In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Mona Susan Power
Your fictional short story in Volume 24, “Iktomi Spins a Web” is a fresh take on Iktómi, a trickster spider from Dakota and Lakota traditions. What was your intention behind creating a new story with a traditional character? Are there certain things a writer should take into consideration when reworking elements of traditional tales?
I honestly don’t choose new writing projects, rather feel as if they choose me. I’ll hear a line in my head or glimpse the flash of an image, and my imagination is off and running! I have to solve the mystery of what the image signifies, or who spoke the line of narration. I not only give myself full permission to follow what comes to me, unbidden, but feel compelled to do so.
When I was invited to write a short piece for a project on bringing life to an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I was drawn to Article 19 which declares the right to personally own property. Raised as I was to see territory as a relative, this concept of ownership is troubling. No sooner did I have that thought than Iktómi appeared in my head, prepared to take on the issue in an extreme and foolish way. In many stories he teaches us important lessons through his poor decisions or rash actions. Once the story was written, I felt it fit within that tradition. Nothing came of the original project, but I was grateful for the gift of a new piece.
At the beginning of your story, I was immediately intrigued by the viewpoint you gave Iktómi. We aren’t told he is a spider, but through description this becomes evident. I loved how you described his life in a human home eating crumbs and avoiding the vacuum cleaner as well as his perspective of the people who watch “Coyote News all day, every day.” What was your process developing this character with such a unique perspective?
As soon as I wrote the first line of the story, I was immersed in Iktómi’s perspective, seeing everything through his (many) eyes. It’s difficult to talk about the story process in terms of conscious development since it’s a story that just flew out of my fingers as I typed. One picture in my head led to another and another. I didn’t purposely withhold the information that he is a spider, but viewing the world from his point of view, there was no need to make mention since we ordinary folks don’t introduce ourselves to one another by stating that we’re human.
What partly inspired this slice of Iktómi’s life in a “foreign” home which is off-reservation, is a visit I had years ago, as the guest of a farm family who lived on the border between North and South Dakota. We had a lovely time together though we were so different culturally and politically.
As is common with traditional stories, your story has a lesson. We watch Iktómi do something that is silly and learn from his mistake. This message is also a commentary on how indigenous people were forcefully removed from their homelands and how incredulous it is to “own the earth.” What are your thoughts on the ability of fictional stories to educate, heal, and work as a bridge between cultures?
Entering fictional words as a reader develops our empathy “muscle.” I remember as a child delighting in the chance to walk in others’ footsteps, fascinated by the experiences of Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Anne’s adventures on Prince Edward Island in the Anne of Green Gables series. I was enthralled by the tale of Taran, a young Assistant Pig Keeper in The Book of Three, and I so believed that Narnia was a real place, I knocked on the back walls of every closet I encountered when my family stayed in motels. I was ready to storm my way into another world!
I distinctly remember the first time I read Jane Austen in middle school, being awed by how well I could identify with an author who lived in an era from the distant past. Austen wasn’t Native, she’d never set foot in Chicago or danced at a powwow, yet I felt kin to her in our mutual distaste for hypocrisy. These connections beyond time and space and culture are the first step to developing respect across chasms of difference.
For Volume 25, you were the contributing fiction editor. What was your experience like in this role? Were there any surprises, or anecdotes you could share? Do you have any suggestions for anyone taking on a similar editing role?
I’ve never served as a contributing editor before, so I had a LOT to learn. I was too wedded to following the “rules” laid out in the job description and should have reached out sooner to the wonderful executive editor, Meghan Maloney-Vinz, when I had questions. I’ve always been shy, an introvert, someone who tried to figure things out on her own. But a literary journal is a collaborative effort, and I needed to take advantage of the guidance available to me much sooner in the process.
A lovely surprise is that I’ve become friends with some of the writers whose work was accepted for publication—people who were complete strangers until we began emailing back and forth regarding revision. Ultimately the experience of working with Mubanga Kalimamukwento, a terrific assistant editor and talented writer, and the entire team of dedicated staff and fellow contributing editors, Kao Kalia Yang, and Ed Bok Lee, was deeply rewarding!
What stories or writers are you excited about in the upcoming Volume 25?
Truly, all of them! Each story is so wildly different from the other—stories from all over the globe and from different eras. I’m so grateful for the diversity of experiences and voices. I’m thrilled that I was given the chance to invite writers to contribute a story, and as a result one of my favorite authors, Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes of the Tlingit Nation, produced a new piece for this forthcoming issue. It startles me to think that the powerful story, “Drowning in Shallow Water,” might not have been written if not for the invitation.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m currently working through the copy-edits of my new novel, A Council of Dolls, which will be published in the summer of 2023 by Mariner/HarperCollins. Before this version of the manuscript, I was working on a new novel, The Year of Fury, narrated by a Dakota woman who has lived for nearly two-hundred years. She’s been given extra mojo that prolongs her life, though to the world she looks as she did when she was still a young mother. She burns through her powers of vengeance too quickly and must learn the purpose and design of her true mission. There are also two short stories that need finishing—one a horror story inspired by actual events.
MONA SUSAN POWER is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, born in Chicago. She is the author of four books of fiction: The Grass Dancer (recipient of a PEN/Hemingway Award), Roofwalker, Sacred Wilderness, and the forthcoming novel, A Council of Dolls, to be published in Summer 2023 by Mariner/HarperCollins. Grants that have supported her writing include an Iowa Arts Fellowship, James Michener Fellowship, Radcliffe Bunting Institute Fellowship, Princeton Hodder Fellowship, USA Artists Fellowship, McKnight Fellowship, and Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Fellowship. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.