“Mixedblood politics course through Owens’s writing,” as Jane Hammons explores in Monday’s feature on Louis Owens. This issue of identity and the way that literature shapes and reflects it are evident in the following excerpts from Owens’s novels, essays and interviews. We also look at his thoughts on Steinbeck and environment in the 21st century.
“They don’t know who you are, maybe because you don’t know who you are . . .” —from Dark River
“I have learned to inhabit a hybrid, unpapered, Choctaw-Cherokee-Welsh-Irish-Cajun mixed space in between. I conceive of myself today not as “Indian,” but as a mixedblood, a person of complex roots and histories . . . I am the product of liminal space, the result of union between desperate individuals on the edges of dispossessed cultures and the marginalized spawn of invaders . . . the descendant of mixedblood sharecroppers and the dispossessed of two continents . . .” —from Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place
“He stared at the white mountain, the center, the great mother, and tried to feel what it had meant to his tribe. They had woven it over thousands of years into their stories, telling themselves who they were and would always be in relation to the beautiful peak. Through their relationship with the mountain, they knew they were significant, a people to be reckoned with upon the earth. Away in four directions the world streamed, and Dakobed [Mountain Range] was the center, reference point for existence. One look, and a person would always know where he was.” —from Wolfsong
“I never believe in explaining my own writing, though I happily explain other people’s . . .” — Interview with John Purdy, Professor of English at Western Washington University
“To paraphrase David Murray, however, the challenge facing the critic is to avoid the error of imagining the encounter with Native American texts as a ‘meeting with the untouched and unknowable other’ and to simultaneously escape the temptation to believe in the ‘unproblematic translatability, and transparency’ of texts and cultures . . . Those of us who write, teach, and critique Native American literatures, whether we identify as American Indian, Euramerican, both or neither, face the complex challenge of attempting to body the invisible, give voice to the silent, mediate without violating, and, above all facilitate an awareness that the literature we call Native American is indeed an ‘other’ literature that nonetheless—in keeping with tricksters’ ubiquitous and uncontainable presence—participates profoundly in the literary discourse we call American and World literature.” — from “The Song is Very Short”: Native American Literature and Literary Theory
“Warriors always used to go to the good place. But what I can’t figure out, Mundo, is the difference between a warrior and a murderer. If we’re warriors, why do the shadows walk?” — from The Sharpest Sight
“I’m looking at indigenous attitudes toward the environment and Native epistemologies. There is a sense of responsibility that I think is a tradition to many Native Americans–traditional Native American beliefs that stress responsibility to the world we live in, which is the only way we’re going to survive as a species. Somehow, we have to learn this, and unfortunately most of us have not learned it. Still bulldozing and cutting, no real sense that if you clear cut a rain forest in Brazil, you affect the climate of Scandinavia.” — Interview with John Purdy
Question: What impact did John Steinbeck have on history?
Louis Owens: Well that’s really difficult to say. He changed history with The Grapes Of Wrath because he made America conscious of the responsibility to the people who were suffering so much in that novel. And certainly that won’t be forgotten. He literally changed laws with that book. But biggest change in American history is the change in consciousness which I thought he brought with the life’s work . . .” — C-Span’s “American Writers II” video series, April 28, 2002
“[W]hat Steinbeck is arguing in his writing is that we have to be responsible for what he terms the whole thing, known and unknowable, in a very deep way: that if you step into a tide pool, you have to realize that that step has changed the entire universe, and that will fit neatly into what Silko’s arguing in Ceremony, the whole sense of having to be careful, to walk in balance, to be responsible for knowing that every single act of humanity changes the world.” — Interview with John Purdy
Click here to read Jane Hammons’s feature piece on Louis Owens.