Morgan Talty on Indigenous Literature, Penobscot Culture, and the Villain of Colonialism
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks with Morgan Talty in advance of his debut story collection, Night of the Living Rez, about moms, storytelling, writing from a teen point of view, and the villain of colonialism.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: Do you think there’s a villain in this set of stories? Does this world have a villain?
Morgan Talty: That’s a great question. I’m tempted to say no, but I’m also tempted to say yes. In certain situations there are villains. If we think about “The Blessing Tobacco,” is the grandmother the villain? Is the mom the villain in these specific moments? In a larger, overarching sense, I feel like the main villain is colonialism.
What has wreaked havoc on—I don’t want to say this community because [the book] only focuses on one family. But colonialism has created the systemic violence that exists not just in indigenous communities but in any community that’s been colonized. So while the characters themselves have villainous aspects to them, the true villain that we have to take down is colonialism.
Jordan Kisner: That feels clear and also feels like a challenge for you as the writer because that’s a nebulous villain. That villain doesn’t have a specific face in this book or maybe in the world. There’s not a single, vanquishable entity there. It’s a system and an idea and a history, which is so much more diffuse than had Frick just been your villain.
Morgan Talty: Yeah, exactly. I could have made it easier on myself, but I chose not to. It is difficult, and I think that’s what’s so important right now about literature, especially indigenous literature. There’s this emergence of so many indigenous stories that are coming to mainstream literature. There’s a novel that came out by Gregory Brown called The Lowering Days, which is a lovely novel. He’s a Maine writer, and this story’s set in Maine, and he has Penobscot characters in it and Penobscot language. He’s non-native, and he did a great job with that book and handling indigenous characters. But I think Night of the Living Rez is the first book by a Penobscot person that represents Penobscot people in mainstream literature that’s getting out there.
We need more stories from tribes that people don’t even know exist. If you ask people to name some tribes, they’re like, oh, Navajo, Mohawk, Comanche. If you ask somebody in California if they’ve ever heard of Penobscot, they’re going to be like, I have no idea what that is. There’s over 500 federally recognized tribes. Even more, if you count state recognized and unrecognized. So that’s a lot of cultures in the United States. The more voices we get out there, the more pieces of literature that are attacking this idea of colonization, drawing attention to it, we’ll have a better chance at creating a face of what this looks like. Actually being able to confront this villain that’s not just unique in this book, but unique in any work by a minority that’s writing against a white male-dominated vision of what literature is supposed to be.
Morgan Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. He received his BA in Native American Studies from Dartmouth College and his MFA in fiction from Stonecoast’s low-residency program. His story collection, Night of the Living Rez, is forthcoming from Tin House Books (2022), and his work has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, Lit Hub, and elsewhere. A winner of the 2021 Narrative Prize, Talty’s work has been supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts (2022). Talty teaches courses in both English and Native American Studies, and he is on the faculty at the Stonecoast MFA in creative writing. Talty is also a Prose Editor at The Massachusetts Review. He lives in Levant, Maine.