At the age of 25, I stepped off a plane in Bolivia to begin two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I assumed that connections with the people of South America’s most indigenous country would be easy because I’m Native. The truth was much more complicated. This is my debut book.
Deborah Miranda (Ohlone /Costanoan-Esselen) author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, said this about the book, “The Indigenous peoples Pike lived and worked with speak loudly from these pages, challenging many of us to check privileges we didn’t know we had, demanding the right to be complex, strong, and human. This book is all heart, all vulnerability, as a young California Indian woman makes family far from home.”
Do you write in more than one genre? Creative Nonfiction is my favorite genre to write in, and by that, I mean memoir and essays. However, I have a few short stories I’ve written. I have a story about a Native Elvis impersonator who dances in powwows in his Elvis regalia.
What brought you to writing? Writing has always been my strategy for dealing with life. Writing in a journal is a mindfulness exercise. I never knew that when I started, but that’s exactly what it is. Writing requires me to focus on the moment I’m in. All the brutally honest writing I filled my journals with helped me develop a clear voice on the page. I learned to write for myself and never thought I’d show my writing to anyone else. An online writing class at Austin Community College helped me have the courage to share my writing with others.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? A library is the absolute best place to write. During the pandemic, I’ve really missed libraries. Not only are they usually bright and quiet with comfortable chairs, but I am also surrounded by books. There is nothing as inspiring as looking up from my writing to see a book that looks terrible and think, “If that book was published, maybe mine has a chance.”
Tell us about your writing process: There are times when I feel inspired to write, or an essay idea pops into my head, but, honestly, deadlines are the thing that makes me actually sit down and write. In Austin, I used to read at a monthly open mike event, and the pressure to produce something good to read terrified me. I was always motivated to get a good five-minute piece ready by the deadline.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The very first revision is incredibly challenging. I am comfortable with churning out the crappy first draft. But turning that imperfect lump into a chapter or essay that I might want to show someone else is daunting. My computer is littered with first drafts that I never went back to because I wasn’t sure what to do with them.
Who’s currently your favorite author? Right now I’m reading Toni Jensen’s Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land and loving it. It is beautiful, honest, and humorous in a sly way that makes me want to read it slowly to enjoy the stories.
Do you travel and visit the settings used in your work? My book is set in Bolivia during the two years I lived there in the late 1990s. But I did travel back to Bolivia in 2018 while I was writing the book. Bolivia is a stunningly beautiful country, and the trip helped me beef up the descriptions of the landscape and the people. During my return, I also paid attention to how Bolivians speak and revised some of the dialogue in an attempt to more accurately reflect conversations.
How long to get it published? I queried agents for over a year with no luck. Then Heyday Books, a small publisher in Berkeley, California, began accepting submissions after being closed for a while. They liked the book outline I sent and asked for the full manuscript. A few months later, they made an offer to publish the book. In total, I spent about 18 months trying to get the book published before finding Heyday. Then I spent another year and a half working closely with two editors revising the book.
How do you come up with character names? Naming the people in my book was a difficult issue for me because it is a true story. But I didn’t want anyone else who is part of the story to be easily identifiable. For this reason, I changed everyone’s name except my own. I even changed the name of the town. Bolivian newspapers were a great resource for finding realistic names because they are full of quotes by people listing their names.
Do you have subplots? The revision process helped me with the subplots. The editors I worked with pointed out ways that I could strengthen the subplots. For example, there’s a subplot about an important friendship I had with a volunteer from El Paso. In earlier drafts, the description of the friendship was primarily in one or two later chapters. My editors suggested I add scenes earlier in the book to develop those subplots more. They also helped me discover a few subplots that needed to be cut out entirely.
What kind of research do you do? People might think that writing memoirs doesn’t require any research because the author is writing about their life. And it is true that the eight blank journals I filled with my recollections while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia were the first source of information for the book. But, in my case and that of most memoir writers I know, research was a critical part of the writing process. I read books and academic articles about Bolivia, the Peace Corps, and even about my own tribe, the Karuk. Not all of this research ended up in the book. Still, it helped me better understand the historical context I was writing about.
Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir came out on April 6th, and I’ll be promoting that during the spring and summer. After that I will be finishing my next book, which details the years after the Peace Corps when I lived in Eastern Mississippi, broke and pregnant, teaching English at a chicken processing plant. The working title for that book is House, Mississippi, although my teenage daughter thinks I should call it Radioactive Chicken Baby.
Order Book: An Indian among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir
How do readers contact you?https://ursulapike.com/
Bell, Donnell Ann. Black Pearl. Bell Bridge, 2019.
In most good detective stories, the hero almost always states: “I don’t believe in coincidences.” I beg to offer a different view. In over fifty years of law enforcement and private sector investigations, I have run across more coincidence than you can shake a stick at.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve posted a few book reviews that I was quite proud of until I got a telephone call.
My best friend is a voracious reader. After but a brief hello, he said, “Cramer, I have to tell you I think a couple of your reviews are bad.” Yep, he used the “B-word.” He went on to tell me that one review was of such a frightening nature; he would never read the book.; another so boring he wouldn’t spend money on it until he read some reviews on Amazon. The Amazon reviews convinced him otherwise.
I asked my friend what was so bad about my reviews, and he said, “You didn’t write them for a reader, you wrote them for someone like you.”
My usual response to criticism about what I’ve written is to get angry, set the comment(s) aside for a few days, and then with a much cooler head examine the %&^$#. Usually, I find value and what has been suggested. In this case, I didn’t need to wait or think it over. I knew he was right.
First coincidence: I had just settled down to read Bell’s, Black Pearl. I had my usual toolkit with me, Post-It notes, pencils, red, black, and blue ink pens, three different colored hi-liters, and a note pad. If you looked at books I’ve reviewed, you would them almost destroyed by the different underlining, high lighting, comments written in the margin, and dogeared pages. These readings take anywhere from one to two weeks.
After the call ended, I took all my weapons of mass destruction and dumped them on my desk. I retired with Black Pearl to where I only read fiction by Bernard Cornwell, Michael Connelly, J.A. Jance, and a rare few others. I read until dinner and then spent the evening enjoying it with my wife.
The next morning, I skipped breakfast and finished Bell’s book before lunch. I enjoyed it and felt fresh; it wasn’t like I had been working on an MFA review.
Today, I wrote and submitted this Amazon Review. I hope it works for my friend.
“Drenched in mystery and violence, from the first page, Bell gives both misleading and factual clues. These are in such a cryptic fashion; it only becomes clear at the end of the action who the killer is. Or does it?
There were several places where I was taken out of the story by a confusing sentence or statement.
What worked for me, but then gave me concern were descriptions. The friendly difference of opinion between Agent DiPietro and the retired sheriff about their choice of motorcycles was realistic and added to the pleasure for me. What didn’t work for me was the lack of description of the Harley-Davidson. Even more distracting was the lack of a word picture of Ouray County and Montrose. I’ve ridden my H-D through there. It is some of the most breathtaking country in Colorado. Bell left out a description of the countryside, as well as some of the other settings.
What worked was the interaction of the characters. Bell drew me into the conversations, and unsaid messages that conveyed much of the action, and worked well with the story’s pacing.
It was an excellent and riveting read. I will buy more of Donnell Ann Bell’s work.”
Second Coincidence: During Shelter in Place (SIP), I am not wearing shirts that require ironing, just T-Shirts. In my closet is a stack of over a hundred of these souvenir shirts. Most are from Harley-Davidson shops. I just reach in and take the one at the top of the pile, sight unseen.
Today: BLACK PEARL Harley-Davidson, Belize
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks: A Novel. New York: Henry Holt, 1988. Print.
Tracks, Erdrich’s fourth of fourteen novels, is set between 1912 and 1924. The message she delivers is that unless tribal members stand together, they face extinction at the hands of the whites. Nanapush, a wise tribal elder understands there must be some accommodation to maintain as much tradition as possible.
Nanapush remains the same wise trickster throughout the story. A tribal elder, he wishes to hold on to the old customs while surviving the new ways forced upon his people by the whites. Early on, he establishes his belief in “…the unrest and curse of trouble that struck our people…was the doing of dissatisfied spirits. I know what’s fact…” (4). He follows with this about the (white) government, “Our trouble came from living … liquor . . . the dollar bill. We stumbled toward the government bait, never looking down, never noticing how the land was snatched from under us at every step” (4).
Nanapush is much more than a thoughtful and straightforward elder. He reads and writes English. He tells his granddaughter about his ancestors, her mother, and about mystical and historical events in an attempt to keep the Chippewa oral traditions alive. He is a survivor, as well as a trickster. He can step back from the force of white encroachment and use traditional life as a shield to avoid extinction.
Pauline Puyat is introduced in Chapter Two when she tells of the men who died saving Fleur’s life and the time the two young women spent together. Much of what we learn about Fleur comes from Pauline’s narration. Twice Fleur drowns, is presumed dead, and then rescued. Both times the rescuers’ reward is an untimely death. “…death by drowning, the death a Chippewa cannot survive unless you are Fleur Pillager” (11). By using these incidents to establish a relationship between Fleur and an evil spirit in the lake, Erdrich shows the reader that Fleur has frightening and mystical powers. Pauline tells the reader: “‘She washed on shore, her skin a dull dead gray, but George Many Women…saw her chest move. Then her eyes spun open, clear black agate, and … ‘You take my place,’ she hissed’” (11).
Nanapush realizes that not just whites cheat the Indian, but Indian cheats Indian.
Nanapush sees that the future requires accommodation if the tribe is to maintain a modicum of Chippewa tradition and allow him to save his granddaughter. “For I did stand for tribal chairman…To become a bureaucrat myself … the only place where I could find a ledge to kneel on, to reach through the loophole and draw you home” (225).
Tracks is a dark but dynamic, and well worth reading. Erdrich provides a deep understanding of the plight of the indigenous people of this continent without a moral discourse.