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?