This year, we’re shining our literary light on Indigenous writers Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation), Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), and Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa).
Editor’s Note: The Real Deal is C&I’s 2021 entertainment feature where we share our recommendations for musicians, writers, entertainers, and podcasters who possess a common trait: unmistakable authenticity.
Last year’s literary light shone brightly on Tommy Orange (Cheyenne, Arapaho). This year we’re calling attention to some Indigenous women’s voices and can think of no better place to dive into that deep and refreshing water than Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation). It’s not just because she learned to play sax at 40 while already an esteemed poet that we think this now-69-year-old phenom is a complete badass. Poet, musician, playwright, singer, actor, and author, Harjo is the incumbent United States Poet Laureate — the first Native American to receive the honor. She edited the revelatory 2020 anthology of Native poetry When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, which should be required reading for the title alone. Also essential reading: her 2019 poetry collection, An American Sunrise; and her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave. But really, anything Harjo writes could go straight into the cart for immediate checkout — and while you’re clicking around, explore her award-winning CDs. Also, dig her readings and other performances on YouTube.
Kelli Jo Ford
Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) burst on the scene in late 2020 with Crooked Hallelujah and its linked stories about generations of Cherokee women fighting cycles of poverty and bad relationships. The book continues to get lots of love in the press for good reason. Who wouldn’t want to keep reading a story that starts “When Lula stepped into the yard, the stray cat Justine held took off so fast it scratched her and sent the porch swing sideways”? That the author has a dog named Sylvia Plath just makes you love her all the more and crave whatever she puts to paper.
Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) is a literary giant. Her prodigious output is smart, stunning, and enduringly, enlighteningly Indigenous. Her intimate Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis features works by and about Native Americans. On the shelves there, you’ll find Erdrich’s latest bestseller, The Night Watchman, which is based on her own grandfather. We can’t do a better job of encouraging you to enter into its spell than Luis Alberto Urrea did in the New York Times Book Review: “Erdrich delivers a magisterial epic that brings her power of witness to every page. ... We are grateful to be allowed into this world. ... I walked away from the Turtle Mountain clan feeling deeply moved, missing these characters as if they were real people known to me. In this era of modern termination assailing us, the book feels like a call to arms. A call to humanity. A banquet prepared for us by hungry people.”
Photography: Images courtesy Matika Wilbur, Kelli Jo Ford/Val Ford Hancock, Harper Collins/Hilary Abe
From our January 2021 issue.