Land As a Reflection of Oneself: An Interview with Morgan Talty

Sam Dilling

Morgan Talty’s debut short story collection, Night of the Living Rez, is brutally honest and exceptionally rendered. Set on a Native Reservation in Maine, bordered on all sides by the Penobscot River, Morgan paints an unfiltered portrait of what life is like on the Penobscot Nation for the collection’s protagonist, David, later known only as “Dee,” and his family and friends.

Throughout the twelve stories, which are linked by the protagonist, readers witness a boy becoming a man, a family coming together and falling apart again, and a community working together to survive what dangers lurk beyond, and within, their reservation’s borders. Talty says his goal for this collection wasn’t to give a “comfortable, easy tour of colorful Indian country,” referencing the words of Louis Owens. Instead, he hoped to “correct or revise ideas about indigeneity while also highlighting my tribe, the Penobscot, who have been ignored just like many of the 570+ federally recognized tribes and the many unrecognized ones.”

I had the pleasure of connecting with Morgan over Zoom about his debut collection in May, where we talked about the genre of the linked short story collection, what it’s like to translate an oral language into fiction, and how land functions as a reflection of oneself.

Sam Dilling: How did this linked short story collection come together?

Morgan Talty: The first story I ever wrote in this collection was “Night of the Living Rez” and I wrote that in 2015. So I had that story, and I had a couple others. And I was like, I’ll write a collection of short stories — all connected by David. And the easiest way to do that is to move chronologically. I’d written, like, 15 or 16 stories from David’s perspective. So I had this manuscript, and I was looking through it, and I was like, you know, two, three, four, five of the stories are good, but the rest are just like, so what? I got really — I don’t know if I got discouraged, but it’s kind of like, alright, this project didn’t work out. I got a couple of good short stories out of it, but it didn’t turn into anything special. I’m gonna go write some new stuff.

My friend told me this story about this Native guy who passed out in the snow and his hair froze into the snowbank and one of his friends, or somebody he knew, stumbled upon him. It was not a Native guy, it was a white guy who found him. And I guess when the guy was telling my friend the story, he was like: “I was all sketched out. I was at the end of that bridge, I was cutting this Indian’s hair off...” And I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Because you think of that scene 150 years ago, and it’s completely horrendous, right? There’s this terrible history with that. I was like, this is something I’ve never seen before. Literally cutting his hair to save his life.

I started writing it and I get to the line where Fellis says: “Get me out, Dee.” Fellis said, “Dee, get me out.” I had been writing in David’s perspective for so long that I was like, “What is this person’s name?” I was in David mode, so I just put the letter “D” there as a placeholder. I went on to finish the story and I kept trying to figure out what this character’s name was and it hit me. I typed two E’s after it. I was like, “Is this David all grown up?” That one story brought that collection, that whole idea, back to life.

SD: How did that new structure inform the way you approached the collection?

MT: I think my original intention was to make it so you could read any story in any order you wanted and still be satisfied with the pieces. But I think that gets a little difficult with some. Like “In a Field of Stray Caterpillars” and “Half-Life,” for example, because those stories are actually later stories I wrote and they were very much informed by what we knew already about the characters. But I was also, like, maybe I can make this thing feel like it extends outside of a certain boundary.

It’s funny seeing the reviews on Goodreads come in because people are like, “This is a great story collection,” and others are like, “Don't be fooled. This is a novel.” [Laughs.] People are already recognizing that it’s falling in these two spaces. I did think a lot about if the title should have “stories” in it, or if it should have just read Night of the Living Rez. I’m curious how that would have gone over.

SD: It’s interesting how we want to put things into boxes. I feel like this is most often seen with linked short story collections, especially when they’re linked by character. Like you said, in reviews, people will either be like “this is a novel,” or “this should be called a novel.” I wonder how important those labels are?

MT: It’s tough. You go on Amazon and you look at any book, and it’s listed under, you know, literary fiction. It has a number where it stands, right? Then it’s like, number whatever in short stories, number [whatever] in Native American literature. There’s all these categories under which the book falls. I feel like categorization is a bad thing in a number of ways. But it’s also a way for us to keep track of stuff. There’s interconnected story collections, right? I feel like there should be a new genre for that. It’s teetering on the fence back and forth between either a novel and a short story collection and there’s no real space for it.

When I was writing [the book], I was very aware of that. When I finished it, I started thinking about what a potential reader might think — which isn’t something I really consider too often. With this, I have to be careful because if it’s just David’s stories, it’ll be kind of boring, right? But if there’s these two narratives running side by side at two different times, that’ll give the reader something outside a single story that they’re reading. I tried to really walk this tightrope of being like, Okay, I’m going to give you stories, but at the same time, I’m going to lay breadcrumbs about everything else. That was, I think, the hardest part — being really careful with details. For example, if you’ve read “Safe Harbor,” which is on Narrative magazine, Dee ends up with a leg injury. I think it’s [in] “Earth, Speak,” he doesn’t necessarily mention that injury, but he’s rubbing his leg at a moment where it brings the reader back to that story. It was finding those types of instances where I could really suggest that this is belonging to a broader narrative.

SD: I know what you mean. In some ways, it can be helpful and in other ways, it can be harmful. At one point, it felt like the message was that there could only be one kind of any given story. Like, “This is the only Native story we’re going to pay attention to, and there is only room for this one.” But at the same time, that Native story could be paving the way for others.

MT: I feel like people are getting a bit better at thinking outside of the categorization. Whereas before, if you belonged to a specific community or group, you were expected to write about that. And that’s still kind of the case today, unfortunately. But I feel like we have a bit more control in those stories and we’re shaping their direction.

I think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about when she gave her novel to her advisor as an undergrad. His criticism was that the African people she was writing about were too similar to him, a white man, and he felt that was unbelievable and inauthentic. I think when we do that categorization, we limit this shared human experience between people.

When I first started out, when I was like eighteen or nineteen, I sort of fell into the trap of categorization. I was like, I’m a Native Penobscot, I’m gonna write Native fiction, Native nonfiction. I started doing a lot of tropes and stereotypical stuff that some Native writers have used as a means to appeal to a white audience. But then I sort of scolded myself and, like, learned and moved on. When I started writing these people, it was very much about getting to the heart of each of them. Being able to show how good they are, being able to show how bad they are, being able to show how we can’t really distinguish between their goodness and their badness.

I knew I wasn’t offering the reader what most folks would call “misery porn.” I’m not, like, clearly making this person bad and clearly making this person good and appealing to that simplistic viewpoint that populates not just literature, but pop culture in general. And so automatically doing that, I was like, I don’t care what people are gonna think. I’m gonna go as deep as I can with these characters. If only so many people read it, fine. If more people read it, great. But I feel like I’ve gotten so much feedback from people who aren’t even readers, people I know who don’t read and have read the stories and they share with their friends. And then academics who read and are talking about it. We’re here talking about it right now, as writers, so I feel like something went well. You know what I mean? I really think it’s just important to put a lot of emphasis on trying to get and reveal what it means to be human and what it means to be related to each other.

SD: Is there anything you hope readers take with them after finishing this collection?

MT: My whole perspective on writing is that, yeah, I wrote this. And yeah, it’s coming out as a book, it has my name on it. But it’s part of a larger dialogue. Once I let it go, it’s gone. Right? I can talk about it, as we’re doing right now. I can talk about my intentions. But it’s going to eventually do its own thing. It’s going to speak in its own way.

I guess I was so consumed with the work itself that it wasn’t really until [the book] was out there that I was able to say this stuff. You know, I hope this book can make us love each other better. That’s what I want literature to do. I want it to broaden our horizons. I think it was Ocean Vuong who recently said something about how he feels more alive when he reads, he’s able to inhabit humanity a bit more. I just want to create work that does that. That isn’t there for itself, but is there as a building block of this larger array of stories that are coming out. Because there is this huge surge in Native fiction, but also diverse fiction in general. It’s like a wave right now. So I’m super glad that it can be there, and it could maybe do something.

SD: At the end of the book, you made a note about how the Penobscot language is typically an oral language, but that you weren’t using the established alphabet and spelling systems that had been put in place in recent years. How did you approach that translation between Penobscot and English?

MT: Before I started writing this collection, if I was writing Native characters, or if I was writing nonfiction, I would use Penobscot because it was used in my household. Like my mom called me gwus, which is little boy. It was never really full phrases. It was, like, English with a word of Penobscot here and there because colonialism destroyed our ability to speak it. So it was instinctual for me. Like I knew when Dee or Fellis or the mom — whenever they’re talking, I knew when they would say something because I relied on my experience with it.

I remember taking Penobscot when I was in middle school and all I remembered was jistowks, which is be quiet, and abin, sit down, because we never paid attention. And I wish I had. It looks beautiful — the way there’s k’s with a little w up in the corner. [You can find a visual here.]

As I started working on the book and revising it, I was like, I’m gonna have to come to a decision. Do I use the actual spelling of these words as they’re written today? Or do I go with phonetics? And I went with phonetics because I wanted the reader to be able to pronounce the words. I was more concerned with [the words] being able to be said. For me, that felt a bit more transferable as opposed to seeing a word and not knowing how to say it. I just really wanted the reader to be able to take that word away. Opening that door where somebody who is not from this experience can experience it. I think that was definitely part of my reasoning.

SD: Has your relationship to the Penobscot language changed at all as you’ve gotten older, or since becoming a writer?

MT: I’ve grown in knowing that I need to take more responsibility in learning the language. When I was first starting to write, I was content with what I knew. But there’s so much I don’t know. Languages open up to us things we don’t see because languages force our brains to work in different ways. I don’t know if that’s true — I just said that. It sounds true. [Laughs.]

I’ve been working with words here and there. There’s a Penobscot dictionary and I try to use that to the best of my ability. But I also rely on Carol Dana, who’s a cultural bearer of the Penobscot Nation, and Gabe Paul, who’s a language cultural bearer, and they’re always so generous. But I want to eventually stop being like, “Hey, how do you say this?” when it serves my needs at that current moment and just be able to do it, you know? And study the actual language outside the context of writing. So yeah, my approach and my thinking about the language [has] become much more important to me now than it was when I was eighteen or nineteen.

SD: The river was a big symbol throughout the book. It always seemed like such a force, always rushing. It felt really important to this story, and this history.

MT: On the Penobscot Nation, the river was literally our border. It was the thing that separated the reservation from the state land or other land we own that [wasn’t] categorized as a reservation. We canoed, we swam when it was safe to swim. Because there was a mill there, too. You would get ear infections and gunk would flow down.

The river has been an important part of my growing up, but also my ancestors. All that water in Maine has been a vital part of the culture. I may get the translation right, I may be wrong. I may get a Facebook message from Carol or Gabe being like, that’s not right at all. But Pαnawαhpskek-, or Penobscot, means “where the water falls off the ledges,” or something like that. It’s an actual image of the river and of a place. When you add “wi” to the end of that, it denotes a person belonging to that place. So pαnawαhpskewi- would be a Penobscot person. It’s, in a way, inseparable from the place itself. You can’t exist without it. A lot of Native languages do that. It might be a certain Sioux language, but there’s a word. It’s ni — “n” “i” — and it means both the self and the land. It depends on the context in which you use the word for it to mean either a person or place.

I listed two tribes out of over 600. Here, I’m just generalizing. But for most indigenous people, land is a reflection of oneself. And I think that’s the case with Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy, and Miꞌkmaq and Maliseet in this area. So [the river] was important. I felt like it had to be there. Plus, I love setting. I’m a place writer. I could read setting all day and I’d be satisfied. So that made it easier. Place really is a character. I mean, it does things. It affects us. I’ve always envisioned it as an entity — a thing that can act and can do things.

SD: That feels especially relevant right now — that place cannot be divorced from people.

MT: I feel like fiction can only do so much when it comes to protesting, in a way. It does serve as a form of activism, but I feel like it’s slower going. But I do hope this book also has that push behind it. That it is talking about how sacred place is and it does get people thinking about not putting more dams in, or not destroying waterways, or massive clear cuts of land. All that stuff. I won’t speak as if I’m a super activist guy, but I do hope it does something in that.


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