VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Erika T. Wurth

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The Native American film industry is the subject of Erika T. Wurth’s latest release, Buckskin Cocaine. Featuring a cast of unforgettable characters—desperate actors, unhinged directors—this collection of stories isn’t for those with delicate sensibilities. Likewise, Wurth herself is a straight shooter, an Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee writer who rejects the “good Indian” motif favored by the publishing industry. She is instead committed to fiction, poetry, and nonfiction narratives that reflect the diversity of Native American experiences.

Wurth’s published works also include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and was a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from numerous journals including Boulevard, Drunken Boat, The Writer’s Chronicle, and South Dakota Review.

In this interview, Wurth discusses her journey to becoming a writer, persevering through rejection, and white writers writing Native characters.

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The Rumpus: I started Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, and I just love, love, love Margaritte, [the main character]. Her voice, her attitude, her world. I was drawn in right away. How did she come to you?

Erika Wurth: First, thank you for interviewing me, and I’m thinking about what you said earlier about the purpose of this column, and I agree. The visibility that we [women writers of color] have for one another—I’m always checking for that. And it starts super, super young. My niece says, “I don’t want to read,” but when I get her to the bookstore, she [picks a book] and it’s one that at least somewhat mirrors her, at least as much as it can. She found a book where the main character is Reina, a Latina girl, and it’s a comic.

That starts so early, and it matters to me. And it merges right into Margaritte. The whole YA phenomenon had not really taken off at that time. So I modeled after all the writers who made a difference for me when I was developing my voice, like Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, during the 1990s. Their work was about young people but was absolutely meant for an adult audience. My brain was coalescing around that stuff in my early twenties.

And I also felt like, as a Native writer, this is a continuing issue with the larger publishing industry. The story either has to deal with nature or spiritual stuff about Indians, and it always has to include the rez. And then the sub-narrative is often, “Oh, but you know, they got off the rez.” But this is not the only story.

Where I grew up, right outside of Denver, was in between two small towns and we were bussed to school in Idaho Springs. There were people who spoke Lakota and Navajo. There were Mexican people of Indian descent. People went to Powwow and Native American church. It’s not the same as a reservation, but it was my world.

I mainly read dragon books as a kid. And horror books, and then, finally, sci-fi books. I started to write stories in graduate school. I’d been a little too chicken to take creative writing classes as an undergraduate. So I started to write these [first-person] short stories. All these books I had read when I was younger were in third person because they were popular, commercial books. And they were great, and amazing for the imagination. But American audiences tend to go for third-person omniscient, and I was always trying to do that. And I’d come back to that off and on for different purposes.

But [Margaritte’s] voice began to genuinely come up, and if I sat down and thought about it, she was like a culmination of my sister, maybe a bit of myself, my best friend from high school, and a lot of the girls I grew up with and went to high school with.

And then I went to VONA, and all the people in my workshop were doing similar things with their short stories, [developing them into] these coming-of-age novels. And I realized that’s what this was.

So I sat down to write this horrible mess that was the novel. At one point, I thought I had Sherman Alexie’s agent. So, I broke my wrist off writing this miserable version of the novel in four days. And within two years she was like, “This stinks.” So we had a little argument over email which was kind of funny. But that was really good because it meant that I had to revise, and revise, and revise.

And finally, I really had to knock my head against plot because I’m not inherently good at it, or I had not been taught to be good at it. I had not been taught the skill. And when you’re talking about 80,000 words, you have to have that structure, right? You have to have some idea what that is. And it took me a long, fucking time. Honestly, I should have just read some of those nuts and bolts books that I didn’t really know about. Because it probably would have taught me more.

Rumpus: In terms of craft?

Wurth: Exactly. Because now I’m good at it! I’ve taught creative writing for over ten years. And so, with my students, it’s “You put this here. Later, that will make sense.” But at the time, I couldn’t keep it in my head.

Rumpus: And Margaritte was that character that emerged over all these many years.

Wurth: Yeah. And I gave her my grandmother’s name because my grandmother was completely Native. And then her husband was probably mixed Native. He passed as white. He probably thought of himself as white, but I don’t think he was. My grandmother was a very sad person in many ways. She went to an urban Indian day school, not a boarding school, but it was also run by Catholic nuns. And she had an arranged marriage, and he beat her. This was when she was fourteen. When she divorced him, she was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Then she ended up with somebody else, my mother’s father, and she committed suicide when I was six. But my memories of her are very vivid.

Rumpus: I’m sorry.

Wurth: I know, it’s so sad. I remember my mother’s scream downstairs when she found out. Because we’re all—all Indian women—are mama’s girls. So, it was terrible. But at the same time, I wanted to give this character her name.

Rumpus: That’s a really great tribute.

Earlier, you said that when you started what would become Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, the latest movement in YA hadn’t started, and I assume you’re referring to #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Wurth: Yeah, that and I don’t even remember hearing the phrase “YA” until the very end when my novel was actually sold to Curbside. And then, it kind of bothered me that my male peers’ [work] would be referred to as “coming of age.” But I was “YA.” And YA isn’t something I necessarily wanted to do. But I do want young people to pick up the book. And the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement is phenomenally important.

Rumpus: So let’s talk about the experience of getting published.

Wurth: It stinks that we have to go outside of our community to be published. But even the Native presses like University of Arizona, University of New Mexico—those are the ones that are left—they kind of repeat the same narrative. Very few Natives are in charge of that. So yeah, it’s frustrating. And my agent tried to sell my current novel for three years, and because it doesn’t have a happy ending it was rejected, rejected, rejected, rejected.

It’s finally probably sold to SUNY. They have a new Indigenous series. I think I’m going to call it Iinà which is the Navajo word for “life.” “Life” is the most basic meaning. It has a lot of other divergent meanings. The novel is about a guy in a Native American gang. He’s Apache like me, but also Navajo.

Rumpus: And you’re still in the process of selling it? How did you get connected with SUNY?

Wurth: Someone from SUNY contacted me on Facebook about it. And they’ve given me what’s called an advanced contract. So, it means that it still has to go up for peer review. And they say usually their peer reviewers are very friendly, but it made me a little nervous. [Laughs] So, we’ll see what happens.

Rumpus: Was there a time during your career where you felt discouraged, and felt like, you know what? I can’t do this.

Wurth: The time is about 2 a.m., every night. Yeah. Every once in awhile, I feel it every day and then I feel okay about it. The song I think is the best analogy for the literary world is “Stars” by Nina Simone. People want fame so badly, and most of them drop off eventually in their thirties because they just can’t fucking stand it. And then some of them stand the test of time and make it anyway. Some of them don’t. But all of us are just in a state of pain, desperation most of the time. And sometimes I wonder, is this worth it? But I don’t seem to have much of a choice about it. It’s cheesy when writers say that, but I don’t exist without this. I get really, really, childishly, dramatically upset about something. And then five minutes later I’m just typing away. I have that kind of inner life. And I don’t really know why.

Rumpus: There was an interview recently with Sherman Alexie where he talked about being tired of being the “Indian du jour,” and that takes us back to representation and inspiration. Who are the writers who inspire you?

Wurth: I’m trying my hand at every literary genre ever. I have a sci-fi novel—that’s what I like to read and I love, and I desperately want to do it. So I’ve been reading Blake Hausman and Daniel H. Wilson. They’re Native American literary sci-fi novelists, and they’re just fucking fantastic. I love what they do.

I can’t wait for Rebecca Roanhorse. She’s a Native fantasy writer. Her book is coming out with Simon and Schuster. And of course, I read—like every Indian—I read Terese Mailhot. She writes for Indian Country, and she’s one of the Indian women I super-identify with because she’s just like, “I don’t care. I’m going to say that shit.” And then there’s Debbie Reese who’s been a champion for my work.

Rumpus: What writers do you teach in your classes?

Wurth: Alexie. Some of his early work is just irreplaceably brilliant. Junot Díaz, Lahiri, all the folks from the 1990s that I love. I’ve taught Holly Goddard Jones’s short story collection, Girl Trouble, which is just super underrated and amazing. I don’t know how she does that. Her brain is like a beautiful, imaginary, alien computer. I teach Kiese Laymon’s How to Kill Yourself and Others Slowly in America. And Sandra Cisneros, I teach her in Intro every year. I love her. She has blurbed every book of mine, except for my new book of poetry because I didn’t want to pester her. She line-edited Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend for me, gave me advice. Who does this? No one does this!

Rumpus: That’s generous!

Wurth: Eden Robinson also did this for me! She’s a Canadian-Indian writer.

Rumpus: And what are you reading right now?

Wurth: I’m reading Katherena Vermette’s The Break because I’m now reviewing books for what was called Drunken Boat and is now Anomaly. I volunteered to do that because I am at a point in my career where I really feel I owe that.

So The Break is a novel that makes me jealous, jealous, jealous. And I’ll tell you why. Not just because it’s a great book, but because it’s a kind of novel that would just never be published here, because it’s just a concrete, realistic, wonderfully written portrayal with ten narrators. But somehow you don’t even notice, she’s so good at it. The book is about Native Americans who are from urban and reservation communities, and the central force is a rape. And yet, there’s no, “I have escaped from the rez.” There’s a bit about coyotes—she weaves that in subtly—but there’s no bullshit about nature and spirituality. Although, certainly they do everyday rituals that I recognize. There’s no bullshit there. They seem like Indians I know. And Daniel Wilson is like that. Sure, he is writing about giant slave robots, and yet the Indians in his novel are more recognizable to me than half the Native characters that have come in academic literary realism stuff before.

Rumpus: Speaking of Native writers writing Native characters: there are white writers who want to write characters of color, or write about culture-based experiences that are not their own. How do you respond to this?

Wurth: Most of where I encounter that is not with my students. It’s in the outside world. Literally every single AWP panel I’ve ever done, regardless of the subject—it could be Native American Poetics, or, Native Americans: How We Hate White People—and literally half of the audience shows up just to ask us if they can write about Indians. It just goes on, it doesn’t matter what we say. And, I get emails like this on a pretty consistent basis, asking can they write about Indians. “You’re an Indian, you’re some kind of Indian, not even the Indians I’m writing about it, but if I get permission from you, then I can feel okay about it.”

And here’s the thing. I have a white friend who grew up on the edge of a reservation. I wish that people like her would have Indian characters because it would be a weird, dishonest, strange thing to erase them from the landscape. Now, would I choose for them to be the main character? I wouldn’t. That’s where I’m comfortable. I don’t have my main characters from a reservation, for example.

But you never see that. All the time, it’s white people who have some weird fetish for Indians, in a creepy, creepy, creepy way. And they just want to Google the fuck out of something random, and then write something about it. And it’s like, what investment do you have in this?

And additionally, they whine and whine and whine about how mean we are, and yet, they’re published! They’re ninety-nine percent of what is published under anything Native American. And I told them, you’ll get published. Nothing I say matters to you. So, go right ahead!

So, I guess that makes me angry. And at the last AWP I said, “Look, this is what half of folks ask. But I’m going to let you sort that out for yourself, and I’d like to see if there are any other questions.” And they were all so dissuaded. But we actually had a discussion. Still, somebody pushed through anyway, right? “That’s nice what you told me not to do, but I’m going to do it.” This is how you people fucking colonized. [Laughs]

So, yeah, it was a great discussion, and I met a young Apache science-fiction writer. That’s what happened when I just said, “Sorry, you guys go sit in a circle jerk by yourselves, talking about how mean Indians are, but how you love them. I know you’re going to do it, I just don’t want to see it. It’s like looking at your porn.”

Rumpus: “Meanwhile, I’ll be up here talking to and encouraging this young writer.” [Laughs]

Earlier, we talked a little about Margaritte and the path that led you to become a writer. And you said that you didn’t feel confident enough to take a creative writing class as an undergraduate. What made you take the leap in grad school?

Wurth: I always thought of myself as a writer, but my parents were really upset about that because they’d come from working-class backgrounds. My mom’s a Native woman from Texas, and my dad is a white dude from Staten Island. They both grew up fairly poor and made it to middle class. So they said, “You’re going to try and major in science or something. And I said, “I’m not going to do that.” I ended up majoring in English, but I was still chicken. I love my parents, but they definitely scared me out of [taking a creative writing class].

But I was still writing, and I was part of a little writing group although I’d never share anything. And then, I went to an English graduate program when I was twenty-two, and I was still profusely writing for myself, short stories and poems. I never sent anything out for two years. Just producing and producing and producing. Then I went into a PhD program, and I informed them that I’d like to do a lot of creative stuff. I’d like to do workshops. And that’s when I started publishing and taking creative writing workshops, when I was twenty-four.

Rumpus: And how did you arrive at your latest release, Buckskin Cocaine.

Wurth: At one point, [Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend], had not been taken. My agent tried really hard, but people said, it’s too vulgar, it’s too dark. And that’s, ironically, what the reviews say [now] too. And I had written a new collection of poetry, just because I wanted to keep writing, but I didn’t have the heart to do another novel with that one not taken. So when I finished that, I thought, “I need to just write stories. That’s what I need to do. I need to keep going.”

I have been a guest at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and I had hung out with a lot of the film people, the film Indians, the Hollywood Indians, who are really the Santa Fe Indians, and they were insane. There are so many dude writers and female writers who are basically sexual predators, people with alcohol problems, with drug problems, who are ego-driven beyond belief. That’s still nothing compared to the Native film industry. It is one of the most tragic things I’ve ever seen because when you’re Indian, you can be full-blooded, but if you’re not dark enough… I’ve seen Indian [actors] who dyed their hair so that they would look darker. And then there are the Indians who look like what Hollywood thinks is Indian, but they technically are a quarter, and Jewish. It really didn’t matter as long as you conform to something.

On top of it, you never or rarely get to play anybody who wears a pair of jeans. You have to constantly play people from five hundred years ago or two hundred years ago or a hundred years ago. It’s kind of fucked up because it totally plays into that whole idea of Manifest Destiny. Like, these people were sad. They were cool dressers and all, but they left. And there’re a couple of people who are part Cherokee left, but that’s it. And maybe some reservations, but they’ll go away too because they’re sad.

And so, all of the directors were hustlers, like hardcore hustlers. They’d go to bars and drink hard and ask what tribe are you because there are certain tribes that have money. Casinos. And they could give them money for their films. And when they would get some sort of film out—because Indians are so excited for one Indian to show any promise, to come up in any way—people just treat them like royalty. And these are people who [have been] treated like nothing most of their lives. And they just go crazy.

So, I decided to write a collection of short stories loosely based on the personalities that I witnessed at the Institute. And I decided to borrow some poetic techniques for some of the stories, especially the first piece, which is a series of vignettes, and then the last piece is a novella, and all the characters kind of loosely know each other. It’s a harsh piece, and it’s very satiric. It’s dark. It’s unusual for me. But I’m really tired of a lot of writers of color, and certainly Natives, always being like, “We have to show our best face.” Or, “But that’s bad character.”

We’re human beings. Why is our job to show white people what good human beings we are all the time, so maybe some of us won’t die? It’s not working. And I am not going to do that. So, I wanted to write a book for Indians. And I thought, “No [publisher] is going to take this shit.” And then pretty much the first publisher I sent it to took it. Very interesting. It was a good thing.

Rumpus: This is such a good lesson. Because it’s so easy for writers of color to feel like we’re just so happy to be here, publishing, so let’s try and be palatable. I love that you didn’t do that, and it worked out. If you were to speak to a woman writer of color who doesn’t see herself represented in literature, feels discouraged, or feels the pressure to cater to the limited tastes within publishing, what advice would you give her?

Wurth: That ultimately, you can’t win so don’t try. And you have to be a bulldog. You have to be an utter bulldog. It really stinks, but if you want to be a writer you have to just eat rejection for breakfast, and that’s true even if you’re a white dude. And it’s so true if you’re a woman of color.

It’s similar to how women will have these infinite conversations. “Well, I don’t dress like this, and I don’t do that, but she does that and that means this… and well, I’ll do this, and then I’ll be a good girl.” There are these endless permutations of how you’ll win, and men will treat you nicely, and they’ll respect you. As if that’s the only thing that matters.

That’s what’s funny about being an Indian woman. We don’t need their respect. They need ours.

So a writer of color says, “Okay, I’ll just have a sort of happy ending. And then they’ll take it.” But why bother? Why bother to be in this unbelievably miserable business, that is utterly glutted with MFAs and small presses that die within a few years. And the New York press world—which, God love ‘em because I know they love books, people are always disparaging them, but they genuinely love books—but their biases run so deep. They say it won’t sell, when they don’t fucking know. So you honestly might as well just do what you want. I don’t think there’s some formula. You might as well just read who you love, write what you love, and just really be dogged about it.

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Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →