Language Is a Casualty of War: A Conversation with Beth Piatote




DR. BETH PIATOTE’S OFFICE is completely empty. No pictures. No books. Her prose might be lean, but as a whole her debut short story collection, The Beadworkers, is lush and kaleidoscopic. I expected her workspace to look the same.

Like many of her characters, Piatote is moving — changing floors in the same drab building on UC Berkeley’s campus. And while the draw of a new office might not seem as grand as the cycles of war, discovery, and homecoming that send people in her stories pulsing across the Pacific Northwest, it reminded me of the remarkable origin of this collection: in flits and fragments, hacked from the life of a busy professor and prodigious thinker.

Piatote, who is Nez Perce and is enrolled with Colville Confederated Tribes, is a professor of Native American Studies at UC Berkeley. She is also involved in the revitalization of the Nez Perce language, and the stories, poems, and play included in The Beadworkers interweave Nez Perce language and form to tell the diverse stories of Native people facing conflicts that stretch back generations. Those include the 11-year-old narrator of “Fish Wars,” struggling to comprehend the violence that sets in as her family is pulled into a real-life battle over stolen fishing rights in the 1960s. Or Bert, whose chance encounter with an old friend in “Katydid” brings her back into a story of chaotic kinship. Or a retelling of Antigone, in which a clash over ancestral remains, inspired by the true fight over an ancient skeleton discovered in Washington State, tears a family apart.

The Beadworkers insists that the wars of the past rage on, in schools and museums, in homes and on highways. With humor, compassion, and insight, it explores the ease with which conflict seeps through time, and celebrates the resilience of people, beauty, and art in its midst.

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SAM LEVIN: You’ve worked as a reporter, you have degrees in History, German, and International Studies, and you’re also an academic studying law and literature. How did you end up writing a collection of short fiction?

BETH PIATOTE: Being a journalist, and being an academic, and studying literature, all involve really intense examinations of form. Matching the idea to the form was something that I always recognized as a step in the writing process, and the ideas I wanted to explore called for poems, stories, and plays.

For instance, I have always been interested in the fish wars of the Pacific Northwest. And one of things that I’ve been interested in, in all of my work, is the way that indigenous families are put on the front lines of wars. I asked myself, what would I do as a parent? What kinds of conversations would parents have? I could have asked these kinds of questions as an academic. But when you’re in it, you don’t know how things will unfold, and that’s part of why writing about it historically didn’t seem as interesting to me.

Sometimes, the form came first. A recurring motif in Nez Perce stories and literature is the idea that the lamíwt, the youngest sibling, is the hero. So in “Falling Crows,” all I knew was I wanted a story in which the lamíwt is the hero. That’s all I had. And then I started writing.

“Falling Crows” parallels this story of a soldier coming home missing parts of his body with the story of a man receiving tapes of his relatives speaking a native language that he does not understand. I didn’t know whether to take that story as tragic or optimistic. What’s the relationship between these two story lines?

There’s this idea and this fear when dealing with language recovery that the language will never be the same, or that we’re never going to be fluent again. I try to think of the language as a wounded family member who’s come home. You wouldn’t see that family member as less than a whole person. You see them as someone who has survived a war. Language is a casualty of war. That’s the case for our native language. “Falling Crows” is not optimistic or tragic, and neither is language revitalization. I think of the last line of the story: “This is what life is now.”

“Fish Wars” is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old. Have your kids read “Fish Wars,” or any other parts of the collection?

Yes, actually, my son is a major reader. He read “Fish Wars” when I wrote it, when he was in sixth or seventh grade, and I used him to help make a believable kid narrator. I remember how reading as a child made certain ideas real to me. You live in that other world. I saw that my kids read a lot of historical fiction in school and I thought, “Oh, this would be great for readers to see what happened and to feel closer to it.”

What did you read as a kid that made ideas come alive? What books excited you as a kid?

When I was in junior high school, I read a whole bunch of Westerns with my friends because that’s what you could buy at the grocery store. That was just the place to get a book. I loved reading that genre fiction, particularly Westerns because they were about this place where I really identified. Which is kind of strange, but I grew up in Idaho.

When did loving grocery store Westerns start to feel strange to you?

There are things about those books that, in a funny way, capture the environment I grew up in: it was sagebrush, and horses, and independence and all these things. I had to step back from the ideological stuff, but I think I just loved to read everything. It was a form of escape, or pleasure. Once I went to college, I really read a lot, and a lot better stuff. I read Antigone when I was in ninth grade, I loved it, and I ended up having the riff on it that I included in my collection.

Can you tell me about how that riff, “Antíkoni,” came to be? 

The idea first came in 1996 when Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One, was pulled out of the Columbia River. I wondered why it was that people could understand things like Greek tragedy and Antigone but couldn’t understand why Native people, or anybody, cared about their ancestors. Doesn’t this literature form the universal values that we’re all supposed to know and understand? I also wanted to put two classic literatures together — Nez Perce and Greek — because when I looked at those Greek stories, I saw that they’re just like our stories. They’re full of these unpredictable journeys and grotesque and gruesome and wild things. I just thought, “Oh, if these old-time storytellers ever got together, they would just stay up all night telling these great stories.”

In “Antíkoni,” everyone’s on the same side. Everyone loves each other. They’re not trying to destroy each other, but they do. Unlike the original Antigone, there is no pure ethical position. They all say, “I love my people. I’m doing this for my people. I’m sacrificing myself for my people.” But their vision of sacrifice is different.

What would you hope for readers to take away from your collection? I’m thinking of Bert in “Katydid” laughing at and criticizing people who take “just the good things.” What does it mean for someone to take more than “just the good things” from your collection?

It’s totally fine with me if people take just the good things! I think that there’s always that call you have to make: what of my culture do I need to save just for myself and my family? But other things that are beautiful and can help the world, those are important to share. My dream or my hope would be just that people stay there.

What do you mean?

Well, the book opens on a Nez Perce feast. The first words are Nez Perce. You just get thrown in, and it doesn’t explain what its structure is. The book got rejected a few times, by agents and publishers who thought that you can’t just throw people in like that. I hope that readers feel supported, that they know enough to keep going, and that they know that it’s okay not to know, as long as you recognize that there’s something there.

What did you think when you got those rejections? Did you ever reconsider anything about the collection?

At the point of getting rejected I realized that I had had the experience of pure artistic freedom. I hadn’t thought about who would publish it, or how, or anything like that until I had written enough pages for it to be a book. Giving up never occurred to me — I always thought, if I just have to go down to Kinko’s and print this out and mail it to the 50 people I know who will like it, then it’s a book.

How do you feel about its reception, and the fact that you didn’t have to make the trip to Kinko’s?

I couldn’t believe it! It got nominated for the PEN and the Aspen awards, and now it’s on the shortlist for the California Independent Booksellers Alliance. I’ve been just super happy that it did resonate with readers, that it does mean something. I’m so very happy. I think these stories just have their own little lives, and they’re going off into the world.

What’s been the most meaningful piece of feedback you’ve gotten? Or maybe the most surprising?

There are two things. One is when I hear from Native readers who are just super happy to see stories they relate to and enjoy. People who are involved in language revitalization have responded to it, and that’s been beautiful. But I also hear from non-Native readers that they find things in the stories that touch them. I got a letter from a classics scholar who said that he had these wounds related to the death of his brother and that reading “Antíkoni” helped him. I often get feedback from people who say, “Oh, this was healing for me,” or, “This helped me through a hard time.” And I do find that the most wonderful thing is when someone says these stories made me laugh, or this made me cry, or this made me feel something that was healing, or I felt a connection. Those are beautiful things to hear.

Could you unpack beadwork as the unifying metaphor and motif for the collection?

When I wrote these stories, my audience were people I imagined with me at the beadwork table, sitting around, telling stories and laughing. One of the things I was worried about with the book was that people would say that it wasn’t harrowing enough, because a lot of Native literature is harrowing and raw and violent and so on. And that’s real too, but in my book all the violence is off stage. Nothing bad — well, nothing super bad — is happening to anyone in front of you. I think that’s what coming to the beadwork table is like too. You come with all of your pain and all of your suffering, you’re bearing it, but it’s not happening in that space.

My auntie was a master beadworker. She would pick beads that would surprise me, that would always make the thing pop. I can’t do that with beads. But I can with words. And I started thinking of my own writing as being like beadwork, putting one word down at a time in these patterns. When I’m at the beadwork table, I always find myself wondering how it is that Indian people have survived. And I think surviving is about people continuing to remake their culture.

What’s next? Are you going to write more fiction?

Yeah! I’m working on a novel now that’s also set in the West. And then I have other academic things to do, some essays. But I’m really having fun thinking of new stories and working on this novel. I would love to be able to continue to do more creative work.

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Sam Levin is a reporter, writer, and editor based in Berkeley, California.

 

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