The Labor of Being: A Conversation with Bojan Louis

By Quyen PhamAugust 11, 2023

The Labor of Being: A Conversation with Bojan Louis

Sinking Bell by Bojan Louis

THE LABOR OF BEING lies at the heart of Sinking Bell, Bojan Louis’s first short-story collection, which made NPR’s list of “Books We Love” from 2022. In the context of genocidal colonialism, forced assimilation, and the cultural erasure of Diné voices, existing at all constitutes an act of strength. While history necessarily marks these stories, they are concerned primarily with the messiness of connection, the dialogues that lie behind silences, and the work people must do to go on, regardless of how visible that work may be.

Louis’s narrators are often people at work. The Diné narrator of the collection’s opening story, “Trickster Myths,” performs the work of sobriety while sharing intimacies with a white woman. “Make No Sound to Wake” evokes the work of a ghost’s remembering in the face of annihilation, while in “Usefulness,” the physical work of being a laborer is juxtaposed against the spiritual work of making a life for oneself after social death. Work operates as both metaphor and reality in Louis’s fiction, a source of alienation as well as a grounding practice. The writer’s work of ushering stories into the world might be seen as an extension of these concerns.

I interviewed Louis during the Writers Week celebrations at the University of California Riverside in February 2023, and he generously answered further questions via correspondence. We discussed the philosophies that inform his relationship with his characters and with narrative.


QUYEN PHAM: You’ve mentioned in a prior interview that dreaming is one way your characters traverse the abyss of themselves—a process they cannot control but one they can still be in rhythm with. I find that linkage of the psyche with movement interesting, and it makes me wonder how you navigated all these different characters and their specific histories, experiences, and concerns while writing this collection. Did they each feel very different to write?

BOJAN LOUIS: For the most part, yes, but only after some time passed between multiple story drafts. In early drafts, the protagonists were thinly veiled versions of me. All the characters inhabit the same world, or universe, and echo one another at times. For example, the motel manager in the story “Volcano” is an echo of Tony from the story “Silence.” Violence, pain, and trauma reverberate across these stories, but in order for that reverberation to work, each character has to possess their own lived experiences, the majority of which don’t actually make it to the page. That life, or those lived experiences, should be behind everything they do, and it should, or can, model their decision-making process. These characters are amalgamations of the people I’ve known, my friends and family, and what I recall of their stories. In that way, they are a universe within a universe. I tell my students that they should know everything about their main characters and secondary characters, the history of the places they inhabit, the origins and the power of the objects and things that populate a story. In Diné thought, all things have their place in the universe: any interaction or disturbance causes a reaction, so no action, decision, statement, or intention is without a purpose or consequence.

You write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Do you find aspects of your poetics shifting across the different genres you write in, and if so, how? And to expand on that, what has stayed stable across these different modes?

I write fiction and poetry at the same time, and they are separate from each other, or opposites, though sometimes they are twins, or universes or alternate realities. I tend to work on fiction early in the morning, getting up around 5:00 a.m.—though my toddler is rising earlier with the spring/summer sun, so I may have to start getting up at 4:00 a.m.—and work as long as I can, depending on what else is happening in my life. I work on poetry at night, just before bed; it’s often the last thing I do before turning off the bedside light. I also work on poetry during the day, whenever I can steal a moment. I always have the poem I’m working on in my pocket. It works with my poetic practice in forms. It also resembles my lived experience in thinking about how the structure of my days is set to ever-changing rhythms that are demanding and fulfilling. I’m thinking: tenuous sobriety, the alternating currents of parenthood and work/employment, the cycle of seasons, and spirituality. Because I’m writing in such a fragmented or staccato fashion, and don’t ever finish a poem in a single sitting, it has become more objective and less centered on the self, which also strangely makes it about a more universal/communal me, if that makes sense. Fiction can act as an amplification of all these things, the living, breathing beings that have influenced my relationship with story, with connection, with dislocation, and with all the lives who have passed through, across, or around my existence. Nonfiction, I don’t have any notion to write anymore. I’ve replaced that space with music/composing.

Your stories seem to defy didactic meanings and resist autobiographical readings while still possessing a clear intentionality. For example, there are passages like this one in “A New Place to Hide”: “I was thrust into a classroom of mostly White students, we non-Whites being […] suspicious of one another, ignorant of the factors, beyond our control, that had brought us to such a setting.” As you wrote these stories, were there philosophies or problems you were working through that you wanted to express in the collection?

There were, but I didn’t want those philosophies, problems, or ideologies to carry the weight, or come through front and center in a story. I wanted each story to center on the lives and practice/trades of the characters. I wanted each story’s themes and metaphors to focus on work: the work of addiction, the work of being a ghost created from colonial violence, or the work of surviving, and the work of work, of being an electrician or custodian/janitor, for example. My early drafts are often filled with such large-scale, sometimes abstract, concerns, perhaps overly explanatory and pedantic in their delivery of information. But those are my thoughts as they relate to the setting and mood of the story. After those early, philosophical drafts, I begin to envision what I think would be a physical, sensory, and emotional setting for something like echoes of colonial violence and assimilation via boarding schools and settler-colonial curricula aimed at erasure and dissemination of hijacked Native or Indigenous narratives. The intended philosophy or ideology then becomes the basis of the story; it is the stuff of setting I mentioned earlier. It is the atmosphere in which the characters navigate their lives.

Many of the characters in this collection are Diné, and they all relate to that inheritance differently. I’m thinking of the contrast between Karl and Angela in “Before the Burnings,” paralleled by Phillip and Benita in “Volcano,” along with the fragmentary narratives held by the narrator of “Trickster Myths”—there’s a moment where a character literally destroys a representation of the coyote myth. I’m curious about how you wanted to approach aspects of Diné culture, spirituality, and language in this collection, especially in the context of the destructive stereotypes of Native traditions that still pervade North American culture.

I suppose, just as I experience them, or how I’ve seen my family/friends experience them. The aspects of Diné culture as you mention them are fragmentary and suggest fragmentation as it relates to the characters. But I think of the three aspects of culture, spirituality, and language as being singularly Diné. Not the excised categories of culture, spirituality, and language, which one can then begin to qualify and quantify as being Diné, but more the existence of belonging to Diné, with culture, spirituality, and language not being separated but part of a whole, a body, a being, a family, a lifeway. Maybe it’s less of you’re looking at me and more I’m/we’re looking at you.

Sex plays an important role in your characters’ lives and in how they relate to others, especially men relating to women. For example, I’m thinking about the character of Tony and his painful relationship to sex, as well as the spiritual nature of sex in “Trickster Myths,” and so on. I’d love to hear about your thought process in writing about sex and sexuality throughout these different stories.

In writing about sex, I think it’s important to have had sex, of course, so that you pay attention or become aware of how awkward, clumsy, disappointing, humbling, volatile, dangerous, shameful, and beautiful it can be. I read a lot of writers who wrote about sex as this carnal wonderful act but who were also very aware of how it can be weaponized, demonized, politicized, and gendered. Early writers who influenced me were Jean Genet, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and more contemporarily, Merritt Tierce, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Joshua Whitehead. Sex as solace under the destruction of war, the tension and brutality of sex and race, sex as carnality and passion, sex as self-destruction and oblivion, as a panacea for pain, as a catalyst of shame and regret, as false hope and hopelessness. Sex as sex can be quite effective too, I suppose.

Aside from the narrator in “Make No Sound to Wake” and Katie in “Silence,” your stories in this collection are often told from the perspectives of male characters. How did you make the decision to write from a female character’s perspective in those instances?

The stories decided for me as I revised and rewrote them over the years. Both started off in very different places. So much of Tony’s pain, as you mentioned in the previous question, has to do with sex: the silence of his sexual abuse as a kid, the silence of his acknowledgment of that trauma, the silence and distance of his parents, and the silence it creates between him and Katie, who was always underrealized and flat in previous drafts. To address this issue of silence, I realized, with much help from my readers at Graywolf and my partner, that there needed to be the framework of conversation, the potential for a back and forth, components necessary for this pain to reverberate. Tony and Katie are on opposite sides of a two-dimensional bell, and what is missing is the clapper, the object that enacts the sound by colliding with the lip of the mouth. They are in love, and they need and support one another, but the topic of sex is a place of tension and uncertainty with them. And because they probably might not ever have that conversation, both of their lives needed to be realized and examined. That’s how Katie’s perspective came about, the need to understand and be open to listening to a partner’s perspective on sex, love, and life, to examine each person’s interiority. The female narrator of “Make No Sound to Wake” came about in a similar fashion. The story, for many years and drafts, was told from the young boy’s point of view.

The narrator in “Make No Sound to Wake” said something I found really interesting: that she is “[t]he ghost of a culture that values women most but never speaks the names of their dead,” and she draws a distinction between that and other cultures that use memories of the dead to justify inflicting suffering on others. Does that mean anything for you as a writer, since, in the context of writing, we often evoke the names, or at least the lives, of those who have passed, while at the same time preserving a measure of the present for the future?

My intention with that aspect of the story was literal. For Diné, we don’t speak the names of our dead when they pass, and we have traditionally had a matrilineal society where the women oversee land and property and make all the decisions. The ghost narrator is a survivor of Hwéeldi, the time during the Navajo Long Walk when the US military attempted to deport and ethnically cleanse the Diné. She dies as result of seeking black magic to solve her problems, a black magic that starts with and after this attempted genocide, and which turns her into a ghost. Colonialism always justifies its atrocities in the name of something. Maybe in terms of writing it’s the same.

In the larger context of an ancestral culture, the canon as we know it, and the communities you are a part of, whom do you now see yourself writing in conversation with?

Largely for myself, I believe, though I’ve had to remind myself of that many times. Myself because I came to writing as a way to confront the things I feared, which was anything from affection to zeitgeists, and I wanted to understand whatever I could beyond the place that I was existing. To let my curiosity and imagination loose. But no matter how much solitude and isolation I’ve sought, I’m part of a family and universe. Everything before me and behind me, everything all around me is what I try to converse with.


Bojan Louis is the author of a book of poetry, Currents (2017), which received an American Book Award, and of a collection of stories, Sinking Bell (2022). He has been a resident at MacDowell and teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona.

Quyen Pham is a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz concerned with creative and scholarly expressions of diasporic existences via literature. Their fiction has been published in various journals, and they hold an MFA from UC Riverside.

LARB Contributor

Quyen Pham is a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, where they study diaspora and poetics. Their fiction has been published in various journals, and they hold an MFA from UC Riverside.


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