Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New Mexico, Non-Required Reading, and Other Adventures

The second half of May has presented me with some great opportunities to do some travelling and to catch up on some reading.

After I finished up my finals at the University of Oklahoma (putting to an end my least productive semester of my acedemic experience), I packed up and headed out west with some friends. Although I have relatives in New Mexico, this was my first trip to the area. We spent three days in Navajo Lake State Park camping, hiking, and fishing the legendary San Juan River. This old Navajo stone building was about a mile from the river on the wall of Simon Canyon.

Next, we stayed an afternoon and night at El Vado Lake. Many laughs, good food, good drink, and a good campfire.

After that, we spent a couple of days at Wild Rivers National Recreation Area near Taos, NM. From our campground it was about a mile hike down to the Rio Grande.

Aside from travel, I also have been catching up on some reading. I finished Mohsin Hamid's best-seller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It is a well written novel that reminds me of the way Gatsby looks in on the lives of the rich, except it is looking at the lives of Americans and Pakistanis (and in a way the relationship between the two countries since 9/11) through the eyes of a person who is both yet neither.

I am almost through The Essential Rumi and plan on following that up with Nathan Brown's Karma Crisis, Carol Hamilton's Lexicography, and hopefully some more books that have been at the ready on my shelf.

Hopefully, I can shake this lazy phase I'm in long enough to do some more writing in the coming days. Until then...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"When you see Indians; be careful...When you don't see Indians; be twice as careful."

Before I post the excerpt that I read at the 2nd Annual Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, I feel like I should talk about what this collection of flash-fiction means to me and why I feel it says something that needs to be said.

One of the things that I find extremely fascinating about human beings is our ability to change. I want to avoid the terms "adapt" or "evolve" here because those terms seem to imply that whatever it is that endures change automatically comes out improved or better than before. When we endure a change the outcome is not always certain and it is not guaranteed to be better, but once that change is enacted there is seldom an opportunity to regain what is lost in changing and we are left to do the best with what we have if things don't go as we hoped.

I have avoided these stories for a while now, hoping to address these ideas about change in a similar way but side-stepping the places and people from which they come. I have avoided these because I don't want to be labeled a "Native American" writer, but for the most part these stories are from my (and other's) experiences in and around the American Indian culture. Also, the more I read American Indian literature the more I notice that the viewpoints presented in such works are somewhat limited to Indians on reservations and the complications that come from that, but hardly any address the viewpoints of the rest of us that didn't grow up at Crow Agency, or Rocky Boy, or Fort Hall, or Pine Ridge. Though we share some common social problems, the conflict between tradition and progress is a bit different than those that were born and raised in rural reservation towns.

I hope to kill two birds with one stone with this collection:
1) Change is something that all human's experience whether we are aware of it or not, and the individual's experience with change is something that can be a bonding factor between generations or cultures.
2) Write with the voice of, in a sense, the anti-Sherman Alexie. (It doesn't always take a white teacher to tell an Indian kid that she or he is smart and to get out and get an education. Some of us had parents that would tell us that.) I don't have anything against Alexie. In my opinion, he is one of the more original voices in modern Native literature. It is his content that I wish to provide with an opposing view.

That was more than I wanted to say...

So here it is...the opening story from my flash-fiction collection "A Tradition of Change"

Change: The Old Man’s Last Story
By Sly Alley
“Things were a lot different in those days,” he began, “but change happens. It happened before I was born. Change happened all my life and I’m sure it will keep happening long after I die.” He paused to rearrange the thin white blankets that covered his legs. Before he got sick he looked ten years younger than his age, but now, after several months of late-night rushes to the ER and long drives to doctor appointments and all the hassles that those of us who depend on Indian Health Service must endure, the old man looked much older than his age.
“They keep it too damn cold in here,” he said under his breath as he retreated from his battle with the blankets and took a long drink of water from the hospital mug.
            “My dad wanted to be here today…” I started to explain before the old man cut me off.
            “I know he has his own problems. We’re all getting old. Hell, every week I read the obituary of one of our classmates in the newspaper. Your dad’ll come by when he can.”
            We sat there in a strange silence that only lasted a few seconds, but it seemed to engulf the entire hospital. I had spent enough time in hospitals to know how loud they can be. There’s usually an orchestra of buzzers going off, nurses talking way too loud, someone knocking a food tray off of a cart. For a sick person a hospital can be hell, so I wasn’t about to interrupt this momentary symphony of silence. I left that task to the nurse who came in to check the old man’s blood pressure. After she finished and left the room, the old man gestured for me to close the door.
            “Is your recorder going?” he asked as he took another drink of water.
            “Yes,” I said as I pushed the button on the small, black digital voice recorder that sat on the tray next to the old man’s water. “Start whenever you’re ready.”
            “My earliest memories are of a white woman I called Mrs. Kate. Of course at the time I didn’t know that she was white, and I didn’t know that I was an Ind’n. We lived in a little house in Pawnee. Mrs. Kate enrolled me in school…I guess what they call kindergarten these days. And I went for a while. I think it was that same year that I met my mother. I was four years old. At that time I didn’t know I was going to meet my mother. Mrs. Kate told me that we were having a special guest over to the house that day. I took a bath and got cleaned up. Mrs. Kate started packing the few clothes I had, some trousers and t-shirts and things, into a little black leather suitcase. I couldn’t figure out why she would be packing my clothes for a guest. Later that day this woman showed up to the house. This woman and I sat on the porch for a while before she began to speak. 
‘I am your mother. My name’s Julia. I came here to take you home with me,’ she said.
“I said okay, told Mrs. Kate goodbye, and I climbed up into a horse drawn cart and left Pawnee. That year was 1946.”
The old man coughed, took a drink of water, and closed his eyes while he spoke.
 “My point in telling you this is that even at an early age, my life underwent a change. And that’s what people don’t know about Ind’ns. That’s how we survived all these years…we were able to hunt and fish and grow crops, that was a part of it, but the bigger part is that we recognized when the time comes for us to change. We don’t all see that need for change at the same time. The same goes for any people, not just Ind’ns.”
The old man opened his eyes and looked out the window to the cold November clouds that hung somewhere between the earth and sun.
“Tradition,” he said. “Tradition has caused some of the biggest arguments for our people. These young people like to brag around about tradition. They say ‘I was raised in the Old Ways’ but they have no clue what the Old Ways were. None of us do… When I was a teenager some people came to study our tribe. People from different universities would come and ask these older folks to tell them about their ‘Old Ways’ and traditions. The old folks would tell them ‘You’re about 300 years too late for that. Those old ways were lost before we were born’ they would say. Since I was a young man, the elders would tell us, ‘Go to school, get an education, learn English, get jobs.’ They knew that it was time for us to change.
“My mother’s generation had trouble accepting that change, so they took to drinking…they couldn’t get jobs because they drank too much and wouldn’t show up for work. When you hear these stories about children being ripped out of their mother’s hands and sent to boarding schools and being stripped of their heritage…it was that way for some, but there were some of us who knew it’s what we would have to do to survive. I made a friend when I came back home with my mother. We grew up together. His parents died when he was little, so his grandparents raised him. His grandparents knew our language, but they spoke in English to us young kids. When they started to get old and were dying, they told him to go to Haskell Indian School. I was with him at the bus stop when he went up there. He was 14 years old then. Someone said he died a few months ago.” The old man paused for a moment as if he were silently paying respect to the man whose funeral he was too sick to attend. Then he continued.
 “Even when things were bad at home--sometimes we’d go hungry for a while, we were never starving, but hungry--even then there was that hope that we could go get educated and make ourselves better. We had to learn from our parents and accept that a time had come to change.” The old man paused, this time to catch his breath. Then he chuckled and with a smile he said, “I sure didn’t want’a live in a house with dirt floors and haul water for the rest of my life.” His laugh and smile gave way to a hard cough and he spat into the washcloth that he clenched in his left hand.  
“I’m going to tell you one more thing, nephew, then I’m going to rest,” said the old man, looking out as the sleet started to tap the thick glass of the window. The smell of the hospital dinners were beginning to creep through the hallways like a lazy rainstorm cutting through the mountains. Wheel of Fortune was at maximum volume in the room across the hall and Pat Sajak’s voice carried through the door.
“The tribe has money now. Now, they have all these different businesses. They have casinos, and construction companies, and farms. They have money to send you to school. Things haven’t always been this way, so take advantage of these benefits. They might not always be available to you. A lot of us worked hard to get things this way so that the young people have better hopes and dreams than we had. We were able to change towards something better, now it’s going to be your turn.”
He paused and took the last drink of water from his cup. We sat there listening to the sounds of the hospital and the sleet and rain pelting the window. After he had fallen asleep I turned off the recorder and quietly slipped out of the room, unaware that this would be the last time I saw the old man alive.
© 2012