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Though I’ve come back around to fantasy and science-fiction, and though I suppose my fiction bears a more striking resemblance to literary realism than it does crime, or noir – I can’t deny that I’m in the crime family. My novel, Iinà (a Navajo/Dinè word for life) is about a man named Matthew who lives a life that is filled with crime, with grit, with everything noir without any of the glamour. Born to an alcoholic mom and an absent dad, he starts drinking before he hits puberty and ends up homeless by his teens. Picked up in the streets by a man in a gang who wants to clean him up and ultimately use him, Matthew finds hope in the worst of circumstances. When that collapses, he ends up back on the streets, ready to resume drinking himself to death. There has not been one moment in Matthew’s life that didn’t involve crime. Not one. Needless to say, despite all efforts by my agent, the New York publishing folks felt guilty – dirty – just reading about Matthew – and talked endlessly about how they just couldn’t deal with his darkness. Matthew couldn’t either. And I’m sure the plethora of inner-dialogue, the description over action didn’t help either. But the thing is, though nearly everyone’s compelled by an episode of SVU: Special Victim’s Unit, or a good old-fashioned cop or criminal drama, usually that stuff is written by and about and for white folks who want a cheap thrill that ends cleanly once the novel is done. Matthew doesn’t do that. He makes you sad, unhappy. And though I guess I didn’t realize it at the time, if you’re white, guilty. But don’t we have room for that? Not guilt, but sadness. Are we really going to spend our lives going from one cheap thrill to the next until it’s over? I’m not against cheap thrills per se – but, all cheap thrills makes one a dull, dull boy.
I remember my agent saying something to the effect of (as to the New York Presses and why they were rejecting it), “I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking why would anyone spend twenty bucks in Barnes and Nobles to be sad. But to me, what’s beautiful is how it’s written, how good the story is.” See, that’s what I read for too. Bigger beauty. And the thing is, I’m not really interested in white guilt. I think white folks are way, way too used to going there when it comes to art by folks of color. But DUDES? It’s not always about you. And it’s my job to make you care. What it is about, is Matthew, and his story, his life of tragedy and crime. His sadness, his humor despite it, his big, beautiful epiphany right at the end of his life. And most of all, it’s about his humanity, something folks – especially native folks – who are in gangs, or homeless are so often denied. Folks who don’t have much of a choice (a word one publisher used, sounding pretty Trumpish) when it comes to living a life of crime. I just want him to be human. That’s what Matthew wants too. Just to be human. God, what a small, small thing.
Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, a short story collection, Buckskin Cocaine, and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. A writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Drunken Boat, The Writer’s Chronicle, South Dakota Review and The Writer's Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.