At 16, Oscar Hokeah read Robert J. Conley’s “Mountain Windsong,” a historical novel set during the Trail of Tears, the violent relocation of Cherokee people from their homeland to Oklahoma in the 19th century. For Hokeah, whose heritage is Cherokee and Kiowa on his mother’s side, and Mexican on his father’s, it was his first time reading literary work by a fellow Cherokee citizen, one about his own ancestors’ history. Still, his voracious reading centered on books by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker — writers he’d emulate when he began writing himself.
In his mid-20s, Hokeah moved from Oklahoma to Santa Fe, New Mexico. A co-worker mentioned that there was a college in town, the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he could take writing classes. It was, Hokeah said, “divine intervention.” At IAIA, he was introduced to literary fiction, to the work of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, N. Scott Momaday, and Alice Munro.
“Once I read Momaday’s work, I felt validated in a lot of ways. I was like, yeah, I’ve heard that story. I know what he’s talking about,” he said. “There was that resonance there because of a shared cultural space.”
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In “Calling for a Blanket Dance” (Workman), Hokeah’s debut novel, he traces a family history not unlike his own. Characters navigate complex identities — while he “moved between those cultures pretty fluently,” Hokeah recalls “teasing references” from Kiowa relatives about Cherokee relatives, and vice versa — and racism from outside their communities.
Above all, the book explores family relationships, obligation, resentment, and devotion. For Hokeah, who in addition to writing works with at-risk Native youth, the role of women is particularly powerful, both in his life and his literature. “I grew up with two sisters, and also in a house with mom and my grandmothers. I have a real healthy respect for matriarchs. I think that comes through in the writing.”
Oscar Hokeah will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.