Terese Marie Mailhot, whose new memoir, Heart Berries, came out this month, hates “poet voice.” If you’ve ever been to a poetry reading, or attended a creative writing class, or even just listened to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac on the radio, you know what she’s talking about. Poet voice is sincere yet disaffected, a droning melody of self-importance. It is the standard, emulated by thousands of poets, essayists, and fiction writers, popularized and codified by creative writing programs across the nation. And like so many of those programs, it is extremely white. In this way, it’s a tidy metaphor for the way whiteness — and expectations for what writing should sound like — still dominates the writing world.
Mailhot dislikes most of the implicit and explicit expectations of what she calls “the white MFA.” She was chafed when a male creative writing professor requested she “stay away from conversations about feminist theory” in her work. She resented being told to “slow down,” especially in her writing about trauma, in order to offer the “tourist experience” to readers through curation of pain.
She doesn’t have to deal with any of that at the Institute of American Indian Arts, or IAIA — which offers the first indigenous-centered MFA program in the US. IAIA, whose campus is perched on the sagebrushed hills outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established in 1962. But the MFA program, touting Sherman Alexie among its first faculty members, was only launched in 2012 — conceived, as Mailhot puts it, with “a renaissance in mind.”
The first so-called Native American Renaissance dates to the 1970s and ’80s, when authors James Welch, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich first became nationally recognized. But the phrase, even then, was contentious: With its connotation of a “rebirth,” the word “renaissance” suggests there had been a lack of indigenous storytelling — which was never the case. The narratives just weren’t necessarily in English, or intended for mainstream consumption, or made to hew to the (white) expectations of what constitutes “literature.”
What Alexie and others at IAIA have constructed, then, is a program centered on Natives, taught largely (but not exclusively) by Natives, with the intent of educating, mentoring, and launching a new wave of Native literature into the world.
"Teaching here is our dream job, because this is our dream program.”
Five years later, that wave is just beginning to crest. Heart Berries has earned a spot on a dozen “most anticipated books of 2018” lists. Roxane Gay says it’s “astonishing” and “exquisite”; the New York Times called it “a sledgehammer.” In June, Tommy Orange — who, like Mailhot, graduated from IAIA’s writing program and now teaches there — will publish his novel There There, which interweaves the experiences of 12 people who gather in Oakland for a powwow; the book was the object of a multi-day bidding war.
“It was the race of our lives to get our books done,” Mailhot explained. “Not just to publish them, although that was part of it. We wanted to write books so that we could come back and teach at IAIA. Teaching here is our dream job, because this is our dream program.”
“One of the reasons I wrote a polyphonic novel is that I come from a voiceless community,” Orange told me. “And in a similar way, with IAIA, I want to usher in as many new voices as possible. We’re just trying to get to the baseline of humanity, and not be a textbook image that’s remembered and spoken of in the past tense. That’s where our urgency comes from.”
For Mailhot, Orange, and so many writers I spoke to at IAIA, it’s not just about the book deals. It’s about what they call Native Excellence — and creating a path to it with its own expectations and standards, instead of relying on those established by white academia or publishing.
“I think it’s a type of arrival, when you get to make those decisions for yourself,” Mailhot said. “It’s very different for indigenous people, and black people, and people of color, because we are so often told to doubt ourselves, and our aesthetics, and what we do, simply because some of us are not traditionally taught how to write. And even if we are, we are looked at as if we don’t know how — that we’re not authorities of our own work. And I just don’t buy it anymore.”
The MFA program at IAIA is low residency (or “low rez,” as IAIA spells it, a play on the shorthand for “reservation”), which means everyone shows up for a very intense eight days twice a year, then spends the time in between writing, conferencing, reading, and writing some more. It also means students don’t have to quit their lives — their families, their jobs — in order to attend, which made it feasible for someone like Mailhot, who has three children. The program averages 30 students in each incoming class, with around two dozen listed faculty. That faculty, some of whom teach every seminar and some of whom rotate in, includes Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Ismet Prcic, Pam Houston, and Lidia Yuknavitch. Currently, around two-thirds of the faculty identify as indigenous, a percentage that will only continue to increase as IAIA MFA students like Mailhot and Orange graduate, publish, and return.
Mailhot grew up on Seabird Island Reservation in British Columbia, the child of a radical activist mother, and with two older brothers and a sister. Her school attendance was inconsistent as a young girl, but her mom started feeding her books at a young age: By Grade 3, she was reading The Grapes of Wrath and Edgar Allan Poe. When a classroom teacher assigned Mark Twain, her mom objected: “I don’t need my daughter to read the n-word that many times in her life right now. Maybe you could give her some Frederick Douglass?”
She dropped out of school at 13, went into foster care at 16. She enrolled in adult education classes, which amounted to a workbook designed to be trudged through in such a way that you never actually reach the end. “They don’t ask you to write, of course,” she explained. “So you never really know what you’re made of.”
As for what happened between foster care and arriving at IAIA, you can find that in Heart Berries. “I wrote all this down so I wouldn’t have to say it,” she told me. And it’s all there, some of it oblique, most of it not.
“My story was maltreated,” she writes in the book. “I was a teenager when I got married. I wanted a safe home. Despair isn’t a conduit for love. We ruined each other, and then my mother died. I had to leave the reservation. I had to get my GED. I left my home because welfare was making me choose between my baby’s formula or oatmeal for myself. I chose neither, and used one check for a ticket away. That’s when I started to illustrate my story and exactly when it became a means of survival. The ugly truth is that I lost my son Isadore in court. The Hague Convention. The ugly of that truth is that I gave birth to my second son as I was losing my first. My court date and my delivery aligned. In the hospital, they told me that my first son would go with his father.”
She continues: “It’s too ugly — to speak this story. It sounds like a beggar. How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?” Heart Berries is a short stomach punch of a book — you can read it in one long sitting. She told me, “I wanted a small, contained thing that hurt me to read.”
“In a traditional program, they don’t like sentimentality,” she said. “But I’m like a raw nerve. A lot of women interact with the world emotionally — not reductively, but thinking about humans and empathy and the human condition. That’s having a big heart, you know? People will tell you to pull back on that, that you don’t want melodrama. But it’s like, well, there’s a lot of dramatic things that have happened in my life.”
At IAIA, the goal is success, in all its various and subjective interpretations — but it’s also about claiming visibility. Many people in the US have never met a Native American; they don’t see or interact with Natives in their everyday lives. Natives aren’t characters in the books and films and music and art they consume. If they are, they tend to exist in the past tense, or as tropes that mostly function as counterpoints to whiteness. That’s why Orange very consciously set his book in the present. “Usually we’re just one-dimensional and historical,” he told me. “We need people to know we are present-tense people.”
When Orange was growing up in Oakland, his mother, who is white, worked for the Office of Indian Education; his father, who is Cheyenne Arapaho, was fluent in Cheyenne and would take the kids back to his hometown in Hammon, Oklahoma. “I was biracial and I grew up around a whole lot of biracial kids. Everyone was half, we were all just together,” he told me. As a kid, he was largely uninterested in school and reading; later, he went to college for a degree in sound engineering, which involved basically zero exposure to literature.
“We need people to know we are present-tense people.”
Orange’s face is slightly off-kilter, in the grand, beguiling tradition of wrestlers and football players. That’s thanks to roller hockey, which swept the Bay Area in the ’90s and early 2000s. A pro team, the Oakland Skates, played in the same coliseum as the Warriors, and mini leagues sprang up all over the city. He started playing out in East Oakland, where he picked up a job at a used bookstore and gradually immersed himself in the classics of literature: the Russians, Borges, “everyone but Americans, because I just wasn’t interested.”
He didn’t read Sherman Alexie or the rest of what he refers to as the “Native canon” until much later. “Sherman was very rez,” Orange said, “and I avoided a lot of rez Indian writing, because it made me feel isolated — and like it was the only way to Indian write.” The owners of the bookstore connected him with a guy who worked at the Native American Health Center, where he worked on and off over the next eight years.
Orange kept playing roller hockey — a bunch of his teammates were getting offers to go pro in Europe — but had also begun writing in earnest, and made a conscious decision to choose that future instead. In 2009, he read a Craigslist ad for an artists’ commune outside of Ashland, Oregon, and found another ad for a ride-share to bring him there. “So my ride-share drops me off and drives away,” he recalled, “and there’s a 7-foot-tall wooden carved emblem with ‘JESUS’ emblazoned in fire, right next to the door.”
He didn’t have a car, but a guy in town — a classic old-school Ashland hippie, selling spiritual stones, aura sprays, new age CDs, “and other ridiculous objects,” as Orange puts it — hired him because he was Native. He biked 10 miles each way. He did a lot of writing. In 2013, he was accepted to the MacDowell Colony — a prestigious writers’ retreat that promised a more focused writing environment than a Christian lady with a spare bedroom. A woman in one of his storytelling workshops in Oakland asked him if he’d ever been interested in an MFA, which, in its traditional, academic sense, simply did not appeal to him. Then she told him about IAIA. He applied immediately.
Even before IAIA, Orange had been working on the manuscript that would become There There for years. Early reviews liken it to Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine: Both rotate, chapter by chapter, through a cast of characters, tethered by identity, place, proximity. In There There, that includes Tony Loneman, a 21-year-old narrating life with what he calls “the Drome,” or fetal alcohol syndrome, and Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, whose life careens after her mother takes her and her sister to the Native-led Alcatraz Occupation in the early ’70s. But what sets the tone, what baits the hook, is the book’s very beginning: a sort of urban Native manifesto, a mini history, a prologue so good it leaves the reader feeling woozy, or concussed.
“Our heads are on flags, jersey, and coins,” he writes. “Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people — which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, is now out of circulation.”
“We did not move to cities to die,” he writes. “The sidewalks and streets, the concrete absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses — the city took us in. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that.”
He writes, “They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside. But what we are is what our ancestors did.”
“That prologue was a prayer from hell,” Orange said.
It’s also what sold the book. In Orange’s IAIA craft talk — a sort of window into a writer’s process — he described how he fashions “doors” for himself to make his way back into a draft. Something easy to open, a way to access what you might be scared of revisiting. Sometimes he creates a door by feeding his dialogue into a program on his computer that reads it back to him in robot voices. But the prologue was his most sacred entryway: the section that he’d polished to the point of pride, the thing he could always step through to access the rest of the draft.
"They want to rid themselves of this history. They want to believe there’s a fairytale reparations story.”
Orange sold There There for the sort of money that changes lives. In person, talking about the book, there’s a sense of steadying for the questions he’ll have to answer, the explaining he’ll have to do, the comments sections he’ll have to avoid. He got a taste of it last year, when he wrote an essay about Thanksgiving for the Los Angeles Times.
“There’s this unconscious American rage, fueled by secret guilt,” he told me. “There’s just some sense that ‘you guys need to go off and die.’” Or that Natives have been paid back: “People think we get wealthy from money from the government, or from casinos and oil, when less than 2% of us get money from casinos or oil,” he told me. “But there’s this guilt thing: They want to rid themselves of this history. They want to believe there’s a fairytale reparations story.”
Orange’s work, like Mailhot’s, denies the reader even the semblance of a fairytale. Their writing is unrelenting — one of Mailhot’s favorite compliments — in that way. But the quality they first recognized in each other was ambition. At IAIA, they found themselves in different circles, different seminars. But then Mailhot heard Orange read his work and knew, immediately, that he was headed for something massive. They began corresponding via email, sharing drafts.
“We’re both really competitive, but we don’t use the word,” Mailhot told me, “because at IAIA, saying you’re ‘competitive’ is playing into white capitalist ideology of what an MFA should be.” That is to say cutthroat, and explicitly directed toward personal gain, instead of communal.
Now Mailhot and Orange are inextricably bound. They sold their books within two weeks of each other, and those books will be released just months apart. They are the first graduates to cycle back to IAIA as teachers, the embodied proof of the program’s potential. And they spent much of our time at IAIA pointing out the writers whose names I needed to remember next: Chee Brossy, Grace Randolph, b: william bearhart. The pipeline, the renaissance, the wave: Whatever it is, it’s happening.
During Mailhot’s seminar at IAIA, her husband, Casey, showed up with a coffee halfway through. The students know who Casey is, and not just because he’s a large white guy with a beard on a campus filled with people who do not fit that description. He’s the love interest and periodic antagonist of Heart Berries, which interweaves the story of their relationship and Mailhot’s stay at a mental health facility with her upbringing on, and flight from, her reservation.
At one point the conversation in the classroom turned to television — and how, when she was just barely making ends meet, Mailhot couldn’t bring herself to watch the vast majority of it. “Now that I have a duplex and can make rent, I get to watch all the white girl shows,” Mailhot said. “Indulging in white popular culture is a luxury I could never afford. I’d get so mad! Now I watch Meredith [from Grey’s Anatomy] and I can relate.”
There’s an easy recognition of identity here — speaking the often unspoken privileges that accompany whiteness and class, the sort of truths that make white people uncomfortable (and that, as a result, people of color are often tasked with protecting them from).
In Heart Berries, Mailhot writes that when she first arrived at IAIA, “there was a medicine wheel in the academic building so large and proud to be Indian that I knew I was home.” It’s a place where indigenous culture isn’t relegated to a building, or a room, or a single class. It’s everything and everywhere; it just is, the way whiteness just is on most college campuses. It is the food, which regularly features indigenous dishes; it is the bookstore and the signs for coming events. It’s there when Mailhot stands up to give her craft talk and, a few minutes in, breaks into tears that transmute into laughter. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just so beautiful being here.”
“My people are audacious and they talk a lot of shit,” she said. “The women are given clubs for their rite of passage. So you can imagine what I turned out to be.”
When Mailhot ruffled white academic feathers in the first week of her post-doctoral fellowship, she went to her mentor — fellow Purdue creative writing professor Roxane Gay — and said, “I didn’t mean to be so audacious.” Gay’s reply: “Terese, you’re here to fuck shit up.”
For Mailhot, that means uncompromising honesty. In her craft talk, she recounted a story from her time in a mental health facility, when she spent a full day watching Maya Angelou on OWN, where she was telling Oprah about the position of moral and artistic integrity she’s been able to achieve. “When she sees somebody being homophobic,” Mailhot said, “she’ll say, not in my house.”
“She can find the line and hold it,” Mailhot continued. “And I felt like, when I didn’t have money, when I was struggling, that line was blurred. Because when you are subjugated and exploited, holding that line means starving. Holding that line means sometimes not being able to feed your children, so sometimes the line didn’t exist for me. And I remember thinking, I just can’t wait to get to live where I can say what is inexcusable to me.”
"Now, I don’t need to sit next to some lackluster motherfucker and eat my Applebee’s. I’ve got my own fucking Applebee’s.”
Upward mobility, then, is the ability to hold the line. In so many ways: “It’s the little things,” Mailhot said, “when you have nothing, and you’re hungry, and you’re like, god, it would be nice to have some boneless buffalo wings. So you go on a date, and you eat the boneless buffalo wings, and you’re like, well, this wasn’t worth it. But now I don’t need to sit next to some lackluster motherfucker and eat my Applebee’s. I’ve got my own fucking Applebee’s.”
When asked about her inspirations, she mentioned some names that might be expected — like Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony — but she also said “the Lifetime channel.” She talked frankly about her past as a cam girl, undressing for male viewers who paid by the minute. She said, “I used to do all sorts of things for money that I’m not…” but stopped herself from saying the words “proud of.” “Well, I don’t give a shit about it. I’m not not proud of it.”
In public, online, in her work, she says the names and tells the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women — Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, Barbara Kentner, Cheyenne Santana Marie Fox — because she knows how easy it would have been to become one. She said, “Saying the truth, that’s part of my aesthetic.”
At IAIA, Orange worked extensively with Pam Houston, best known for her short stories and nonfiction — most famously, Cowboys Are My Weakness. During the school year, Houston teaches at a traditional MFA program in California, but spends the rest of her time on a remote ranch 200 miles north of Santa Fe. When an IAIA instructor had to pull out at the last minute in 2015, she drove down the same day. She’s been at every residency since.
Houston describes Orange as a “lights-out writer.” “This is Tommy Orange,” her blurb for his book reads. “Remember his name. His book’s gonna blow the roof off.” Her favorite Tommy story dates from back when she was advising his thesis: “I wanted to get you more pages,” he told her, “but the G key on my computer doesn’t work, so every time I need to use a G, I have to download a G from the internet.”
Houston assured him they could get him another computer — and eventually did — but Orange resisted. “No, no, Pam, it’s really good,” he said. “It makes me think really hard about my verbs.”
At IAIA, Houston is a beloved presence, easy to pick out in a fluorescent yellow puffy jacket and stocking cap. The first day I was there, the entire lunchroom sang her happy birthday, and a trail of presents and balloons followed her around the room. Talk to Pam, Mailhot told me. “She gets it.”
“The most important thing I’ve learned at IAIA is to keep my mouth fucking shut,” Houston told me. “I think most of us who are here have had one kind of trauma or another. I came from a super-violent home, and my whole adult life was learning how to speak out. But as the white person, it’s my place to listen. And while I’m so grateful to teach at IAIA, I ask the question every day: Should I be here?”
Some students argue there shouldn’t be any white teachers at IAIA — or white students. As Houston explained, “I watch each class of white students go through the gauntlet. They’re gonna say something like, ‘I’m here because the natural world is really important to me,’ which is of course offensive, because the natural world is not important to every Native. And then there will be another moment, when the student will say, ‘No, really, the Native students like me.’”
"Stop asking for absolution, stop asking for forgiveness in advance of the stupid thing you’re gonna say. Stop asking to be told you’re the coolest white person.”
“There’s a level of generational trauma, there’s a level of suffering, that I will never fully understand, no matter how long I stay here,” Houston said. “I try to empathize, I listen, I read the revisions, I’m so much more aware of the individual stories.”
But that’s not the same, and will never be the same, as being Native. “Every non-Native who walks in that door makes mistakes,” Houston said. “First, you get this idea you can ‘get it right.’ And then, you just know you can’t. So you just hope to be conscious all the time, so you won’t hurt anyone, and you learn how to stop asking for things: stop asking for approval, stop asking for absolution, stop asking for forgiveness in advance of the stupid thing you’re gonna say. Stop asking to be told you’re the coolest white person.”
With that said, Mailhot did tell me, unprompted, that Houston is the coolest white person at IAIA. (The program’s director, Jon Davis, who’s been working at IAIA for 25 years, gets second place.) But dealing with white writers remains exhausting. In a chapter of Heart Berries addressed to her husband, Mailhot writes, “white people can be so awkward, even you.”
“There’s this posturing, this thing where you want to come off like you care about the world,” Mailhot told me after we scrounged for quarters to buy coffee from the machine in the main IAIA building. “In academia, I have to deal with it every day. White people who want to let me know, first off, they’re not racist.”
Sometimes, Mailhot said, they do it in a polite way. “I was eating Thai food last month in Indiana and wearing some type of Native earrings, and this nice white lady comes up to me and says, ‘I love your earrings, are you Native American?’” When Mailhot imitates a nice white lady, her voice begins to sound like a gentle version of the song “Barbie Girl” from the early 2000s.
“I told this lady I was Native, and you could just see it in her eyes: PERFECT, I HAVE SO MUCH TO ASK! She was like, ‘What do you prefer to be called? I’ve heard a lot of things, and I’ve read a lot of things. Do you want to be called Indian or Native American?’”
“You know, it’s very political,” Mailhot told the woman. “I like to be called Indian because I like to have that stark word, one embedded in the bureaucracy of North America: the Indian Act. The Bureau of Indian Affairs. I want to call back all of those things. When I’m just around my friends, I don’t need to identify myself. But if it’s for paperwork or identity’s sake, if I just want to signify something to you, I’ll do that because it does more work politically.”
It was not the answer this nice white lady was looking for. “It was too individual for her to be like, ‘oh, now I know what to do,’” Mailhot said.
Last year, Mailhot and Orange attended Tomales Bay — a fancy writers conference in Marin County, north of San Francisco. They were eating lunch, and two women asked to sit with them. “You never want to think, oh, this is going to be exhausting, when two white people join for lunch,” Mailhot said. “But as soon as they sat down, one said, ‘I adopted a black child, and he says the n-word. Do you think that’s appropriate?’”
“And, you know, Tommy and I are not black,” Mailhot told me, raising her eyebrows. “How do you react to that without saying ‘Why are you coming to me with your thing?’ I just want to eat my salad.”
“This is Barbara,” Mailhot said, gesturing toward a woman who’d just joined us for lunch: Barbara Robidoux is resplendent in her seventies, with white hair tied loosely behind her. She lived on the Passamaquoddy Reservation in Maine before moving, in 1995, to work at the Santa Fe Indian School. After retiring, she decided to get her MFA. “I’m just doing whatever I want,” she said. “Nobody’s telling me what to do.”
During the early years of the program, Robidoux said, the tension wasn’t so much between whites and Natives as between classes. “A lot of people were coming in here who were older and didn’t know what to do with themselves, and they didn’t have a clue,” Robidoux said. “But the other thing that happens is that people come here and decide they’re Indian. A guy will say, ‘Oh, my mother told me stories about our past.’ Well, you know what? Go live with your tribe. Go live there. And then you can come back here and say you’re Indian.”
In so many situations, to be Native is to be not just in the minority, but singular.
Mailhot’s son, Isaiah, adopted Robidoux back when Mailhot was in residency. “He asked me if I would be his grandma, and I said sure,” Robidoux told me. Since Mailhot moved to Indiana they see each other less, but still talk on the phone. “He called the other day and said, ‘Grandma, I really need to talk to you. I really need to see you. I haven’t seen one other person of my race since I’ve been here.’”
Isaiah’s middle school, Mailhot explained, is called Battle Ground. It’s named for the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, in which a coalition of Natives resisting US expansion was sabotaged and defeated by white cavalry. The school mascot is the Tomahawk. Isaiah is the only Native student in the school.
In so many situations, to be Native is to be not just in the minority, but singular. The mainstream inclination to universalize Native culture — like Native writing — highlights just how little exposure most people have had to either. At IAIA, there are some Natives who are enrolled members of their tribes, and there are others who, because of blood quantum stipulations, are unable to officially enroll. Some grew up surrounded by Natives; others, like Orange, grew up with little physical or familial connection to Native culture. Some make a conscious decision to live on the reservation; others make an equally conscious decision not to. Some speak their tribal language; others are members of tribes whose languages can no longer be taught.
All of that — in addition to questions of whiteness and class and “craft” — contributes to what one of Mailhot’s mentors, Joan Naviyuk Kane, has called the “useful difficulty” of IAIA.
“I think we understand that everything that happens here is real and the stakes are high,” Mailhot said. “The stakes are high because of the level of difficulty in what we’re trying to exact — and some of us are here to do it explicitly for our communities. The level of discourse is more meaningful, which makes interactions more difficult: Sometimes we’re treading lightly and sometimes we’re saying really hard things.”
In these conversations — about the tensions within the Native community, and about saying hard things — Sherman Alexie is often a presence, spoken or unspoken. He’s long been a divisive figure within the Native community, and that’s only been amplified by the growth of Alexie’s own Twitter following and indigenous Twitter in general.
In many ways, the controversies around Alexie are the inevitable product of an industry that publishes so few Native writers. “He’s been hit within the Indian community because he’s become the voice,” Orange told me. Still, the promise of Alexie was also part of what drew Mailhot to the IAIA program: “I loved that he was thinking critically about Indian identity, and he was making fun of us,” she explained. “And I admired that he wrote about how frequently Indians die, how funerals were consistent and always looming around us. He was guileless in the idea that he didn’t care that pan-Indianism was taboo to discuss. He understood that for someone who’s removed from the community, pan-Indianism is all we have.”
“Don’t fuck with Tommy and Terese.”
Alexie no longer teaches at IAIA, but as MFA Director Jon Davis told me, his immediate commitment to it made everything easier: accreditation, recruiting the first class, getting the IAIA administration on board. Alexie worked without pay for five years and funds a full scholarship for an incoming MFA student each year. His presence always leaves a wake: At one reading, Orange had to break up a near-fight between Alexie and a Native guy in the audience who didn’t think Natives should go to college. Everyone wanted into Alexie’s seminar, but his teaching style was straightforward, and involved little hand-holding. He commanded his students: Finish your books. At last year’s craft talk, he told the audience: “Don’t fuck with Tommy and Terese.”
“Sherman has a love-hate relationship with Native people,” Mailhot explained. “And so do I, and so does Tommy. We love our people and ultimately have become outsiders because we’re writers. So when Sherman said that, it was like: Don’t criticize us with malice.”
“I think he meant it as ‘Don’t fuck with them, the way you fucked with me,’” Orange added. “He’s taken a lot of shit and he doesn’t want that for us.”
On tour this past year for his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie talked Orange and Mailhot up to booksellers. He told journalists about them. He made space for them. When Orange’s manuscript first went on the market, it was Alexie who helped advise him; after Mailhot graduated, Alexie sent her draft pages from his memoir, and they began emailing every day. “Sometimes it’d just be a link to a sweater,” she said, “and him asking, ‘Is this appropriation or just, like, a really nice Ralph Lauren sweater?’”
But he was not a father figure, at least not in the traditional sense. “If I felt sad, he would tell me, repeatedly, you have to keep up with your doctor’s appointments. You have to take your meds. You can’t fall off right now,” Mailhot recalled. “He was a good mentor without ever taking advantage of me or being lecherous — and I don’t think he knew how much that meant to me. He was extremely powerful, and I was pretty vulnerable, and he showed me what mentorship should be.”
That’s another thing that distinguishes the teachers at IAIA, and something Mailhot is passing down to her own students. “Mentorship is someone who cares about you post-grad,” she told me. “Someone who cares about you when you’re not in the room. Someone who will bring you back in.”
"The only way we can break that down is by making more seats at the table, so the people who look at us that way are replaced by better writers.”
Even as Mailhot and Orange begin to promote their own books, the next wave of writers is foremost on their minds. “Our legacy is helping people keep writing,” Mailhot said. “When we see each other, we’re asking each other: Who’s almost done with their book? Who has an agent? We’re talking about the biz, but not the same way other people talk about the biz. We’re talking about, how do we bring people into this space where they don’t have to worry about money? Where they can afford day care?”
“We’re trying to be consistently good to other people and consistent with ourselves in maintaining some kind of integrity,” she continued, “which is not easy in this business. There’s a lot of exploitation, a lot of people who look at us as tokens. The only way we can break that down is by making more seats at the table, so the people who look at us that way are replaced by better writers.”
And that process starts at IAIA. During Orange’s craft talk, a student asked a variation of the question he and Mailhot had gotten all week: Since you sold the book, what’s changed? Do you feel different? What’s life like? His answer, like Mailhot’s, was invariably, self-effacingly the same each time: “Now we’re here,” he said. “You guys are next.”
On the second floor of the IAIA main building, a mini movie set has taken shape. There are director’s chairs, key lights, a big boom mic, a mini crew. “Is this good lighting for POC?” Mailhot asks. “Or is this white people lighting? I wanna look good.”
She and Orange are filming a promo for the MFA program, getting mic’d by a guy in tightly fitted jeans, black cowboy boots, and a big silver buckle. Orange fidgets nervously: He’s wearing a gray hoodie with “Cheyenne and Arapaho Language” scrawled over an image of a red buffalo, his hands shoved deep into the pockets. He tells Mailhot his publicist forwarded him an email from a Native bookseller, so thrilled someone had finally written about an urban Indian, so excited to sell his book to everyone. “Oh, that’s so great, Tommy,” Mailhot says, deadpan. “Did you tell them about my book?”
When the cameras start rolling, no one knows where to look, or where to put their hands, or how to answer in an honest way that avoids the saccharine. But when asked to name her personal hero, Mailhot answers without pausing: “Myself. I’m my own personal hero. I saved myself from abject poverty, and through IAIA, through becoming a mentor, through writing a book, I have saved myself.”
A few hours later, she’s scheduled to read from Heart Berries, the completed book, for the first time. Earlier in the week, Mailhot had told me about a faux-fur coat she had purchased — a gift to herself, not for the publication of the book, but for finishing the outpatient mental health program she’d completed in anticipation of the stress of promoting the book.
The coat was luxurious and supple. It was gratuitous and beautiful. It was a statement. It recalled what Mailhot had said about the type of character she had set out to write about, when she first started writing at IAIA: “one who was really explicit and gluttonous and morally ambiguous.”
For most of the week, it has been too warm to wear. But this evening, the temperature has plummeted to the 20s, and when Mailhot walks into the building — gorgeous black dress, black leggings, nude pumps — the coat declares her arrival. Onstage, Mailhot flips through the book, admits she hasn’t decided on what to read, takes a long sip of water. “This is definitely not a dramatic pause,” she says. “It’s lubrication. I learned that from Mariah Carey.”
She settles on one of the final chapters of the book, which focuses on a childhood memory, recovered just a few years before, involving her father and a scene of irreparable harm. It is, as Roxane Gay puts it in her description of Mailhot’s work, a wound.
When Mailhot nears the end of the chapter, she loses it. The audience is not embarrassed, and does not look away. “I held the room,” Mailhot tells me afterward. She knew she wouldn’t read the chapter again for another audience: It wasn’t for Purdue, where she would read a few weeks later; it wouldn’t be for the book tour. “I held the room, and their future, and their potential healing,” she says. “I had to say something redeeming, something so they knew things could be better.”
Later that night, Mailhot and Orange and a dozen other indigenous writers and filmmakers and graphic novelists fill a seemingly endless table, backlit by an equally endless fireplace at a local restaurant. One by one, people come up to Mailhot, seated at the head of the table, to ask if they can have a hug, to tease and praise. She drinks a margarita, and tells me the Navajo taco will knock me out.
The entire evening feels full and bursting. Conversations pop up and percolate down the table: plans for an adaptation of Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red, about the live podcast Mailhot and Orange are taping in Seattle, at the swanky Benaroya Hall. “People are buying $35 tickets,” Mailhot says, her voice lilting up in disbelief before breaking into a laugh. “Can you believe that?”
It’s a scene of networking and shoptalk, of ease and pride. It’s a scene, like so many that week, of Native Excellence. Earlier that afternoon, Orange had tried to summarize the impact of IAIA on his life. “My time here,” he said, only slightly bashful about his own sincerity, “it was like coming home.” ●