Deborah A. Miranda is the author of two poetry collections, Indian Cartography and The Zen of La Llorona, Miranda is an enrolled member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of California, and is of Chumash and Jewish ancestry as well. Her mixed-genre manuscript Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, will be published in 2013, and her collection of essays, The Hidden Stories of Isabel Meadows and Other California Indian Lacunae is under contract with U of Nebraska Press. Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Deborah teaches Creative Writing, composition, and literature.
MP: What was your involvement in editing Sovereign Erotics? How was it?
DM: I was invited to join Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice and Lisa Tatonetti on this project a few years after a few of us had presented the first panel on Native American erotics at a Native conference. We’d been discussing the idea of putting together an anthology of Native literature that addressed Two-Spirit issues for quite some time. In my essay Dildos, Hummingbirds and Driving Her Crazy: Searching for Native Women’s Love Poetry and Erotics, I explored the fact that although Native people writing about erotic topics had long been a part of Native literature, it was rarely, if ever, addressed in critical analyses or included in most anthologies of love poetry. It was invisible, or more to the point, it had been invisibilized in the same colonizing move that denies Native history, presence, and sovereignty. This ‘erasure’ meant that critical collections and analyses of Native Two-Spirit literature about love and erotics were also pretty much non-existent. By putting together an anthology of this literature, we reasoned, we would be bringing Native Two-Spirit writing on the literary map in a big way. No more excuses for ignoring it when a whole anthology exists! As far as the actual process went, I could not have asked for better colleagues. Qwo-Li, Daniel and Lisa are hard-working, conscientious, talented scholars, and Qwo-Li and Daniel are fantastic creative writers in their own right. Add to that the real affection that exists between the four of us – affection and respect that comes from years of working together in the field of Native literature – and we actually had fun doing the editorial work. We used email and Google Docs to stay organized, came up with rubrics to comment on and discuss literary pieces. Lisa, especially, took on a lot of the grunt work of proof-reading and contacting authors, formatting the final document, and other tedious chores.
MP: Would you like to see another collection like Sovereign Erotics published in the future? Would you want to be involved in it?
DM: Absolutely! We have just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what our Two-Spirit literary community has to offer. I’d love to be involved in such a project.
MP: From your story, Coyote Takes a Trip, what can you tell your readers about Coyote?
DM: Coyote is an old, old trickster-hero in my Native Californian heritage; in this story, I play on many of his usual traits such as lechery, laziness, his need for constant stimulation and excitement, his attraction to risky situations, and his sheer capacity for rule-breaking in order to shake things up. Readers who are familiar with Coyote (or some other trickster, like Raven, Rabbit, Iktomi) will recognize my Coyote as the being who thrives on chaos, which creates the change needed to grow, adapt and survive. This is not just a personal strategy, but a collective strategy for communities. Coyote exists because oftentimes communities become stuck in a rut, or too concerned with rules and ritual to take the risks necessary for survival. Readers who are not familiar with the trickster figure will get the same idea, but in a different way; they’ll see a Coyote who is lonely and depressed, down on his luck, and whose life is transformed by the possibility of an erotic connection with another being. In this case, I stretch the definition of ‘the erotic’ in ways that many Native people do: the erotic is not just a sexual yearning, but a sense of comfort, humor, companionship, joy in being alive, and a sense of empowerment.
MP: What are you hoping to convey to your readers with your story?
DM: In its most basic message, this is a story about expanding one’s openness to power – the power of the erotic, the power of love, the power of crossing over the barriers between different kinds of energies. It’s about challenging ourselves to take risks that can lead to accessing that creative, rich power possible. The story is also about recognizing that the Two-Spirit community is as old as any Native community, and we have an inheritance, a legacy, and a purpose. Coyote feels most balanced when he is with Juanita – whether it was at the beach before he knew she was ‘aqi, or when he meets her again on the bus, or after he is separated from her later. I want readers to notice that, to ask themselves, why is that? what does Juanita the ‘aqi have that fulfills Coyote?
MP: What can you tell us about the cultural context in which Coyote thrives in?
DM: I think tricksters are essential to any world belief system. Human beings work so hard at figuring out the rules of the physical and spiritual world! We create language, governance, religion, music, art … and they all come with rules and rituals, regulations, do’s and don’ts. The problem comes when we make our lives so safe, so predictable, that we lose our ability to innovate, to meet new challenges, to deal with the unexpected or tragic. A trickster like Coyote is the crazy, creative, inventive energy that gets us out of that rut and comes up with solutions that our rules won’t allow us to see. So in terms of cultural context, Coyote is always with us, but he (or she!) really thrives when times are tough or, paradoxically, boring. When we are in danger of being devoured by some outside danger or our own inner ennui.
MP: Is there something about Coyote’s spiritedness—how he carries himself in your story—that we can learn from? Is there something about it that we shouldn’t learn?
DM: Oh, Coyote is a consummate teacher, if we pay attention. “How he carries himself in this story” – he’s alternately cheating on his girlfriend, feels abandoned and lonely, scams a flight to Albuquerque, ogles women; he is constantly avoiding any responsibility for a relationship. Which of us hasn’t been that Coyote? Ultimately, though, Coyote chooses to (we hope!) commit to someone who he finds not just sexy, but whose calm, matter-of-fact reckoning with the world could be the companionship/balance he’s been missing. He takes a chance; he sees beneath the surface; he remembers and embraces a part of his inheritance that could lead to mutual empowerment. I tried to draw on the traditional ways that Coyote stories teach us what to do, what NOT to do, and make it contemporary.
MP: Do you think Coyote would ever settle down and live in a house?
DM: Not for long. Coyote isn’t made to be sedentary. If he were, then he would no longer be Coyote. And that’s okay. Too many Coyotes would make the world a lot more chaotic! Luckily, I get the feeling that Juanita knows just how to handle such a Coyote. How would you like to see the ‘aqi regarded by society in these contemporary times?
That’s a tough question. We no longer have traditional ‘aqi, or the gender role of ‘aqi that Coyote remembers in the story. But that alternative, ‘third’ gender role has always existed in various forms, with various cultural roles; it changes with the time, the culture, the need. What I hope my story shows is the realization that gender fluidity is the norm, and that in fact, without it, we flounder in restrictions, false boundaries and disempowering ‘either/or’ thinking. Two-Spirit people are defined not just by sexual orientation or attraction to same sex, but by a sense of responsibility for the balance of powers, energies, that keeps the world from destruction. If my story can in anyway lead to that realization for someone who sees third genders as abominations or ‘wrong,’ that would be amazing; if it helps someone understand their own potential, incredible.
MP: What do you find most enjoyable about your experiences with your writing?
DM: For me, writing is searching for that ‘right’ note. Whether tuning a drum or pulling a flat note up to true, writing is all about finding the language to illustrate some image, some idea, some experience, in a way that resonates with the image, idea or experience in me. Can I communicate that? Can I move the idea from within my body to another person’s body via language? When it works, when I’m successful enough that the note in me sings out and creates a resonant vibration with someone else, or even just with the language itself, I am happy. Connection, communication – I crave that. I also think this is partly because story is one way of writing ourselves into a world that often tries to erase us. Those of us whose histories are heavy with erasure find making story regenerative, joyful. Oh, let’s say it: storytelling is an erotic activity!
His work can be found in the forthcoming Queer issue of Poetry is Dead, as well as Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, Feminism FOR REAL, and GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies: Sexuality, Nationality and Indigeneity.
He is available for specialized art workshops, readings and presentations.
You can reach Louis Cruz via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
MP: What is your relationship to your story, Birth Song for Muin, in Red?
LC: Birth Song for Muin, in Red is a gift to all of us who have to leave our lands and families so we can be ourselves, finding sanctuary in unfamiliar riverbeds. I wrote it for all the Wabanaqi who aren’t ready to come home yet, those of us from where the sun rises with colonized genders and sexualities, and the children still coming. This is also a mediation between expectations of what the past can offer us in terms of tradition, when displacement and genocide have very real effects in the current moment, and those needing balanced stories to remember why 2spirit people are powerful and crucial to decolonial movements.
MP: How does your Mi’kmaq culture inform how you weave your story?
LC: My experience of my Mi’kmaq-ness is intertwined with my experiences of Acadian- and Irish-ness. My family tells stories which can be useful in healing ruptures created by doctrine. There’s also stories which are harder to tell, which can become a kind of poison, so that inspired me to reinterpret the story of Muinji’j. There’s this idea of Aboriginality that I’m trying to kill here, after coming to the realization that none of us were meant to survive and the ways we all did, and still do, are as varied as the land bases we come from.
MP: What is the relationship between your story and Ruth Holmes Whitehead’s story Traditional Story: The Boy Who Visited Muni’skw (sp: Muin’skw) from The Mi’kmaq Anthology?
LC: My understanding of the original story is that Ruth Holmes Whitehead is retelling it from Silas T. Rand, who “collected” it from Wallis and Wallis, as well as Elsie Clews Parsons. Birth Song for Muin, in Red is a written interpretation, of a written interpretation, of a written interpretation, of an oral tradition. Written stories are oral traditions, and vice-versa. The Stone Canoe: Two Lost Mi’kmaq Texts by Elizabeth Paul and Peter Sanger, illustrated by Alan Sylliboy, provides cultural, academic and artistic analyses to stories originally collected by Rand during his time as a Christian missionary.
Things have happened that have divided people into all these specific and sophisticated categories. Reclaiming traditions can mean Indigenizing trans stories, queering Native stories or feministing Indigenous queer stories to ground these separations. I wrote this at a time when I felt it important to create something that would reflect a coming together of all these hyper-categorized experiences.
MP: In your story, there’s a part where Muini’skw—the diva bear mentor—asks Muinji’j—the young bear/human girl/boy—to “accept the responsibility for his unique ability to see the soft space between women and men, bears and humans.” Would you consider this “soft space” the difference between Western-centered LGBTQ identities and Indigenous two-spiritedness?
LC: There are many different ideas about what makes someone a woman or a man, all of them culturally-specific. The genders I’m grappling with here are the ones affected by colonial legacies on Turtle Island, which is to say that gender violence aimed at Wabanaqi women, 2spirit people and men can keep us from benefiting from each others’ medicine. In Whitehead’s telling of this story, Muin’skw is supportive of her adopted son’s return to his people because she knows Muinji’j has the ability to understand things from multiple perspectives. She comprehends the bigger picture beyond the borders of their intimate relationship.
A lot of people are taking the time to learn about trans people, from different cultural perspectives, and this is because many of us people who are living what is now called transgender experiences, realize that people don’t know what and who we are unless we tell them. It’s also true that we can go through a periods of mourning because we do not have ways of understanding our own being. This is exciting, but also concerning, because it’s happening right on top of Indigenous genders and sexualities. Inclusion is an important value to LGBTQ communities, so it’s wonderful that people want to work together to fight transphobia. I’m concerned that inclusion may actually be working against Indigenous sovereignty, 2spirit sovereignty, which asserts our inherent right to our homelands, traditions and governance structures without having to pick between just two genders. There are treaties that are supposed to support this. This soft space refers directly to the ruptures within our own land-specific cultures, caused by colonial legacies, and the need to heal these for ourselves. Hopefully everyone will benefit from this, though it’s not the goal.
MP: This story goes against many LGBTQ narratives where the main character returns to the community of their origin rather than leaving it completely after finding a community that accepts them. Muinji’j eventually finds “wholeness” through this process. Do you think non-Indigenous LGBTQ individuals can find “wholeness” as well through this narrative?
LC: It’s important that 2spirit people create together because we already know what wholeness looks like, it’s built into our bodies and our cultures. Some lovely friends and I have started an arts collective, Tities Wîcinímintôwak, with one of our projects being a Two-Spirit Skillshare. We have between us many skills and a desire to keep learning outside of institutions, while also sharing skills about how to navigate them, when necessary. The idea is that we are building community by learning and making art together, taught by each other. We’re so fancy that we even have a blog: 2spiritskillshare.tumblr.com. Workshop schedules will be posted there soon, so check back often if you want to know what we’re up to.
Ok, so back to the story. I don’t know if it’s helpful to queer and trans settlers, it’s not really my goal, though I’m honoured if it does. This narrative is complicated, starting with the fact that it’s been rewritten by various people who have different interests, myself included. Is this what decolonization looks like? Where’s the line between respecting Indigenous cultures and appropriating them? How do we reclaim things that have been stolen from us, and what does it mean that settlers want to learn from this process? I’m no expert in appropriation, but I’d point you toward Qwo-Li Driskill and Colin K. Donovan’s Anti-Racist Haircutting Flyer at http://dragonflyrising.wearetheones.info/order.php,
Jessica Yee at http://www.racialicious.com/,
Adrienne K. at http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.ca/ if you are interested in listening to strong Indigenous voices.
MP: In your poem, my mom names us, you touch on your relationship with your mother, and your desire to know what your mother was like, “before the violence broke her.” What do you think your mother would have been able to give you before the violence broke her?
LC: my mom names us is a memory for the future. We can’t change the fact that all of these utterly heinous things have happened and are still happening to us, though we do need to keep moving while being honest about what we see, while carrying a lot of kindness toward ourselves and each other. I wish I had written a dedication at the beginning of this poem to Native women of all genders cuz it’s a lil too easy to slip into literal interpretations of “my mom names us”. I’m inspired by the queer, Indigenous, feminist poetry of Deborah Miranda, Gregory Scofield and Qwo-Li Driskill. Deborah Miranda’s book of poems, The Zen of La Llorona, literally helped me write it. She gave me permission to dream a future where queer, Native femininity and mothering is centralized, out of a horrific memory of colonial violence.
MP: Do you think we can draw beauty and strength from our parents’ experiences that have “broken” them—trauma from violence, migration, assimilation, institutions, etc.—as the younger generation?
LC: Yes, it’s crucial that we do the work to hear our parents’ stories in order to learn from them, even if it means taking some time to hear our own pain, first. My relationship to my parents experiences is as a continuation of their best hope, as their child, their grandchild. I am here because of the spiral of history, so to them I say wela’lin, merci. Genocide tells us that our parents are only one way, which is also the story that tells them that we, as 2spirit people, are abominations. I try to remember that everything that’s happened to our ancestors is still alive with us today and keep close my responsibilities to our continuance and renewal.
MP: What do you find most enjoyable about your experiences with your writing?
LC: Making sense out of all the different conversations I have going on inside my heart and trusting to give them back to the world that created me.
She writes poems and short stories and has been published in both genres.
Doe is a contributor to Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature.
BCP: Why do you write poems and short stories?
DOB: I have always written poems to express my feelings. I started writing them when I was around 11 or 12 years old. I never thought about writing short stories until I was asked to for a writing class at Humber a few years ago. I enjoyed writing a short story that was complete and tidy. It is like capturing an event. It gives you enough time to care about someone to be impacted by their lives. And then you can still make it home for dinner.
BCP: Has writing in one genre helped the other? Do you prefer once genre over the other?
DOB: I want to be able to write fiction with the same level of metaphoric language. So yes, writing poetry helps me to get there.
BCP: What is your writing process?
DOB: For poetry I have to follow the feeling or though that consumes me. Then I write thoughts on paper with ink as they come out. I don’t think too much. And when the feeling comes that the jar is empty, I take a look back at what is there, and I rewrite it again, and naturally the editting takes over, and I change words, or realise that some lines don’t need to be there at all. Sometimes, I will write with a focus on a style of poetry, or a theme, but I mostly write freely. It is the edit that is more thoughtful.
A short story stays in my mind for a long time before I go to write. And when I write it is on a computer. I like the feel of my fingers hitting the keys and I like the sound. I start with the line and let the creative process take it away. I have an outline in my head of what I think is going to happen, and when I am writing it is ‘the fill’ that is being created – the atmosphere, the colour of hair, or the make of the car. I am often surprised at what the characters say or do as my imagination takes over and I just type type type.
BCP: Your story The Perfect Picture is about coming out. Was it hard to write? Is it somewhat autobiographical?
DOB: It is a coming out story that is made up of different experiences that I have had. They are not experiences that I had together, or thought to myself at the time that they would end up together, but they are good moments that have happened, and I put it in this story.
BCP: Many coming out stories have an unhappy ending. It was good to read one that was positive. Why did you choose to write a positive fictional story about coming out? Was it deliberate or is that where the story took you?
DOB: I did not have a bad time of coming out, and I wanted to tell a story that reflected that. This is not my coming out story as it happened. I grew up in Northern Ontario, not in the Prairies, but some of that conversation did happen between my mother and I.
BCP: Your poem Living Memory has elements of productive and corrosive anger in it. You describe the Seventh Generation as the “Saving Seventh Generation ready to change the world”. Is your description of this prophecy and reality one that comes from feeling pressure to change things for Indigenous peoples in this colonial society now called Canada?
DOB: I am really influenced by Jeannette Armstrong’s poetry. I have always been haunted by History Lesson. I wrote this poem as a tribute to Two Spirit people in that vein of writing. Our own history needs to be told, and that I why I wrote that poem. In order for us to understand our present, we must know our historical past, our lived past, and where we can go in the future. We can and will change the world. I am not an activist that often goes out in protests with signs, but I believe that every day me living my life is a form of activisim as I live with my wife and we are raising our two children. We are showing that love can be created every day in simple ways – and that can change the world.
BCP: The title of the collection where your poem Living Memory and your short story The Perfect Picture appear in the anthology Sovereign Erotics. What does the title Sovereign Erotics mean to you?
DOB: I am still trying to figure that out. Right now, I feel like we are owning our identities and our stories that have to do with who we are as Indigenous writers who are Two Spirit or allies.
BCP: What advice do you have for other Two-Spirit writers out there?
DOB: If you have stories inside you, share them. It helps to get them out, too. It doesn’t always matter if they get published. In our oral cultures, it matters more if they get told. Tell your friends, and tell your families. Learn from real events and then make some up. It is only when we all have a voice in this Circle that we will truely be healed as peoples.
Mykelle Pacquing was born and raised in Toronto with his ancestors from Maharlika, the traditional name of the Philippines which means, “The Creator’s Land.” He is of Tagalog (People of the River) and Ilocano (People of the Bay) ancestry. Mykelle is a student at Trent University pursuing graduate studies in song, dance, and story with traditional Indigenous teachers.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Friday June 29, 2012 for videos of Louis Cruz and Doe O’Brien reading from Sovereign Erotics!!!