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Monday, July 23, 2018

Rebecca Roanhorse and Trail of Lightning

I'm so thrilled we could have Rebecca Roanhorse on the show to talk about Trail of Lightning! This is an exciting book and the advent of a really cool new world that you should totally check out.

Rebecca told us that she describes it as an indigenous Mad Max Fury road. It features an exciting adventure through Navajo country after a climate apocalypse. You'll discover gods, monsters, and heroes of legend in a story featuring Maggie, a monster hunter.

I asked Rebecca where this idea was born. She explained that indigenous representation is very important, and she wanted to see a story where gods and heroes were in North America instead of Scandinavia or Ireland, etc. She also wanted a native/indigenous protagonist, a main character grounded in culture. The story takes place entirely "on the reservation" and uses some tropes of urban fantasy. The post-apocalyptic setting felt natural because, Rebecca says, "we're headed there anyway."

In terms of the mythologies referenced in the book, Rebecca says she kept it very Navajo. It's important to keep in mind that not all native/indigenous stories are for public consumption. The advantage of working with Navajo material is that it's a very large group with fifty thousand members, and many stories already out in the public consciousness.

One of the stories Rebecca references is the story of hero twins who are monster hunters, and brothers in the Navajo way. When I asked her if she could type in names to the chat so we could understand them better, she said no, because she wasn't using a Navajo-friendly keyboard. However, the great news is that she had such a keyboard for the book! I'm personally excited to learn more about this. The book contains a lot of untranslated Navajo words, in Navajo font. Rebecca explained that she has a friend who is a native speaker, and that writing the book gave her an opportunity to learn some Navajo, which was wonderful. The Audiobook will have an indigenous narrator with a pronunciation guide, so it should be authentic as well (yes!).

Rebecca told us that she lived on the Navajo reservation for 2 years. She is not fluent but worked with non-English speakers, saw signs, etc., so she was surrounded by the language. It was also spoken by her in-laws.

I asked her about her monsters, but she said that would be too spoilery, so you're just going to have to read the book...

I asked Rebecca to tell me about her research process. She told me, "this is the culture I live in." She also asked for stories and looked at the book Diné Bahane by Paul Zolbrod, which tells the Navajo creation story. She interpreted stories poetically. The stories themselves vary from area to area. Since the reservation is huge, they differ from the northwest corner to the southeast corner.

Part of the post-apocalyptic material comes from the NoDAPL protests and the "pipeline wars," in which people and companies have infringed onto tribal land, as in Bears Ears monument and other locations. Trump is trying to move the land out of trust into a place where it can be alienated from the tribes. Rebecca says, "We've been there. We know what the dystopian government looks like."

Cliff asked Rebecca how she navigated the blend of fantasy and near-future science fiction. Rebecca said she'd been influenced by Ilona Andrews, and thought of this book in many ways as Urban Fantasy, but that everyone kept saying urban fantasy was dead, and post-apocalyptic was more marketable, so although the book contains elements that might fit into multiple genres, that was the way they ended up marketing it. The story grows from a culture that doesn't do a lot of distinguishing between fantasy and mythology, and tends not to use category boxes but to think of things as enmeshed within culture, so they ring true to their authors and readers.

Rebecca told us she has four books planned. Four is a magic number in Navajo culture. Book 2 is done and in the midst of copy edits, and she knows what will happen in book 3, and has an idea for book 4.

Book 2 will involve a post-apocalyptic girl gang on a road trip along Route 66.

Rebecca says she likes to visit tropes we are already familiar with but with an indigenous flair. The decisions people make, and their ways of thinking, are Navajo.

I asked her whether the books involve any other indigenous groups. She said that Book 3 will encounter the Pueblo people. There will be race-based city-states. We may also encounter Penitente, who have had hispanic-focused descendants in New Mexico for hundreds of years.

I asked Rebecca what kind of technology was still functioning in her world, if any. She said technology is not big. She notes that technology on the reservation is "not what you think it is." When she lived there there was no running water, and an electric generator. In the book, things that look like deficiencies become advantages because indigenous people are less reliant on existing technological systems.

At that point we spoke about Rebecca's Nebula Award-winning short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)" This is a story that brings up a lot of very difficult questions. Kate said she was inspired to ask, "Would I want to be a part of this selling of my culture?"

People really like the protagonist in that story. He's someone who is trying to get by, and not get caught up in political conversations. His culture is a commodity he's willing to sell, but on some level, he's lost touch of what his culture is.

Rebecca points out that we're all complicit in the selling of culture, and that there is a fine line between good guys and bad guys.

The twist, of course, is that going through the story is in itself an authentic Indian experience. Rebecca says that this is why she put it into second-person narration. The story had been flat and dull when it was in third-person narration. She had been reading "The Tiger's Daughter," a story narrated in second person, and was inspired to try it. She wanted readers to feel the commodification of Indian culture.

The last thing we spoke about was the amazing cover art for Trail of Lightning, by Tommy Arnold. Rebecca got to have some input on the design. She wanted no feathers, no braids, and no buckskin. The results were amazing.

My deepest thanks to Rebecca Roanhorse for coming on the show and giving us some insight into her work! Now, everyone go check out this amazing book.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, July 24 at 4pm Pacific to speak with Alex White, author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. I hope to see you there!


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