If you’ve never heard of Beth Brant (Degonwadonti), that’s a damn shame. I mean, she’s one of the founding grandmothers of lesbian writing in English, of Native lesbian writers, and women of colour writers. Shame on me for not reading her earlier, and shame on the mainstream queer literary scene for not paying more attention to this fascinating Mohawk author, today and in the past. Did you know that she didn’t start writing until she was forty? If that’s not inspirational for aspiring literary types, I don’t know what is. Actually, the whole story of how she began to write, as told in her bio, is awesome:
Brant began writing at the age of forty after a motor trip through the Mohawk Valley, where a Bald Eagle flew in front of her car, sat in a tree, and instructed her to write. She has been writing ever since.
Mohawk Trail is Brant’s first book, published in 1985—so it’s as old as me!—and I thought that I might as well start with it. It’s multi-genre, containing poetry and fiction. There’s a visceral quality to many of the pieces in this book, an immediacy evoked by the disarmingly simple writing and the often direct, clean voices. These are stories and poems about Native, working-class, and queer people (usually women) but they’re not about identity. They’re slices of life, in seamlessly authentic voices that sound just like there’s someone beside you, or maybe across the dinner table, talking. Take the simply titled “Terri”:
My name is Terri. With an i. Yeah, I was born right here in this neighborhood. It don’t matter much how old I am, let’s just say I’m over twenty-one. Ha! I’ve been dancing for about two years now. I like it. Five days a week I work at K-Mart as a cashier. It sure gives me something to look forward to, being a go-go girl on Friday nights. It makes me feel happy to get all dolled up and go out and dance for the ladies…Did I tell you my ma was part Indian? Yeah, Chippewa. My dad’s a Polack. That’s how come I got Indian hair and hazel eyes. Some of the girls here thought I should change my name to Honey on account of the colour of my skin. But they thought it should be spelled Honee. With two e’s.
You can picture the woman talking to you, can’t you? Brant has such a strong command of voice.
“Coyote Learns A New Trick” is also a stand-out story. As you probably know, Coyote characters are known for their tricks, but in this story, Coyote’s trick backfires on her. Planning to prank Fox, who’s always bragging about how sly and clever she is, Coyote cross-dresses and marches up to Fox’s house, intent on seducing her. You can probably guess where the story goes, with Coyote realizing she “had not fooled Fox. But somehow, playing the trick didn’t seem so important anyway.” It gets pretty sexy, for a story about a coyote and a fox.
While the first two sections of Mohawk feature shorter poems and stories, the last part contains longer pieces, some of them addressing heartbreaking issues. “A Long Story” juxtaposes two mothers who have both lost their children to a colonial, sexist, homophobic government: one woman in 1890, whose children have been taken to an American Indian boarding school (the American version of Canada’s residential schools), and another in 1978, whose custody of her daughter has been given to her ex-husband because her new partner is a woman.
The last tale, if I can call it that, is hybrid fiction/poetry, and a fitting, powerful end to this debut collection, which was to become the first of many of Beth Brant’s:
A gourd is a hollowed-out shell, used as a utensil.
We make our bowls from the stuff of nature. Of life.
We carve and scoop, discarding the pulp.
Ink on paper, picking up trails I left so many lives ago.
Leaving my mark, my footprints, my sign.
I write what I know.
If you’d like to know more about Brant, check out this biographical article which also details her philosophy on writing, identity, and spirituality. I think I’ll read her book of essays, Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk next!