Writer and professor Kirstin L. Squint penned her dissertation on the way native people represent spirituality as resistance to European and U.S. settler colonialism. “In that research, I had a chapter on ceremonies,” she says. That was when she came across Shell Shaker. There were a few published articles on that novel and its author, Choctaw artist LeAnne Howe, but overall Squint found very little analysis had been done on Howe’s work. So she set out to rectify the situation.
Squint’s new book, LeAnne Howe at the Intersections of Southern and Native American Literature, is a monograph geared mainly toward scholars, but “the goal is also to be an intervention into the conversation about what we mean when we talk about Native Americans in the South,” says Squint. “I’ve had a few [nonacademic] folks buy it who are generally interested in Native American literature, and that blows my mind and makes me so happy.” Squint will present the book, in a discussion with UNC Asheville professors Erica Abrams Locklear and Anne Jansen, at Malaprop’s on Friday, Jan. 25.
Just after completing her master’s degree, Squint taught at Newcomb High School, on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. While a graduate student, Squint had taken a class on contemporary non-Western literature, where she encountered Native American writers such as Chippewa author Louise Erdrich and Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso. “That was part of why, when the opportunity came up for me to teach on the reservation … I had a lot of interest because of that exposure in college,” she says.
Squint grew up in Kentucky and is currently based in North Carolina as an associate professor of English at High Point University. “I came back to the Southeast, and suddenly my eyes were open to the native people around me because I’d lived on a reservation and lived out west where there were so many different nations around us,” she says.
In 2008, when Squint was finishing her dissertation, Locklear (a friend of Squint’s from college) mentioned a Southern literature conference where Howe would be speaking. There, Squint interviewed Howe for the first time (LeAnne Howe at the Intersections of Southern and Native American Literature draws from that meeting and a second interview in 2013). There, she also discovered “a whole world of scholars working on Native American literature of the South. … That conference opened up a whole new area for me in terms of what I was doing in my work,” she says. “I joke that if I hadn’t gone to that conference to interview LeAnne Howe, I don’t know that I would have become a Southernist.”
That term refers to a scholar specializing in the study of the Southern region of this country. Most such researchers are non-native, Squint points out, and “I think the native people who do this work don’t consider themselves Southernists,” though there’s some crossover. Craig Womack, who teaches at Emory University, for example, “is a creative writer, and he writes about Creek writers … but he’s a Creek guy doing work on his own tribe and tribal literatures,” Squint says.
Similarly, Howe “has stated that she hopes Shell Shaker will ‘help other Choctaws remember their own stories and so that they might bring more of the past back into existence,’” Squint writes in her book. Howe’s work has the potential to “‘forge a progressive social space’ … because of ‘its very separation from the conventional non-Native canon.’ For Howe, that ‘progressive social space’ is is a continued struggle for sovereignty that is intricately connected to storytelling.”
Beyond her work at the junction of Southern and native writing, Howe is also intersectional in her craft. A novelist, poet, filmmaker, playwright and critical theorist, her work is taught in Native American studies courses, and Southernists have begun to include Shell Shaker in their classes because it’s about Mississippi, Squint says. “She does fit in the Native American literary renaissance if you’re talking about folks from the era of 1969 when [N. Scott] Momaday’s House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer, through the ’80s. … I really feel like a book needed to be written about her.”
Howe has a new project in the works. Squint can’t reveal many details, but it will challenge some long-held perceptions about the treatment of and attitudes toward native people. “I do think native writers get pigeonholed, but hopefully, in recent years, some of those writers might have broken up assumptions about what native lit might look like,” Squint says. Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange, whose 2018 debut novel, There There, which centers the story of multiple Native American characters in the urban environs of Oakland, Calif., is among them. But Squint points out that other writers, such as Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American novelist Sherman Alexie, “have been writing about the urban Indian experience for a while. … But seeing native literature more for what it is — lots of different voices from lots of different cultural traditions — is being emphasized.”
Squint does take issue with certain ideas, such as the “Native South,” which “is not fair to people who were forcibly removed. … You have to take into account there are ancestral homelands that their stories come from,” she says. What Squint does hope, as people are thinking more about the native experience, is a discussion about those, such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who stayed on their land: what they had to do to survive and what they had to give up. “That history is also really traumatic,” says Squint.
WHO: Kirstin L. Squint with UNC Asheville professors Erica Abrams Locklear and Anne Jansen
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 25, 6 p.m.