Interconnected Lives: On Greg Sarris’s “Watermelon Nights”

August 22, 2021   •   By Hollis Robbins

Watermelon Nights

Greg Sarris

BEFORE THERE WAS a theory of intersectionality, there was Greg Sarris, giving voice to people and families at the crossroads of belonging and not belonging by choice, by accident, by design. In his novels and short fiction, Sarris weaves stories of a particular people in a particular region, Sonoma County, grappling with their relationship to a particular local category, the Waterplace Pomo, a disestablished (fictional) tribe of California Indians.


In Sarris’s 1998 novel, Watermelon Nights, recently reissued by the University of Oklahoma Press, tribe and tribal belonging are the central concerns. The story is structured around three family members: handsome Johnny; his grandmother, Elba; and his estranged mother, Iris. The novel opens with Johnny’s drive to gather together feuding neighbors and fractured families in order to gain federal recognition for the Waterplace Pomo, to reestablish the remaining descendants as a tribe. “I filled in the empty spaces on my chart,” Johnny tells us, “tracing from me and Mom and Grandma back to the first Rosa, which is what everybody was supposed to do to prove we was a tribe.”


Tracing a genealogy is a complicated business. Many charts have blank spaces for fathers. Some fathers are on many charts. Everyone’s mixed up with other tribes, too, Elba tells Johnny. But everyone is related to one ancestor, a woman named Rosa, who was raped by a Mexican general, bore another Rosa, and married an Indian from another tribe to rebuild her own tribe. In narrating these stories, Johnny, Elba, and Iris introduce dozens of categories — cousin, uncle, Indian, Filipino, Mexican, Spanish, black, white, gay, straight, Catholic, witch — in order to assess them, complicate them, and limit their narrative weight. What happened to other children of the first Rosa, Iris asks Elba. “They’re around,” Elba shrugs. “Went Spanish or Mexican.” “I’m Visayan,” Elba’s onetime Filipino lover, who does not speak Tagalog, tells her. “The rest, they’re mostly Illocano. […] Different tribes.”


So relentlessly does Sarris toy with notions of belonging that, by the end of Watermelon Nights, many of his characters, drawn with a fine brush, seem to slip between or evade categories altogether. These personalities — like the obese and acidic Bills sisters, Mona and Lena — are gloriously uncontainable. Sarris’s novel asks what happens at the intersection of deconstructed sets. The answer: People live their interconnected lives. The choice Sarris gives them is to be bitter or to be kind.


The choice of kindness is not easy. Threads of violence, especially sexual violence, run through Watermelon Nights. When we first meet Johnny, he has a hole in his face from being beaten and kicked after rumors of his sexuality surface. As a child, Elba was sold by relatives to an Indian from another tribe and bore her first (stillborn) child at age 12. Iris is the child of a gang rape and witnesses a gang rape. A painful consequence of this violence is the bitterness of surviving tribe members toward each other. “Indians is a mean, unhappy bunch,” Johnny tells us. “Indians is like weeds. […] [A]nd if Indians is weeds,” he says of the Bills sisters, “them two is thistles.” “We’re all related,” Johnny says as he delivers a chart. “Ain’t that a pisser,” Lena snaps.


Beyond genealogy, it is the land that binds the tribe together, as well as a language that only the older Indians, such as Elba, still speak. Johnny notes that his neighborhood is still on ancestral lands, which the tribe, however constituted, never left. The lands were called Waterplace, but the “Pomo” part was given by “some scientist,” Johnny tells us. “[T]he other tribes in these parts called us Waterplace — people by the water. That’s how it was in the old times. You was where you lived. Now, I guess, our name is Waterplace Pomo.”


Sarris’s novels are not social or legal theory but fiction. This distinction might not need stating but for the new California law, AB 1460, which mandates that students in the Cal State system (where Sarris teaches, as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Endowed Chair of Native American Studies at Sonoma State University) take at least one ethnic studies course, defined as “an interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity with special focus on four historically defined racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans.” New courses will be launched systemwide in consequence.


Watermelon Nights, like all of Sarris’s work, sits squarely within the category of Native American literary studies. His main characters are Indians who grapple openly with their history and heritage. But Sarris’s work also grapples with the curious category of “ethnic studies,” the place of Native peoples within this rubric, and the relations of Native people to place. As place-based descendants of original inhabitants, who have largely concerned themselves with simply (but not at all simply) persisting, his “historically defined racialized core group” — Waterplace Pomo — are a people who ironize the idea of “historically defined,” “racialized,” and “core group.”


I come to Watermelon Nights as a scholar of African American literature, familiar with that canon’s tropes and themes, involving the Middle Passage, trauma, historical memory, African roots, fractured families, music, the Black church, struggle, uplift, and rituals of belonging. Because of the common core of African American fiction taught in schools — notably Their Eyes Were Watching God, Native Son, Invisible Man, and Beloved, among other texts — most American readers are, like I am, far more familiar with stories of Black Americans than with stories of Native Americans. This may put readers of Sarris’s work at a disadvantage in expecting similarities, such as political activism or demonstrations of “racialized” solidarity.


Caught up in the “ethnic” label of ethnic studies, readers may be struck by how Sarris challenges conventional membership shorthand, which assumes relatively stable categories with legible parameters of and barriers to belonging, as well as shared ideas of individualism, taste, social mobility, and “progress.” In Sarris’s work, the category of “Indianness” presupposes no automatic solidarity, for example. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sends Elba’s evicted community to a site occupied by a people “from a tribe way up north […] where the women wear baskets on their heads, Yurok or Wiyot, one of them tribes.” We understand eventually why Elba has warned Johnny, “Watch yourself around Indians, especially if you don’t know them.”


For Sarris, the important relationships are among the Waterplace Pomo — their connection to each other, as well as to their ancestry and their lands. Individualism, uplift, and progress are well offstage. The castoff clothes that Sarris describes so meticulously are not symbolic but literal. His characters play no part in the dominant goods-producing culture. Attire is bricolage practiced deftly or poorly in acts of situational self-expression. Secondhand is the traditional garb.


The novel’s title refers to a night when dozens of culturally and ethnically mixed neighbors help themselves to watermelons piled on the back of a truck parked in front of the house of a woman named Magdalena, known for her Mexican songs and gentleman friends. All night, until dawn, neighbors from blocks around eat watermelon and share laughter and kindness. Kindness was always there, Johnny thinks, “even in the hardest places, the sad deaths and the loud, hate-spewing meetings, only we needed to see it, like on a watermelon night.”


How do we read the allusions here? The name Magdalena seems a gesture toward Mary Magdalene, Jesus, fellowship, and the miraculous feeding of crowds; but the watermelon is just a watermelon, without the Jim Crow freight it might carry in another context.


In general, Sarris prefers simile to metaphor. “My heart sank, floated up again and bobbed like an oak gall caught in a waterfall,” Iris says when she hears of the violence that conceived her. A cousin’s determination shows on his face “as forceful as a bulldozer pedal to the floor.” Johnny describes his mother’s “anger and love for me banging in her stomach like two round rocks shook up in an empty paint can.” But on the night of the watermelons, when Johnny hopes to connect with his grandmother through simile, he fails. “A watermelon is like a flower because it’s sweet. […] [I]t’s like Old Uncle because you can’t really tell what’s on the inside,” Johnny suggests. “It’s not like anything,” Elba responds.


It’s not like anything — that is precisely the challenge Watermelon Nights poses to modern readers and to students who might encounter the novel in an ethnic studies course.


In developing her theory of intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw turned to Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which challenged ideological myths of womanhood involving femininity, chastity, and separate spheres. It would be easy enough to see the sturdy, hardworking, unfeminine Elba as “like” Sojourner Truth in challenging such myths. Yet this would be wrongheaded, in large part because Elba isn’t “like” anything or anybody. Alarmingly few Native American women exist in the cultural consciousness beyond Pocahontas and Sacagawea, both kidnapped girls who died young. Those who appear on internet lists of “Native American women you should know” are, like Sojourner Truth, public activists, such as Wilma Mankiller.


To imagine Elba standing up to deliver a speech is to give in to dominant cultural expectations about an individual voice speaking truth to power. Indeed, we might consider this desire for a public voice to be yet another ideological myth. Manifesting kindness and heroically maintaining community and culture against all odds doesn’t make the newspapers or history books. In Elba, Sarris creates a character unlike any other in American literature, a woman who exists not to forget and not to be forgotten. What matters is not her self but her tribe’s survival.


Years before Crenshaw’s articulation of intersectionality, the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian socialist group, issued a statement of their commitment “to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,” and to “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” The Collective named themselves after an 1864 military raid along the Combahee River, led by Harriet Tubman and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, to rescue 750 formerly enslaved South Carolinians.


Missing from both the Collective’s statement and standard histories of the raid are the Combahee people after whom the river is named. Almost nothing is now known of them; they were evidently part of a group of Cusabo tribes. There is little agreement on their language or history, when they disappeared or what tribes they were absorbed into. Their oppression goes unnoticed and unmentioned by the Collective: they persist only as a place name.


While intersectionality operates at the systemic level, showing how systems confront individuals, literature operates at the individual level, showing how individuals confront systems. Native American literary works like Watermelon Nights challenge expectations about individuality, systems, and even what is meant by confrontation. To be true to his characters, Sarris offers none of the consolations of a showdown, a hero’s journey, or a happily ever after. He offers the stories of a people who lived here, took care of the land, told stories, and remain here, often overlooked even as their land is “acknowledged.” Watermelon Nights is an important American novel and an increasingly relevant work for resisting a political and cultural economy that privileges protest and encourages forgetting for the sake of belonging.


¤


Hollis Robbins is dean of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University. Her most recent book is Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition (2020).