Native American Heritage Month
“For a very long time editors and white readership have demanded Indigenous fiction to be
very performative—to be a sort of ‘Let me dance for you, let me show you the Indian you think you know.’ I started to realize I didn’t want to put my culture on display.” –Morgan Talty,
reflecting on his debut collection of short stories, Night of the Living Rez, in a recent interview with The Center for Fiction.
November is Native American Heritage Month and for it I chose to read Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez, a collection of 12 short stories set on the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine, where Talty grew up.
Night of the Living Rez is a brilliant piece of Autofiction, a genre of literature that combines
elements of autobiography and fiction, meaning every story in this collection has some basis in his experience of reality.
In an interview with Poets and Writers, Talty reflects on the importance of providing a
Penobscot person’s experience to enter the mainstream cultural consciousness through his
collection of short stories. “Having a single story of someone—of a group—diminishes what is real about them. It dehumanizes them. It’s those multiple and many stories about various
peoples—Indigenous tribes in this instance—that extend, and complicate, our understanding of what people think about Native Americans.”
The stories are told from the perspective of the main character, David. We read about a
modern-day Penobscot family and an Indigenous community wading through the tragedies of a painful past and attempting to survive an uncertain future.
Detailed descriptions of the landscape inform and depict what day-to-day life is like on the
reservation—“the night sky so packed with stars that I felt the urge to squint;” “sharp pine trees clutter and lean into each other;” “ice cracked and echoed somewhere in the swamp”—while in-depth portraits of characters burst with relatability and interiority—“The house was
scrubbed clean and smelled like bleach, the way it did when Mom was upset and had scrubbed the floors like she was trying to erase them.”
The structure of the book is nonlinear as stories jump back-and-forth throughout time, drawing the reader into an immersive experience and spitting us out into a new scene. In Talty’s Night of the Living Rez, each short story draws its power from what is left out as much as it does from what’s left on the page.
Night of the Living Rez has won the New England Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and is on the longlist for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It truly is a marvelous debut.
If you’re looking for other Indigenous books to read this month, I’ve compiled a list of worthy
titles categorized by age and genre:
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom
Bowwow Powwow by Brenda Child
Middle Grade Literature (8-12 years old):
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
Two Roads by Joseph Bruchac
Young Adult Literature (12-18 years old):
The Marrow Thieves & Hunting by Stars by Cherie Dimaline (2 book series)
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty
There There by Tommy Orange
Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America by Nicole Eustace
Whatever you’re choosing to read this month, we hope that it leaves you with a broader, more complex understanding of Indigenous people, as many of these books are sure to do. As always, we hope to see you at the library.