BEHIND THE BOOK
The Missing Morningstar and Other Stories
A CONVERSATION WITH STACIE SHANNON DENETSOSIE
We sat down with author Stacie Shannon Denetsosie to talk about the inspiration for her debut short story collection, The Missing Morningstar, her hopes for what readers will take away from it, and all things related to returning home.
Torrey House Press: Hi, Stacie! We're so excited that The Missing Morningstar is now available everywhere! Let's jump right in. What was your inspiration for writing these stories?
Stacie: As a suburban Indigenous person, a large part of my youth centered on returning home to Kayenta, Arizona, the most northern part of the Navajo Reservation for summer break and holidays. Making that eight-hour odyssey from Northern Utah to Kayenta was a common occurrence and one that I loved. My mother would joke that the only time I sat still was in the car, and when I wasn’t lost in thought--watching Utah melt into Arizona—I was writing. For me, spending eight to nine hours in a car, confined to a single space, was a playground for my imagination because everything outside the window became fodder for a story. As such, it’s no surprise that many of my stories center on a Navajo character making an odyssey home.
THP: Wow, yeah—those road trips through the West are really inspirational. How do you think landscape shapes your characters or stories?
Stacie: To return home, you must voyage through it. When an Indigenous person returns to home it is usually to reconnect to their cultural traditions and values. By returning home, an Indigenous person is establishing their legitimate claim to the community and therefore land and landscape. Once an Indigenous person returns to their community they are behaving in opposition to settler-colonialism. The landscape triggers memories, moments, traumas. In The Missing Morningstar, landscape conveys intergenerational knowledge and invites my characters to engage and reconnect. I use the landscape including plants, geologic formations, sand, etc to illustrate the change my characters endure when rejecting colonialism. The landscape is a trigger and it reminds us to act.
THP: Can you talk a little bit more about settler colonialism and the rejection of it through The Missing Morningstar?
Stacie: At my first residency at the Institute of Am erican Indian Arts, the CW MFA Director Santee Frazier said that as students we were “Rewriting the Literary Landscape.” At the time I did not consider deeply what he meant and wrote off Santee’s words as nothing more than an inspiring sermon. That is, until I began formulating my thesis topic and the Odyssey and Odysseus’ ten-year voyage homeward came to mind.
Today, Indigenous people face their own series of challenges that can manifest as intergenerational trauma stemming from our ancestor’s forced removal and a deep and lasting grief for our stolen homelands. Over time these traumas compound, resulting in alcoholism, broken families, and substance addiction—further traumas symptomatic of settler-colonialism and the attempted elimination of Native peoples by the settler state.
Patrick Wolfe, an anthropologist and ethnographer who specializes in studies of settler colonial societies, defines settler-colonialism as “a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society. Essentially, settler colonialism ‘destroys to replace.’” Indigenous bodies must contend with a government constructed to center settler colonial ideals that seek to eliminate Native Peoples. For that reason, any Indigenous travel, journey, or return to their sacred homelands is in direct opposition of settler-colonialism. This return home or staying home, directly corresponds with Deborah Bird Rose’s statement, “to get in the way of settler colonization, all the native has to do is stay home.” So the essays in my stories are in essence centered around that journey home, whether that be staying home, returning home or whatnot.
"To return home, you must voyage through it."
—STACIE SHANNON DENETSOSIE
THP: Thank you for that dive into returning home, and for talking about how land and returning home has shaped your characters. How has landscape shaped you specifically?
Stacie: When I was little, I was taught that when a child is born, the placenta and the umbilical cord are buried in a culturally significant place within the child’s homeland. For baby girls the cord would be buried east of the weaving loom, or near the hearth. For boys theirs would be buried in the sheep corral or beneath a juniper tree. The reason the umbilical cord is buried is to remind us of our original mother, mother earth, and bond us to her for the rest of our natural lives. The cord also draws us home and back into the protection of our four sacred mountains. Diné return home because they feel the tug of the umbilical cord pulling us home, a neonatal experience. So the landscape is almost inseparable from my characters. They are the landscape and the landscape influences them.
THP: Why do you write?
Stacie: When I was sixteen my maternal grandmother passed away from kidney failure. Her passing was traumatizing and I was inconsolable. As a young Navajo woman, I was taught that the subjects of death and illness were to be avoided. However, I could not reconcile my grandmother’s passing alone. The week following her death, my eleventh grade English Composition teacher assigned us to write a personal narrative. I wrote an essay detailing the last week of my grandmother’s life. I wrote of how I tied my ghost-bead necklace to her IV-pierced wrist before I left New Mexico and returned to Utah. I wrote of how she looked like a deflated balloon after her breath drained from her body. The process of writing my personal narrative was a trial of grief, but it was also cathartic. As I wrote, I felt like The Round House protagonist, Joe, when he described his mother’s absence as stopping time. My grandmother was the life pulse that sustained my family, she ground us in tradition, and when she passed, her absence stopped time. Today writing is a form of ceremony for me, it’s the restorative process in which I reconcile my grief and pain through art.
THP: Who were your early role models, literary and otherwise, and how did they shape you as a person and a writer?
Stacie: Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Tommy Orange, Therese Mailhot, Kristiana Kahakahawila, Sherman Alexie (although I condemn his actions, he is a brilliant storyteller). I long to add my voice to theirs and engage in this critical work of rewriting stereotypes and reclaiming narratives. Particularly Alexie inspired me as a youth to write down my experiences and extract truth from them. I love the heartbreaking humor in his stories. Almost the funeral humor, the humor you feel when everything is just really messed up. These artists impacted me through their dedication to their craft and their pursuit of unearthing the truth, no matter how ugly it looks. It was through their examples in the literary world, that I believed that myself, the daughter of a woman who couldn’t even read, could become a writer.
THP: Our ultimate mission is to publish literature that tells the story of the transformative power of wild places and to increase public awareness and appreciation for Western land management, cultures, history, conservation, and environmental issues so that in the end we all end up with, simply put, more grass on the mountains and water in the streams. What Western or environmental issues concern you most?
Stacie: One thing I’m particularly concerned about is the protection of ancient Indigenous sacred lands, such as Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, Escalante, and so many other sites. Protection of these sites illustrates exactly what Indigenous peoples have been doing for thousands of years; we are voyagers and experts on the natural world that surrounds us. This is evident in artifacts left behind in desert city-states such as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where findings suggest that we traded live macaws with our relatives in the most southern region of what is now called South America, as well as abalone shells from our relatives on the coast. It’s also evident in the movement of Oceanic peoples across the whole of the Pacific Ocean, who saw the expanse of water as highways and byways of trade and mobility. In the deepest sense, our ancestors were travelers, and today that steadfast tradition of traveling and observing is still alive. These sites are American history and must be protected as such.
THP: What do you hope readers will receive or learn from reading your book?
Stacie: A better understanding of Indigenous Peoples and the complexities of issues Indigenous People have to face in simply existing and returning home. That home post-colonization can be traumatic but is a clear sign of resistance and resilience.