Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Savannah Johnston about Rites, a collection of 12 short stories documenting everyday experiences of Indigenous people in rural Oklahoma.
What was the spark for this collection?
I’ve always felt like a storyteller, and being able to write stories where I felt seen and felt like the communities I grew up in are being represented was really motivating for me. Oddly enough, a lack of representation can become a form of inspiration in my experience.
What makes Rites the right book for right now?
I do think we are experiencing a kind of renaissance for Indigenous stories, and I’m so incredibly grateful to be included. On TV, we’ve got “Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs,” in books we have David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Erika Wurth and Terese Mailhot and Brandon Hobson and I could go on. When I was growing up, we had “Smoke Signals” and Adam Beach, and Sherman Alexie. Or “Last of the Mohicans.” Publishing is still very racist, but we have more than the one story now. And that’s long overdue.
Talk about the significance of the title. What is the origin story for the title story?
I think our traditions are important and while I’m speaking specifically to the experiences in my Indigenous community, the end of life is just as much about the person who has passed as it is about those who get left behind. When I’ve lost people in my family or community, it isn’t a singular experience. It is something that has happened to all of us and only how each individual handles that grief is unique to them.
How about for “Carrion”? That story gutted me. What are the origins of that story?
To be honest, “Carrion” started almost like a dare to myself. I remember a peer said something along the lines of “You can’t make me believe that that could happen in real life” to some story I wrote, and when I sat down with a grad school instructor afterwards to debrief, I said “I want to write a story where the main character has to make an impossible decision, some necessary choice almost too unbelievable to be considered real, to survive,” and I mentioned what happens at the end of the story. He essentially said, “I don’t see that working out.” So I wrote the story and incorporated some local (to me) tales about bogeyman and mountain ghosts and here we are.
“Carrion” is my second-favorite story in the collection. “Shells I” is my favorite. “You already know it’s no use crying around here, huh?” That sentence feels to me like the heart of the book. Did you write the Shells stories (“Shells I” and “Shells II”) at the same time? Did one inspire the other?
They actually didn’t have anything to do with one another. My incredible editor Lily Hoang deserves credit there because she saw the synchronicity of the themes and suggested making the two stories into a pair. Honestly, I think it took quite a bit of time for me to feel the shape of the book, and once I got a grasp on the thematic shape, that definitely influenced further edits. For these two particular stories, the idea of finding your own strength, for good or bad or in the right or wrong way, is really powerful.
How do rites and rituals figure in your life as a writer? How about when you were growing up?
It was something learned, the rituals around life. Like how to triage your life when things fall apart, how to grieve, how to push through, because it will happen to you again and again in varying degrees of intensity.
What does the word ‘Americana’ mean to you? How does this book fit or defy ‘Americana’?
I mean, is there anything more Americana than being, living, and thriving while Indigenous? I can see how other aspects of my book might resonate with Americana enthusiasts, because my collection is very much reflective of a thrift store upbringing. Growing up in the 90s, I was experiencing a lot of 80s culture as a result of that, so there was a conflation of decades. And there is a certain amount of grit to Americana, in my opinion, but I don’t connect with the “bootstraps” narrative or the idea of American exceptionalism. Life was–and still is–so difficult for marginalized people in this country. What I am definitely not trying to do is create any nostalgia for the worlds my characters inhabit. By and large, those are hard, cold places, but I will allow the resilience of the human spirit and the unwillingness to go quietly as very influential to the collection.
Are any of the characters in these stories autobiographical? Where do you find inspiration for your characters?
All of my stories are rooted in at least one truth, and some of the characters do have my own experiences. The frog pond is a real place. Could I find it today? Probably not. Calmez had a reputation, but I can’t confirm if it was true. Growing up, hearing the stories of those around me, I can only say it was their truth. I think I and any fiction writer would be lying if we said we did not take in the narratives of the people around us, the people who shape us or influenced us or perhaps just had us as passersby or the collateral damage of their experience, and use that for art.
A teacher, probably in middle or high school, defined literary fiction as stories that illuminate something about the human condition, a platitude well suited to the literal-thinking minds of eighth graders. But isn’t that the whole reason why we tell any stories at all? Stories help us process our lived experience, from the joy to the trauma to that melancholic middle ground.
What was the research like for this book?
I was very much into capturing the specific details of place and time while writing this book, sometimes perhaps too much so. Many of the stories feature pop culture references or regional touchstones that I hoped those sharpest-eyed readers would recognize, but that most every reader would be able to make a connection with. At one point, I was researching which episodes of which television sitcoms would have played on the local NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS stations on what nights of the week. Television and movies were a big part of growing up, and I liked being able to cement the major arcs of my stories in a real time and place, instead of nebulously existing at some point in the last thirty years. Nothing occurs in a vacuum.
If this book had a soundtrack, what might it be?
I’m not really sure I can come up with a definitive soundtrack for the book. There is a lot going on in there and I worry it would just be a jumble. There are a couple songs I do think fit the stories, or at least I think the characters would enjoy. From “Missing,” I think Hippie more than once drove like a maniac blasting “Radar Love,” and Jesco from “Calmez” is a big fan of the Dead, but only their bootlegs. On the other side of that, I think “You Are My Sister” by Antony and the Johnsons featuring Boy George is a perfect song for “Want.” It might seem silly for a story dealing with such mature themes, but I feel like LeAnn’s relationship with Manuel might pair well with “Brand New Key” by Melanie. “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” could apply to a couple stories, but I will leave that to your imagination.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what did you listen to while writing this book?
I usually listen to music for the mood, but if I’m in the generative stages I usually have on in the background a television show I’ve seen a thousand times. When I was working on the collection, especially after the first draft I listened to “Nation II Nation” by the HalluciNation, formerly A Tribe Called Red. I wrote most of the collection listening to their albums. I used to jam out to their songs while writing my finals. It made me feel powerful. I’d also like to mention a playlist my cousin sent nearly a decade ago called “Creek Trips,” that was a list of the songs he remembered us listening to on a little portable radio when we were really young kids roaming around the countryside getting into trouble. He is four years older than me, and I was probably six or seven when he outgrew hanging out with me and the younger cousins, so the playlist was like a strange sense memory that took me back. And this was the 90s in rural Oklahoma: a lot of the new country that was popular at the time, and a lot of 70s rock. Sometimes when I needed to feel that ache–not nostalgia, per se, but something like it–I would click on that playlist and hit shuffle.
You wrote this book over the course of several years. How did you as an author change over that time period?
I learned to be less strict with myself about “authenticity” or trying (stupidly) to encapsulate 574 distinct nations’ distinct experiences in addition to the very diverse population and landscapes of Oklahoma. Over time, I learned that you don’t have to couch everything in metaphor and symbolic language. It is okay to let it be raw, and it is even better to be true to life.
What’s next? Projects on the horizon?
I am working on a novel! I hope to be able to share it with the world sooner than later.
Savannah Johnston is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, HTMLgiant, and Gravel, among others. She lives in New York City.