11 new books by Native women you need to have in your life

Last week, Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier won the prestigious $75,000 2018 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for her stunning book, Whereas. The poems in Whereas reflect on the language of treaties, government documents, and especially on the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. 

This ought to be a celebratory list of other Native women with new books that you should read — because there are so many, and they are so diverse, exciting, and important. But we in the Native literary community didn’t have long to celebrate Long Soldier’s honor before news broke that a prominent male Native writer has been accused of sexual misconduct. That news comes several months after Dr. Adrienne Keene’s post about the problem of sexual misconduct in the Native arts community.

Now, this list serves as a means of highlighting the voices and talents of Native women at a time when we are discussing a power structure within our own community, one that has attempted to silence women’s voices for so long. As people come forward to share their stories, either publicly or privately to family and friends, we work to support them, reflect on what we could have done earlier, and communicate how we can work to make things better in the future. We remember the missing and murdered indigenous women who inspired #MMIW.

With all of that in mind, we present this list of new and upcoming Native women’s writing:

1. Layli Long Soldier — Whereas

Of course this list begins with Whereas. It just won the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and with good reason. The New York Times writes, “Long Soldier is aware of the American tradition of reading a racial or ethnic identity, especially an indigenous language, as an art form. She has built a poetics that refuses those boundaries, even when she engages with her Lakota identity. Her literary lineage is wide and demanding.” But don’t worry if yours is not. This poetry is for you, too.

2. Terese Mailhot  — Heart Berries

Heart Berries is on so many “most anticipated” lists that you’ve surely heard of it — and those of us who have been reading Mailhot’s essays for some time might anticipate it most of all. The memoir, which The New York Times calls “a sledgehammer,” chronicles her traumatic childhood, its aftereffects, and how she survived. She writes, “In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution.”

3. Elizabeth LaPense’e — Of Ash and Snow and They Who Walk as Lightning

Not too long ago, oil lobbyists accused LaPense’e of promoting eco-terrorism because of her video game, Thunderbird Strike, features a Thunderbird destroying pipelines. We were all very proud. In addition to creating video games, LaPensee writes and illustrates comics, including the two listed here. They Walk as Lightning appeared in AH Comics’ 2017 MOONSHOT: The Indigenous Comics Collection Vol. 2, and Of Ash and Snow is forthcoming in Sovereign Traces: Relational Constellation (which she also co-edited) from Michigan State University Press and Native Realities (a Native comics press that you really should get to know). And because I, too, am Native, I can’t not mention that her mother is Grace Dillon, editor of Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. 

4. Rebecca Roanhorse — Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World, Book 1)

I don’t read science fiction or fantasy or dystopian books very often, yet I am waiting impatiently for this book to come out. Why? Because here is the opening of its description on Goodreads: “While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.” And Maggie Hoskie must find and deal with them. I’m in. Trail of Lightning comes out in June, just in time for me to take it on vacation. The second book in the series comes out next spring, and another book, Race to the Sun, comes out in 2019 as well.

5. Erika Wurth — Buckskin Cocaine

A reviewer wrote of this author: “Wurth excels at channelling the violence of the human struggle.” It’s true. The little details you wish you hadn’t noticed. The things people do and say that make you cringe. The dirty, messy unfairness and complexity of urban Indigenous life. Wurth writes it. In Buckskin Cocaine, a collection of stories, she turns her attention to the Native American film industry, and I expect she spares no one — but, somehow, does so with compassion.

6. Heid Erdrich — Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media

Joy Harjo (who appears later in this list) said of this poetry collection, “In this collection we see the spiral of interstellar clouds, the whirl of stuff engendered by cultural collision, and a response to the art of it all. Cultures rub up against each other to make a new kind of song. The whole collection is a dynamic mixtape: Poetry for the end of the world, which is the beginning. Yes.” A bit of advice: Always listen to Joy Harjo. (Louise, who is also on this list, is her sister.)

7. Katherena Vermette — Pemmican Wars: A Girl Called Echo

Vermette’s novel The Break came out in 2016 in Canada, and it’s coming out in America in March. It begins with a possible crime, witnessed by a young Metis mother. Stories of several community members weave together to explain what happened. Pemmican Wars: A Girl Called Echo is the first in a graphic novel series featuring a 13-year-old girl in foster care, struggling at a new school, who slips back and forth in time and space to learn the history of herself and her tribe. It is Vermette’s first graphic novel.

8. Tacey M. Atsitty — Rain Scald

Rain Scald, Atsitty’s first collection of poetry, came out this month. It is dedicated, “To my mother and sister and others who no longer know the feel of rain.” Alice Fulton, author of Barely Composed, writes of the collection, “Tempered by hardship, seasoned with experience, this brilliant book witnesses a world Atsitty knows intimately and, in doing so, offers courageous testimony to suffering and spiritual resilience. I can think of no poet writing today whose work is more gorgeous or moving, no one who brings more heart or brains to the page.”

9. Jennifer Foerster — Bright Raft in the Afterweather

A description of this poetry collection reads, “In a world wrought with ecological imbalance and grief, Foerster shows how from the devastated land of our alienation there is potential to reconnect to our origins and redefine the terms by which we inhabit humanity and the earth.” Her first book, Leaving Tulsa, came out in 2013.

10. Joy Harjo — Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

You can’t go wrong with Joy Harjo, ever. This book came out in January 2017 and World Literature Today wrote of it, “This is not merely a book of poetry. These are instructions for the soul, a song to lead the reader home. . . . [Harjo is] the first lady of American Indian poetry.” They are so right. Go get this book. (Go get all her books. And her music, because she also does that.)

11. Louise Erdrich — Future Home of the Living God

If you’ve ever taken a Native American literature class — or a women’s literature or American literature class — you have probably read Louise Erdrich (sister of Heid, who is also on this list). Her novels have been winning prestigious awards since the first one, Love Medicine, came out in 1984. Future Home of the Living God keeps being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale because, like Margaret Atwood’s book, it is a dystopian novel involving women’s reproductive rights. Critics don’t quite know what to make of this book, and that’s why we should all read it.

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