Friday, March 15, 2013

Hidden Histories, Lacunae, and more Bad Indians: My Next Big Thing

WENDY CALL (photo by Kathy Cowell)
Many moons ago (okay, back in January, when this weary year was still new), author Wendy Call tapped me to do a “The Next Big Thing” blog.  You can read about Wendy’s blog post on her blog, Many Words for Welcome.  

Being ‘tapped’ consists of answering a series of questions about one’s next writing project, and tapping four other writers to do the same.  It requires a blog, time, and at least half a brain’s worth of inspiration.  Until now, I have not had all three of those key ingredients at the same time, but here I am, waiting for my granddaughter’s birth, and working on my project at a local coffee shop!  What better time to tackle these questions, and tap some authors?  I’ll let you know who I ask to answer the questions next!

What is the working title of your book?

The Hidden Stories of Isabel Meadows and other California Indian Lacunae.  This was a title suggested by my esteemed editor at U of Nebraska Press, Matt Bokovoy.  I like the words “hidden” and “lacunae” for their implications of things that are obscured, possibly lost, but still haunting us with very real power. 

What is the origin of this book idea?

As I worked to put together all the pieces of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, I realized that two big, long essays about a few of the Isabel Meadows stories found in J.P. Harrington’s ethnographic notes were just not ever, ever going to fit into the manuscript.  No matter how many ways I tried to squeeze them in, no matter what I did, those two essays – which are about the same people in the rest of Bad Indians – simply did not belong.  It took a long time to convince myself of this, because I loved those essays, I loved the Indians in those stories.  It’s pretty funny that it took me so long to finally admit that they didn’t belong in Bad Indians, but only about 2 seconds after that to think, “Hey, this is a whole ‘nother book!”  So I guess in a way you could sub-subtitle this book “Spawn of Bad Indians.”  There’s even a third book that has emerged out of this one – a biography of Isabel Meadows.  I’ve created a monster.

What genre does your book fall under?
Ha!  This one is comprised mostly of personal/historic/academic essay.  No poetry, not too many images.  Where it will be placed in bookstores is beyond me.  No doubt in the Native American Lit section, but also anthropology, ethnology, history, creative non-fiction, possibly memoir …

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This isn’t fiction, and the narrative is narrowly focused on analysis of how Isabel’s stories reveal more about California Indian strategies of resistance to Missionization.  However … I think Isabel’s biography, my NEXT book, would make an excellent movie.  I have no idea who would play her, though.  Some really fierce, smart, tough broad.  Thanks for giving me the chance to think ahead on this one.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Little-known narratives of a pistol-packing mixed-blood maiden Indian Aunt reveals a deeply indigenous method of storytelling as incisive cultural analysis, teaching tool, historical revision and preservation of a Coyote intelligence.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ll tell you when I get that far.  So far, if you count the two essays I wrote while finishing Bad Indians, about 5 years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Without a doubt, Isabel Meadows.  The more I read her stories, the more I realize what a phenomenal woman she was: technically illiterate, but a craftswoman of storytelling, surviving, and preserving the heart and soul of her mother’s people.  When I began to really study her stories, I became infuriated that J.P. Harrington gets all the credit for them!  These stories are not his ethnographic notes; they are stories that she graced him with as part of her own strategy to reach future Indian generations.  I want to set that record straight.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
These are many of the same people who appear in small pieces, poems or photographs in Bad Indians, plus others; the book is a much more linear effort to stitch the small pieces together into cohesive threads and see the larger picture of individual lives.  Why did Teodosia throw a pan of hot coals into her husband Ventura’s face, blinding him?  Why did she take him back at the end of his life?  Why is it that I am descended from Padre Real?  Whatever happened to my cousin Victor, identified as a “joto” (faggot)?  What’s the real story behind Bradley Sargent stealing Rancho El Potrero from Estafana, and was her Chilean husband really just in Sargent’s back pocket?  Plus, Hidden Stories is an extension of the idea that bad Indians make good Ancestors, and without good Ancestors, I wouldn’t be here. 
Isabel as a young, well-to-do mixed-blood Indian woman.

One of Isabel's stories; this one is about a young girl named Vicenta who is raped by Padre Real.

Isabel as an elderly Indian woman living in Washington D.C., working for Harrington.  She sent home most of her pay to help raise nieces and nephews, and care for her brother Thomas Meadows.  The family had long since lost their land in a drawn-out, painful legal battle with Isabel's older brother, Frank.  That's a story worthy of a novel!

Melinda Palacio: A Conversation with Deborah Miranda

Luis Rodriguez (author of Always Running, It Calls You Back and more) with me and Melinda Palacio at the AWP Book Fair.  We took over the Tia Chucha/Scapegoat Press table!

Melinda and I met at AWP in Denver, but we didn't really talk until spending hours together at the recent AWP conference in Boston.  Both of us were hawking new books, but had plenty of time to visit.

As a result of our time together, Melinda emailed me a set of interview questions recently, and they have been posted at La Bloga.  It never fails to amaze me that each time I do an interview like this, the questions are so different, and elicit such different kinds of reflection on my part.

Melinda's new book, How Fire is a Story, Waiting is rich with imagery.  Lines from this book come back to me even weeks after I finished it ... truly, worth your time.  No less than Juan Felipe Herrera - California Poet Laureate - has written that "Palacio’s work is expansive, physical, funeral-wet, elevated, funny, existential, woman-story, jazzy and Pachukona. She is unafraid to dive head-on into questions of death, loss and self. Into the fiery entwined spikes of father-daughter estrangements, mother-daughter intimacies and most of all, she is “insomniac” bold in this volume as an ongoing sequence on self. Melinda’s collection has Bop and “swagger,” lingo, song, denuncia, compassion and wild, unexpected turns– all the key ingredients and hard-won practices of a poet (and shaman) in command of her powers. I don’t think there is anything like this book. ¡Brillantissima!"

Melinda's first book was Ocotillo Dreams, which has also earned great praise. Visit Melinda at to find out more about her work and her reading schedule.  She is one busy woman!  I very much appreciate that she took the time to interview me, and am currently scheming to get her on a campus visit to Washington and Lee next year.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Donna Miscolta, author of When the de la Cruz Family Danced, sent me some interview questions that really made me think about what was going on inside my head, and my world, while writing Bad Indians.  Check out the interview on her blog, and while you're at it, her own exquisite writing.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In the Beginning

I’m seven years old.

I sit down to write my first story:  How the John Rabbit Familys Lived in the Tall Grass.

The plural is important, as you will see.

Once upon a time in the wild wilderness in the tall grass a baby rabbit was born.  It was white with a little tail and a light pink nose.  Its mother was white and black and the father was gray.  Their eyes were red and they sparkled in the dark.

Colors are clearly important to me.  I add a baby brother rabbit, gray with a black nose.  The whole nuclear family thing makes me happy.  But …

Then in a year it was rabbit season and the mother and father had to leave the baby rabbits.

Next come words that I know never appeared in my school vocabulary list: scared, dangerous, rough, sad, hid, shot.  Phrases like there were few of them left. 

I don’t know the word “survivor” yet.

I do, however, have some idea how to survive.

…it was mateing time and they didn’t want to leave each other, so they chose mates and had their babies. 

And life is good again, especially if we overlook the incestuous nature necessitated by rabbit massacre.  They didn’t want to leave each other.  Who can blame them? 

I know one thing for sure: never let go of anyone.

The rabbit siblings become Father and Mother rabbit to a brood of four babies who learn early how to forage: when they were two months old they got their own food but their mother and father were still with them…they liked their home in the tall grass.

My seven-year-old self knows about seasons:  Then it started to hail and the rabbits started to look for food because when it hailed it would snow the next morning.

I know how to make grocery lists:  They had 8 carrots, 8 bushes of grapes, nine piles of grass and a tin can of water. 

I know about the importance of a home:  Father rabbit went to look for shelter…he found shelter in a nearby cave with hay on the bottom to sleep on.

I even seem to know that life is hard on parents.  My rabbit family waits out the heavy snow in their snug cave, and surprise!  the next day is Christmas Eve.  I was hoping you wouldn’t ask, Father rabbit tells the kids when they inquire about the holiday.  Clearly the guy is feeling the weight of responsibility. 

Still, the little rabbits receive decent, if sadly gendered, presents: “I got a sling shot.”  “I got a little dolly.”  “I got a toy gun.”  “Let’s play dolls.”  “Let’s play war.” 

Predictability ranks pretty high in my seven year old world.

I make certain that Mother rabbit is very resourceful.  She takes good care of Zelda when the little rabbit catches cold:  Mother gave her most of the food and some water.  Then she covered her up with hay to keep her warm.  Later, in the Christmas Eve scene, Mother made sure no one was hungry, thirsty or sick, then she went to get the tree. 

Mother rabbit also makes everyone go out to play when the snow melts, which makes the baby rabbits cry.  Father rabbit is very stern. Go outside or you can not have any food.  Since it is also little Dan’s birthday, Father rabbit wants to give Dan 1 swat and a pinch to grow an inch, but no presents because its too close to Christmas.  Now if youre going to cry get to bed, Father rabbit tells poor sniveling Dan.  Dan chooses to play outside. 

Good sport, says Father rabbit.  Evidently I have clear ideas about fathers and crying.

Then come more words a seven-year-old shouldn’t know so casually. 

Rabbit season again. 

They stayed together but five got wounded and soon died. 

And father rabbit was the only one left.

Like a good survivor, Father rabbit quickly remarries and raises up five more rabbit children.  Father rabbit told them he was the only one left in his family.  Alice, his new mate, asks, What did you name your other babys?  and Father rabbit reels off the names of the dead in a loving litany.  Then tells them, We better get to sleep, its going to be a rough day. 

Uh-oh.  Is it rabbit season again?

But no, I'm the writer of this story.  I may be only seven years old, but I’ve had it with this murderous universe these poor rabbits find themselves in.  I know how to fix things.   

When they awoke they were in a strange place.  “it's a house” said father rabbit. A little human girl arrives and gives them all the feed and water they wanted. 

They are saved!  No more living in the wild wilderness of the outside world.  No more rabbit season, guns, hunting.  No more dead, missing or wounded children and parents.

They were very happy to be with the little girl, I write on the last page, and they lived happily ever after.  THE END.

This story marks the first time I ever used written words to save myself.  This story marks the first time I wrote down what had happened to me, and how much I wanted to be rescued. 

Forty-four years later, I finger these yellowing pages, the faded pencil on blue lines, the bright green yarn stitching the pages into my first book.  I have to smile.  There is no manly prince galloping up on his horse.  Father rabbit does not slay the rabbit hunters or lead his family to safety.  Mother rabbit does not sacrifice herself for the sake of her children, or if she does, it doesn’t work. 


As the author of this story, I’m seven years old, but I already know about genocide, abandonment, disappeared parents, hunger, hiding, tough love and a deep craving for home.  I’m seven years old and already I know how to trade independence for domesticity, wildness for the assurance of food, water and a nice cage (a temporary solution that will give me some serious issues with men and marriage later in life).

I’m seven years old.  My father, descendent of indigenous peoples ruthlessly diminished from one million to a few thousand, lives in a distant place called San Quentin not far from the missions that incarcerated our ancestors.  My four sisters from his first marriage have dropped off the face of the earth, though I can recite all their names.  My mother-who-disappeared-for-a-year has eventually returned; I’m still watching her every move to make sure she doesn’t run off again.  My two older siblings from her first marriage have been left behind in a foster home in California.  Once a year, my mother sobs over photographs of the baby girl who died from neglect.  My step-father moves us from one ramshackle trailer to the next as he patches together part-time jobs.  We can’t always pay the electric bill or fill the propane tanks.  We eat a lot of rice, beans, and USDA commodity food from the food bank.  I bounce from school to school, always a little behind everyone else, never on the same page of the reader or arithmetic book.

Notice that my rabbits form and re-form nuclear families, name their babies, celebrate holidays and birthdays, yet the concept of formal education is never mentioned?  School is not a friendly force for good in my life.  Yet.

But I'm seven years old and I’ve just figured out something enormous:  the alphabet is my friend.  Spelling may be tricky, writing may cramp my hand and teachers insist that my pencil grip is all wrong, but the alphabet makes me powerful in ways nothing else can.  Pencil and paper are my tools.  Words are my weapons.

Looking back at this story, I see it:  that little girl is going to use this alphabet to write her own way out of civilization.