this topic so that I can make my own mind up.

  • Wow, great post! I have been reading some of Sherman Alexie’s work recently, and the comments you highlight here about reading Native American fiction are really interesting to me. I guess I chose to read Alexie BECAUSE he is Native American, but I don’t read his stories just to get a sense of his Native culture. I just think he’s witty and intelligent. That said, though, while reading one of his books, I got into a deep discussion with a fellow reader about his portrayal of Native Americans and their culture today and how it must be, etc. So I guess he spurred me to look more into something than I ever would have otherwise.

  • So, is David Truer Native-American himself?

    Speaking of Alexie, not all his stories are about Native-Americans. I wonder if Native-American authors (or any other author from a different culture) feel pressured to write only within their culture — are they criticized for making any departures? Does Truer address this?

  • Got that! This looks like a wonderful read. I teach several first nations writers in my survey of Canadian literature, and one of my favourite classes is the one on post-colonialism and first nations. I highly recommend The Imaginary Indian by Daniel Francis if you want to read more on this topic.

  • Oh, and anything by Drew Hayden Taylor as well.

  • Kat

    I used to read many Graywolf books and have somehow lost track of them. I love good anthologies and will make a note of this one.

  • Thanks for all the comments!
    Jenny – Even if you haven’t read any of the books he discusses, I think you might find this book helpful so you could choose a place to start; I’ve read a few other works by these authors, but none of the specific books, and it still gave me a lot to think about.

    Jermemiah (and this also answers one of your questions, too, Valerie – Treur doesn’t consider this subject in this book; he is not discussing questions of authenticity and identity and, instead, chooses to focus on the way readers can re-centre their interpretive efforts. I can see where there would be a wide variety of opinions on this aspect of his writing.

    Chris – I’m glad you chose Greywolf: it’s a terrific press that deserves more attention.

    Serena – Yes, it’s hard to disagree with this part of his thesis for sure.

    Sakura – I look forward to hearing about the books you explore on the topic.

    Aarti – “Smoke Signals” was my introduction to Alexie’s work, and I think I chose to see it simply because it was billed as being the first movie written and directed by a Native American but, like you, I followed him just because he’s so good at what he does.

    Valerie – His bio says he’s Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and divides his time between Leech Lake and Minneapolis, where he teaches literature and creative writing at the U of Minnesota.

    Nathalie – Heh, thanks! I think I’ve read this, but if I’m not sure, it’s worth another look, so I’ve put in a request. The summary brings Tom King’s Green Grass, Running Water to mind and now I’m desperate for a re-read of that one too. I’ve only recently discovered Drew Hayden Taylor and am disgusted with myself that I haven’t read anything of his already!

    Kat – Be warned: either their catalogue or Treur’s book will inflate your TBR list dramatically.

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