Why I Write: Fire Season

“The answers come if you keep writing as an asker,” Tommy Orange says.

tommy orange
Christopher D. Thompson

Some of the time I’m writing I’m running. That’s not properly considered writing. You’re running when you’re running, arms moving in the way they must, fingers clenched or fussing with the phone for what song or podcast or audiobook will be part of the running regimen. Yet sentences come to me while I’m running that don’t occur at the computer.

But running is also about getting my head right. Like I don’t feel right pretty much every day and running helps me get to a place that feels manageable.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

Why I write changes all the time, like what the temperature from month to month makes me feel like. Writing, and the ability to continue my belief in its potency, has always depended on what’s happening in the world, and to my family, and how I feel about what it feels like to be alive, how that changes all the time. I have become a writer who can write for a living. This is rare and a blessing, but it also messes with where my feelings about writing ever came from.

You have to know if you don’t that fire season feels like everywhere when you live here, when it’s happening here in fire country, which isn’t hell, you get used to the heat, as anyone gets used to anything they end up calling home. But there is fire season to deal with, with the too many months it has come to mean if you’re where it burns good and long enough to scare, to take homes and change lives.

My book did maybe annoyingly well. That’s not something you should say out loud because of the unlikelihood. Even more unusual than achieving success in publishing is doing so as a Native American, so what to do once there, here, and asked in these end times what wisdom is to be had from a people who had their world ended for them, what do you have to tell us from the other side. How authentic can it be to consider our world already ended when they named this country a new world. As Native people we are treated more like rocks sunken to the bottom of the living American river, or at best moving sediment. Writing cannot be removed from who is writing, and the context in which they are writing, the audience and the publishers and the market considerations. When I am writing, none of these things dominate the space, but they are there, inescapably part of my process because I am now one such writer who will be read.

Living through written history means you are destroyed, absolutely, if you are of such doomed people as Native Americans. I never meant to write about the boarding schools and how they taught us to destroy and destory—what it meant to be ourselves. Instead, we were punished for what we were, and made new, as in a baptism by fire.

These end times have been happening my whole life. I didn’t think I would make it to adulthood. My childhood was a minefield of parent-fights about religion and demonology and peyote and hell and heaven but most of all about how one was appropriately to attempt salvation.

That I don’t know what I’m doing, that I don’t belong anywhere, has remained a constant. If you look back into the history of the faces, white faces, white men, that I don’t belong here actually makes sense. I don’t know what conditions will allow me to feel comfortable in this world of writing. The numbers are crazy if you look at them. How few Natives are published. How many white authors there are.

Here is one thing I know, having earned success. Because I had a book that did well, was received and sold well, that does nothing for my confidence. Because the answers come if you keep writing as an asker, that is why I write. Something keeps coming that I’m asking about. This. This writing, but more so this not knowing, how it can be addressed. The writing is the doing with language what can be done, and if you’re doing it right you can feel it calling back, not every time but enough to keep you knowing. There is a ring, and a bell, and a discipline, and fighting to be done here. The sport may be wrongheaded, but with stillness, it comes.

This is why I write, ever before and ever now, embarrassed all the time for having tried. •



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Tommy Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was raised in Oakland, California.
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