Artists Can Only Be Themselves

“You should consider doing a nonfiction project,” my agent said. And so many parts of me sighed. See, my current agent (I’ve had several) has tried for over three years to sell a novel I wrote about Native American gangs. This is something that isn’t really talked about in Native North American literature. Canadian Native writers like Katherena Vermette in her novel The Break for example address it – but then again, so many Canadian Indian writers address the hard, interesting stuff – the stuff that isn’t laden with the kind of silly, pan-Indian subject matter that so much of Native American Literature is in the US. And of course I’m grumpily generalizing – there are a number of Native novels/collections I love that have been published here, and a number that have been published up North that blow. But I have to admit: Vermette’s novel made me think, man – this is the kind of thing that would never be published here.

To be fair, though I’ve only published with independent presses, my first novel has sold better than a number of novels that even THE BIG TEN (major New York presses) have published. But see, that brings me back to my original point, and why my agent wanted me to try my hand at a more traditional nonfiction project, and why I’m so frustrated with how the publishing industry works. I’m a fiction writer. I used to write poetry, and though I don’t anymore, I love it – and, obviously, though it was not something I thought I’d ever do, I’m now solicited to write nonfiction essays, often with a journalistic bent. But I love fiction. I just don’t have the ability to write about being Indian – or about being a minority – in such a way as to make white women in New York feel good about themselves. In fact, I seem to make them feel very, very bad.

Here’s what bothers me about that – and this whole business of relatability. It’s a trap. Though Indian writers here are beginning to push away from writing to prove how Native they are to an audience that wouldn’t know the difference, it doesn’t change the fact that the big – and frankly – the grand majority of the small presses, are predominantly white and that they are used to imagining protagonists that are white – and frankly, and I don’t know how else to put this – imagining that whatever they’re reading about should somehow revolve around them. What gives me the literary heebee jeebees is what is published by minority writers when they do make it to the BIG TEN. Generally speaking, the plot revolves around a minority who is in some way being oppressed by her super-ethnic family, who is growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and who is encountering racism, which is belied by the one sympathetic white friend. This way, white folks can always feel like they’re the good white person. And then they can pretend that they haven’t made it all about themselves. And Native literature – and sadly, I’ve got to include the independent presses here (especially the university presses) nearly always publish work about extremely sad Indians from SUPER AUTHENTICALLY reservation backgrounds, who get off the Rez. And there are some great novels/collections written in that vein. But it is the dominant – and often badly rendered – narrative that’s published, and that’s a shame. And don’t even get me started about how loaded with stuff that looks SUPER AUTHENTIC – to a white audience – those books often are. And that’s even if these books make it to publication, and then after that – they’re hardly EVER reviewed, and if they are, it’s generally unfavorably.

Look. Everybody’s written about this. I’ve written about this. And at least we have the #WeNeedDiverseBooks moment, though it generally speaks to children’s (and middle grade, and YA) literature. But it’s not getting much better.

Recently, an ex-student of mine, who has written a novel so timely, so sharp – that the fact that it would sell like hot-cakes is without question. But what are the agents telling her? It’s too dark! That’s exactly what I got too. And she knew, as I did, and you do too – that what they mean is that there aren’t enough white people in the novel, and that it makes them feel guilty. See, I’m supposed to write about spirituality and nature and NOT gangs – and she’s supposed to write about gangs, being a black writer. We’ve all got to stay in our little, tiny boxed-in corners, or tut-tut! no publication for you! The most irritating thing about this is they’re wrong. Agents and publishers have no idea what will sell, so they just publish the things that they can “relate” to.

This all brings me back to nonfiction. A few years ago, I decided to get back to my Indiginerd roots, and try my hand at a Science Fiction novel. I was around 90 pages in when my agent was like you know, if you submitted a jazzy thirty page book project to me, and it sold you would have ALL THE DOLLARS to just write what you want. And it’ll just take a few weeks of your time, and if it doesn’t sell, well then, you haven’t wasted much of your time. After thinking about what might be jazzy, and what I would actually care about, and thinking about all that time I could have to just write, I concluded that the one thing I was passionate about, in terms of cool nonfiction Indian projects, was the North Dakota Pipeline. I began interviewing people, and I wrote a thirty page proposal. But even those preliminary interviews took a few months. And then when I was ready to talk to my agent about the proposal, as I’d sent it to him weeks ago, he was clearly slammed, and didn’t have time to talk. When he finally did, he told me that the proposal wasn’t where it should be, and suggested a lot of radical changes. I did more interviews. Crafted the proposal again. And then he really hated it. Don’t get me wrong. This dude hurt when my novel didn’t sell right along with me. And he took a risk that many wouldn’t, taking me on, because he loved the novel as it is. But he can’t sell what he isn’t passionate about, and what he just doesn’t groove on, and he just didn’t groove on that nonfiction project.

But I decided not to give up! That’s what you’re supposed to do in this business, right? Never give up. And this was such a good project – and unlike my fiction, it wasn’t something that was dark, even considering the difficult subject matter. It was something, because the people I wanted to write about were so amazing, that I envisioned ending on a positive note. So I took it to The Binders. The Binders, if you’re not familiar with them, is a Facebook group of women writers that has blossomed into a million variants, inspired by Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment. It’s there that countless women have networked their way to publications, jobs and other writer-related things. I told The Binders what had happened and said that I thought to turn the project into an article – and submit it to The Atlantic. That way, my agent had to take it seriously, if it was taken. People gave a bit of standard advice but after about a day, someone contacted me from an agency. They wanted to look at the proposal. They had been looking for something exactly like the project I was describing. I told them that OK, I’d let them look at it. And I started thinking again about ALL THE DOLLARS that would give me ALL THE TIME to write. I did another interview. And after a few weeks, they rejected me – and, gave me a bit of small editorial advice. But their biggest issue was that… it wasn’t positive enough. It was too dark. Now, they didn’t say that – but what they said was that I should’ve focused on the awesome healing that had occurred at Standing Rock, the reconciliation of past wounds.

At first I was upset, I thought – what? And then I got it. This was just another way for white folks to make it all about themselves…and pretend that it wasn’t all about themselves, even if they were deeply well intentioned. See, even though one of the people I was focusing on was a white Iowan farmer, this was not enough. What they wanted, was big, heart-rending – and titillating –displays of super authentic Indians doing super authentic shit – with white folks always in the foreground, saving all of those fucking Indians. Not authentic portraits of two very different people affected, and deeply – by the Pipeline.

I have begun to learn, again, again, again from this. I learned that I cannot give them what they want. That’s it’s just not in me. It reminds me, though I know he’s a white canonical dude, of the story I heard about Melville in graduate school. See, everyone knows that dude by Moby Dick. But what folks don’t generally know, is that he wrote a book called Typee before the big MD. Typee was weird, and strange – but though it wasn’t Moby Dick, and I don’t know if they would’ve had the exact vocabulary for it back then – what it was, was art. And art can only be itself. And artists can only be themselves. So when Melville’s publisher told him to write you know, something like Typee but more like, you know, salacious, commercial, less weird – not so dark, Melville wanting ALL THE DOLLARS to have ALL THE TIME TO WRITE, set down to goddamn do that. And wrote Moby Dick instead. Poor kindred soul. I see him sitting down in front of that typewriter, sad, laughing, crying, typing away without any real control over what he was doing. Because that’s how it works. And after Moby Dick tanked? He never wrote again.

But you goddamn bet I will.  

Here’s the thing I learned though, in doing this project. I learned that for me anyway, my job as a fiction writer is to reveal the darkness inside human beings. But in nonfiction, it is to show the darkness outside. Do you know what the Iowan farmer did, when his mother was dying? He held her head, every day, so that she could drink water. He helped her to the bathroom. And when asked about it, he will tell you how lucky he is that she gave him the gift (his word) of caring for her that last year of her life.

Oh god, I’m so glad I got to know you, my new and amazing friend.

But I’m going back to my science fiction novel. That was something, science fiction, that when I was very young, helped me dream my way into this strange, heartbreaking, miserable, wonderful business in the first place. And I think this time that I don’t have to learn. Again.  


Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Her collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine is forthcoming. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, such as Boulevard, Drunken BoatSouth Dakota Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.




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