The PEN Pod: Elevating Indigenous Authors with David Heska Wanbli Weiden
David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a former PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow and author of, Winter Counts, his debut novel. The book is a thriller that exposes the deep failings that arise between the U.S. criminal justice system and tribal legal systems. David joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss the process behind writing his novel, learning more about Native American authors and artists, and how readers might interact with his novel during this period of social upheaval. Check out the full episode below (our interview with David begins at the 8:40 mark).
Congratulations on the book. It’s a gripping read, but also it deals with some really real issues confronting Indian country—what got this novel into your head?
I’m a professor of Native American Studies, and so, I’ve been teaching about these political issues for many, many years. I’ve been a writer for about a decade and a half, and I always wanted to write about some of these political issues on the reservation. Indeed, I did write a short story way back in about 2011, and that short story was also called “Winter Counts.” I later decided to expand it into a novel, which allowed me the space to bring in even more political and cultural issues.
This comes from my own background, not only as a professor of Native American Studies, but I’m an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, where our reservation is in South Dakota. Now, I grew up in Denver, but I spent a lot of my time and in my youth visiting the reservation and seeing firsthand some of the problems there, as well as the joy and the humor of the people there. This book, I think, wraps up both of those threads, both the problems, but also the wonderful resilience of the Lakota people.
“There’s not a debut writer out there who doesn’t dream of a book tour and getting to read in front of people, sign books, and do all that, and of course that’s all out. Every single one of my live events was canceled, and signing books for me means doing it in my living room and sending them off to a bookstore. But, it’s where we’re all at now, and I just feel very privileged to be able to get my words out to people right now.”
I feel that there’s so many different elements at play in this text. Obviously, one of them is this sort of nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S., in which these legal systems sometimes come into conflict and have gaps between them. Some of the things that arise in the book include crime, drugs, and addiction, which are things that often arise in these gaps, between the two systems.
That’s exactly right. There are a number of laws that apply only to Native peoples, and the Major Crimes Act—which I’ve written about in The New York Times—is one of them. It provides real structural inequality in the American political system on Native reservations. And so, folks reading my book are going to learn about how I believe how deeply destructive this law is toward the well-being of folks on reservations.
Obviously you have written for a long time, but it’s still your debut. Since the pandemic has sort of thrown everything up in the air, how has this all affected your rollout and what you had dreamt of as your debut for a novel, and what the reality is starting to look like?
Well, it’s changed completely. There’s not a debut writer out there who doesn’t dream of a book tour and getting to read in front of people, sign books, and do all that, and of course that’s all out. Every single one of my live events was canceled, and signing books for me means doing it in my living room and sending them off to a bookstore. But, it’s where we’re all at now, and I just feel very privileged to be able to get my words out to people right now. Was I disappointed? Sure. But I’m just tremendously grateful for the opportunity to get this book out there.
“In our current moment, as you and I speak, we’re in the grips of upheaval on the streets of America. When I wrote this book about two years ago or maybe a year and a half ago, obviously I didn’t know that we were going to have all of the events involving racial justice and injustice. I think that people will read the book somewhat differently. . . hopefully, with an eye to the injustice that’s also occurring in Native country.”
I want to discuss what the landscape looks like right now when it comes to American Indian literature in the country, because it just feels like we’re in this wonderful moment of flourishing movement of so many diverse voices, especially in the fiction space. Where do you see yourself fitting into that—that sort of Tommy Orange, Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo kind of map of the country right now?
I’ll let others judge where I fit in that, if I fit in at all. But, I will agree with you that I think we’re at really just the beginning of a great renaissance in Native literature. My friend Tommy Orange is one of them, but there are lots of people. My friend Stephen Graham Jones and others are just really revitalizing Native literature in both genre and traditional literary fiction. And there are wonderful Native visual artists, there’s a great wave of Native filmmakers, so it’s just an exciting time. It really is.
We’ve talked a little bit about the pandemic, but I wonder how you think readers might experience this novel now—presumably you didn’t write this in the throes of COVID-19—how might they read a book like this in our current moment?
In our current moment, as you and I speak, we’re in the grips of upheaval on the streets of America. When I wrote this book about two years ago or maybe a year and a half ago, obviously I didn’t know that we were going to have all of the events involving racial justice and injustice. I think that people will read the book somewhat differently, given that we’re just at a strange moment in this country—not just the pandemic, but we’re in some sort of a recession economically, and then of course there’s the upheaval regarding George Floyd and more murders and shootings by the day. I think the novel hopefully is very timely, and I think people will read it hopefully, with an eye to the injustice that’s also occurring in Native country.
“The pandemic is really hitting Native communities very hard, especially the Navajo Diné People. Every day there’s something new popping up, so again, I hope that the novel speaks not just to Native readers, but to folks who want to learn about voices that they may not be familiar with.”
Virgil, the principal character in the book, has to reckon with different worlds and different understandings of how things are working, and then of course, figure out how to make this work when it becomes part of his own family life. I feel like so much of those family dynamics and how that’s playing out is changing amid this pandemic—how we see justice, how we see order, how we see what’s happening in the streets versus what’s happening in our communities.
Absolutely. It’s just a strange time, and you brought up an important point. The pandemic is really hitting Native communities very hard, especially the Navajo Diné People. Every day there’s something new popping up, so again, I hope that the novel speaks not just to Native readers, but to folks who want to learn about voices that they may not be familiar with.
Let me just ask you finally, what are you reading right now?
I always love this question. I have two books that I am just so happy to dive into—one of the books is a classic, but for some reason I had never read it, and I’m a little embarrassed by that. James Welch is one of the greatest, if not greatest, Native American writers, and I never read his book, The Death of Jim Loney. And I said, “Gosh, I’ve launched my novel Winter Counts, which was just released on Tuesday, August 25th. And now is the time for me to do some reading of some great and classic works that I’d inadvertently omitted.”
I also have a great book that I want to recommend to folks. It is called Love and Other Criminal Behavior. It is a collection of short stories, by the writer Nikki Dolson. She is a Black writer who is just, I think, doing some of the best work in crime fiction right now in short stories. Right now, I’m just really thrilled to be about halfway into Love and Other Criminal Behavior by Nikki Dolson, and I’ve just started The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch. So, it’s a great time for me to sit down and actually do some reading.