(Note: Don’t read this if you are easily offended by the way kids talk, because when Barrus gets angry, he stops censoring. And I don’t like censoring Barrus. PM)
I know absolutely nothing about the small world of Native Lit other than the fact it has to be like any other dusty, poorly illuminated corner of publishing that gets scant attention because marketing people in Manhattan would have no idea what to do with it.
A lot of people might assume I brushed shoulders with Native Lit as Nasdijj but that would be a mistake to assume. Publishing actually didn't treat me any differently than they treated any other white writer -- they knew me as Tim Barrus -- just a guy with a pseudonym, and there are hundreds of them in their universe. Tim Barrus is white and that made me acceptable to deal with.
It was only when the public mask came off they put their tails between their legs.
The people in publishing would scream blood they deal with African-American writers all the time. Bullshit. They see "black books" as niche publishing as well and Tony Morrison is pretigous but she doesn't sell that many books. She's window-dressing for an institution in America that is as racist as any other institution in America where racism gets covered up and made nice by white liberals who do not wear sheets. The sheets are now suits. The racism is camouflaged but if it looks like a duck, it's a duck.
I knew in the beginning he was going to be a writer.
I was working in a well-endowed, rather chacha (pool and patio) group home for adolescent Native Americans whose families were in one kind of turmoil or another, and we were what amounts to respite care. The place was run by a tribe so let's dispell of the notion of the abusive Indian school run by abusive white people because this was not that in any way, shape, or form.
Okay, the boy was (is) gay. Who the fuck cares. It isn't relevant. Because I say so.
I know. I know. All of you fucking care.
But not any of you cared when he was growing up and struggling. So get out of my face with how you care. You didn't give a fuck then and you give a fuck now outside of provoking me and I'm a little on to you.
He was a writer.
He was failing in school (his school sucked as badly if not more so than he said it did) and yet he had the most extraordinary journals mainly because he wrote everything he ever saw down in them.
Like how he felt about other boys.
Who beat him up almost daily.
He loved them (strangely) and he hated them. How could it be any other way. This kind of conflict is what makes a writer none of whom live in vacuums even if they do, indeed, live alone in tiny rooms where they write. You figure.
I do not believe you can make writers. You can help some kids to be more literate than others. That's about it.
A writer is born. He or she just isn't made. Go ahead, pick a kid. Any kid. When you're done teaching him to write he'll become a computer geek or a plumber or a truck driver -- I will guarantee it.
This particular kid was already more of a writer than I could ever hope to be. I had no illusions about teaching him how to write. He could write circles around Shakespeare.
I could though teach him a few things about how to get published.
1.) Adopt a pseudonym. Make it white.
2.) Tell no one you are a racial minority.
3.) Do not tell anyone (this includes family or tribal members) what you do when the money starts rolling in.
4.) Get someone else to manage your money.
5.) Do not drink alcohol. Ever. One drink and the party is over.
6.) Do not settle for any of the stupid agents. Get an agent from Hollywood who is willing to deal with a writer. He won't make the money he makes from movie stars but he might like books.
7.) Sell to the movies THROUGH New York.
8.) Never ever ever ever deal with New York marketing. That is why you have an agent at ICM or CAA or William Morris.
9.) Do not write literate books and never write about Indians.
10.) Never tour (be above it as only the Little Writers tour). These things are done easily. You WILL meet with your agent but that will be about it. Your agent will be discreet and never ever ever ever tell them things they do not specifically ask to know and when they do ask be evasive. Most people have no clue that most writers never meet their editors, never meet a publisher, never actually see a publicist; none of these idiots have time to know you anyway. The CARE about sales figures. They're not selling vacuums door to door but close enough.
11.) Forget high school forget college. They have nothing to offer you (but grief and jealousy).
12). Go write your tits off. Always heterosexual. Not a hint of gay anything.
13.) Never visit Seattle (it is filled with vile and jealous people) and never never appear on a "panel."
He did. All of this and then some.
Today he is one of the top-selling writers in THE WORLD.
Why in heaven's name would he join the ranks of niche publishing.
His books are reviewed as if they were deep wells of literate thought nudging history's slow length along.
He lives in the Los Angeles area.
The chances of my naming him in this are not good. My dog and pony show. My way.
His books are turned into godzillion-dollar blockbusters.
Anything Indian he writes, he sends to me and I applaud like I have for years and then I burn those manuscripts.
This will not win me Mister Popularity among the Native Lit folks. Like I was in line for it anyway.
Not even Mister Runner-Up.
"But he should give something back to his community."
Why. They did nothing for him but beat him up.
I like him a LOT. I want to see someone who comes from where he comes from successful. It is MY revenge.
And I love seeing someone fuck publishing in the ass.
"Coming out" would ruin everything. Charlie Rose has begged but why go on Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose isn't dog shit.
Bend over, publishing. Bend over publicists. Bend over agents. Bend over marketing. Baby, you know you like it and so did your mama. -- Tim Barrus
The problem with Native American literature is not the writers, it is the publishing, publicity and distribution. People who think Native Lit is authentic writing by and about old-time Blackfeet ought to go to the Browning Public Schools website and order a short stack of the booklets they’ve published by and about local people. Or buy Percy Bull Child’s book “The Sun Came Down.” Do readers do this? No. They buy “Piegan” by Richard Lancaster, a self-serving and predatory white man from Texas who imposed on the Whitecalf family long enough to write his book, riddled with cliches and therefore “real.”. It’s not the readers’ fault -- their only yardstick in most cases is Hollywood films. The serious analysis of Native American literature is often so theoretical that no one can understand it without a Ph.D.
Not that Indians are always so inclined to help each other. One year Fishtrap Writer’s Conference, a high-grade workshop in the Wallowa Mountains, invited all the outstanding female Native American poets and novelists they could think of: about four. The result was a disaster as elbows and accusations flew. The Warrior Ethic survives among the women. In general, contentiousness and accusations, “identity politics” and “revelations,” have made Native American writing and movies so radioactive that business people don’t want to deal with them, the same as reservation disorder and corruption keep out business.
At the same time probably no one has done so much for Native American writers as the Bruchac family, part-Abenaki, whose careful scholarship and hard work in organizing conferences and touring schools is invaluable. For many years the family has run a press that publishes NA materials. (http://www.josephbruchac.com) They struggle. In Canada such efforts are subsidized. Another effective print warrior is Tim Giago, who comes through journalism , and the late Vine Deloria, Jr., who comes through the academic and church worlds. Adrian Louis has braided together journalism, academia, and Hollywood.
The kind of publishing Barrus is talking about pays little attention to such people. They did publish Adolph Hungry Wolf, a “volunteer” Indian (white) who lives in a cabin and runs his computer with a solar panel. Since the result was not a blockbuster, they dropped him. Adolph’s priceless collection of information and photographs, the work of fifty years of careful searching, is orphaned because no publisher or museum will acquire it and the tribe itself thinks it is entitled to have it for free. Luckily, Adolph’s publisher in Canada with whom Adolph has worked for many years to self-publish (as Bob Scriver did as well) went out on a limb to print four books that preserve the material. Anyone who doesn’t jump to get those four books is a fool, but the academics scoff. THEY didn’t think of it and didn’t acquire the material though they were on the scene. Nor are they anxious to help now, because Hungry Wolf is stigmatized by the identity politics game.
I also know an Indian writer who has kept a journal all his life. It fills suitcases. He is a deeply worthy man, closely connected to the Blackfeet past, indubitably full-blood. I urge him to edit those materials and get them published, but he’s reluctant. The social consequences for a full-blood who publishes can be catastrophic. I’m terrified that there might be a fire at his house or that someone might get the materials after his death and edit them clumsily. He's aging.
Most people could stand right next to an Indian and never realize they were alongside a full-blood. They might register dark skin and good hair, but unless there were beads and feathers, that’s about as far as it would go. So how could they recognize writing by Indians? What’s different about it? Nat Lit writers are more different from each other than they are from white writers. But best-selling, Manhattan-published white writers are pretty different from small publisher writers anyway. If they weren’t before, they are after. For one thing, they are more likely to have invented personas. For another, once a book sells well, they will be heavily pressured to write the same book over and over again because publishing operates on the Simple Simon principle, the same as all the major corporations in America that hate risk.
Barrus beat the system once with his three Nasdijj books. This will not hurt the prospects of NA writers in the future, since he is white. But will the NA writers of the future care to write books now that Manhattan best-sellers are revealed to be equivalent to bundling high-risk mortgages? "Cashing in" for writers is a myth. Publishers are middlemen, like bankers or lawyers or brokers. Writers are product. The only thing that counts is whether they sell. We need a whole new system.
Barrus’ solution is to change media: he has gone to video. Another solution is something like Kindle, a way to read books in eformat that costs much less to produce. Or a third way is Print On Demand which makes self-publishing feasible. (This is what I do.) Or a fourth route is Espresso, the machine that makes you a book while you have a cup of coffee nearby, drawing on efiles but producing a bound well-printed book. And a fifth route is the artist-made book, limited editions, possibly in unique formats or with etchings. Or there might be a hybrid product: imagine a Print On Demand book with a custom leather binding. Possibly a classic used book, re-bound with an artist’s cover.
The big excitement about Native American literature has pretty much passed on now, pushed aside by writers from India or the Middle East, but the contemporary American Indian scene is full of ferment and intrigue that deserves being written about, both as novels and as nonfiction. If they were written tomorrow, they might not be blockbusters, though I wouldn’t bet on that.
But if one has the appetite for those briefly published and often marvelous Native American Literary Renaissance books, bless the Internet for the used book websites. With a little archeological strategy and patience, one can build an excellent library. I wouldn’t tell others what to do, but in my own collection, I include both Hungry Wolf and Barrus. In the end it is life experience that counts towards good writing, not just genetics.
What we need are Native American publishers and distributors who know how to get books into the hands of reservation readers. And we need RESERVATION READERS because reading is what makes writers.