After years of attempts and false starts, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain has found a way to write an all-vocal story, specifically the way people talk on the Blackfeet reserve, where he grew up.
“These are the voices I know,” he said. “It’s English that makes sense to me on the deepest level, it’s English that I love.”
“This then is a song, we sing” was published in the winter issue of The Paris Review, following of them rooms in the New Yorker last year. The 40-page story is written entirely as a social media stream-of-consciousness post, typed out in the middle of the night by its protagonist, a young Blackfeet in the midst of a relationship crisis, followed by a chorus of commentary. in response.
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After years of perplexing over the idea, the publication’s format proved key, in which the narrator’s voice would be uninterrupted. HolyWhiteMountain said rural writers all face a problem – writing “has to work aesthetically, and it’s really hard to do that when you’re also trying to represent a dialect” and a specific place.
“In this story, I think I did both – I hope,” he said.
The post, which is an online monologue, gradually unfolds the story of narrator Wayne “Flurry” Thunder Jr.’s relationship with Lulu, which began after he returned to the reservation. While once promising, it hits a stalemate and now it unravels their stuff, reaching out not just to the reader but very deliberately to everyone in his town via social media.
David Treuer, author of “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” called the story and one of The New Yorker’s stories “incredible short stories, formally thought-provoking and immensely readable”, in the Los Angeles Times.
HolyWhiteMountain, 43, grew up in East Glacier on the Blackfeet reservation – his father is Blackfeet, but he is not recognized as a member of the tribe due to registration requirements.
He came to the University of Montana for creative writing, where he studied with authors such as Kevin Canty, Debra Magpie Earling, Deirdre “Dee” McNamer, and Brady Udall. Then he headed to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop for his MFA. Subsequently, he returned to the reserve and ran the writing center at Blackfeet Community College.
For 2018-2020, he was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Other Montana writers who have been shortlisted include Caroline Patterson, Neil McMahon, William Kittredge, Thomas McGuane, and William Hjortsberg.
The two-year fellowship provided a weekly workshop with professors and, beyond that, time and space to write. After scholarship, he received a Jones Lectureship at Stanford and taught creative writing to undergraduate students. When the pandemic hit, he left the Bay Area and moved to East Glacier and taught remotely for a year. Currently, he is in Provincetown, Mass., at the Fine Arts Work Center for a fellowship.
A New York play, “Featherweight,” centers on a fledgling writer leaving the reservation to attend college at a nearby campus, Clarkston. The narrator describes immersing himself in a new world populated by girls from “exotic countries like Portland”, before meeting Allie, who is from another reservation. She’s a literary type – she’s drawn to academia and social justice – and the story explores their dating experiences and carefully follows how aspiration and optimism collide with disappointment and hopelessness. uncertainty in the first years of university.
The New Yorker also published a non-fiction article in July 2021, “The Buffalo Robe and the Radio”, about him moving into his own bedroom for the first time as a teenager – listening to music for the first time in earnest. while sleeping on buffalo robes.
Amid the pandemic, the Paris Review asked him to interview acclaimed author Louise Erdrich (it will be published this year), and asked him to submit a story.
Voice on the page
He had long wanted to write an article that would “reflect how Indigenous people use Facebook” and what it looks like when a community is active on a 24/7 platform.
“You realize that the way English is generally spoken on the reservation actually exists in a space between what you might consider more standard American English and Blackfoot,” he said.
This story, he said, feels representative of its subject matter while meeting the “aesthetic demands of literary fiction.”
In some ways, he said the approach reverts to modernist fiction – the last third in particular becomes more experimental and demanding, even if the initial hook is apparently “casual” online writing.
After looking at issues like whether to use emojis or not, he limited himself to text and posting only, because “what matters is actually all those voices in one place.” He wrote a first draft, about 50 double-spaced pages, in a two-day sprint while hoping the outcome of the experiment would work. “That was my writer’s prayer for that day. “I hope people get past the front page,” he said.
Spoilers ahead: The first section includes Flurry’s late-night brilliance, which relies on readers’ internalized response to social media posts, and the familiar beat of confessional immediacy. The second half is the thread of a chorus of reactionary comments – equally frantic, concerned, shocked and (again) humorous. A deliberate darkness settles into the final act.
He wrote much of the latter part on Facebook as drafts to get in the right frame of mind – he noticed that he wrote and thought differently on social media himself. The social network is “built” for “fast, long, unedited” prose, with few capitals or punctuation. Lacking the natural comma breaks, his all-caps jokes and interjections become a natural breathing point. (Flurry is an insecure narrator for the job, by the way.)
Under the challenge of a long status update, the writing works on a constant flow that engages the reader. Describing a happier time in the relationship, Flurry recalls a car ride they took: Like you see white people do in movies, we go to the mountains and park up there on a stop and we would sit there looking at the best mountains in the world and we would talk about everything or not…”
When they pass through La Fleur, a fictional neighboring town, it can go from poetic to humorous in a short, rhythmic period: “it was one of those calm, very calm Sunday afternoons in a town of white men where you didn’t even hear lawn mowers. what seems like a small miracle in a town of white men in the summer it was quiet, like strange, like when a cougar or a bear is nearby and all the birds, insects and even fish are silent haha .
For a sampling of the all-caps humor, there’s a dedication to a regional fast-food chain: “You’ve ever had a problem in life, you just take a little trip to taco juans and you get mexitatos and everything will be ALL F—— GOOD HEA.
HolyWhiteMountain’s sentences, paragraphs and word count in these stories are maximum. “This Then Is a Song” is 40 pages, “Featherweight” is 5,600 words.
As he immersed himself in literature as a young man, he was drawn to writers like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, both masters of a minimalist style.
He tried to imitate them, but found it restrictive: their approach was tailored to settings and contexts the reader was familiar with, which he says is not true for Indigenous writers.
“It’s something every Indigenous writer has to deal with: how much are you going to give the reader to understand what you’re doing? he said. By comparison, Carver’s audience, regardless of race, knew the world he was writing about because it was ubiquitous in popular culture and art and “makes it easier for the reader to fill in the gaps”.
He’s glad he studied this kind of minimalism because it “teaches you how to write a powerful sentence.” But a more expansive way of writing seemed to him necessary.
“Historically, a lot of native writing has gone out of its way to make sure it’s acceptable to non-Indians,” he said, meaning the writer is doing the work for the reader at a degree such that certain elements are “sacrificed”. including why they started writing in the first place.
“Part of the drive for Indigenous writers in my experience is this willingness to put on the page what you’ve never seen on the page yourself,” he said, “because no one no one else wrote it.”