Erika Wurth is the young Apache writer all the girls want to be, the Indigenous Janis Joplin if Joplin had been a writer instead of an addict, and every bit as cool and buoyant. When I first met her, she sat in front of the room at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) in a bright orange dress with steel-cut bangs and long, dark hair, licking her lips and watching the audience with a knowing smile, her responses to their questions sharp with rolling wit.
Her own first novel is about a similar rebel-personality, 16-year-old Margaritte, taking a page from Perma Red author Debra Earling’s book and naming her protagonist after her strong relative, in this case, her warrior grandmother. Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend brought Wurth into the fray as a major Indigenous voice to be reckoned with. Booklist called it, “a compelling and affecting look at the ineluctable awfulness of some teens’ lives,” while Story Circle Reviews called it a “wonderful addition to Native American literature.” But just as much as Wurth is a major voice in American Indian literature, she is a mentor, an older-sister figure and an activist. Here are some of her thoughts on writing, AWP, and her journey as an artist and an American Indian woman.
How did you become a writer? Stumble upon your voice? Curate it? Open yourself up to the worlds you create? Become vulnerable to them? Let them move through you?
I don’t know how I became a writer really. I know that the desire to write came fairly early for me even though I didn’t know any writers. I was really into fantasy and horror and sci-fi and ultimately I think because my home life had chaos and there was chaos in my community where I went to school, the desire to retreat into a fantasy world was very appealing. I also have noticed that a lot of writers come from troubled backgrounds, or at least the ones I love and I think it’s because if there’s anything beyond being a hugely obsessive reader that makes a writer, it’s tension, tension in your life and therefore tension in an interesting way on the page. And I had no idea how to facilitate that for myself until maybe my masters degree. I was frightened of taking creative writing classes in college, probably because my whole life, in regards to the idea of being a writer, was so internal and my parents were not exactly excited about the idea, in fact my dad threatened to take me out of school if I majored in English. You can hardly blame them though, they had come from very little and had gotten four year degrees. And they had jobs they really loved that did speak to their childhood fantasies. My dad wanted to be an astronaut and he became an aerospace engineer and my mom wanted to be an actress and she became a dance teacher, and owner of her own studio.
At AWP this year, we saw panel after panel of amazing brown-skinned writers being asked by white folks what your opinion was of white people who want to write Native characters. How did this make you feel? What was your response?
There is a deeply deflating quality to that question. Because you have all of this intellectual life and energy and creative life around what you’re doing and this is the only thing that people want to ask you about? The one thing you don’t care about at all? And then when you do think about it, because you have to because it’s asked again and again, it’s so clear that people who want to write about Natives have given zero thought about the fact that there have been one billion people writing about Natives in this country and there are now, and those people are being published again and again when people like me are not. And they’ve given little thought to the fact that we need room to write about ourselves and when you ask them why, it’s all about do they have the right to and can you give them permission, there’s no intellectual or emotional work around it. I will say however though that I was asked to be on a panel about this right after this last AWP, and initially I was tepid and internally resentful and then finally when I was going to email this person and say, actually no I don’t want to talk about do white people have the right to write about Indians – but then I decided to tell him why this is so lame – and that could we please restructure the panel about why do white people want to write about Indians when it’s ultimately very colonialist and he was receptive and though I actually couldn’t end up being on the panel, the panel was submitted to AWP and it’s looking to be a pretty much all Native panel. I think the problem with this is that people do not want to see Native people as human beings, they want to see us as exotic and far away and objects to make authentic or not, which isn’t helped by the fact that so many Americans are insistent on this distant part-Cherokee heritage, and when we actually become people, then it’s problematic. A word I hate with a passion, but there it is. I was asked to lead a workshop last summer, and when another Native writer and I responded to this question yet again, it was clear we were characterized as angry, which is the other side of the coin for minorities, right? If we can’t be nice and subservient and exotic and we resist the narrative no matter how diplomatically, then we are characterized as angry. And neither of us were invited back. What was funny though, was that I had suggested on my feedback that instead of having all white people and two Indians, they could consider having Latinos and black folks and etc and having scholarships for the students in that regard and inviting faculty from diverse backgrounds. So there were no Indians this year, but they invited a Latino writer who I happen to know is a fairly vicious personality. But of course at least they took my advice?
Editors have often said your work is too dark. What do they really mean by that, and how do you respond? Do you feel pigeonholed by this, the too-frequent response to your writing?
For my first novel, some of the criticism from big presses was that it was too dark but a lot of it after it was published was that it is too vulgar. And there were a few of the big reviewers who thought the ending was too happy, which is hilarious since it’s completely a classic literary ending, cheesy as that is – where I’m not saying which way this character is going to go, because that is like life and that is why so many literary folks choose that kind of ending. But I suppose if you come from some sort of white Judeo-Christian background where getting the guy is the only thing, then I suppose hearing from the abusive love interest at the end of the novel is going to seem like a happy ending. But if you’ve been paying attention to the entire novel, you would see that it’s potentially a continuation of the cycle of abuse the main character has been in her whole life, as have many people in her community. I think that in the small presses – and in the large, so much of it is dominated by women and generally white women, with extremely delicate sensibilities and their lives are extremely small, in terms of who they meet and what their worlds are like. And that’s fine, but I’m not interested in that. Where I come from there is a poetry there – and there is beauty, but there is a brutality that I would be wrong to ignore. And I think sometimes what they mean, in regards to the rejections of my second novel, which is about gang life in an urban Native community, is that they don’t want to face what I’m talking about. They don’t want to humanize all of these Native people that they see that they can just generally put in a corner and say I have nothing in common with that man. But that is my job and it is my first job, which is again to talk poetically and imaginatively and frankly honestly about what I’m seeing.
What are the main themes in your writing? What messages do you want to express? For whom do you write?
These are difficult questions because they’re sort of the kinds of questions to ask when you’re writing a paper and I feel like writing creatively is kind of the opposite of that, as it’s not immediately analytical. And often, I don’t know what I’m doing in there – I just get in there, with the people that I’m compelled to get in there with and then I watch them make bad and interesting decisions. It is clear though, in retrospect, that I’m interested in tragedy in my work and I’m interested in redemption. Which makes me sound really neoclassical or British. And I can definitely say that what I’m not interested in is creating work that is hyper concerned with how outsiders see Native people. I’m interested in the stories that generate and take root inside of our diverse communities, which are the urban and small town for me. And of course there has to be a politics underneath and pushing up, but that’s not my first job. My first job is not unlike Salinger’s or Carver’s, to write poetically and imaginatively about what I know. Not to preach at white people because frankly, doesn’t that just put them right back at the center of the narrative and I’m not interested in that. And frankly, it creeps me out when they are, or even more so when we are. A story should just be a beautifully rendered piece of life, a piece of life that only you can talk about in that specific way.