Interview with Susan Power, 1995 PEN/Hemingway Winner

Wayne Catan, Brophy College Preparatory

Susan Power, 1995 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner for The Grass Dancer

Q:  I have read that you consider yourself Native first (you are an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux) and American second. Can you tell us more about this choice?

A:  I can’t say this self-identification is a “choice” so much as an awareness of what came first, who came first to this territory that is my home. Indigenous peoples had already established a long and fascinating history here before Europeans arrived as settlers. So my mother’s ancestry has an immediate claim upon me, though I also have warm respect for my father’s ancestors who arrived from England in the 1630’s. Additionally, my father, who died in 1973, was never interested in his ownbackground. So I was raised within the Native community of Chicago, following tribally-specific traditions, encouraged to adopt our values and ways of seeing the world.

Q:  Can you tell us how your Native American heritage affected the The Grass Dancer. For example, did it inspire the setting or any character development?

A:  Like any other writer I am influenced by my communities and cultures and territory. I use the plural of “community” and “culture” because I’ve moved between worlds my whole life, growing up in Native communities, yet always the only Native student in nearly every school I attended until college. I was a voracious reader from earliest memory, and most of the books available to me in childhood were written by non-Native authors. So it’s difficult to tease out influences and separate them. For example, I studied Acting for three years in high school which taught me a great deal about character motivation, and I was a Psychology major in college which taught me about character development. But of course my characters were also inspired by people I’d known growing up, many of whom were Native. Setting my first book in North Dakota was definitely the result of visits to my mother’s reservation where she’d been born and raised. North Dakota was like a foreign country to me since I was such a city kid, feeling infinitely safer in a world where I heard blaring sirens and the noise of people arguing outside my window, comforted by the light pollution of Chicago which prevented me from seeing a massive dark sky.

Q:  Have you read Tommy Orange’s novel There There? If so, what are your thoughts about the book?

A:  Yes, I read it as soon as it was published. What a terrific novel! In the past couple of years I’ve been cheering to see a raft of Native authors publish first books and rise to prominence! There are so many Native authors out there who have been developing, writing, and publishing under the radar – it’s exciting to see some finally receive recognition. I have read, supported, and appreciated recent first books from the following (in alphabetical order): Layli Long Soldier, Terese Mailhot, Carter Meland, Melissa Michal, Tommy Orange, Rebecca Roanhorse, Theodore Van Alst. And am eagerly awaiting Kelli Jo Ford’s first novel, Crooked Hallelujah, which will be published by Grove Atlantic in 2020.

Q: Are there any other Native American writers whose works, you believe, belong in the cannon?

A: So many! I’m very glad that some of my early favorites are essentially already part of the literary canon, e.g., Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan. The list of those I believe also belong in the canon is so long it would fill a couple of pages, so I’ll name a few personal favorites: LeAnne Howe, Choctaw author of brilliant novels, a travelogue, poetry and essay collections, plays, scholarly work, and a new novel, Savage Conversations (forthcoming from Coffee House Press, February 2019), that leaves an audience scorched with wonder when she gives public readings. Also Ernestine Hayes, Tlingit author of a book on her home territory of Juneau, Alaska, as well as two memoirs, including the recent masterpiece, Tao of Raven. It’s my feeling that Ernestine’s voice is one of those that can help rescue the world we have so ravaged through reckless, short-sighted greed. From a younger generationwe have poets Layli Long Soldier and Natalie Diaz already blazing powerful trails!

Q:  Did anyone at Harvard (Power earned a BA and JD from Harvard) inspire you to become a fulltime writer?

A:  No. As a matter of fact I studiously avoided taking any creative writing classes at Harvard because I had become wary of entrusting my voice, my work, to the hands of teachers. When I was in elementary school teachers noted my promising talent as a writer, but they didn’t like my subject matter or characters, where I focused my attention. When I wrote about the urban Indian ghetto they were “concerned,” wanting me to “write about prettier things.” That said, I had a wonderful Acting teacher in high school, Liucijia Ambrosini, a terrific English teacher, Darlene McCampbell, who were encouraging and supportive. They never edited me culturally. Still I was wary, protective of my developing voice and vision. My parents, more than anyone, inspired me to become a full-time writer. They met in the world of publishing and were voracious readers. My mother and I made pilgrimages several times each week to local libraries. I was granted my first library card when I was two years old because librarians could see my reverence for books. Once I realized Law wasn’t the career for me and decided I would focus on a writing career instead, my mother began sending me articles on writers and publishing. She sent me an in-depth article from the Chicago Tribune Magazine on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she was the first person to make me aware of Louise Erdrich’s novel, Love Medicine, which inspired me greatly.

Q:  Is it true you worked in a law firm before enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? What was the impetus for this transition?

A:  I worked in law firms during two summers while I was still in law school. Gradually it became clear that I wasn’t meant to be a lawyer, that I was attempting to manifest my mother’s dream for herself and that the Arts person in me would never be satisfied as an attorney. I received my degree but immediately sought out work that was essentially a “job-job,” the kind of position that is strictly 9am-5pm, that requires nothing more of you once you leave in the evening. I began to focus on my writing in a serious way, instituting a program of disciplined reading and writing. I churned out story after story, not sending any of them out for publication until I’d written dozens and could see palpable growth. Once I started submitting work to literary journals I received encouraging responses from editors, the best kind of rejections, and I felt I was ready to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop which called to me like a personal Mecca.

Q:  Do you have a favorite Ernest Hemingway book or story?

A:  The first title that comes to mind is his story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” I think this piece made such an impact because it caused me to muse on a major difference I’d noted between mainstream Western values and the values in my Native community. In the story an elder is viewed with compassion by an older waiter in a café who senses the man’s loneliness and realizes how important it is for him to have the café as a kind haven. Growing up in the Native community of Chicago I noticed the place of honor accorded our elders at every function, how they were the center of attention, allowed to act up at powwows, teasing, having so much fun. I always wanted to dance with the older ladies because their lives seemed so much more exciting than those of us younger ones.

Q:  Do you remember where you were when you received the news about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award?

A:  Yes, such vivid memories! I was in Cincinnati, OH, staying at the home of Lois Rosenthal who published my first short story in her journal, Story magazine (a story from the novel that received the PEN/Hemingway award). She knew I was a finalist and that I’d soon hear the outcome. She had a good feeling about my chances and stocked up on champagne just in case. I received the call and was flabbergasted, humbled, grateful. Lois, her husband Dick, and their children, toasted me when they heard the news and made the occasion even more celebratory than if I’d been at home.

Q:  Are you working on anything new at this time?

A:  I’m working on a novel set at Harvard where I spent many years (A.B., 1983, J.D., 1986). There are five main characters, all of them Native American students at Harvard, class of 2013. I’ve been having the time of my life getting to know these characters and their stories, also getting to know this newer version of Harvard which is much spiffier than when I was there.

Wayne Catan, Brophy College Preparatory 02/12/2019

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