Book Reviews

Hartwig Isernhagen, ed., Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong. Conversations on American Indian Writing

Hartwig Isernhagen, ed., Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong. Conversations on American Indian Writing (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). Pp. ix + 183. ISBN 0-8061-3120-9.

A simple trick of design secures Hartwig Isernhagen’s book a place on the reference shelf of every serious student of Native American writing. The three interviews that the book compiles ¾ with Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor, and a Canadian writer, Jeannette Armstrong ¾ are structured roughly around the same set of questions. These, Isernhagen modifies, rearranges, and adapts sensitively in response to the course which his conversations with the three authors take, or in order to accommodate his interlocutors’ unique interests. However, with the core questions remaining the same, the interviews do not go their separate ways but together explore roughly the same territory.

And so having read, for instance, what Scott Momaday thinks about the source of his authority as an artist, the reader can move some sixty pages ahead to get Vizenor’s opinion on the same subject, and still further on ¾ Armstrong’s.

To European students of Native American literature, who often feel confused about whether a writer’s attitude or judgement is idiosyncratic or reflects a more generally held position, Isernhagen’s book offers an opportunity to form an opinion. As the three authors interviewed represent different tribal backgrounds and have different career histories and artistic visions, they offer some insight (however tentative) into the variety and/or unity characterizing the Native American writerly community.

The questions on Isernhagen’s list range from those routinely asked whenever Native American writing is discussed, through the ones addressing the peculiar situation of the white critic working in Indian studies, to the ones reflecting the interviewer’s own special interests. How legitimate is the label „Native American Literature” applied to subsume a rich variety of work done by Native American authors? What audiences do Indian writers write for? Is there a set of characteristic traits that distinguish Native from non-Native American writing? Side by side with such problems of primarily critical interest, the interviews explore several questions of ethics. How legitimate is the charge that writers and academics exploit the cultural heritage of groups in which many individuals are mentally and physically starving? What are the responsibilities of Indian writers as the more privileged and fortunate members of such groups?

Isernhagen’s own critical concerns generate queries about the relationship between Native American and other indigenous literatures or about the three authors’ treatment of violence in their texts. Mercifully absent from the interviews are such staples of the genre as “how many hours do you write a day ?” or bits of personal and literary gossip. Some readers may be disappointed, however, to find relatively little attention paid to the three writers’ individual texts. Only Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, Vizenor’s Bearheart, and Silko’s Almanac of the Dead are commented upon at meaningful length.

While Isernhagen’s questions give direction to the interviews, the writers use the opportunity to outline also some of their own pet notions and preoccupations. And so, for instance, Momaday speaks eloquently and sanely against the attempts to “trademark“ Indian heritage making it exploitable only to Indian writers and academics.

Vizenor denounces the western perception of the Indian as victim, arguing that this view presupposes hierarchy and thus serves primarily to satisfy, not to burden, the western conscience.

An interesting hypothesis is put forward by Armstrong: subscribing to the common recognition that Native American literature is marked by a distinct “voice,” she proposes to relate that voice not so much to the oral tradition as to the peculiar rhythms of the Reservation English. The way these and many other themes are explored in the book ¾ with genuine curiosity and command of facts as well as with tact and the effort on both sides to clarify subtleties of meaning and intentions ¾ makes Isernhagen’s volume a tribute to the art of literary interview.

Joanna Durczak
Maria Curie-Sklodowska University