On Tragedy and Strength: Making Space for Our Stories

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It wasn’t hard to dive into a conversation with author and friend Erika T. Wurth to discuss women, and particularly women of color, in the publishing world. We hunkered down at a favorite local hangout in Denver, and it quickly became clear our conversation would be wide-ranging. With a new year stretching out ahead, inevitably the question of what 2020 holds for all of us came up. Although there’s much for writers to look forward to in the coming year, in talking, Wurth and I focused on the importance of past and using what’s happened before to move forward with intent.

Wurth’s 2017 story collection, Buckskin Cocaine, has a sense of urgency and tragedy that can’t be ignored. The novel she’s working on now, about missing and murdered indigenous women, shares this sensibility. My own debut story collection, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, was released in October 2019, and I’m working on a memoir now. When comparing our collective experiences in writing and publishing, themes emerged: single motherhood, domestic violence, navigating the world as women and as writers, and the challenges we’ve faced in doing so.

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Erika T. Wurth: One of the things that I’m thinking a lot about is how much the publishing industry has changed in just the last five years. I feel like I genuinely see more diversity—only within the Native American writing world—and certainly of all kinds. I think about how many prescribed roles for American Indians, in my case, and for women in both of our cases, there are in publishing. What are some of the ways that you’ve encountered prescribed roles as a female writer, and what are the ways that you think this could change?

Hillary Leftwich: I read an article recently in Electric Literature about the bias against women authors. The 2017 VIDA report found a vast underrepresentation of women in literary publications. I do see the publishing world changing, but it must start with the publishers, with the journals, and especially with the editors. I’ve had experiences as an editor at previous journals where I’ve encountered not only racism but also sexism. I feel with my debut collection, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, there has been a resistance to making space for more stories about the struggles of single motherhood and about sexual assault, and even a resistance to women writing about sex in general. Have you encountered this kind of resistance, especially with Buckskin Cocaine?

Wurth: Absolutely, especially when it came to my first novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. My editor at the time said he was shocked by what he might call outdated responses to the novel. What’s interesting about Buckskin Cocaine, though, is that it’s somewhat experimental—and I’ve read that women are more inclined to be more experimental (depending on how you interpret the term), but they get less credit for it. Have you found this with your work?

Leftwich: I’m curious what the outdated responses were to Buckskin Cocaine. As far as my book, many of the stories are a result of my encounters at different jobs, or riding the bus home with my son, or observing the people and situations around me. Like people and experiences, they’re all different, so each story can’t possibly exist within the same context. Maybe this is what’s nontraditional about it, and, like Buckskin Cocaine, what makes it experimental.

Wurth: You know with Buckskin Cocaine, I didn’t mix the genres exactly—but I know what you’re talking about, and that dynamic is what I love about your book. What I wanted to do was employ specific poetic techniques to prose (like repetition) because I felt like it could most aptly mirror folks’ inner lives. I think that a lot of times, folks use words like “experimental” or “commercial,” but they use them as sticks to beat other literary camps with. But why the camps? If you’re doing it well, hey, you’ve done your job. In any case, I’ve been lucky with Buckskin Cocaine; I haven’t had a lot of outdated responses—just humorous ones mostly, where readers think I’m my characters. And that’s the tie-in because of course, it’s the female characters (who are models or actresses, which, no, I’ve never been) readers assume I’ve modeled on myself. Is that dynamic weirder for you because your collection is semi-autobiographical?

Leftwich: I can see how readers might assume the characters from Buckskin Cocaine could be you, without knowing you. I think readers want to make a connection somehow between author and story because then it seems more real. The repetition in Buckskin Cocaine, specifically in the story “Gary Hollywood,” is incredible, which speaks to the poetic techniques that you mention. To hear you read that piece aloud is an experience everyone should have.

As far as the semi-autobiographical nature of my book, the dynamic feels both surreal as well as a necessary truth. When I write about my experiences, for example, cleaning pay-by-the-hour motel rooms, I can’t help but feel like I’m writing a scene from a movie. Sometimes our real-life experiences are weirder than anything we could ever make up. How much of what you witnessed in the Native film industry, for example, makes its appearance in Buckskin Cocaine?

Wurth: Thanks! I think what’s weird about the autobiographical in work, is that it comes from you, but then you craft it and you shape it, and then it’s out there and people are going to have their own reactions to it. Which is what you want, but it’s often revealing, uncomfortable. In the case of your book, and specifically relating to what you said above, I think about how many of the confessional writers spoke to the idea that the work had to be autobiographical to a degree, because the worlds that women—then later folks of color—were writing about had been completely ignored. And that those worlds were also worthy of poetry and prose and public attention. What’s funny about Buckskin Cocaine is that eighty percent of it is made up, but folks think I’m cheating because the stories are vaguely based on people that I sort of knew.

Ultimately, the film world was so unbelievably fascinating—the desperation you see in the writing world is quadruple in the Native film world. I wanted to mirror that in a more overt, compelling way.

I want to take a turn away, now, and ask you a little bit about your book’s title. I think it’s a compelling one, and wonder in what way do you think it illustrates the collection’s themes?

Leftwich: Work having to be autobiographical is still a very relevant statement. This makes me think it’s perhaps what compelled you to write about the Native film world, which I feel gets zero attention. The tragedy that comes with success, as well as the downfall, is all there, like you said, and is very much worthy of consideration—which is why Buckskin Cocaine is such a devastating as well as compelling title.

As far as Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, I think the title illustrates the book’s themes by playing on the idea of how strangers make appearances in our lives and the intimate encounters we experience day to day, and how this connects with the intention of ghosts—whether people or situations—that haunt us. Concerning this, do you feel Buckskin Cocaine, in connection with your ties to the Native film industry, plays a more significant role than most people realize when it comes to the tragedies that occur behind the scenes?

Wurth: I think the images and metaphor—and the imaginatively rendered world of women, folks of color, and working-class folks—are beautiful and complex, and I love the definitive tone you take in a lot of your work, where you state flatly but also, really beautifully, this is my world.

I think the Native film world is a funhouse mirror for how Americans see Natives in general. In other words, if Native directors and actors feel compelled to show a not-different-enough version than what Hollywood shows, its solely because that’s the only way for them to make a living. I think that’s changing, but there’s still a lot of fetish around Natives in general.

As to strangers as intimate encounters—yes, pow! I think we don’t even know how much folks we briefly encounter affect us, echo our deeper relationships, push us into moods.

I wanted to talk briefly about a writer, Marie Calloway, whose book, what purpose did i serve in your life, really pushed the post-modern aesthetic. Calloway mixes lyrical essay, fiction, and social media posts—and more importantly, she foregrounds something you were talking about earlier, writing about sex. She’s also Korean, mixed—something I think folks forget. She hit (especially white women’s) buttons with her frank portrayal of her life as a young, angry person who was willing to be visceral. I enjoyed her brutality. I appreciated her honesty. I think she was ahead of her time. Why do you think her writing upsets folks so much? And what’s the difference between giving people exactly what they expect when it comes to female sexuality, and doing the opposite, where we’re taking power back, even if that taking takes the shape of work that’s disturbing?

Leftwich: Such a great question! But first, speaking to what you stated about how Americans see Natives and the fetishized way Natives are most often portrayed, I think you hit hard on this in Buckskin Cocaine in a way that not only makes the audience aware but is also unapologetic in doing so.

With regard to Marie Calloway’s book, and speaking as a white woman, I can speculate on the many different reasons I feel so many buttons were pushed in response to her writing. Brutality and honesty always come across as too forward or too blunt when coming from a woman, don’t they? We’re offended, or scared of what we recognize in ourselves or have a connection with. We need more visceral honesty, more sexuality from women writers and writers of color whose worlds have been ignored. When we write from a place of authenticity as women, especially when writing about sexuality or sexual assault, the act itself of taking control can put people on guard and push buttons. I’ve experienced this; you have, too, as most women writers have. The traditional role of women turned upside down, and in the case of Calloway’s writing, completely deconstructed, should make people uncomfortable, right? Because it’s not the norm or what we typically see. But in that response, we should also push ourselves to investigate the reasons why we feel this way rather than reject the work or lash out at a writer. How do you think you give people what they expect in your writing but create an opposite effect, whether intentionally or intentional?

Wurth: A lot of Native writers seem to feel conflicted by this idea—that you can write freely from a non-Native perspective or be the Native-culture-explainer. I refuse that. There are so many writers, primarily Indigenous Canadian writers, that resist that, and I see a real Renaissance happening in Native writing—something that I think is historically unique.

I know you’re working on a memoir—a really difficult genre, in that its often seen as this comfortable, feminine place to plop your sadnesses down without the work, without the craft—and I’m not saying that kind of memoir doesn’t exist, but there’s so much memoir writing out there that is tremendously smart, well-crafted, and which works hard to be an organic narrative while still challenging notions of what’s okay to talk about. Tell me a little about your memoir?

Leftwich: There are definitions of being a mother that never related or defined me, and I explore and confront both the label of “mother” as well as “single mother” in my memoir. It’s taken me into my forties to feel comfortable with writing from a place of no regret, no apologies. This is what my memoir is about. Like Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, there is no regret. This is what makes their writing so powerful.

I agree; it is a historically unique moment, and I see you taking on these crucial issues in so much of your writing. You and I have spoken before about craft in regard to memoir, and writing a compelling story while also trying to balance that line of, like you mentioned, what is or isn’t okay to talk about. How about you; what are you working on now?

Wurth: I love that—working towards not having regret, in art and in life. The novel I’m polishing now is, in some ways, in line with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement. It’s a braided novel about a woman who has always hated her mom for abandoning her, but when she finds out something disturbing about her mom’s past, goes searching for what happened to her, and in the process, has to face a shift in her own identity.

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Photograph of Hillary Leftwich and Erika T. Wurth provided courtesy of Hillary Leftwich. Photograph of Hillary Leftwich by Jay Halsey. Photograph of Erika T. Wurth by Erika T. Wurth.


Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, and writing workshop instructor focusing on trauma writing. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop for nonfiction and will be a featured visiting writer at Western Illinois University in 2020. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at http://www.hillaryleftwich.com. More from this author →