LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne/Arapaho) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut) were among the 54 artists to receive 2012 USA Fellowships from United States Artists. The fellowships were awarded in December with unrestricted grants of $50,000. “The USA Fellows for 2012 are not only incredible artists, they also give back to their communities and engage with the most pressing social issues of our time. We are proud to honor 54 of this country’s greatest living artists and celebrate their extraordinary contributions,” said USA Executive Director Katharine DeShaw in a press release
LeAnne Howe, a journalist turned novelist, poet, playwright, screenwriter and director of creative writing and professor of English and Native studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, received an award for literature. “I became a writer so I could go off in all directions, meet new people, write about what I’ve hungered to know,” she says on her website.
Howe writes about American Indian experiences. Her award-winning debut novel, Shell Shaker, shifts between the 18th century assassination of a Choctaw warrior during a time of war against the English and the 20th century murder of a Choctaw chief during a mafia takeover of the tribe’s casino. Susan Power, author of the novel The Grass Dancer, described Howe’s work as “brilliant, surprising, hilarious, heartbreaking work that layers vision upon vision and cracks America wide open. LeAnne Howe has created a literary landscape you have never seen before and will never forget.” Howe’s second novel, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (2007), recounts the story of a Choctaw baseball pitcher and his team and moves between 1907 and the present.
Howe received the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and a number of other awards, including J. William Fulbright Scholar grant in 2010-2011 to teach at University of Jordan, Amman.
Howe was back in Jordan recently interviewing the descendants of the men who fought in the Thawra, the Arab Revolt in 1917, for her forthcoming novel Memoir of a Choctaw Indian in the Arab Revolts, 1917 and 2011 when Indian Country Today Media Network reached her for this interview by e-mail:
Can you describe the new novel you’re working on?
When the Tunisian revolution began in December 2010, I felt it was the epitomizing event that would spread across the region, the result we would not know for perhaps a generation. I shot film of the protests against and parades of support for King Abdullah of Jordan. As the protests continued I began to write as an embedded narrator from within the consciousness of the Arab Spring, and the effects it had on me, a foreigner in a region at war with itself.
For the novel, I am writing through the consciousness of my Choctaw character, Benjamin Hen, as he traveled to Beirut in 1913 then onto the town of Salt, (now in Jordan), to work in a Christian hospital. In the story, Benjamin, a Choctaw Christian missionary, will end up fighting alongside Arab tribesman in 1917 to help overthrow the Ottoman Empire. Of course his family is trying to hold onto their allotment lands set against extreme poverty and swindler-lawyers in Oklahoma in 1917. There is much more to the story, of course. My own memoir is embedded in the novel. I’m in search of my characters, in search of myself as a Choctaw living in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. I hope to have it finished by 2014.
What’s the most challenging kind of writing and what’s the most rewarding?
Screenplays are challenging—as a writer we must make images the verbs of the plot. Fiction is most rewarding.… I think that there are connections within connections that we are unaware of when we begin artistic projects, like writing a novel, making a film, or writing a poem. For example, on November 9, 2012, I attended an honoring ceremony for my Uncle Schlicht Billy, who was a World War II Code Talker. I didn’t start writing the novel because all three of my uncles were soldiers in World War II, but after attending the ceremony, I could see a relationship, between my characters and my family. These surprising revelations are the reason I write. My uncle was fighting for his home, indigenous America in World War II. The relevant link for me is that my fictional character Benjamin was also fighting for his adopted home, indigenous Bilad ash Sham, in 1917. For me there is a connection, a similarity, I want to write about in this new work.