Deborah Miranda on A Generous Spirit: Selected Works by Beth Brant
Author: Cassidy Scanlon
January 29, 2020
Native American Heritage Month is now over but all of its complexities remain. November juxtaposes the United State’s violent history of genocide and forced displacement of Native people with a contemporary celebration of Native American Heritage Month. Thanksgiving further obscures the devastating effects of European colonization on Native tribes. Navigating these historical truths is work that endures throughout the year.
Indigenous people are still fighting for their history, sovereignty, and existence to be recognized. Every month must involve honoring, celebrating, remembering, and learning about Indigenous people’s history, customs, and resilience.
Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal established in 1976, celebrates the literary contributions of Native Americans with our latest issue, a Sapphic Classic: A Generous Spirit: Selected Work by Beth Brant. Published in partnership with Inanna Publications & Education Inc., and edited by Janice Gould, A Generous Spirit encapsulates Beth Brant’s vibrant defiance and literary spirit.
A Mohawk poet, activist, and lesbian, Beth Brant was a force to be reckoned with in the literary world. Brant began to write in 1981, in a time when writing by Indigenous women was difficult to find and published primarily by small, independent presses. Her notable works include Mohawk Trail (1985), Food & Spirits (1991), Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk (1994), and I’ll Sing ‘til the Day I Die: Conversations with Tyendinaga Elders (1995).
Beth Brant passed away on August 6, 2015, yet her legacy reverberates throughout literary, Indigenous, and lesbian communities. Deborah A. Miranda, a Native writer, poet, and scholar of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of California wrote in her afterword for A Generous Spirit: “Beth Brant helped save my life. I never met Beth Brant. Both of these things are true.”
Deborah is an accomplished writer and Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University. Her work centers Native American experiences and history, highlighting narratives subjected to erasure by colonization. Her latest books include Raised By Humans (Tia Chucha Press 2015), Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday 2013), and Sovereign Erotics: An Anthology of Two-Spirit Writing (U of Arizona 2011).
I spoke with Deborah Miranda for Lambda Literary about why A Generous Spirit: Selected Works is important to queer Indigenous communities and how Beth Brant’s writing has influenced her own life.
What impact does A Generous Spirit and Beth Brant’s work have on the indigenous lesbian community?
A Generous Spirit comes at exactly the right time for Indigenous lesbians and the glbtq2 community at large. As the passing of Beth in 2015, followed by the death of Janice Gould (this past summer 2019), and the earlier passings of Paula Gunn Allen in (2008) and Vickie Sears (1999) all indicate, the early pathfinders of Indigenous lesbian literature and voices are leaving us, while younger generations are often just beginning to learn about these literatures and cultures.
We urgently need the teachings, compassion, and wisdom found in this profound body of work so that we can continue the momentum, honor our Two-Spirit ancestors, and keep up the work of creating a healthy, vigorous, loving community. This book, in particular, is a fantastic start to what I hope will become a way of talking with the archives and recuperating these voices, so that their contributions are not just admired, but read and re-read, put to use, argued with, and continue to serve us as guides.
As a Native American writer and poet, in what ways is your work in conversation with Beth Brant’s?
At 58, I am just beginning to think I might actually be worthy of a conversation with Beth’s work! I gave a talk the other night in which I spoke about how Beth’s story, “Coyote Learns a New Trick,” influenced my own short piece, “Coyote Takes a Trip.” I honestly don’t think I would have known how to write that story without having had Beth’s piece in my head, in my heart. So in that sense, I see a direct connection between those two stories, and the example she set of Coyote as an embodiment of change, and how change is a necessary form of chaos and resistance.
In other ways, more subtly, Beth’s ability to write so viscerally and tenderly about the specific situation of passing as straight–not consciously, but as Adrienne Rich says, being subjected to compulsory heterosexuality by cultural and familial pressures – and coming to consciousness as a woman who loves women, facing the patriarchal push-back and threats that happen particularly when children are involved…her experience, her wisdom about surviving all of that, was absolutely essential for me. I needed to “talk” with another Indigenous woman who had been through that crucible, and there just wasn’t anyone but Beth Brant – via her work. I imagine there are a lot of other Indigenous souls out there who were, are, or will be, in that same boat. This book is, in my mind, an especially magnanimous gift to them.
Beth Brant’s “A Long Story” had a tremendous impact on you during a time in your life when you needed it most. What other stories or poems featured in A Generous Spirit resonate with you?
Ah, all of them! “Turtle Gal” combines such tender portrayals of love and nurturance across what others may see as boundaries not to be crossed; “Danny” gives us a voice that’s brave and fierce, hard to forget; and “This Place,” about going home and finding an unexpected welcome. Oh, and “Her Name is Helen”–what a fantastic, heart-broken portrait–that’s some of Beth’s best writing, I think. But I am especially drawn to the stories about children, or mothering. One piece that I was initially disappointed wasn’t included in A Generous Spirit was “Swimming Upstream”; but when Janice and I emailed briefly about it, I came to agree that it’s one of the more commonly anthologized of Beth’s works, and the hope is that folks will be inspired to look up more of Beth’s work and discover it on their own. (That’s my plug for it!)
In your afterword in A Generous Spirit, you wrote: “Beth Brant’s stories were the strands that strengthened my own torn fibers.” In what ways have Brant’s stories strengthened your own? Could you give us some examples of how you see that working in the world?
Beth was a trailblazer. She literally cleared the way for many of us, right down to bad nights when I held her books to my heart and told myself, “This is your permission to love, this is your permission to write your own stories.” Truly, her work has not yet been given the honor that it deserves; although scholarly treatment is not always what that honoring means. I would love to see someone write and publish about the complexity of Beth’s layering of character, voice, culture, colonial aggression and Indigenous survivance.
I remember reading a book review of her work once; the reviewer said her book was written in “a faux-naive style that lacks irony and subtlety” and that she didn’t possess any underlying analysis or philosophy. That’s the kind of snarky gate-keeping that has kept Beth’s work–and that of many other Indigenous writers!–from recognition by The Powers That Be, thus keeping a brilliant body of work out of the hands of many. The hoops that an Indigenous writer is supposed to jump through (Ph.D., demonstrations of jargon and theory-speak, “rigor of thought,” and so on!) are used as ways to denigrate what are, truly, deeply theoretical Indigenous epistemologies. As Dr. Dian Million (Athabascan) writes, “Story is theory”! And Beth knew that. So, as someone who grew up in trailers, lived on food stamps, was told to take secretarial courses in high school instead of planning for college, and ended up not getting my degree until I was 40, Beth’s work was a breath of fresh air, a celebration, and a confirmation that what we know is enough; what we know is where we start from in our own work.
How do you see the title A Generous Spirit reflecting Brant’s work and influence?
I was not involved in a conversation about the title, so I’m not sure whose idea it was; but I love it. For me, it plays with the title of her book Food and Spirits, her encounter with a spirit who told her to write, and also describes the energy behind Beth’s writing and the work she did in her community: generous, giving, compassionate, inviting. It’s a title that encompasses who Beth Brant was, and invokes the best qualities of a true teacher. That’s what this book is: we can come to it as students to a teacher who has much to give.
A Generous Spirit: Selected Works
By Beth Brant
Edited by Janice Gould
Sinister Wisdom, Inanna Publications & Education Inc
Paperback, 9781771336857, 152 pp.