Amy H. Sturgis on The Intersection of Fantasy & Native America

Intersection
Intersection of Fantasy & Native America

Amy H. Sturgis was one of the first folks I interviewed at this blog. So I was happy to get to interview her again, this time due to the release of The Intersection of Fantasy & Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko (Edited by Amy H. Sturgis and David D. Oberhelman). Sturgis always gives incredibly interesting and insightful answers–as well as being involved in an amazing wide variety of projects. Here’s the official description of this particular project: “A number of contemporary Native American authors incorporate elements of fantasy into their fiction, while several non-Native fantasy authors utilize elements of Native America in their storytelling. Nevertheless, few experts on fantasy consider American Indian works, and few experts on Native American studies explore the fantastic in literature. Now an international, multi-ethnic, and cross-disciplinary group of scholars investigates the meaningful ways in which fantasy and Native America intersect, examining classics by American Indian authors such as Louise Erdrich, Gerald Vizenor, and Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as non-Native fantasists such as H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling. Thus these essayists pioneer new ways of thinking about fantasy texts by Native and non-Native authors, and challenge other academics, writers, and readers to do the same.” Now, on with the interview.

Tim O’Shea: Is the target audience for a book like this mainstream, literary scholars or a mixture of both? Why I ask is when I read chapter titles like “Vizenor the Trickster: Postmodernism Versus Terminal Creeds and Cultural Schizophrenia” I get a smidge intellectually intimidated (that’s meant as a compliment, not a slam)…

Amy H. Sturgis: I’m so glad you asked! We went to great pains to make certain this text would be accessible to interested lay readers as well as students and scholars of fantasy and/or Native American literature. Therefore, in each essay the author introduces and explains the books that he or she will discuss, and the essayists also define their terms carefully to avoid jargonism. This is especially important since our contributors come from such a wide range of fields, each of which employs its own unique terminology. In the essay you mention, Tripper Ryder employs some of the terms his subjects use, but he breaks down each of them in a reader-friendly manner before delving into his fascinating analysis of Gerald Vizenor’s fiction. Never fear! This book was designed to be for any and all who are interested in fantasy and Native America.

O’Shea: How many topics did you consider before deciding on who would be participating in the book–and how long did the selection process take?

Sturgis: Our original Call for Papers went out in 2007 with a deadline of July 2008, and we were intentionally broad in our description, casting a wide net for essays that discussed either works by Native American authors that contained fantastic elements, or works of fantasy by non-Native authors that incorporated Native America in some manner. It took David Oberhelman and me a full year of reading the submissions, responding to them with our comments, and working on revisions with the potential contributors in order to decide on a final Table of Contents. We wanted the best essays possible, and we also wanted them to speak to and inform one another. I’m exceptionally pleased with the essays we chose; the organization of the volume grew rather naturally from these papers to form what I think is a very compelling volume that says something new and important.

O’Shea: A blurb from Travis Prinzi for the book included the following line: “I’m now convinced there’s a vast treasure store of fantasy I haven’t even begun to experience…” In editing the book, were you introduced to any works or concepts that you had not considered before and/or that in some way broadended your perspective on the topic?

Sturgis: I love that quote from Travis Prinzi! Frankly, I learned something from each of the essays in this collection, so a comprehensive answer to your question might become another book in its own right. I will say that I was particularly taken with Punyashree Panda’s angle, however; as a non-Anglo, non-Native, non-Westerner, Punyashree possessed a unique perspective on her subject, and she brought a refreshingly new voice to her analysis of the quest in works by J.R.R. Tolkien and Leslie Marmon Silko. I particularly like the fact that her “outsider’s” discussion of Ceremony and The Lord of the Rings proves that one need not share the same background as the author in order to gain meaningful insights from great literature.

O’Shea: In one comment in the wake of the book’s initial promotion, someone expressed disappointment that Andre Norton’s work was not considered in the topics examines. Admittedly it’s impossible to cover all aspects and every writer, but was there a short list of authors you wanted to include but were unable to, due to space?

Sturgis: To be honest, I haven’t thought in those terms, because the book was never intended to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of authors and works. In fact, the project sprang from my Scholar Guest of Honor speech at MythCon, the annual meeting of The Mythopoeic Society, in 2006; that year’s theme was “Fantasy and Native America,” and in my talk I outlined the problems I saw with the lack of attention being given by scholars and readers to the fantasy in Native American literature as well as the presence of Native America in mainstream fantasy. I framed my address as a challenge for more cross-subject and cross-disciplinary discussion — this address became the first chapter in the book — and that challenge was ably met by our contributors, who cover authors as diverse as Neil Gaiman and Gerald Vizenor. But this book represents a first step only. The goal of the volume is to encourage others to join in the dialogue, to think differently about these subjects, and so I am pleased that others are already finding additional authors and works they find to be relevant to this discussion. I want to hear more conversations and see more publications on these subjects!

O’Shea: How did you and David D. Oberhelman break down the editorial chores on the project? What was the largest challenge in the whole editorial process?

Sturgis: I had edited three books by myself, but I had never collaborated with another editor previously. In this case I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with David, who is a class act in every possible way. We had the good fortune to find ourselves in constant agreement; we value the same things in a text, and when we compared notes on submissions, we discovered our thoughts were often almost identical. But David also approached the project with tools and training that are different than mine, so I think we complemented each other nicely. We read and commented on submissions and their revisions together, just as we made the final decisions on acceptances. In other tasks, we divided the labor; I was the liason with the contributors, and David was the liason with The Mythopoeic Press; I worked more on the final edit of the text, while David worked more with its layout; etc. The largest challenge was deciding among the terrific submissions. In the end, we had to turn away some essays that were quite good but that fit less well with the overall shape of the collection. I do believe the final product as it stands represents the very best possible combination of essays.

O’Shea: The book’s contributors are a cross-disciplinary group of scholars–can you speak to the variety of disciplines represented in the book?

Sturgis: This is one of the aspects of the collection that excites me most; not only does it represent a discussion across the (often arbitrary) lines of subject matter (in this case, fantasy literature and Native American literature), but it also represents a discussion across the traditional boundaries of disciplines. Our contributors come from a variety of fields, some of which rarely have the opportunity to interact at all, much less inform each other: Literature, Anthropology, Creative Writing, Communications, Education, and History. Several of our contributors literally “wrote the book” on their respective subjects, as well.

O’Shea: Can you discuss the thinking behind Melissa Gay’s cover for the book?

Sturgis: It is a privilege to have Melissa Gay’s remarkable art represent our volume. (This is the second time I’ve had the delight of working with Melissa; her “Aslan” painting served as the cover art for my book Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis.) We were looking for an image that could equally represent Native American literature and so-called “mainstream” fantasy, and I think Melissa captured this beautifully with her depiction of the “Forest Spirit.” On the one hand, this might be the Green Man who rose from an ancient pagan past to adorn the Christian churches of Western Europe, only to be transformed into the Green Kight of Arthurian legend and later remimagined in more contemporary stories. On the other hand, it might be at home in the Americas, a representation of one of the traditional manitous or sacred spirits recognized by a given Native nation, or perhaps it is a personification of the power of nature and a way of life, the kind modern American Indian authors such as Louise Erdrich have described in their recent writings. The strength of the art, beyond its obvious beauty, is that it speaks on many levels — and in many languages.

O’Shea: While the book’s essays seeks to reveal interconnections between fantasy and Native American fiction–were there any perceived misperceptions of interconnections that were proven to not truly exist?

Sturgis: Not really. At first I did expect more of a focus on how poorly some non-Native writers incorporate Native characters or themes into their works — that is, with such little care for research, attention to detail, or respect (yes, I mean you, Best-Selling Author I Will Not Name) — but as darkly satisfying as such nitpicking might be in the short term, I think the volume is all the better for focusing on excellent, timeless literature by non-Natives as well as Natives (yes, I mean you, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Michael Bishop, J.K. Rowling, etc.), as well as on the compelling areas where these worlds of fantasy and Native America intersect.

O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

Sturgis: I don’t think so. The book is available at Amazon.com and directly from The Mythopoeic Press; also, David and I each will be attending various conventions and events in 2010, and we should have copies with us to sign and sell. Many thanks to all who have been so interested and supportive of this project.

O’Shea: Given that your website is named The Worlds of Amy H. Sturgis–what other projects are you working on at present?

Sturgis: Thanks for asking! I’ve just completed an article on the cultural phenomenon behind 2012 for Apex Magazine. In the new year, I will be finishing writing my new book, The Gothic Imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and J.K. Rowling for Zossima Press, and I’ll also be working on a couple of exciting new projects that, unfortunately, I’m not yet at liberty yet to discuss. In the meantime, I’ll also be teaching my courses for Belmont University, contributing my regular “History of the Genre” segments to the StarShipSofa podcast, and appearing at some terrific cons around the country. There’s more information on all my forthcoming projects at my official website.

As always, it’s a joy to speak with you, Tim. Thanks so much!