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Morgan Talty tells the story of a Penobscot boy trying to 'come back' to his family after tragedy

Morgan Talty writes 12 interconnected short stories in his new collection, "Night of the Living Rez." It follows the story of David, a young Penobscot boy living on a reservation in Maine, and Dee, who is an older version of David.

Talty, who is also Penobscot and lives in Levant, Maine, drew a lot of inspiration for the characters from his life. He talks about experimenting with the way David’s story could be told.

Morgan Talty, author: I'm not a person who really plans when I start writing. I just kind of see where it goes. And I wrote a story called "Burn" and the main character turned out to be Dee and I didn't want him to be Dee. I wanted it to just be a story that was unrelated to the collection. But when I started thinking more and more, I was like, 'Wait, is this David grown up?' And it sort of turned the whole collection into something different.

Then the question became, what happened? That forced me to work with the David stories I had written and maybe leave breadcrumbs here and there all the way up to the "Night of the Living Rez" story, in which I think we see why Dee turns out the way he does.

Nirvani Williams, NEPM: Your collection of stories has such vivid descriptions of the natural world, and you create a multitude of creatures, both mythical and real, that anchors your characters in their hardships. And I wanted to know what significance does the environment have to these characters and for your stories?

The environment, for me, for these characters, but I think just for Wabanaki people — which Wabanaki is Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi'kmaq and Maliseet — and means people of the first light or people of the dawn.

Land is currency in a Western viewpoint, but for many Indigenous people and for Indigenous cultures, land isn't equated with money, even though there's years and years and years of treaty-making and transfer of land for goods and stuff. But land has always been a very representative sense of self for Indigenous people.

In "Night of the Living Rez" [the short story], when David, [and his friends] JP and Tyson are paddling, there's this line that David says, something along the lines of, "We were paddling in this vast river that is our blood."

For me, you can't separate the person from the actual landscape. For the characters, "place" in that sort of philosophical sense, makes place almost like a character, which we see in "Get Me Some Medicine," where the river may play a role in this disappearance of a particular person. The place actually enacts itself on the people, and I just treat places as carefully as I would treat a person.

 The book jacket for "Night of the Living Rez," by Maine author, Morgan Talty.
Morgan Talty
/
Submitted
The book jacket for "Night of the Living Rez," by Maine author, Morgan Talty.

Also there are these mythical creatures that you talk about in the book. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that and your use of these mythical spirits and tribal lore with your characters?

Yeah. So I never set out to be like, "OK, I'm going to talk about spirits" or "I'm not going to talk about, like, different type of creation stories." I always looked for the opportune moment where these type of stories, these types of details, these types of other beings could come not as the focal point of a scene, but as an extension of the mundane or a particular situation. I feel like a lot of readers of Indigenous fiction expect this performance and I didn't want to put culture on display here.

But all of it really just comes from my experience. There are a number of lines in the book where David mentions the dirty dishes in the sink would be covered with a red cloth, as was the custom to tell the [bad] spirits to stay away. That's something I grew up with. My mom would have been in bed. I would have been out with my friends, and I'd come home and I'd see that the dishes hadn't been covered, but there would be a towel there. And I'd put the towel over, just because ... I don't want Goog’ooks or bad spirits coming in.

My mom used to yell at them all the time. Like, she couldn't find her lighter, so she would blame it on spirits and pugwagees ... So it was always very in my life and it was inescapable for these characters. Because it wasn't just in my life. It was also in my friends' lives, their parents said those things, they said those things. So it was just inescapable.

Why did you choose the title "Night of the Living Rez"?

You know, there's a line that's in the synopsis for the book that's online, but isn't on the actual jacket. It comes before everything else. It goes, "How does the living come back to life?"

When you read [the short story] "Night of the Living Rez," I felt like that story is such a pivotal story in understanding what went wrong. There's also so much in that story about this idea of the [white] gaze or this idea of filming Native people. And even the last line itself, it felt very much like me — or at least me trying to give the middle finger to this idea of performance, of like, let's make these Natives dance for the enjoyment of a white readership.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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