In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Zibiquah Denny
I really enjoyed your creative nonfiction piece “The Buckskin Dress” in Volume 24 which tells the history of your family through the usage and the making of a dress sewn by your grandmother. Why did you choose to tell this story through the history of the dress? How does the artifact impact the storytelling?
Originally I was going to write a story on dancing–my mom was a highly respected pow-wow dancer and I inherited her love of dance. Then I read my brother Jack’s college essay on my mom meeting one of his heroes, Ira Hayes. I never knew that story and I knew I had to use it while talking about dance and ceremony. As I thought more and more about the dance and the dress and all the layers it represented, the dress became an important and appropriate vehicle to talk about our family history, culture, love and loss.
As the story developed, I wanted to include the hunt of the deer, the prayers and ceremonies around the gifts we are blessed with, and the animals who give their lives for our well-being. It all came together after talking with my cousin Alfred. Praying with seyma (tobacco), giving thanks and ceremony are important aspects of our culture. I wanted to show that with this essay.
Your story also references the history of your people, the Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk. What research did you do in writing this piece? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
I read historical books on the Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk to understand when and where the removals and other major historical events took place. I also read smaller publications from the Wisconsin Historical Society and other tribal publications. I interviewed family members and wrote down some of my own recollections as a child.
This essay is one story in the memoir I am working on. I wrote an essay on my Naming Ceremony which goes more in-depth into the Potawatomi removal from Wisconsin. I used a broader history for that story because of the intrusion on our religious practices and ceremonies which was a major part of that story.
The Buckskin Dress did not require much historical context because the dress was worn by family members for various reasons within two generations. I focused on the dress, the making of it, the person who made it and the people who wore it because it made for a more layered and engaging story. I did not want to weigh it down with unnecessary historical facts.
Often when telling family stories, there are contradictions depending on peoples’ different points of view. How did you collect the family stories that are present in the piece? Were there any bumps in the road, or shining moments you’d like to share with us in the gathering of family lore?
Fortunately most of this story comes from my own recollections as a child and youth. I used to go with my mom to these gigs since I was three years old–at first it was a requirement because I was the youngest and not in school yet. Later as I got to be a teen I chose to go with my mom because I really loved seeing her dance–I developed a love of my own for the dance so it was very helpful for me to watch her move.
I started to dance when I was a young teen. My cousin Alfred was happy to share his stories with me–I appreciated his willingness to not only share his experiences but his good humor. He was nothing but encouraging. I had to include humor in the story because humor is a very important cultural trait and I wanted that to show–I hope everyone understood it. Sometimes we humans take ourselves much too seriously.
You were a former editor of The Circle newspaper, guest editor at Yellow Medicine Review, and currently a contributing editor at Solstice. Do you find editing to be complementary to your writing life? If so, in what ways?
I do, but not because it is easy. Editing is a very meticulous task but a necessary one to write cohesively. I first write out the story without editing myself because that slows down the flow and can be extremely time consuming. I wait to edit until the story is finished and then go back several times to take out repetitions or unnecessary pieces in the story–details that do not add anything to the main theme.
Deciding what to leave in or out also requires some thought. So I ask myself what I want to leave with the reader. What do I want them to learn? It is important not to take for granted that the readers will understand everything, especially if you are writing about specific cultural, racial and historical events. That is where a mixed race reading group comes in handy. I have participated in several groups and they have been very helpful. However that is not always possible.
I assume most people do not know certain historical details, so I include them to not confuse or lose the reader. It is better to be thorough in your telling of any story with a historical or cultural nature.
Do you have any tips for other writers on how to maintain a writing life?
Stay focused and do not get discouraged. Take the time you need to write whenever you get the chance because it is not always possible, especially if you have a job or children. I do not have a set time that I write. Remember everyone writes differently. Figure out the best time of the day for you to write, but if you cannot get to writing then read. Read everything and not just the genre you are writing in. The more you read the better writer you will become.
What are some books, journals, or writers that you’ve enjoyed reading recently?
The best book I read on writing is called On Writing by Stephen King. It’s funny and easy to read–he gives great tips for all kinds of writing, I highly recommend it. Isabel Allende is also a favorite writer of mine, her latest book Violeta is a good read; Heavy by Kiese Laymon; Night by Elie Wiesel; Whereas by Layli Long Soldier; The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich.
Skunk Hill is a small book published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and was an important book for me because the writer interviews many of my family members. They were descendants of the Skunk Hill group of Potawatomies who escaped the reservation in Kansas to practice their religion freely in their homelands of Wisconsin.
That’s a short list, I try to read a book a week.
What are some projects that you are working on now?
I have been working on more poetry but still mainly working on my memoir. I will have a poem called War Torn History published in the November issue of Solstice magazine.
ZIBIQUAH DENNY is Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk originally from the Great Lakes and woodlands of Wisconsin. She is a storyteller, telling stories that educate by writing from an indigenous cultural and historical perspective with a contemporary voice. Formerly a journalist, she is currently writing creative nonfiction and poetry. She is a recent recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant in which she organized and read for the Custer Had It Coming event in Minneapolis. She guest edited the Spring 2020 issue of Yellow Medicine Review and co-edited the local Voices Rising Journal in 2021 and is now working on a memoir.