LeAnne Howe at the Intersections of Southern and Native American Literature.
In her frequently taught and cited 2008 essay "Blind Bread and the Business of Theory Making, by Embarrassed Grief." the prolific Choctaw performer, artist, and academic LeAnne Howe pronounces of her tribal community, "We are people of specific landscapes, and our specific stories are told about our emergence from a specific place" (333). For Howe, the past, present, and future of Choctaw stories converge on the land, and particular sites are forever marked by Choctaw narrative presence. Kirstin L. Squint draws that specificity of place and story to the fore in the first monograph devoted to Howe's expansive and field-defining work. Deftly bridging critical conversations in Native American literary studies (especially those among Native American literary nationalists) with literary scholarship on the American South, Squint aims to "destabilize the center of southern literary studies" which might otherwise exclude serious consideration of Native authors (16). As Squint's careful prose attests, recent work in southern studies has tended to supplant the familiar black/white racial binary with a southern multiculturalism that still cannot account for Native peoples' continual and persistent claims to those territories. In the absence of an account of the complex history of settler colonial violence, regional scholarship inevitably presumes Native exclusion from the post-Removal South.
Through a series of thoughtful and convincing readings across Howe's growing body of work, LeAnne Howe at the Intersections of Southern and Native American Literature proposes that we reimagine this place as "the Interstate South": a network of tribal national relationships that refuse to adhere to regional, state, or federal border configurations. Squint's concept is perhaps best illustrated in an important story of the Nanih Waiya, the sacred mound of Choctaw emergence stories, located in present-day Mississippi. As Howe explains, the Choctaws carried handfuls of earth from Nanih Waiya with them on the Trail of Tears, transporting southeastern land to Indian Territory during one of many federal campaigns aimed at the elimination of Native land and life. To insist that such sacred land is fundamentally Choctaw, and that territories' ties to its Indigenous peoples are such that they persist across state and regional boundary lines, upsets our assumed geographies and their attendant methods. Those ties become differently literalized in the shared names between important Choctaw sites in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma: "Just about every place name in Louisiana and Mississippi was transferred and then renamed in our new homelands, now the state of Oklahoma," Howe explains in conversation with Squint (34). Such transferences of place between Choctaw homelands in the Southeast and the West call into question the relevance of regional markings for each. For Howe and Squint both, these spaces are Choctaw first and foremost, alive with relational engagements irreducible to southernness as we tend to think of it.
Squint's introduction centers on the term "Choctalking," a portmanteau coined by Howe to describe a cultural-coding technique that privileges tribal specificity in both literary expression and interpretation. For Squint, Howe's novels, plays, essays, and poetry all promote a specifically Choctaw epistemology that is fundamentally based in a relationship to land. In their capacity to "Choctalk," Howe's works require literary scholars to attend to an articulation of the "South before the South," as Eric Gary Anderson names it, in their prioritization of Choctaw linguistic, cultural, and historical codes. And yet, as Squint explains, the "Interstate South" of Howe's writings never belongs to a static past, at times moving across periods of centuries to establish a regional portrait that is strikingly cosmopolitan in its movements and connections. Throughout Howe's work, characters and poetic speakers Choctalk in moments of intimacy, humor, diplomacy, and (as in the Native American Code Talkers of the two World Wars) literal warfare. Squint understands that this code talking operates as either a challenge or an invitation to Howe's readers, and her four chapters work to contextualize the codes and their stakes for Native and non-Native readerly engagement.
Chapter 1 focuses on Howe's writings about the Gulf Coast, including her two novels, Shell Shaker and Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story, her generically-hybrid Evidence of Red, and the play Indian Radio Days: An Evolving Bingo Experience. Arguing that each of these texts offers an "Indigenous groundwork" through which to understand this territory, Squint turns to materialist thinkers to provide an understanding of land that accounts for settler-capitalist imperatives and Native cosmologies both (38). Struggles against colonial dominance necessitate unexpected cross-cultural coalitions, as they establish the backdrop for haksuba, a Choctaw term that names the "chaos" that ensues when individuals endeavor to understand one another without a requisite consideration of their structural and embodied differences (47).
The second chapter offers a gender analysis of Howe's oeuvre, exploring the terms of the Interstate South alongside understandings of the plantation economy's "race-based patriarchy" and slavery's gendered disciplinary regime (54). Squint turns to the stories of Ohoyo Ikbi, First Woman, and Ohoyo Osh Chisba, Corn Woman, to think through the ways slavery's gender hierarchy existed out of step with matrilineal Choctaw society and eventually attempted to transform it by identifying corn as a market commodity, isolated from its status as a ceremonial being. In its emphasis on healing, this chapter finally considers Howe's novels themselves to be ceremonial events, capable of recovering "specifically Choctaw gendered sites of power" (75).
Chapter 3 grapples with the problem of authenticity in the study of Native literatures, using Anishinaabe author Gerald Vizenor's figure of the "postindian warrior" to interrogate longstanding cultural misrepresentations of Native peoples and their ramifications. As Squint explains, southern studies' concerns regarding cultural claims to a "real" South share a set of common investments with Vizenor's attention to false productions of Native identity and experience. Howe's parodic representations of supposedly authentic versions, or "simulations," of Native peoples expose the absurdity of cultural expectations and the consequences of cultural appropriation when mainstream representations insist that the simulation is the "real." Squint identifies "postindian warriors" throughout Howe's works, figures capable of at once resisting these simulations and establishing complex portrayals for Native identification.
In the book's fourth chapter, Squint turns to "the global stage" to bring Howe's contributions to bear on theoretical frames whose horizons extend beyond those of the colonial nation state (99). Initially concerned with the depiction of the effects of the global economy within a Choctaw casino in Howe's novel Shell Shaker, the chapter moves to parse Howe's complex thinking about the intertwined but distinct histories of oppression across Choctaw, African American, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Palestinian peoples. In perhaps the most poignant readings of the book, Squint looks to Howe's essay "I Fuck Up in Japan"--an account of the author's experience at the United Nation's Forum on Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights--to argue for a global reading that refuses cultural abstraction in the name of connection building. Instead, Howe's writings demand a grounded relational practice, one that acknowledges the possibility for misunderstanding and misreading in our distinct positionalities.
Squint's book understands the South to be an ideological and physical landscape, and she demands that literary scholars finally take Native claims to both of these seriously. In order to do so, we must contend with the role of settler colonialism in the shaping of the American South, and the "layers of colonial history" that still work to erase Native presence from these sites (37). As Squint's study attests, LeAnne Howe has established a body of work capable of guiding us through these layers into a different kind of American mapping. As this study makes clear in its concise conclusion and appended conversation between Squint and Howe, this is a hermeneutic practice with material returns for Native peoples at stake.
ALANNA HICKEY, Yale University