By Haley Newman
N. Scott Momaday introduces himself.
“I’m Scott Momaday,” he says, waving from his wheelchair. Born in 1934 at the Kiowa and Comanche Indian Hospital in Lawton, Ohio, Momaday grew up primarily in Arizona and New Mexico. The rich bass tenor of his voice is somewhat unexpected. We are at the president’s residence, a place that can only be described as “nicer than anywhere I will ever live.” In preparation for this visit, I had watched interview after interview, read poem after poem, in hopes of feeling (dare I say it?) prepared to meet the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of House Made of Dawn, one of my all-time favorite novels. But nothing could have prepared me for the gravity of his physical presence.
Momaday writes practically everything that you can imagine, from novels to poems to theoretical essays. First and foremost, though, Momaday considers himself a poet. Poetry, Momaday explained to our class of sixteen senior English majors, huddled greedily around his glow,?waiting to gobble up his next piece of keen insight; poetry is the highest verbal form of human expression. To write one poem that is worth preserving, is justification.
Okay, Momaday, I thought. Poems are all fine and good. I am not a poet, so I guess I’ll have to try to become one. But what about poetry, I thought to myself, makes it so impactful and significant? What can we do with our art, what can we teach, what can we show? My studies have focused most prominently on novels and most of my own writing has come in the form of short fiction, and while I don’t believe literature should be didactic necessarily, in my own works I often viewed the formation of a complete thesis or cohesive worldview as the goal of my fiction. Works of fiction should make us think, and hopefully act, differently than before– if a work of literary fiction is received by an adept reader, then ideally, that work imparts some kind of knowledge or information– whether that be facts about the world at large, or personal awakenings..
That’s how I write fiction. I want people to learn things–about themselves–about the world around them. And usually, I think authors of fiction can’t help but be changed themselves by the process of writing the work, if not by the work itself. So I asked N. Scott Momaday, whose novel House Made of Dawn is often credited with sparking the Native American Renaissance (a time in the 1970s when Native American artists were producing tons of artistic works, including quite a lot of literature and scholarship, dedicated to the Native experience), a question about audience. Momaday’s books and poems all pertain to Native issues or come from the Native perspective, Momaday himself an avid defender of native youth’s right to access and participate in their own cultures (Check out his foundation, Buffalo Trust, dedicated to helping Native youth connect with their culture).
Naturally, being myself and writing the way that I do, I was curious– What was the “point” of Momaday’s fiction? What meaning could I, a white reader, extract from this text, which deals so intimately with Native issues? So, I asked him..
“When you write,” I asked him, “you have to be aware that your works are going to be consumed by white and non-white readers. Do you write differently for these groups? Should your fiction have different meaning for different people? And what do you particularly hope that white readership will take from your fiction?”
He paused for a moment. He stared at me the entire time I spoke, clearly processing the question and trying to come up with some kind of answer. Then, he stared off into the distance for a while.
“Well first of all, that’s a good question,” he said, at which point my soul may have transcended my physical body, “but no, I don’t write for an audience. And you may not write that way and others may not write that way but I don’t write for an audience. I write for myself.” He went on to explain that while he might consider his writings “selfish,” he considered writing a very personal act, and wasn’t interested in writing works that “pandered” to an audience.
Since then (this was only four days ago so trust that my brain has not yet processed the full existential weight of this interaction), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I started writing a new story. It’s not about saying something smart or holistic about the world around us, nor do I think that it presents many new insights at all. Rather, it’s an attempt, by me, to make sense of the experiences and feelings that shaped my life and the lives of those closest to me. So, I guess this post was a long, roundabout way of saying that, unsurprisingly, my approach to literature continues to shift drastically and constantly, mostly thanks to guys like Momaday. Though, let’s be honest– there’s not a whole lot of guys like him.