Loss and Wholeness: An Interview with Beth Piatote

“A student asked me, ‘I can’t tell if this story is optimistic or pessimistic.’ I responded, ‘It’s pessimistic, because it’s about living with loss. And it’s optimistic because it’s about living with loss. I can’t explain it any other way.'”

  • September 29, 2020
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  • Interview
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  • By Frances S. Lee

Beth Piatote is a Nez Perce scholar and writer, and is an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She is the author of the acclaimed mixed-genre collection, The Beadworkers: Stories, and an associate professor of Comparative Literature and Native American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published scholarly work as well as poems, personal essays, and fiction, and is dedicated to Indigenous language revitalization, and works with her heritage language of Nez Perce. 

This Friday, she is premiering a new story as part of Humanities Washington’s fundraiser Bedtime Stories, taking place online on October 2. 

 

Your recent book of short stories, The Beadworkers, covers vast ground in regard to historical and contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples in the US. In light of the current national reckonings with racism and colonization, what cultural interventions are you making with your book? 

The past is very much alive in our everyday interactions in Native America. One of the great things about fiction is that you can show adjacencies and relationships between things that are separated by history or by popular consciousness. The reverberations of violence from the past and displacement, and the theme of living with loss and how to live with loss, is knit through all of the stories in The Beadworkers. The best story that handles it is “Falling Crows.” It’s about a soldier who is coming home as an amputee. He’s trying to grapple with the reality of being entirely whole, yet he has sustained real injury. Native American life is where you’re always insisting on your wholeness and thriving and growth and beauty and resilience and regeneration. And at the same time, there is real injury, there is real loss. How do we hold all that wholeness and also the loss? I was a guest in an undergraduate class who had read that story-which, by the way, is also about language revitalization, because it’s analogous. A student told me, I can’t tell if this story is optimistic or pessimistic. I responded, It’s pessimistic, because it’s about living with loss. And it’s optimistic because it’s about living with loss. I can’t explain it any other way. This difficult-to-hold reality is something that takes a lot of capacity. 

The book is also trying to be a healing space for Native people where you can just come in. Nothing bad happens in the book. It has all happened off stage, before the story begins, or happens after the story ends. Most of the stories are this safe space for retelling or processing. Native people need a place to just have refuge. Part of the reason why it’s called The Beadworkers is because my book is going to be the beading table. It’s going to be the place where people come in, do their work, be creative, and they’re laughing, they’re telling stories, and they’re also crying. 

It might not fit the mold of other books that are about racial realities that seem overtly political. But to me, there’s a strong politics in the book of love: people caring for each other, being able to block out the damage coming from the outside, refusing that the colonizer has so much control over us. The “Antíkone” piece at the end is overtly political about repatriation. 

My book is also showing the survival strategies of Native people. That’s always the question I bring to all my work, whether it’s scholarly or personal essay: how did our ancestors survive? Beadwork is one of the ways they survive their arts and their music, people wearing their beadwork, playing their songs, singing in their language. Everybody still carries these things forward.  

What is it like to work in academia and also be a fiction writer? Are there any tensions there? 

The biggest tension for me is trying to get creative work to count as a scholar, as I don’t have an appointment in creative writing. That’s where I have to make an argument for the theorizing that the creative work is doing. But also I want the work to just be beautiful. My writing naturally continues to bubble up around the same themes around the imposition of law on Indigenous life, and on the ways that Indigenous people create networks of kin and have very extended relationships with all beings in our homelands. 

My first academic book was on Native writers of the late 19th century and early 20th century, and the ways in which they were illuminating aspects of law and history in their writings about families, relationships, children, and all kinds of labor. Studying those early Native writers really shaped my development as a writer. Some of the pieces that I wrote were conversations that I was having with them. In The Beadworkers, the “Feast III” story is about a woman who’s working as a migrant laborer. I always wanted to write a piece about Mourning Dove, an Okanagan woman who was working in the fields. She wrote on a crate in a tent while she was working in the fields and going through so many economic disruptions. I actually went to Washington State University and sat in the archives and read all of her letters. I was so full of her. Those kinds of formations within me happened because I was a scholar, and then ended up coming out into my creative writing as well.  

One of the things I’ve learned from my ancestors is that you have to keep doing things that bring life and being, and be actively engaged in the creative.

I also see the world as one full of stories in different genres. This goes back to having worked a journalist. When I am thinking about a problem, I think, “Well, I could write a scholarly essay, a personal essay, a short story, or a poem about this. What’s its genre? I try to match the genre to what I’m doing so that I get to explore that world and explore that question. Another story in my collection called “Fish Wars” is about the fishing wars of the 1960s and 70s in Washington State. A lot of my wider work is about how Indian Wars are wars on Indian families, and how often Indian children and families are on the frontlines of Indian Wars. Sometimes it’s in policy or with the military or both. When your treaty rights are under threat, your rivers are under threat, your homelands are under threat, the war has come to you. How are you going to defend your treaty rights in your Native world while protecting your children? How do families figure that out if the parents don’t agree on the same strategy? How do you deploy the whole community in addressing this bigger problem? And how do you show how children are impacted by this?  

I could have written a historical essay on this. I could have spent the whole summer in the archives and come up with an article presenting the case for how families dealt with this, and made it a scholarly argument. But instead, I decided to write a short story written by an 11-year-old girl in the first person. If I want to show the face of the Fish Wars, I’m going to do it with a child’s voice. I’m going to do it with a child’s perspective. And let her show the reader how the world can start crumbling around you. 

What is giving you hope right now? 

One of the things I’ve learned from my ancestors is that you have to keep doing things that bring life and being, and be actively engaged in the creative. I’m continuing to write, do bead work, and also do language work right now. We started a Nez Perce writers group where we are writing poems and little short pieces as language revitalization. The language itself is such a source of life for me. Whenever I’m engaged in the language that makes me feel more alive.   

Tell us a bit about the story you will be reading for Bedtime Stories. 

I really want to deliver some sweet thoughts as people go off to sleep. The story is set roughly in our COVID times, and the main character is a man named Rowan. He has a sensual dream in which he turns down Brad Pitt and wakes up with this sense of alarm. He realizes that he can’t control things in the daytime so he’s like, “Well, I’m going to try to control my dreams. This becomes his project, to work on the night shift to have better dreams. The things that he does to try to control his dreams end up changing his life in the day. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frances S. Lee is a trans, queer Chinese American writer based in Bremerton. They wrote “Excommunicate Me from The Church of Social Justice,” and edited the anthology Toward an Ethics Of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility. Frances’s work has appeared in The Seventh Wave, Yes! Magazine, and CBC Radio, among other places.

See Beth Piatote read an original work as part of Humanities Washington’s online fundraiser Bedtime Stories. RSVP here.