Culture

The Thinnest of Veils

Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land BY Toni Jensen. New York: Ballantine Books. 304 pages. $26.
The cover of Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land

When I was a graduate student in Texas, the first time I brought a story into workshop, a fellow student told me if I was going to “write about Indians,” I would need to separate my writing more from that of Louise Erdrich. Then this man misquoted from the beginning of Erdrich’s novel Tracks, ostensibly to show how similar it was to my story. At the end of workshop when it was my turn to speak, I corrected his misquotation and suggested in my most polite voice that perhaps to him “Indians” writing about snow all seemed the same. I assured him we were not. I assured him though we might both have written about snow, neither of us was “writing about Indians.”

There were so many things that afternoon I did not say. I did not tell this man how it felt, in my first weeks on campus, to have my favorite book mistreated this way. I didn’t trust my voice for that. I did not explain how “Erdrich” rhymes with brick, not witch. I did not trust my voice for that either.

Her books were sent to me by a friend when I was young and lived in Wales for nearly a year, so far from home I thought I might float from my skin, I might shift shape, I might no longer be who or what I was. Her stories were the first fiction I read to contain the word Métis. I kept that part very quiet. There was no part of me that wanted to hear this word mangled and spit from this man’s mouth.

I did make two friends that day in workshop, a Black woman and the white, Republican son of a wealthy Texas oil family. I learned fast that I would be surprised in this place by who would be good company. The class held mostly white, female faces, and not one of those women looked me in the eye or spoke to me, then or any time soon after.

Later, more company arrived—queer writers and Latino and Chicano writers and another Native writer—so I had far more company than did Marie, far more voices pushing alongside mine.

We needed each other. The next semester another white, male student wrote as his comment on one of my poems, “Stop writing the in for the moment but sure not to last Indian poems.” What I was writing, it seemed, was considered a fad, temporary, “sure not to last.” I was writing my life, as had so many generations of Métis before. So then I was, we were, temporary, a fad, “sure not to last.” How can you stay in a place if your very existence is “sure not to last”? If not for my company, I might not have stayed. If not for my company, it could have been a last-straw moment.

The next year, yet another white, male student in workshop started writing hate stories using all of us in the class as recognizable characters. He put only the thinnest of veils around all the terrible things he thought about each of us, yet mine was the only character he killed off over and over and over again.

The second-to-last time, the character was run over by a Ford Escort. The Ford Escort then backed up and ran over the character that was me but was not me, of course, of course. It backed up and ran over again and again and again. At the bar, after class, every time my company called me by my name, I shook my head and said, “I now only answer to the name Ford Escort.” I drank plenty that night, despite not having bought a single drink.

In the weeks after, they called me “Ford Escort” in the halls. They maybe said it too loud because the next story from this writer was a different sort of story, a domestic violence sort of story, featuring my character tied to a chair, a man holding to her head a gun.

The land on which that university sits was for so many years land lived on and fought over by Apache and Comanche people, who still live there, of course, just not in such numbers. We were all of us visitors. We were all of us invaders—though some more than others.

“Why—” my friend Marcus asked in that workshop, “why do you think you can do that to her?” He clipped the ends of his words, so that it sounded like someone snapping a towel. I admired how he could do this—make spoken language sound dangerous. I admired the level of control.

“It’s a character,” said another white man.

Marcus let out a sound like a hiss, like a deflating balloon or a coiled snake, and the writer began to laugh.

The writer’s laugh was not believable as humor or comedy, and it went on much too long. I felt such anger but also a little sorry for him, for how long everyone held the silence, after.

It was in that same workshop where I learned how to shut down these men. When we arrived to class one day, the same white man who told me to stop writing my “sure not to last” poems had written a story set in Mexico City, in the garbage dumps. Locally, the people there sometimes are called Garbage Dump Dwellers, so they are known by location and also for their ingenuity—for making homes and a meager living through recycling everyone else’s garbage. In this man’s story, the people who lived there ate with bare hands after sorting through garbage, their faces were filthy, and their movements were described like those of animals.

It is not that difficult to see more variety in the people if you are looking. A quick Google search, for example, provides images of men wearing gloves and cowboy hats, children who work and also play, mothers who make meals from what they find.

One friend in the class, the only Mexican American person in the class, was so angry his voice shook when he told the writer, “They’re like animals. You’ve made them like animals.”

“I’ve been there,” the writer said, “with my church group. This is how they live.”

His words were answered with a chorus of “They” and “Who are you calling—” and each voice shouting over the next.

There are so many ways this place, this South, was and is bad for me, but this day also—like you’re supposed to in graduate school—I learned.

“What if the kid,” I said. To be heard, I had to pause a moment, to wave my arms around like I was perhaps trying to fly. “What if the kid had a toy?”

Everyone looked at me like I was a crazy person. The thought was clear in all their eyes, their expressions. Why was I talking about toys when, clearly, we had a racist among us, or why was I talking about toys when we had an accusation of racism hanging above us, beneath us, in between us?

But then everyone quieted.

“If the kid had a toy,” I said, “we’d see him playing with it. He’s a person then, doing person things.”

A few people nodded, but most still looked doubtful.

“People throw out toys all the time,” I said. “It’s plausible.”

“What if the mother had a flower,” I said, “just one flower—plastic or cloth or whatever—just one beautiful thing?”

My friend looked at me now like maybe I wasn’t crazy. The writer still shook his head, but he had stopped talking.

“Stereotypes are bad because they’re lazy writing,” I said. “I don’t believe this story because I don’t believe the characters. I don’t believe the characters because there’s no teddy bear, no flower, nothing beautiful.”

“It’s a little boring,” I said, “when everything’s so ugly in a predictable way.”

The writer, of course, looked like he wanted his friend to resurrect the Ford Escort, but the writer also was not arguing. The professor agreed with me, and we moved on to the next story.

After, I was shaky but also not sorry. I had gone into that class thinking I already was a teacher, but I left knowing I hadn’t been one before. You can’t teach racists to be less racist by calling them what they are. They remain unbothered by insinuation or even direct accusations of racism, but they are not fine with being told their writing is bad.

Excerpted from Carry by Toni Jensen. Copyright © 2020 by the author. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.