An Interview with Oscar Hokeah
Tacey M. Atsitty
Oscar Hokeah is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma from his mother's side and has Mexican heritage through his father. He holds an MA in English with a concentration in Native American Literature from the University of Oklahoma, as well as a BFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), with a minor in Indigenous liberal studies. He is a recipient of the Truman Capote Scholarship Award through IAIA and is also a winner of the Native Writer Award through the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. His short stories have been published in South Dakota Review, American Short Fiction, Yellow Medicine Review, Surreal South, and Red Ink Magazine. He works with Indian Child Welfare in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Told in a series of voices, Calling for a Blanket Dance takes us into the life of Ever Geimausaddle through the multigenerational perspectives of his family as they face myriad obstacles. His father’s injury at the hands of corrupt police, his mother's struggle to hold on to her job and care for her husband, the constant resettlement of the family, and the legacy of centuries of injustice all intensify Ever’s bottled-up rage. Meanwhile, all of Ever’s relatives have ideas about who he is and who he should be. His Cherokee grandmother urges the family to move across Oklahoma to find security; his grandfather hopes to reunite him with his heritage through traditional gourd dances; his Kiowa cousin reminds him that he’s connected to an ancestral past. And once an adult, Ever must take the strength given to him by his relatives to save not only himself but also the next generation of family.
How will this young man visualize a place for himself when the world hasn’t given him a place to start with? Honest, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting, Calling for a Blanket Dance is the story of how Ever Geimausaddle found his way to home.
Hokeah’s debut novel will be released with Algonquin Books on July 26, 2022, but you can pre-order it here: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781643751474.
Tacey M. Atsitty: Congratulations on your debut book, first of all! What an accomplishment! It’s been some time since we were running around campus all those years ago as students at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Recalling those years, was this how you thought it might go for your first book Calling for a Blanket Dance? Tell us about the genesis and journey you’ve taken since we were students. What were some of the challenges of writing and how did you overcome them? How did it all come together?
Oscar Hokeah: Thank you. I’d like to extend my gratitude for your invitation to do this interview. I’m very grateful. It has been some time. I think of that young guy back at IAIA and he seems like a completely different person. It’s interesting how much we change over the years. Now I’m a grandpa with my first grandson being born in February 2022. It’s been quite the journey between then and now. It’s hard to capture so many dynamics. But there were key experiences that played into the debut, like a second divorce and growing a larger family. So much life has been lived and it comes through in Ever Geimausaddle’s journey in the novel.
I use what some might call a “semi-autobiographical fiction,” where I draw from real-life situations—sometimes my own and sometimes friends and family around me—and I fictionalize those experiences. The novel came together in pieces, like the fragments that shape Ever’s memory, where I wrote two of the chapters at IAIA in 2008 and 2009 as short stories, went through writer’s block for a couple years, and then started writing again in 2012 after I graduated from OU. It was my education at OU that taught me how to use broad thematics to pull a story together. It was much easier for me to see the two stories written at IAIA as a collection of stories revolving around a single character. Once I connected with an agent in 2018, I then began to shape the novel with a much tighter structure. Once my editor came into the picture in 2020, we sliced and diced, then the novel Calling for a Blanket Dance was born. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the publishing industry. I love the rigors of developing a novel with a team.
TA: I must say, the storyline is just gripping. When I received my copy in the mail, I decided to hold off reading it until Spring Break. But then I thought, “I’ll just read the first page.” Next thing I knew, I was reading it at intersections while waiting for the light to turn green (I don’t recommend this at home), in the truck waiting for my husband to get out of class, and even while eating my lunch. The stories are heartbreaking but real. Calling for a Blanket Dance revolves around the main character Everarado (called “Ever”) and all his relations. As an infant, he witnesses, or is at least present, to a violent act against his father. How does this shape Ever throughout the book?
OH: I’m glad you asked this question. The violent act in the first pages is extremely pivotal in Ever’s life. I had written a different scene initially. It was based on one of my earliest memories. In the real-life situation, it wasn’t my father who was the victim, but my mother. It was so traumatizing that I can still get emotional about it today. This is an example of how I take a real-life situation and then fictionalize it for a story.
Trauma can start in the womb. Or in Ever's case, while still in infancy.
Ever Geimausaddle is shaped by an unattainable ideal of manhood. What most folks describe as toxic masculinity. I needed to show how acts like this at such a young age can shape a child’s life. Trauma can start in the womb. Or in Ever’s case, while still in infancy. My style of writing is more of a daytime drama than Hollywood sensationalism. When Ever’s father gets attacked by corrupt police, it’s a signal to male-on-male violence, and how male-on-male violence creates toxic masculinity. By the time Ever’s a teen, he is fully initiated into a brutal version of manhood. It leaves the reader to wonder about the very thing Ever’s family is struggling against: will he ever be cured?
The arc of the novel centers on Ever’s building rage, and the reader gets to reflect on how toxic masculinity is created in subtle and obvious ways. Like so many young men in our Native communities, Ever is conditioned to be violent. And like so many families in our Native communities, we each do our part to guide these young men to take a different path.
TA: Oklahoma is a place of intersectionality, not only for tribes who were relocated during the Indian Removal Act of 1830, but also as a place where other ethnicities make their way to this space, Mexicans in particular. And as this is definitely an intercultural and intertribal story of family pieced together, what can you tell us about your decisions to tie in the languages and cultural aspects the way you did?
OH: I think of Oklahoma as the largest Prisoner of War Camp this planet has ever seen. We have 39 different tribes, and like you mention, the Indian Removal Act had many of us marching from different points in the United States to land in what was called Indian Territory. Oklahoma is a very diverse place with a large number of Black and Hispanic people. America has come to know Tulsa through the infamous attack on Black Wall Street. Over the last half-century, there have been a large number of migrants coming from Mexico. My father immigrated to Oklahoma when he was only fourteen years old. He followed his cousins from Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico, to work the peanut and cotton fields on the Southern Plains. In my hometown of Tahlequah, Oklahoma—in the heart of Cherokee Nation—there are entire neighborhoods of Mexican American people. There is little known at this point about the Hispanic population in Cherokee Nation, but I hope my novel does good work to bring this to light.
The reason I apply this tricultural, intertribal, and transnational element to my debut is because that’s a face of Oklahoma very few know about. We think of large cities, like Miami and New York, being diverse, but we don’t think of Oklahoma as such a place. Once folks spend some time here, then they start to realize how diverse we are. It was natural for me to fit Kiowa, Cherokee, and Mexican cultures together because that’s how I grew up. Like the main character, I’m also Kiowa, Cherokee, and Mexican. They say write what you know, and so that’s what I did. I think it's going to give readers a new look at Oklahoma and broaden their perspective. It’ll be an eye-opening read for many people.
Our identities aren’t created in a vacuum. We are pieced together by multiple generations.
TA: The genealogical chart at the beginning of the book mapped out the family connections and helped me see better whose story I was reading. Can you talk about your decision to structure the book the way you did, each chapter representing various characters who tell their own stories?
OH: Familial identity. Our identities aren’t created in a vacuum. We are pieced together by multiple generations. Ever Geimausaddle is a product of his family’s successes and failures. I wanted to capture the way Native families are tightly knit. So I wanted to capture a story from each family member. I thought to myself, what story would Ever’s grandmother tell about Ever? What story would be important to her? And it wasn’t the same story as his grandfather. And that wasn’t the same story as his uncles and aunties and cousins. Everyone had a different powerful experience with Ever Geimausaddle, and each did something significant to shape his life. The end result was a beautiful juxtaposition of characters, singing in their own time to the same beat. The spaces between each chapter force the reader to consider how our identities exist in fragments and how our identities are dependent on the stories people share about us. I also wanted to show the push and pull of identity. Ever’s Kiowa grandfather pulls him in one direction, while his Cherokee grandmother pulls him in another. Meanwhile, his Mexican cousin pulls him toward an identity that’s inextricable from his being. Then, in the last chapter, the reader gets to see Ever push back. It’s not what his family expects, but it’s true to who Ever truly is.
TA: One of the strongest aspects of the book was the voice of the narrators and their vernacular. In the chapter “Quinton Quoetone,” Quinton is speaking to Ever about a ritual party of booze and drugs that follows the time when members of certain tribes turn eighteen and receive their “per cap” checks. Quinton said, “But, you at your per cap party. Bay’gaw! I tried to tell you, ‘Ever, calm down,’ even told you to put away the coke. When you hit that line of krank, gulped the Mist, and screamed so loud everyone in the motel room paused: Gaa, I just knew.” What were some of your challenges in settling into the various voices of characters throughout the book?
OH: Developing the voices started back at IAIA. After writing a story titled “Got Per Cap?,” that is now a chapter in the novel, I had what I had deemed my “Kiowa voice” down. Next, I wanted to capture a Cherokee voice. I drew from experiences I had with my medicine man back in Tahlequah and his disposition. I also drew from many of my uncles on my Cherokee side, and then I wrote a story titled “Time Like Masks,” which is also now a chapter in my debut. From this point, I had to develop these voices to fit the different characters, and mostly this was drawn from my family and friends in Oklahoma.
I don’t talk much. I’m more of a listener. I found myself listening for subtle beats in the ways my family and friends spoke. Soon I could hear the differences and cipher out little phrases and pauses to apply on the page. It was difficult at first because I couldn’t hear their accents. I couldn’t hear my own accent. I remember shortly after arriving in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and starting to work at Intermountain Youth Center, where I had coworkers ask me about my accent. And I asked in return, “What accent?” About two years later, I finally started to hear it. But only because it contrasted the New Mexican accent so sharply. Then when I’d travel back to Oklahoma to visit family, I started to hear their accent. That’s how I developed my ear for creating voice. It was a good old-fashioned culture shock.
TA: I love seeing pockets of Native humor woven into metaphors and similes throughout the book:
Many ta’less like Shawn used sports, like basketball, to survive…what made him good at basketball wasn’t my Uncle Vincent’s genetics. It was rage. He threw elbows like a dog soldier staked to the ground, fighting for his life. He knocked down teens twice his size, and dribbled the ball between people like he was dodging arrows aimed at his heart.
What was your approach when integrating such humor into the book?
OH: Kiowas are funny as hell. I never laugh so hard as I do when I’m with the Kiowa side of my family. My cousin Quincy Tahsequah can have me laughing so hard I get short of breath and dizzy. We have some of the funniest people, but I might be biased. Haha. It wasn’t difficult to put in the humor. It felt natural. Honestly, I didn’t think much about applying humor and culture. Those elements came organically.
TA: Opbee, the niece to Ever’s grandfather, performs an incredibly humble and generous act, some might call it ritual or ceremony, on the part of Ever and his children by gathering blankets that were once theirs, made especially for them. I was half expecting her to publicly gift them back to the family at a pow wow, but she doesn’t—she does it one-on-one at a family gourd dance. Can you speak about public versus private gift-giving in these cultures?
OH: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t quite thought about it like that, but it’s an important distinction. Most people who describe a Gourd Dance describe it as a social dance or a military veteran dance, and it is those things. I’d like to add to it, though. I also see it as a gift-giving dance. Gourd Dances are back-to-back rituals of gift-giving. All of the public displays of gift-giving are ancient rituals between Kiowa and Comanche families who have honored each other for hundreds of years. These are the exact same families stretching back for centuries. We’re honoring bonds our ancestors honored. Societies give gifts to other societies to honor the bonds between each other. We sing, dance, eat, share, love, hurt, and heal together. It’s what makes us family. It’s what makes all Natives come together. I’ll try not to give away any spoilers, but I think Opbee, which means Big Sister in Kiowa, is honoring Lena, who honored Opbee privately all those years ago. It’s a long-running, continuous ritual, and Opbee performs it with the perfection of her ancestors. Opbee’s focus is on healing; in the same way, Lena’s focus was on healing Opbee.
Like Ever, I’m made of a multitude of voices coming together in one place.
TA: Your Acknowledgements page at the end, it’s so real. Sometimes, as authors, we write that page somewhat prescriptively, but yours is a tribute to community of place, tribe, and relations. Can you tell us how you approached it and how writing it the way you did connects to the larger piece?
OH: Like the novel itself, I wanted to show readers the communities I came from. Like Ever, I’m made of a multitude of voices coming together in one place. I’m made not only from the images of my family and ancestors, but I’m also shaped by the horizon on the Southern Plains and the thick forests in the Ozark Hills. I felt like I had to pay respect to the landscape that shaped me and the people who carried me. And if anyone wants to find me, now they know who to ask for, haha. These are my folks, my people, our family—naw’thep thay’gaw.
TA: I’m hoping we can reflect back on the epilogue of Calling for a Blanket Dance, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer N. Scott Momaday, who is Kiowa. He writes:
They have assumed the names
and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls,
and in this there is a resistance
and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.
What can you say about that “long outwaiting”? How were Momaday and any other writers influential in the composing of this book?
OH: I think the “long outwaiting” has to do with enduring the currently manifested world, and teaching each other how to survive and thrive under sometimes harsh conditions. Momaday has been a tremendous influence on my writing. House Made of Dawn and his character Able showed me how to wrap an era around a character. Momaday has this beautiful way of effortlessly laying out cultural elements for the reader. It taught me to not think too hard about applying culture and instead trust that it will show up, and in fact, it’s better when we don’t force culture. Reading and rereading his work has taught me to trust myself as a writer.
The next biggest influence on me as a writer is Alice Munro. I know that may seem odd. Here is this Native/Mexican boy from Oklahoma and he gets fascinated by a writer from Canada. But it’s true. I often find myself writing like her and then have to go back to rework a paragraph or a sentence, and then sometimes I don’t hide my Munro. I just let her influence shine on the page. I think Turtle Geimausaddle’s chapter is heavily influenced by Munro's voice. To a certain extent, I want people to see Momaday and Munro in my work. I want readers to know that their books shaped me as a writer. And I couldn’t go without acknowledging Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude has influenced so many writers. I feel like his “atmosphere” is all over this novel. A lot can happen inside a breath, and I learned that from Márquez.
TACEY M. ATSITTY is Tsénahabiłnii and born for Ta'neeszahnii. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in EPOCH, Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, Poem-A-Day, and other publications. Her book is Rain Scald (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). She holds an MFA from Cornell University and is currently a PhD student at Florida State University.