We Spoke to Alexandra Fuller on Writing an Oglala Sioux Social Novel

Alexandra Fuller
Alexandra Fuller | © Wendell Locke Field

Books and Digest Editor

The Wyoming-based writer discussed the themes within her new novel Quiet Until the Thaw.

Because our world was much shaped by colonialism, the relationship between indigenous people and a non-native population can often be fraught. Some of the most powerful literature regarding this issue comes from writers who are unable to ignore it, yet for the writer and journalist Alexandra Fuller, this subject has trailed her life. Born in England, Fuller moved with her family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) at the age of three and witnessed firsthand the clash between white settlers and black natives during the Rhodesian Bush War, a history that she unpacked in her first book, the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. After a peripatetic adolescence and early adulthood, Fuller moved to Wyoming in 1994 where along with her book writing, has penned magazine pieces regarding the rights and struggles of Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation. This focus has informed her debut work of fiction, Quiet Until the Thaw, a novel set in the latter half of the 20th-century that follows the trajectories of two Oglala Sioux cousins who navigate and interact with a world that all but seems to have dealt them and their people a bad hand. Written with a unique touch of style and grace, Quiet Until the Thaw approaches a sensitive topic with great literary mindfulness.

We spoke with Fuller about the realities her characters are carved from, her long history of witnessing cultural divide, and how she came to develop certain trademarks in her writing.

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There is an inherent contrast between your characters who are primarily members of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation, and the sense of “otherness” and “exoticness” that is prevalent in their lives. The way one character sent to Vietnam is shamed by his commanding officer for having a visible fear when native Americans are known to be fearless; the way another character, dealing drugs to get by, is rebuked by a woman and yells out “Is it because I’m an Indian?”; and then the there are boys at the end of the book who sign contracts to perform as “Indians” at Disneyland Paris. Can you talk a bit about how you came to investigate this sort of prison of heritage?
I was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for three months on assignment for a magazine. I’m lucky to be among the last of generations of writers to work for magazines that used to care as much about well-crafted copy as they did about a really honestly-reported piece. If those publications still exist, they’re now much more focused less on content, and more on eyeballs on clickable product. I think the dearth of voices, supported by a magazine budget, is one of the great losses of the last twenty years. The work that journalists and writers used to be able to do on assignments – the accumulation of knowledge one acquires – just doesn’t happen in the echo chamber of an ever more whiplashing news cycle and it would be nearly impossible to get a book publisher to support you while you took off for several months to research a story for a possible novel. But even at their most generous those kind of magazine budgets never included — or rarely included — voices from the global majority. It’s been a huge battle for writers like Angolan journalist Rafael Marques to get his words out of Angola, or for Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault II to get respectful mainstream media coverage in this country. The irony is that people like Rafael Marques in southeast Africa and Dave Archambault II in the US are the very people who, having courageously and persistently challenged among the most corrupt and the powerful people on earth, are most knowledgable about how to steer us out of this globally troubling time. They have a kind of moral compass that the rest of humanity does not.

The most striking thing about the Rez for me, at first blush, was how the place resonated with the homelands of South Africa, the Tribal Trust Lands of Rhodesia of which I was very familiar having grown up in what is now Zimbabwe, and having reported extensively from post-apartheid South Africa. I saw at once the kind of demographic markers that haunt the Rez – a life expectancy of 48 for men, 52 for women; catastrophically low annual income of about $4,000 a year — are the result of a political arrangement. That’s undeniable, and it’s the same the world over. I didn’t need to be persuaded by anyone on the Rez that this was a deliberately silenced, preferably unheard population (to paraphrase Arhundathi Roy). I did not know the particulars of Lakota Oglala life, but in an instant I saw the unmistakable stamp of racial capitalism; this particular brand of exploitative, unsustainable growth-based system of government we have in this country that acts as if this kind of difficult life were the fault of the people living it and that “the poor” are necessary only as long as they dignify themselves through work.

Everything in the book is at the very least anecdotally accurate — things that were told to me by the hundreds of people I spoke to over the course of the time that I stayed on the Rez. Most of the American Indians I spoke to referred to me, and people like me, as a “white settlers” or “colonizers” which was a familiar label left over from my years in Zimbabwe, and which seems to me accurate. I was determined to put whiteness on the margins of this story, to privilege the non-white narrative and to have whiteness appear in the same limited, stereotypical terms to which the global majority are frequently subjected by the dominant white narrative which is to say as myopic, racist and arrogant. The line that haunted me from real life was when a photographer said of Billy Mills, the eventual Olympian, “Would the dark one step out of the picture?” I included that line in the novel, because that’s been the white response to people of color up to and including this moment.

Every single person I spoke to on the Rez spoke of the system of White Supremacy in which they live. As I was writing and editing the novel, the Standing Rock protests were happening in North Dakota. A recent report has revealed that the private security firm, TigerSwan was hired by Energy Transfer Partners to collaborate with law enforcement to surveil and target the nonviolent indigenous-led movement. Compare and contrast this with the relative kid-gloves with which the white settler Bundy brothers were treated in their 2015 takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.

I think we tend to think of racism being obviously and outwardly violent, but it can be more subtle and confusing than that too. On the one hand there’s the real, targeted, militarized response to indigenous protest. On the other hand, there are the cultural attacks that have to do with unprocessed white supremacy that seeks to limit indigenous expression. When a young man told me the story about his experience being recruited by the Buffalo Bill show in Disneyland Paris I knew I’d have to write a novel that somehow culminated in a version of his true story. It seemed astonishing to me that this was what was happening on the Rez in the first decades of the twenty-first century – the cultural assassination of Native American nations, as well as the ongoing economic and social justice injustices — was something to which most white-settler Americans were utterly oblivious.

One of your stylistic details is giving attention to chapter titles, which sort of act like literary précis, and allow you to pivot away from a straight-forward narrative and zoom out to glance at the world writ large in which your characters exist. A title such as “Did the White Man Take Smallpox to the Moon and Other Obvious Questions” is intriguing enough to headline an entire book, yet the chapter that follows is barely two pages, quick enough to poetically remark on Apollo 11 and a stand-off with the feds. How did you come to develop these techniques and approaches to your novel writing?
Stylistically, I’m a complete magpie. I’m tend to be more inspired by the way headlines are written in British tabloid papers, the quirky brilliant work of filmmakers like Wes Anderson, the amazing direct punch of my hero the Zimbabwean poet Freedom Nyamubaya and the artists with something to say like Ai Wei Wei as I am by anything conventional. I wanted to smash the dominant narrative and challenge the ways audiences approached the novel. By making broad pronouncements in chapter headings, followed by an essential sketch, I’m asking the audience to do some of the work, fill in some of the blanks themselves, I m not doing this pedantic all encompassing white-settler narrative a la Charles Dickens or Jonathan Franzen. I want to offer readers signposts, but not the whole map to a place partly because I want the reader to think about their own part in the story. If you’re reading this on north American soil, on Turtle Island as the Sioux would have it, then this is your story to explore.

Cover courtesy of Penguin Press

You were born in England, grew up in Southern Africa, and now reside in Wyoming. What have you borne witness to in the cultural conflicts of say whites and non-white natives (both in SA and the USA)? And with today’s ongoing debate on cultural appropriation, did you encounter any difficulties or reticences in crafting these characters and carving out their narratives.
I was raised by white supremacists in Rhodesia. Having forgotten that they’d invented race to begin with — and with utter disregard for any culture other than a very narrow, straight, white, right-wing “Christian” perspective — the government, the teachers, the priest, my community and my parents were all operating on a violent promise of a “whiter, brighter” future. I not only witnessed cultural and racial conflict, I was an active participant in the terrible violence of that time – as young as six, after all, my parents handed me an Uzi submachine gun, put me in front of a target that was a cardboard cutout of a black man and showed me the difference between shooting to kill and shooting to maim.

Considering white Rhodesians were arming their small children in a war against the very community whose land we’d illegally and violently taken and whose labor we were still stealing, I don’t see how black Rhodesians had any other choice but to resort to violence in response. It’s not as if black Rhodesians hadn’t tried a gentler approach to regaining their liberty – for decades and decades they’d been imploring white settlers to be more equitable in their distribution of land, power, economic resources — but as we’ve seen in this country too, people in power and corporations remain as deaf to the “reasonable” arguments of the disenfranchised, the oppressed and the deliberately silenced now as white Rhodesians were in my childhood.

I hear so many white audiences — particularly older white audiences — defending this county’s appalling record with race by saying they remember what it was like here before the civil rights movement. It’s difficult to know how to respond to people who think that the evolution of slavery to mass incarceration and the restitution of American Indian rights to practice their own spirituality for example justifies the current violence of white supremacy and white privilege in this country today. I hope this novel does something more toward challenging readers to examine what they can do to dismantle the current system of racial capitalism.

There was a civil war raging most of my childhood, which is to say I didn’t see much of what is traditionally referred to as a childhood. The year I turned nine, a week or two after my younger sister drowned, the Rhodesian government issued new rules for the black Rhodesians living in Tribal Trust Lands (TTLS) through which we drove to get to town from our farm. These rules included the directive that any black child under the age of twelve leaving their kraal would be shot by government forces on sight. I remember that time as an almost unthinkable time of constant terror, fed by a steady diet of fear — most specifically a learned fear of anyone who was not white. What the whites did to people of color in Rhodesia ranged from mild acceptance of white privilege at an unthinkable cost to the black majority, to outright warfare. My family were on the more extreme end of that scale, so I have seen that kind of cultured, well-read, well–educated white supremacy from the inside out. Of course, it’s a terrible echo of the policies of apartheid–era governments in South Africa and Rhodesia to see the ever lengthening list of unarmed people of color, and minorities (including Native Americans)in the US who are subject to military–style oppression.

This story mostly takes place in the latter half of the 20th century, but I’m curious as to what you’ve noticed to be the recent successes or ongoing struggles of the Oglala Sioux, especially as to their place and voice in greater America?
The ongoing saga of the 3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access pipeline and the water protectors at Standing Rock is something I think all US citizens should know about. In December last year when a few hundred mostly white American war veterans from our various and on-going wars joined the Native American nations in North Dakota to protest the installation of the oil pipeline on treaty land, and spontaneously took to their knees to ask the Sioux elders for forgiveness for atrocities committed to indigenous communities by the US military, that was a tiny gesture toward beginning to redress the atrocities of the past. Of course, even if the US decided to honor their treaties with native American nations, even if there was an attempt at restitution, and a full and honest inventory of the relationship between white settlers and indigenous communities, we can’t begin to undo the damage that has been done. But we can stop doing further damage, we can honor our treaties with Native Americans, we can go forward mindfully.

What are you currently working on? And how do you know a story is right for novelization?
I ’m always terrified the writing will dry up if I talk about too much before it’s written, but I know I’ll be returning to the same things I’ve always written about — identity, the violence of white supremacy, the tough spirituality of people like Rick Overlooking Horse. And I really don’t know if a story is or isn’t right for novelization until it’s disturbed me to the point I’m ready to try and wrestle it down to the page. This story suggested itself to me this way, so I wrote it as a novel. I really try to be a conduit for what needs to be said, not what’s already been said, and in this case that was possible in fiction in a way that I think would have been stilted in non-fiction. As a writer turning in copy for a non-fiction publication there are so many times you know something in your gut, but you can’t prove it to the satisfaction of a phalanx of fact checkers and editors with their mainstream-media concerns.

Alexandra Fuller’s Quiet Until the Thaw is now out with Penguin Press. She is currently on a US book tour.

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