The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Beth Piatote is a scholar of Native American/Indigenous literature and law; a creative writer of fiction, poetry, plays, and essays; and an indigenous language revitalization activist/healer, specializing in Nez Perce language and literature. She is the author of two books: Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship and Law in Native American Literature (Yale 2013), and The Beadworkers: Stories (Counterpoint 2019).
Berkeley Fiction Review: I’m excited to hear more about your work and your own writing process. I want to touch on an anthology of stories that you were recently published in—Evergreen—an anthology of stories about the Northwest. I think it came out pretty recently last year…You had a story, “Second Infection,” that was published in it. I thought it was interesting that the anthology touched on this location: the Pacific Northwest. In your own story, what themes or thoughts about the Pacific Northwest, in particular, were really important for you, personally, to examine in your piece?
Beth Piatote: Well, I think because I’m Nez Perce, I really wanted a piece that could help people feel like they were there. I think about other Native people who may read that piece and can, through the piece, feel a connection to those lands…feel that they are there. And so the setup of that story was a younger woman and her auntie, and they’re shelling peas or shucking corn. They’re doing these different kinds of things on the porch, and the mountains are there, and the cottonwood trees, and there are these elements that are evocative of that place. And then there’s the auntie’s voice and the conversation between the two women.
I wanted people to be able to come into the story and feel like they’re there—like they’re sitting there shucking corn, too, and listening to this story and being in that place. And so I think the fact that the anthology was meant to be grounded in the Northwest really helped me want to evoke the place from having lived there and trying to think of how it could take other people there—in some way, bring them home.
BFR: Yeah, it sounds like that sense of reader engagement—feeling like they’re there in the story—was really important for you to convey. And it’s also something that I noticed when our staff reads stories. I mean, when I, personally, read stories, I’m always kind of thinking to myself: do I feel engaged with this piece? Do I feel like I’m really connecting with the writing and the stories being told?
When you try to convey that feeling of being there, as a reader, in your writing—how do you build that, usually?
Beth Piatote: Yeah…how to build that? It’s easy to say how important it is.
Alex Saum-Pascual, who’s a professor here at Berkeley…I was in a writing workshop with her where she was talking about, like, “a poem is a room,” and you can either feel in the room with the poem, or “I can’t get into the room.” And so, try to think about: what is the position of the writer, in terms of bringing the reader into the space of the piece? What is their function? Are they the door that lets people come in? Are they the floor that provides the space? There’s some spatial function that the writer has. It’s like, “I’m opening up this space for you to come into.”
And so, how to do it, I think, is for the writer themselves to be in that space with that—with those characters and with that situation, in a very transparent way, so that the writer isn’t visible but simply the spaces, which means that the writer has to go into uncomfortable places to get to the heart of the story. The writer needs to have an intimacy with the character in order to create a sense of familiarity. There have to be some structures established in the writing so that people feel like they are in a place. I guess you have to make a place, [laughs] right? Because part of your job as the writer is you have to make a place for the reader to be with, and so description matters. You have to have enough description that people can transfer what they know into this new unknown space that’s being created.
How you create a tree, or a chair, or a birdsong, whatever it is…you can create it many different ways, and that’s where your style is. But those elements, I think, have to be there—there has to be an environment, there has to be a space that’s opened up. I don’t quite know how to describe it.
BFR: No, no, that was really beautifully put. I launched a weirdly technical question [laughs] at you, I’m sorry. I also did a little bit of digging, and I noticed that you mentioned in an interview with Humanities Washington your experience as both an academic and a writer and how scholarly pursuits might intersect with your writing. In this situation, you were reading letters in an archive at Washington State University, and those letters themselves influenced part of your writing in The Beadworkers, your collection. I was really interested in that. I was wondering if you had any other experiences like these, where you found that your academic life and your creative life really meshed and worked with each other, similar to that experience? What have you drawn from that?
Beth Piatote: Yeah, I think one of the approaches that I have to writing is that writing is about form and genre. And…[laughs] to make that a little less flat of a statement: sometimes, especially working with students at the university, I’ve seen students feel like becoming a scholar or an academic meant forsaking a creative writing life. That writing a scholarly essay or writing in that form would foreclose creative elements of yourself. But the way I think about it, is that academic writing is one genre. And poetry is another genre. Short stories are another genre. And it’s just about being able to study different forms and not let any one form be the only thing. I mean, some people maybe only want to do one thing, but because it seems to me that there’s this dynamic where creative writing is threatened by scholarly writing, or that sometimes students feel like they’re losing their own voice because they’re giving themselves over to a more impersonal scholarly voice. I would argue that those things aren’t oppositional, that they don’t have to threaten each other, that you can just study a scholarly form and go, “Oh, well, this is its shape. These are its voices. These are its characteristics. And it exists in order to do X, Y, or Z.” Just being able to think about scholarly writing as a different genre than the writing of poetry, but that they all have some shared elements around figurative language, around rhythm or structure, around being able to illustrate a problem having distance or proximity to a situation. And also—which genre is the most effective?
Once you have a set of genres that are available to you, you’re like, “Well, I can write poems, and I can write plays, I can write short stories. I can write academic papers. I can do all these things.” So then you think, “Okay, I have an idea. What’s the best genre for this idea? What’s the best form?”
That’s when I’m really glad that I don’t have only one bucket to put everything in. For instance, I love Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass came out in 1855, but also in 1855 was the signing of the Nez Perce treaty with the U.S government, and the constriction of Nez Perce lands, which then were further constricted in subsequent events: another treaty, and then a war. There were all of these things that happened, right? But—1855—the same year, you’ve got exuberance, Walt Whitman talking about multitudes, and just so excessive and abundant and joyous. I mean, not all of his work is joyous…[laughs] but it’s all excessive…whatever it is, there’s a lot of it.
Anyway, having this voice of the new American and the boundlessness of Whitman is happening in the exact same year as there are these treaties being signed all over the Northwest. So, my idea is: I want people to have to think about those two things together. That they were happening at the same time and that the signing of the treaties was necessary for Leaves the Grass to be what it was. And again, I love Walt Whitman. Do I want to write an academic paper about this? No, [laughs] I don’t. But somehow, I do want people to have to think about that and confront that.
So, I wrote a poem. I took a stanza from Walt Whitman’s poem. I rewrote that one stanza five times. And I kept replacing his words with words from the treaty. And then at the end, I wrote a stanza in Nez Perce language. I was able to get to the idea. I mean, whether anybody likes this poem or not, it doesn’t matter to me. I still got to express the idea. I wanted to express this: we have to think about Leaves of Grass and the treaties together, somehow. I love Walt Whitman, so this is great pleasure for me. Creative writers really benefit from academic study, from studying other people’s work. And so, having studied Walt Whitman, and thinking about how he writes, and what his aesthetics are, what his artistic choices are—that helps me, then, when I want to kind of undo his work and bring up this other element of it. I think about being able to speak multiple languages. The more languages you speak, the more you can do with language. And also with genres—the more genres you understand, have studied, can practice in, the more you can do with your writing.
BFR: It’s interesting how you are really showing the power that creative writing can bring to portraying parts of history. Things we might see or study in the academic world can reach a wider audience when you put it into a more creative format. Like, with historical fiction, I feel like it can be really powerful. So, that was a really interesting point that you brought up about the poem and how you worked in Walt Whitman, because poetry itself is very powerful and when you add in that part of history, it really brings it to light, I think.
Beth Piatote: I love short stories, or even novels that pick up on the minor characters and stories, the obscured histories, and start from that point of view and rewrite the world from that point of view. I think it is one of the most powerful things you can do with your creative writing that also brings in the skills that you may have from research and from academic study, and so on, and brings those worlds together. I don’t see them as incompatible, at all.
BFR: It’s a pretty broad question, but I really enjoy asking this to people. What would you say most inspires your writing? Because I know, for a lot of writers, there’s a lot of things that go into what they write: your own personal life, history, your culture, maybe daily life, things that are going on around you. When you tend to write, what do you think, at that moment, is most drawing you to create whatever piece that you’re working on?
Beth Piatote: I think there are two things. One is just my own pleasure at sort of the puzzle. An idea comes and then it’s a question about form. Sometimes, just a line will come to me and then it starts turning into a story and a character. You know, there is this external thing that connects with the creative part of myself that’s like, “I want to know what happens.” I want to know what happens.
Once you start getting the idea and just follow that, there’s all these levels of dissatisfaction of, “I want this to be better. I want to be smarter.” The rewriting process is the hard process. But it’s also still part of that puzzle of how can I make this the most effective story, or the most effective poem, or whatever it could be. All of that craft part is sort of driven by the joy of creation itself, of seeing something come into being.
Of course, it’s full of frustration and…hopelessness, despair, alienation. There have been stories that I just was like, “Why am I even trying?” And yet I can’t stop, you know? I think that stories get their hooks in you and then you just have to keep going, even though it’s making you miserable. And you’re like, “Oh, this’ll never really…” You know? But can I stop? No.
I see that you, too, have had this experience. That is all some sort of creative power that comes once a story takes hold. It wants to do this, and you are its servant. But it’s fun! And it’s a joy and creative. And so even when it’s terrible, it’s still so worth doing. You always know you’re going to get there, eventually. And it can take years! And be miserable for years!
BFR: And if I’m allowed to ask, is there anything that you’re writing or working on at the moment?
Beth Piatote: Do I sound anguished?
BFR: You sound like there’s something creative that you’re working on right now that’s really exciting. [Both laugh].
Beth Piatote: Yeah, I’m working on a collection of poems. The Walt Whitman poem is one of them. I’m also working on a novel. I have a full-length play that is in my collection that is being rewritten and reworked for stage. I’m going through a lot of revisions with theaters now. I’m also writing some short plays, like ten minute plays, just for laughs. So yeah, I’m working on all of those things.
BFR: In reworking your pieces for the stage—how’s that experience been for you? Is that different at all from your past experience with short fiction and nonfiction-style writing?
Beth Piatote: It is. It is really different. The only part that transfers is a little bit of a scene setting, and maybe some of the shape of the story, and dialogue. But then, other than that, it’s a very different experience of thinking, “What is theatrical? What’s going to work on stage?” The exciting part of that is knowing that there are so many things that can happen on stage, in that you have people’s whole bodies. I mean, when you are reading, you are reading with your whole body, but compared to sound and light and snowflakes actually falling…I mean, actual fake snowflakes falling from the sky. You can do these things onstage. The embodiment of stage is just this whole other exciting level.
Also, writing a story can be entirely solitary. You can just sit down and do it. A person can read it that can also be totally solitary. But the writing of theater requires other people. There’s director, dramaturg, actors, and when you workshop it, you need actors to read your stuff to even know—can this line be read? And that’s something you have to ask yourself when you’re writing. When I’m writing, I try to make my dialogue sound realistic or whatever, but I like to wrap that dialogue with description and stuff. But on stage, it’s all dialogue. You’re writing dialogue all the time, with just a few stage directions. So, yeah, it’s really different. It’s fun. And it is more collaborative. And then the reception of it is, by definition, collaborative. You have an audience that is all together. They’re having a collective experience. It has different kinds of possibilities, and it’s been super fun.
BFR: There must be something really cool about seeing your work, on paper and in writing, that’s been in your head for so long, come to life in front of you. I’m really excited for you. When does it come out?
Beth Piatote: Well, right now, the latest version of the play is having a workshop in New York by the New York Classical Theatre. There’ll be some time between March and November—they haven’t scheduled it yet, so it’s just sometime this year. They will keep moving over to actual staging.
With the minutes we have left, I did want to ask a few questions regarding advice you would have to give. More specifically, what advice you would give to writers or storytellers who want to explore important aspects of their history and their culture through writing, and what you would tell them—what advice you’d give to them.
Beth Piatote: I guess, first of all, to really trust your vision for your story. And just because maybe you want to write in a form or voice that you haven’t seen before, exactly, or haven’t seen much…to just trust the story, what it wants to be. And trust your instincts about what you’re drawn to. Also, to study a lot of other people’s work to figure out, “Why am I drawn to this person? Or not? Why am I drawn to this work or not?” What is it doing?
Try to get really specific and plant in your mind or in your notebook, “Okay, I want to do something like that.”
I make conscious decisions about, “Oh, I really like the way this author is using sound. I want my stories to have more sound in them.” Or, “I want this aesthetic to to be evident,” or, you know, make specific formal choices. So there’s this balance between…okay, trust yourself, but then also equip yourself. Make sure that you can do what you want to do skillfully and that as you are studying other people’s works, you’re being intentional about it working for you and your vision.
This may be kind of a dumb analogy, but when I’m working with graduate students and other writers, I usually talk about cooking shows as an analogy. Everybody gets a box of ingredients. But then, what people actually do always turns out to be their style and whatever it was that they brought to that. I think sometimes people worry about being too unusual or being too much like something else. You’re like, “Oh, this person’s writing about X, and I’m writing about X, and that feels icky.” But every person can be given the exact same box of ingredients, and everybody’s going to come up with some different kind of dish. You’re just gonna be your own unique writer, and you just really need to be true to that. Let your writing be true to what you need as a human and know that the hardships and questions that you’ve been given in your life—you can draw from those to provide the solace, the comfort, the insight, the guidance, the comic, whatever, in your writing for other people. And to trust that, that it’s all valuable, that everything that you bring to your writing is valuable. If you feel it, there’s someone else out there who also feels it, someone else who feels lonely, someone else who’s facing rejection or loss, or someone else who will totally crack up when you tell them this story about what happened to you on this blind date or whatever it is, or someone else who is going to love being validated by something that you write or just love being in the presence of your experience in your writing.
So, think of all the things that stories are to you and that you can offer to others through your own work, but also just…invest in your own writing. Believe that it’s a gift that’s been given to you, but you have to be true to it.
BFR: I really love your point. I think a lot of times, people whose stories…a lot of minorities whose stories aren’t as commonly published or seen in the publishing world, or in fiction or in writing in general…a lot of the times were told like, “Oh, we already have like that kind of story.” Like, “Oh, that so-and-so book is really popular right now…we already have perspective from…like a Thai writer, or Korean writer, or we have that Indigenous story.” But, you know, it’s not for you. It’s the story that’s coming from yourself. And so what you said, I think, really touched on something that’s heard often. It’s really powerful. It means a lot.
Beth Piatote: I completely agree. It’s so frustrating. There can only be one Native writer at a time. Right now, it’s Tommy Orange. [Both laugh]. It’s like, “…All right.” And this is one of the great things about short stories: the proliferation of stories. Just cranking out more and more stories. It’s so, so important. I completely hear that.
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