Who Gets the Bones?: On Bojan Louis’s “Sinking Bell”

Ian Ross Singleton reviews Bojan Louis’s debut story collection “Sinking Bell.”

By Ian Ross SingletonDecember 10, 2022

Who Gets the Bones?: On Bojan Louis’s “Sinking Bell”

Sinking Bell by Bojan Louis. Graywolf. 192 pages.

THE NAVAJO REFER to themselves as Diné, or “The People,” the culture from which poet Bojan Louis comes and which he writes about in his debut collection of stories, Sinking Bell. The fatality of history looms over the lives of all the characters, whether of Indigenous American or European background. In “Trickster Myths,” the narrator is a former drug addict. “I’ll never be cured or healthy,” he tells us, “but will survive, maintain, as long as I’m able to stave off the drowning feeling of failure or inability.” Has his experience of history fostered that “drowning” feeling, and does his sense of dying represent the fate of his culture?

In actual trickster myths (“moral and creation tales,” as the narrator calls them), personified animals represent feelings and forces that govern an individual’s behavior. In this story, the Diné narrator spends a night as the companion of a white woman with whom he’s infatuated. He tells her of a trickster myth in which the coyote and the skunk argue about the best way to cook meat. In the course of the argument, one of them — the narrator forgets which — tricks the other and eats the meat, leaving nothing but the bones. The white woman asks, “Then which one of us is getting only the bones?”

Their drug-filled night becomes a metaphor for the looming nightmare of history, for the residue of the colonial competition for resources that stands behind their relationship. White characters in Sinking Bell are usually from working-class backgrounds, more or less adjacent to the backgrounds of the Indigenous Americans in the stories. For people with a dearth of resources, substance abuse is often a way of coping, but while it is more or less a bad habit for lower-class whites, for Indigenous Americans, substance abuse can be viewed as a historical symptom, a way of dislocating oneself — albeit temporarily — from a grim reality. Even the coyote or skunk in the trickster myth is only temporarily satisfying an enduring hunger.

“A New Place to Hide” is a coming-of-age story about a young Diné man that involves drugs, alcohol, and sex. The story ends with a violent episode the morning after the young man’s first sexual encounter: “My head rang sharply and then, like an enormous bell cast into the ocean and sinking, I heard nothing at all.” Like the carillon of a prosperous civilization cast into the ocean of history, this young man is drowned in the silence of violent death. Louis captures the beautiful truths of his characters’ lives without surrendering a condemnation of the colonialist history that has subjugated them.

Louis’s fiction resists history’s submersion of Diné culture and confronts the nightmare into which history has cast the Diné. Another way of resisting this nightmare is to dislocate oneself from life, to become, literally or figuratively, a ghost. The narrator of “Make No Sound to Wake” is present in the living world, yet none of the other characters seems to sense her presence. After describing a brutal murder that she committed with an antler-handled knife, she tells the reader, “I was called the murderous-whore-witch, and even now, generations later, I’m thought of in this way. It’s how I’m bound to this earth.” For generations, she has occupied a space between the living world and inevitable death.

She has also become a monster. This transformation is another metaphor for the way history’s nightmare consumes both perpetrator and victim, making monsters of all. While each of the stories describes horrible situations, “Make No Sound to Wake” is most clearly a horror story, occupying the generic intersection between literary and speculative fiction — a genre-bending that Graywolf Press has presented before, most memorably in Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (2017). Horror stories, along with other genres of speculative fiction, often provide compelling ways to expose and critique colonialist history: examples include the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. In Sinking Bell, which reads at times like a kind of grim folklore, the imagination of horror is a way for historically deprived people to understand their trauma, a way to dislocate themselves from it, one less harmful, perhaps, than alcohol, drugs, or excessive sex.

While Louis’s stories skirt folkloric horror, “Before the Burnings” needs nothing supernatural to depict its very real nightmare. Karl, the protagonist, is not Diné, yet he is falling for a woman who is. While going through the motions of his hellish janitorial job, he often ponders the nuances of various genres of black and death metal. These considerations help him later when he faces a choice of whether to go further into a nightmare or away from it. He is young, after all — it’s not too late for him.

In “Usefulness,” the narrator has already gone deeply into a nightmare and returned. Whether he has become a monster, like the ghost-witch of “Make No Sound to Wake,” is an open question. But the narrator of “Usefulness” doesn’t need to answer that question in order to locate himself in the here and now — in the living world, Turtle Island, where he has certain skills that can be of use to people in need. Using these skills, he is working his way out of the nightmare and becoming part of something eternal: “a place” or “a practice” that will allow him to “arrange carefully, every day, the future of [his] hidden existence.” And this practice, in a place sacred to his people, is the only sustainable way to resist the nightmare of history.


Ian Ross Singleton is author of the novel Two Big Differences. He is the nonfiction editor for Asymptote.

LARB Contributor

Ian Ross Singleton is author of the novel Two Big Differences (MGraphics). He teaches writing at Baruch College and Fordham University. His short stories, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals such as Saint Ann’s Review, Cafe Review, New Madrid, Asymptote, Ploughshares, and Fiction Writers Review.


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