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Interview: Joseph Bruchac on “An Indian Love Call”

Joseph BruchacTell us a bit about “An Indian Love Call.”

 “An Indian Love Call” is the second -– or maybe the third -– short story in a series I am writing about two contemporary Native American characters who are very unlike the stereotypes of our people that still keep turning up in film and fiction. They are neither noble savages nor murdering aboriginals. Nor are they vanishing. (Hmmm, that last word may find its way into my next story about these guys.)  I want to blow up –– real good –– preconceptions about Indians.

My narrator, Billy, is blessed (or cursed) to have my second character Arlin Sweetwater as his lifelong best friend.  Blessed, because no one is as loyal as Arlin and cursed because Arlin is, quite frankly, what you might call a sweetly innocent mad scientist. 

Both of these guys are very tuned in to the 21st-century and, in Billy’s case, just about every aspect of American popular culture you could imagine. Thus the title of this story and the one that appeared in F&SF before it: “The Next to the Last of the Mohegans.” 

Humor –– contrary to the popular image of native Americans as being stoic and humorless –– is a very big part of all our Native American cultures. But the funny stories we tell are meant to not just entertain but to teach. There is (and I hope readers will agree) a good dose of humor and irony in the story, as well as a good bit of cultural information, including indigenous language and traditional tales still present among my Mohegan cousins. 

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

My inspiration for the story was, quite frankly, the main characters themselves. They keep coming back to me and telling me there’s more to hear. 

I have to say, too,  that I have long been inspired by Native elders and friends of mine who were among the funniest folks I’ve ever met, even though they never became “famous.”

Comedians are some of my favorite people and comedy is one of the most brilliant ways of teaching that we are human beings are blessed with. Though I never met him, Jonathan Winters – – who was Native American – – was one of the heroes of my childhood. And Charlie Hill, who was Oneida and the first American Indian comedian to make it onto the national stage is another shining light I am proud to have met.  My old friend Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota) devoted an entire chapter of his classic book CUSTER DIED FOR YOUR SINS to American Indian comedy. Whenever I met up with Vine and he started telling jokes, I always had to listen very carefully because often the point of those jokes was not just to make me laugh but to point out to me something I needed to pay attention to in my own life. 

Some—if not all— of our best contemporary native American writers are also deeply aware of the importance of humor. My old friend the brilliant and very serious Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Silko has made great use of humor in some of her stories and poems. Trickster wisdom—as the Chippewa author Gerald Vizenor might put it. And how can I not mention another of my First Nations writer amigos Drew Hayden Taylor (Anishinabe) who titled a recent collection of his sci-fi stories TAKE ME TO YOUR CHIEF and has another book called ME FUNNY?

 

What was the most difficult aspect of writing “An Indian Love Call,” and what was the most fun?

What was the most difficult aspect about writing the story? Right now, is figuring out what was most difficult. Like a lot of the stories I write, it sort of told itself and I went along for the ride. I guess the hardest part was knowing when to stop and not to overdo it. I hope I managed that. 

One of the things about Native American humor is that more often than not we make fun of ourselves and not others – – it’s not a mean spirited sarcastic kind of humor. You often find yourself in the butt of the joke. But, I think I have to be very careful in what I was saying about this. Another of my dear friends, the Kiowa author of the classic novel HOUSE MADE OF DAWN, N. Scott Momaday put it to me this way: “Joseph, as your uncle, let me caution you! American Indian humor is a very serious thing.”

And, as to what was the most fun? Spending time with these two characters again. Some thing I intend to keep on doing.

 

Why do you write?

At some point, very early in my life, writing chose me. It isn’t just something I do. And it’s not something I do for money. It is in my heart and in my spirit and I hope to be worthy of that gift I’ve been given. 

On a very serious note, decades ago one of my dear friends Dewasentah, who was the clan mother of the Eel Clan of the Onondaga nation, presented me with a small eagle feather and a miniature lacrosse stick — both in an envelope with the name Ga-neh-goh-hi-yoh on it —when I was making my yearly visit to the Onondaga Nation School to teach classes in Creative writing and storytelling to the kids. “You’ve  been coming here so long,” she said “you need an Onondaga name.  It means The Good Mind and you should have that name because your writing is a gift from The Creator.”

I try, in whatever I write, to live up to that name — which is an awfully big task. 

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

My influences are so many it would be hard to list them all.In terms of fantasy and science-fiction, I have been reading everything I can get my hands on ever since I was in fifth grade and my cousin Bobby told me he had something for me. He pointed up to the attic and when I went there I found the floor covered with hundreds and hundreds of those little 10, 15 and 25 cent scifi paperbacks that used to be published. It took me weeks to bring them all home in the basket of my bicycle. I still have some of them in my own attic. My first introduction to people such as Asimov, Bradbury, Van Vogt, Vance and a host of others. 

I should also add that a huge influence in terms of short story writing was one of my teachers at Syracuse University- the wonderful Grace Paley. 

And the idea of telling our own American Indian stories from a perspective that includes the incorporation of traditional stories and language? I have to give credit there to another one of my friends and teachers, who was actually on my PhD committee, the ground-breaking Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe whose THINGS FALL APART is one of the classics of world literature. 

 

What are you working on now?

I always have at least three or four different writing projects underway at any given time. One is a novel in verse for middle grade readers that takes place on one of our New England reservations during the current coronavirus pandemic. Another is a biography of the famous Seneca orator Red Jacket. And yet another story about Arlin and Billy is in the planning stage.

Thinking of the current situation – – and who knows how far downstream this current is going to sweep us—one thing I am doing these days, along with my two sons James and Jesse,  are daily life streams at 1 PM Eastern standard time on our Ndakinna Education Center Facebook page. 

Normally, at this time of year, we’d be storytelling, performing, teaching the Abenaki language, having school field trips, teaching classes in outdoor education and doing martial arts instruction (all 3 of us are black belts in Brazilian jujitsu and a few other martial arts disciplines) at our Ndakinna center which is located on an 80 acre nature preserve in the Adirondack foothillls.  But now? Fuggidabowdit! 

Anyhow, every Monday and Wednesday at 1 pm you can see me doing storytelling, music, and maybe reading something from one of my books at our Ndakinna Education Center Facebook page. Check it out. 

 

“An Indian Love Call” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2020-29.htm

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Clicking on Mr. Bruchac’s picture (photo credit Eric Jenks) will take you to his website: http://josephbruchac.com/

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