Oklahoma author Oscar Hokeah's debut novel comes from a decolonized perspective
Cherokee, Kiowa and Mexican author Oscar Hokeah's first novel, Calling for a Blanket Dance, has received a lot of praise.
In March, he won the PEN Hemingway Award for best debut novel. KOSU's Allison Herrera spoke with Hokeah in Tahlequah where he lives about the novel and what it was like to write about intergenerational trauma from a Native perspective.
There are many parts I loved and re-read in Oscar Hokeah's book Calling for a Blanket Dance, but one that really stayed with me was about the character Vincent Geimausaddle.
Vincent is struggling with alcoholism as a way to cope with PTSD after fighting in the Korean War. He's at the end of his life and has been diagnosed with cirrhosis.
He decides it's time to make gourd dance regalia for his grandsons, Ever and Quinton. Maybe this, he thinks, can redeem him for the lifetime of putting alcohol first. It begins with a trip to an antique store. Here's a passage from the book:
“The next morning I drove to an antique store and asked them if they had some of the old tin salt and pepper shakers. Back when Kiowas were made prisoners of war and placed in concentration camps, the U.S. government didn't allow us to practice our culture. The only thing we had were government rations called commodities, and in those commodities were tin salt and pepper shakers. Most looked at them and saw salt and pepper shakers, but we looked at them through Kiowa eyes and we saw gourd dance rattles. In secret, out of the military's site, we practiced our culture and we modified the rations we had at our disposal. When Kiowas danced with rattles made from tin salt and pepper shakers, it was a proud act of resistance.”
Vincent's character is based on Hokeah's grandfather Virgil, who served in the Korean War and had issues with alcoholism.
Virgil made regalia for Vincent before he died but passed away before he could finish it.
"When I'm writing this chapter, I'm just reflecting on what would that be like? What was my grandfather going through at that moment, you know, that he would want so urgently to make this regalia for his grandkids," Hokeah said.
Hokeah's first novel is about the Geimausaddle family, their struggles, compassion and how they've dealt with intergenerational trauma and violence.
The book is written from 12 characters’ perspectives but centers on Ever Guimausaddle, Vincent's grandson, who witnesses a tragic and violent event as a child. That event and the actions of his ancestors follow Ever throughout his life and culminate in bringing his own family together as a father.
And it’s bringing an Indigenous Oklahoman’s perspective onto the national stage.
A yearslong process
Hokeah started writing the book in 2008, but set the chapters aside after he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma. He knew he wanted a series of short stories to center on one character, but suffered a little bit of writer’s block until he started writing the first chapter in 2015.
The characters — Lena, Vincent, Turtle, Ever and Leander — have stories that are very much about Native people's experiences. But, the book also allows non-Native readers a way to understand and connect with what happens.
"That's one of the things that I've come to understand is that the more specific I get, the more universal it becomes," Hokeah said.
The novel is very specific to Native communities as characters try to lift themselves out of generational trauma caused by colonialism and growing up apart from their Indigenous culture. Hokeah writes about the effects trauma has on families and communities who experience and sometimes perpetuate violence.
"Native writers writing about native communities, we do have to have that critical eye. We do have to be honest about writing those situations that we have actually experienced and endured in our families," Hokeah said.
Hokeah drew on stories he heard about his grandparents attending boarding school in Oklahoma, where they were punished for speaking their language and treated with cruelty.
Once he learned that, he had compassion for them and some of the things they did.
"You know, and so sometimes there are these moments of violence that happen, and we have to address it, we can't just ignore it and pretend like it didn't happen," he said. “But we also have to do it with a critical eye, but we also have to do it with compassion."
It's that compassion that put Calling for a Blanket Dance on numerous “best of” lists for 2022, and it received the 2023 PEN America Hemingway Award for best debut novel.
"I think what truly resonated about Oscar's book was this kind of triumph of humanity," said Donica Bettanin, the program director for literary awards at PEN America. "There are difficult things in the book. There are sad things in the book. And yet, the overarching kind of impression that you are left with is that there is a reason to keep going."
The first PEN Hemingway Award was given in 1976 and was created by the Hemingway family. Some of the writers who have won the award include Marilynne Robinson, Jumpha Lahiri and Tommy Orange, who praised Calling for a Blanket Dance saying, "It’s such a vital and powerful novel, giving us a wide range of voices over decades of Native life in a new and real way, from a writer I will from now on read everything he writes."
Bettanin said the power of stories was what struck the judges.
"It's an intergenerational story and within any family there are those stories of meaning that can even shift over time in the telling, in the remembering,” she said. “And so I think Oscar here has sort of made a contribution to those stories that will have meaning over time and mean different things to different people."
The book has made it onto several critics choice lists as well, including the editor's choice in The New York Times and a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Review Award for first fiction.
Novel draws Gabriel García Márquez comparisons
Mona Susan Power is another Indigenous author who won the PEN America Hemingway Award for her debut novel Grass Dancer in 1995. She was struck by the power of Hokeah's language, intellect and compassion for characters who do some very terrible things
"So I knew from the very first page that I was in the hands of a really extraordinarily talented writer,” Power said. “And then by the time I got to the end of the book, I knew, or I felt I was also in the presence of an extraordinary human being because I felt there was so much heart and spirit in this book.”
Power is set to release another book soon called A Council of Dolls. She says some of the themes in her new book echoes what Hokeah writes about in Calling for a Blanket Dance.
"I feel like a lot of us right now are wrestling with trauma, but in a different way from earlier writers. We're not just taking people into communities that have gone through, you know, lost so much due to colonization, just having, you know, wreaked havoc in our families and communities for four generations," said Powers.
"We're actually in some ways, I think, attempting to help heal a lot of this trauma through our work, or at least using our work address, the possibility of healing that is available. So it's moving through trauma to a place, just a healthier space."
Hokeah drew on his own family for the book. He based Vincent's character on his own grandfather. The character Leander Chesnuh, a young man who struggles with anger issues, is based on his experience working in a group home in New Mexico for Native youth. It's part of his approach to writing from a decolonized perspective. Hokeah currently works for the Indian Child Welfare Department for the Cherokee Nation.
“So for me, you know, being that I work in the native community and that I work in the field that I've worked in, that I've always been surrounded by this task of trying to heal young people,” Hokeah said. “And so that's why I have that lens that decolonization work is healing work. We just have to stay in this perpetual process of healing. And so that plays out in the novel as well. So you see characters, like I said before, they're in the process of transforming themselves.”
Hokeah's road to becoming a published author has taken many twists and turns, but it's those twists and turns with family and community that make Calling for a Blanket Dance such a stunning novel that makes you want to reread certain chapters. He's currently working on another book and if it's anything like this one it's sure to be a tour de force.