Oscar Hoquea draws on personal experience for his debut novel, a coming-of-age story of a young man of Native American and Mexican heritage that aligns with the author’s own roots. (Hokea is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma on his mother’s side; his father emigrated from Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico.)
Now his Calling For A Blanket Dance is one of five books shortlisted for this year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which awards an author of any nationality $35,000 for a work of fiction that has social impact.
Aspen Words, a local literary center with programs affiliated with the Aspen Institute, will announce the winner at an awards ceremony in New York on April 19. The Pitkin County Library will live stream the ceremony at a viewing party tonight from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.
Hokeah spoke with Aspen Public Radio about his book and the award earlier this month; interviews with all five finalists for the Aspen Words Literary Award will be broadcast and shared online in the days leading up to next week’s ceremony.
So Williams: Let’s dive into the messages of this book. What was the philosophical story you were trying to tell here with this collection?
Oscar Hokea: There are multiple themes to play with in this novel. It definitely touches on a lot of the societal topics you might want to engage with, such as the structure of the classroom in terms of race, class, and gender. One of the main themes for me as I was writing it—especially after I got to the point where I saw the narrative of transformation happening—I started thinking about it in terms of it being a narrative of decolonization.
Once I go in that direction, once I realize that, then I start looking at it through the lens of healing, because for me, when I think of decolonization, that’s what I think of: I think of healing, like healing trauma, overcoming trauma . That might come from the fact that I’ve worked with at-risk local youth for almost 20 years now, and that’s part of my work environment, my everyday work environment, where I work with youth to help them heal, help them overcome some of these obstacles that we see in the local community.
And so I started to look at it through this lens of healing and dealing with some of these elements that happen in the community—but through a cultural lens, like when culture becomes a solution to Ever Geimausaddle, which has this building aggression.
He has such elders in his life who give him hints and guide him, support him along the way. But ultimately it is up to him, as he must make that choice himself, whether he takes the right path and becomes a healing force in this community instead of being destructive.
Williams: Did you find that writing this book helped you heal from anything you’ve been through in your life?
Yes: Oh yeah, I mean, 100%. There is a certain selfishness when I sit down to write—there are things in society or in my personal life that I don’t understand, like, “Why did things happen the way they did?” For example, when I was dealing with abuse from my father when I was younger – young.
Just coming face-to-face with that, but you know, coming face-to-face with these narratives within the novel helped me understand better who my father was and where he came from—especially when you look at the character of Araceli Chavez, who is the main character’s cousin because she had a different perspective to the main character’s father. So in order to have a deeper insight (into) my father, I had to look at this character through Araceli’s eyes.
But also – in the same chapter that Araceli Chavez is in – the main character loses a daughter and I lost a daughter under the same exact circumstances. And that was hard.
You know, when you’re a parent, you have to be able to do something. When your children are sick, you give them medicine, you hold them, you give them something to eat that can help them – but you take care of them. Do something.
In this particular circumstance, it was the most powerless I’ve ever felt, and just not being able to feel like I could do anything – I had to try to figure that out, and that was by writing it down in the novel and dealing with it head on. face just facing him. It helped me process those emotions and those circumstances and certainly find a better place and place to heal.
Williams: For others who can relate to the experiences described in this book, are there lessons you can pass on to readers about how you might wish you had handled or how these characters deal with the challenges they face which are facing?
Hockey: As we walk through the world, we are somehow moving in the material world, stuck in this space between creation and destruction. And this is constantly happening around us all the time every day.
To survive this, to do something positive with being in this state, (the lesson) is to stay in a place of healing all the time, and I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years, just having to overcome the obstacles that just mentioned, as well as other obstacles I have encountered.
I just try to stay in that space of healing, like trying to heal myself and also my children, and maybe even stay in a place of prayer sometimes, as a source of healing, but cultural engagement and cultural elements as well – hopefully that’s what readers walk away with is that sometimes we need community to heal because collectively we all struggle with the same things. And to come together to dance in ceremony is powerful and does much good. And so I hope readers will walk away with that.
Williams: Given how meaningful this book sounds, based on the way you’ve described it and the healing process involved, what does it mean to you to have this work recognized for both the caliber of the writing and the social impact it has, with things like being shortlisted for a literary prize and all the recognition you’ve gotten from book reviews?
Yes: I am very grateful for that. I think when I was first developing as a writer and being influenced by Alice Munro and Gabriel García Márquez and N. Scott Momaday, Lucy Erdrich, I just wanted to capture these circumstances involving my community and myself, my family as ideal way that I could—like most writers, you know, you labor and labor over words over sentences and “How am I going to capture, what’s my idea of character, what’s my idea of voice and metaphor, whatever ?”
But it’s always been important to me to think deeply about the craft. And I’m very grateful that the literary community recognizes it, and I’m very grateful that Aspen Words recognized it and allowed me to be on this very prestigious short list of amazing authors. It’s extremely 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 this.
I just want to thank Aspen Words for this opportunity to be in this space. It is very humbling and I am very grateful. I’m excited to see the results. Whoever wins, I will be happy and just grateful to have been in such company, as well as grateful to whoever won.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Kaya Williams is the Edlys Neeson arts and culture reporter at Aspen Public Radio, aspenpublicradio.org.