Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians—An Important and Necessary Book

Deborah A. Miranda’s Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday Books) is a book I’ve been anticipating ever since I first met the author and heard what she was working on.

 Caveat: Deborah Miranda is a good friend, and we bonded from our first meeting because our backgrounds are so similar and we have so much in common. But I would have been anticipating the book eagerly if I’d never met the author but only heard about the book. For most of my lifetime I’ve been waiting for this book. I know this book is so important and much needed out in the world, so I would be remiss to avoid telling my blog readers about it simply because I’m close to the author.

In Bad Indians, Miranda traces the history of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen  tribe through her own search for the history of her own family, through the story of the violent missionization of California, the exploitation of those indigenous people and the theft of their land, language, and history. The padres enslaved, beat, raped, and killed the Indians they found on the land they wanted for their missions and settlements, and Miranda documents the historic record of this process and the destruction it wreaked on the peaceful tribes the priests initially found.  

“All my life,” Miranda writes, “I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?” She knew the true story was more than that. “Story is the most powerful force in the world,” she says, “in our world, maybe in all worlds. Story is culture.” Bad Indians is the result of a decades-long search for that story, that culture.

In 1925, renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber pronounced the Esselen people and culture extinct, based on a flawed census of California Indians, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs designated the Esselen tribe “terminated.” By 1955, Kroeber had come to realize his mistake and argued with demonstrations of evidence to the BIA that the Esselen still lived and should be recognized, something Miranda’s and other families have been fighting to regain for many years. However, the BIA has never rectified its mistake.

In a place and time where California Indians were legally enslaved and where the federal and state governments paid bounties for the corpses or body parts of Indians (to prove they’d been killed), many California Indians chose to “pass” themselves and their children as Mexican rather than claim their true identity, which could put them into slavery or the grave. Well into the 20th century, at about the time Ishi was discovered and the Esselen were declared extinct, people decided that it was finally time to repeal the laws paying bounties for the killing of Indians.

Miranda writes about these tragedies. She brings them into the light through documents, passed-down  and anthropologist-recorded stories, and her own poems and lyrical essays. All that’s been left of her tribal history lies in pieces and shards, so she puts those broken bits together into a mosaic that speaks of violence and exploitation yet echoes with the beautiful strength and resilience of her ancestors.

She also writes of how the violence and trauma forced on her tribe recapitulate in the history and actions of her own family, in her own history. “I wondered if, in order to survive, we had become destroyers, like them,” she asks. “Was there no way out of this self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty?” Through her examination of the history of her people and her family, she brings awareness of the larger history of the many indigenous peoples of the United States. The details may change, but the general outline of violence and cruelty, reslience and survival always remains.

The history is truly appalling, but the stories themselves are filled at times with the wry humor of the survivor and with the quiet strength of Miranda’s people. The lyrical manner of her mosaic telling of this history, of these stories, turns horror story into a kind of terrible beauty. This book is full of riches. Miranda has done a remarkable job of piecing together and laying out for our contemplation the history and irrepressible culture of her tribe and her family, and she has tempered her honesty with respect and thoughtfulness.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Report from AWP 2013

Me @ Tia Chucha/Scapegoat table

 Now that I have a new laptop again and have transferred most backed-up files and reinstalled most of the programs and drivers I need, I can post my report on AWP 2013, the national conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which took place in Boston earlier this month. Over 12,000 writers, teachers of writing, editors and publishers crammed into Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the biggest AWP yet.

Nicole Peeler, Sophie Littlefield, me
Saturday morning, I was on “Women and Crime Fiction,” a panel proposed and moderated by Toni Margarita Plummer and comprised of Sophie Littlefield, Nicole Peeler, and me. We had a standing-room-only crowd, and a number of the audience members came up afterward to say it had been the best panel they attended all conference. One even said, “This has been the only panel that didn’t make me feel marginalized.” It was, of course, one of only two genre-fiction panels at the conference, I believe. (The program is so massive that I could have missed another one, but AWP usually focuses only on literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, so probably not.)

Nicole, Sophie, me, and Toni Margarita Plummer

One of the things I think the audience really appreciated was that, although we discussed some very serious topics—women and violence, a gendered history of crime fiction, age and women in American society, women and sexuality, among others—we used a lot of humor and snark in our presentations. I usually do to try to entertain as well as inform, but with Sophie and Nicole, we had the audience rocking with laughter. Quite an appropriate way to take a look at some of those topics, I believe. Toni, who is Sophie’s editor and mine, kept us on time and on target, however, and the audience was not only receptive but full of thoughtful, provocative questions and comments.

Valerie Fioravanti, Ben, and me
For the rest of the conference I was in the bookfair, either at the Tia Chucha Press/Scapegoat Press table with Deborah Miranda and Luis J. Rodriguez or at the BkMk Press/New Letters tables helping or spelling Ben.  I had much more help than expected with the Tia Chucha/Scapegoat table, and Ben had much less help than expected with the two BkMk/New Letters tables, so I was glad to give him a hand when I could. I loved meeting the G.S. Scharat Chandra Fiction Book Prize winner, Valerie Fioravanti, whose book of short stories, Garbage Night at the Opera, so pleased me when it came out.

Deborah Miranda launched her new book, Bad Indians, nationally at AWP and spent most of her time at the conference at the booktable. (My review of this truly important book will appear here this weekend.) It was one of the delights of the conference to be able to spend much time with her since she is one of my favorite people in the world. And because Deborah was there, so was her bright and funny partner, Margo Solod, allowing me to meet her in person for the first—and I hope not the last—time.

Deborah Miranda w/ Bad Indians
Margo Solod

This year, Luis J. Rodriguez, publisher of Tia Chucha Press, my friend and publisher, and our partner in the bookfair for two good years now, had promised to be more available at the booktable. He had tried to be last year, but was constantly in demand at the conference and wasn’t able to be in the bookfair as much as he had hoped. This year, he kept his promise and was around to help staff the table much more, and the chance to spend time with him was also a real blessing. Luis is one of those unassuming remarkable geniuses out there in Latino literary land, a real community builder and someone who is making a definite difference in the world with his work and his generosity.

Luis, Deborah, Melinda Palacio
We kicked off a special fundraising effort by Letras Latinas, that great organization that supports Latino arts and letters and especially poetry. Letras Latinas has been given a grant that will be matched with another grant if they can raise the amount of the initial grant from other sources. So Francisco Aragón, one of Scapegoat’s authors and director of Letras Latinas, had arranged with Ben to offer a limited number of his books with a letterpress broadside of Eduardo Corral’s poem, “Pears,” with the entire purchase price to go to Letras Latinas programs. (I believe there are still a few of these left, and it’s a great cause, so if you have a chance to see Francisco, pick one up.) Francisco is another old, valued friend, so I truly enjoyed spending time with him at the table, as well.


And many people come by the bookfair tables, so it’s always a chance to see those I love and admire whom I haven’t seen for a year or so. In no special order, here are some of them—Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán, Dan Vera, Luivette Resto, Martín Espada, Mario Duarte, Melinda Palacio, Maria Melendez, Joy Castro, Jimin Han, Rich Villar, Francisco Alarçon, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carla Trujillo, Celeste Guzman Mendoza, Richard Blanco, Fred Arroyo, Robin Becker, Lucrecia Guerrero, Susan Deer Cloud, Allison Hedge Coke, Sherwin Bitsui, Alex Espinoza, Natalie Diaz, Gabriela Lemmons, José Faus, Denise Low-Weso, Lorraine López, Mariko Nagai, Charles Rice Gonzalez, Ching-In Chen, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Aliki Barnstone, Alice Friman, Phong Nguyen, and many others I’ve probably missed.

Carla Trujillo
Melinda, Martin Espada, Luivette Resto

The climax of the whole conference was at the very end when my dear friend, writer and activist Marjorie Agosín, and her wonderful husband, John, came into the city while recovering from pneumonia to sit and visit with Ben and me. We hadn’t seen each other in two years, but Marjorie is one of those friends that you just fall back into conversation with as if one of you had just walked back into the room after being gone for a few minutes. She is one of the most spiritually evolved people I know and at the same time absolutely the most fun. We had margaritas and appetizers and much deep laughter. I was pretty much a physical wreck by the time I walked into the place where we were meeting, midway between the convention center and our hotel, but at the end of our time together, I was feeling no pain until later that evening when it all came back on me heavy-duty. (All right. The huge margarita might have had a little to do with that, but I think it was mostly because of being with someone so wonderful.)

And that’s why I keep going to AWP, even though it gets huger and more difficult for me physically each year. It’s the place to see and spend time with people I dearly love and don’t get to see nearly often enough.

Next up, I'll review Deborah Miranda's Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, which is, I think, one of the important books to come out this year. This weekend for that. Next week, another Books of Interest by Writers of Color post and who knows what else. Tsa-da-sa-s-de-s-di! Take care!