Morgan Talty on Indigenous Literature, Penobscot Culture, and the Villain of Colonialism ‹ Literary Hub
It is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely upended them, confused them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Moderated by Jordan Kisner, author of the collection of essays Thin placesand presented by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan chats with Morgan Talty ahead of his first story collection, Living Ground Nightabout moms, storytelling, writing from a teenager’s perspective, and the villain of colonialism.
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From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: Do you think there is a villain in this series of stories? Does this world have a villain?
Morgan Talty: That’s an excellent question. I’m tempted to say no, but I’m also tempted to say yes. In some situations, there are bad guys. If we think of “The Blessing Tobacco”, is the grandmother the bad guy? Is the mom the bad guy in these precise moments? In a broader, global sense, I feel the main villain is colonialism.
What took its toll—I don’t want to say this community because [the book] focuses only on one family. But colonialism created the systemic violence that exists not only in Indigenous communities, but in any community that has been colonized. So while the characters themselves have villainous aspects, the real villain we need to weed out is colonialism.
Jordan Kisner: It seems clear and also feels like a challenge for you as a writer, because he’s a nebulous villain. This villain doesn’t have a specific face in this book or possibly in the world. There is not a single defeated entity there. It’s a system and an idea and a story, which is so much more diffused than if Frick had just been your villain.
Morgan Talty: Yes exactly. I could have made it easier for myself, but I chose not to. It’s difficult, and I think that’s what’s so important right now in literature, especially indigenous literature. There’s this emergence of so many indigenous stories coming into mainstream literature. There’s a novel that came out by Gregory Brown called Lowering days, which is a beautiful novel. He’s a writer from Maine, and this story is set in Maine, and there are Penobscot characters and the Penobscot language. He’s not native and he did a great job with this book and handling native characters. But I think Living Ground Night is the first book by a Penobscot person who represents the people of Penobscot in mainstream literature that comes out.
We need more stories from tribes that people don’t even know exist. If you ask people to name certain tribes, they’re like, oh, Navajo, Mohawk, Comanche. If you ask anyone in California if they’ve ever heard of Penobscot, they’ll tell you, I have no idea what it is. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes. Even more, if you count recognized and unrecognized states. So that’s a lot of crops in the United States. The more voices we have out there, the more texts there will be attacking this idea of colonization, drawing attention to it, we have a better chance of creating a face of what it looks like. In fact, being able to confront this villain who is not only unique in this book, but unique in any work of a minority that writes against a white male-dominated view of what literature is supposed to be.
Morgan Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. He earned his BA in Native American Studies from Dartmouth College and his MA in Fiction from the Stonecoast Low Residency Program. His collection of stories, Living Ground Nightis forthcoming from Tin House Books (2022), and his work has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Quarterly, Narrative Magazine, Illuminated Hub, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2021 Narrative Award, Talty’s work has been supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (2022). Talty teaches courses in English and Native American Studies, and he is on the Stonecoast MFA faculty in Creative Writing. Talty is also a prose editor at The Massachusetts Review. He lives in Levant, Maine.