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Aspen Words Literary Prize finalist Oscar Hokeah draws from personal experience in debut novel

“Calling for a Blanket Dance” author Oscar Hokeah
Courtesy of Aspen Words
“Calling for a Blanket Dance” author Oscar Hokeah is one of five finalists for this year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which honors works of fiction with a social impact. Aspen Words will announce the winner on April 19.

Oscar Hokeah drew from personal experience for his debut novel, a coming-of-age story about a young man with Native American and Mexican heritage that aligns with the author’s own roots. (Hokeah is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma from his mother; his father emigrated from Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico.)

Now, Hokeah’s “Calling For A Blanket Dance” is one of five books on the shortlist for this year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which awards one author of any nationality $35,000 for a work of fiction that has a social impact.

Aspen Words, a local literary hub with programs tied to the Aspen Institute, will announce the winner at an award ceremony in New York City on April 19. The Pitkin County Library will livestream the ceremony at a watch party that night from 4 to 6 p.m.

Hokeah spoke with Aspen Public Radio about his book and the prize earlier this month; interviews with all five Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists will be broadcast and shared online in the days leading up to next week’s ceremony.

Kaya Williams: Let's dive into the messages of this book. What was the kind of philosophical story that you're trying to tell here with this collection?

Oscar Hokeah: There's multiple themes you can play with in this novel. It definitely touches on a lot of the societal topics that you might want to engage with, like in a classroom structure with regard to race, class, and gender. One of the main themes for me as I was writing it — especially once I got to the point where I see that transformation narrative happen — I started to think of it in terms of it being a decolonization narrative.

Once I go in that direction, once I realize that, then I start to look at it through this lens of healing, because for me, when I think of decolonization, that's what I think: I think of healing, like healing trauma, overcoming trauma. That might come from the fact that I've worked with at-risk Native youth for almost 20 years now, and it's been a part of my working environment, my daily working environment, where I'm working with youth to help them heal, help them overcome some of these obstacles that we see in the Native community.

And so I started to look at it through this lens of healing, and tackling some of those elements that happen in the community, but through a cultural lens, like where the culture becomes a solution for Ever Geimausaddle having this building aggression.

He has these elders in his life that kind of give him hints and give him direction, support him along the way. But ultimately, it's up to him, like he has to make that choice himself, whether he's going to kind of take the right path and become a healing force in that community, as opposed to being a destructive one.

"It was through writing it into the novel, and dealing with it head on, just kind of facing it. It helped me process out those emotions and those circumstances and find a better place and a place of healing."
Oscar Hokeah, on the healing power of writing "Calling for a Blanket Dance"

Williams: Did you find that writing this book helped you heal through anything that you've experienced in your own life?

Hokeah: Oh, yeah, I mean, 100%. There’s a kind of a selfishness when I sit down to write — there's things in society, or in my own personal life that I don't understand, like, ‘Why did things happen the way they happened?’ Like, when I dealt with abuse from my father, whenever I was younger.

Just kind of facing it head on, but you know, facing it head-on in these narratives inside of the novel, helped me come to a better understanding of who my father was, and where he was coming from — especially when you look at the character of Araceli Chavez, who is the main character’s cousin, because she had a different viewpoint of the main character's father. So in order for me to have a deeper insight [into[ my father, I had to look at this character through Araceli’s eyes.

But there's also — in that same chapter where Araceli Chavez is located — the main character loses a daughter, and I lost a daughter in those same exact circumstances. And that was hard.

You know, when you're a parent, you're supposed to be able to do something. When your kids are sick, you give them medicine, you hold them, you give them something to eat that might help them, but you take care of them. You do something.

In that particular circumstance, it was the most powerlessness that I've ever felt, and just not being able to feel like I could do anything — I needed to try to figure that out, and it was through writing it into the novel, and dealing with it head on, just kind of facing it. It helped me process out those emotions and those circumstances and find a better place and a place of healing, for sure.

Williams: For other people who can relate to the experiences that are described in this book, are there lessons that you can pass on to readers about how maybe you wish you had navigated it, or how these characters navigate the challenges that they're facing?

Hokeah: As we walk through the world, we're kind of moving in the material world, we're stuck in this space between creation and destruction. And it's constantly happening around us all the time every day.

In order to survive that, in order to do something positive with being in that state, [the lesson] is to stay in a place of healing at all times, and I think that that's what I've learned over the years, just having overcome the obstacles that I just mentioned, and other obstacles that I've encountered, as well.

Just trying to stay in this space of healing, like trying to heal myself and also my kids as well and maybe even staying in a place of prayer sometimes, like as a source of healing, but cultural engagement and cultural elements as well — I hope that's what readers walk away with, is that sometimes we need the community to heal because collectively, we're all struggling with similar things. And coming together to dance in ceremony, it's powerful, and it does a lot of good. And so I would hope that's what readers walk away with.

Williams: Given how meaningful this book sounds, based on how you've described it and the healing process that's involved, what does it mean to you for this work to also be recognized for the caliber of the writing and for the social impact that it has, with things like the Literary Prize shortlist, and all of the acclaim that you've gotten from book reviews?

Hokeah: I'm very grateful for that. I think that when I was first developing myself as a writer, and taking influence from Alice Munro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and N. Scott Momaday, Lousie Erdrich, just wanting to capture those circumstances involving my community, and myself, my family in as perfect a way as I possibly could — like most writers, you know, you toil and toil over the words over the sentences, and, ‘How am I going to capture, what's my take on character, what's my take on voice and on metaphor, whatever it might be?”

But just thinking deeply about craft has always been important to me. And I'm just really grateful that the literary community is recognizing it, and I'm very grateful that Aspen Words has recognized it and allowed me to be on this very prestigious shortlist of amazing authors. It's super important to capture — especially when you're writing about your own community, your own family — to capture it well. Craft is a major part of that.

I just want to thank Aspen Words for giving me this opportunity to be in this space. It's very humbling, and I'm very grateful. I'm excited to see the results. Whoever wins, I’m going to be happy and just grateful that I was in such company and also grateful for whoever wins.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.
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