“Cecilia,” a story
Erika T. Wurth is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee. She is the author of two novels, two poetry collections, and a collection of short stories, and she works in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She is a professor of creative writing at Western Illinois University, and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She was raised outside of Denver where she lives with her partner, stepchildren, and extremely fluffy dogs.
Cecilia and Jim are the central characters of this story. In Latin, “Cecilia” means “blind to one’s own beauty,” and “Jim” means “protected.” How did you come to choose these characters’ names? How do they shape the story you are telling?
EW: Your question is much prettier than my answer is going to be. They struck me as names that would be common for a white guy from Idaho Springs in the 1970s, and for a Native from Oklahoma in the 1970s. And I think “Cecilia” is a very pretty name; because Cecilia is a tough character, I wanted to give her some delicacy in that regard. I imagined parents for her who wanted more than they had, who wanted to speak her existence as they would hope it to be.
MR: Could you speak a bit to the importance of the image of hair in this piece?
EW: I’m afraid I don’t really have anything profound to say about hair beyond Cecilia’s hair is very pretty, and it’s part of what Jim admires about her.
MR: How did Colorado come to be the backdrop of this story, or Idaho Springs in particular?
EW: It’s the backdrop because Idaho Springs is where I went to school, and I grew up about thirty minutes east of Idaho Springs, and was bussed there for junior high and high school. So I tend to write about where I grew up. There were a number of Native people in the area, folks of descent like me who were of mixed tribal backgrounds, Navajo/Diné, Lakota, Anishinaabe occasionally, and those of Mexican and/or Latinx Native descent. Natives had ended up in the Denver area through relocation programs or because it was a crossroads with a good economy. And a lot of folks ended up moving into the small mountain towns. So there’s a particular kind of urban Indian culture on the one hand that I wanted to illustrate, but because it’s Idaho Springs, it’s also a very small town.
MR: The narrator recalls Cecilia “muttering something about her grandmother and a school.” Can you talk about your intention behind this detail? How much does it speak to the significance of boarding schools in Native history and present day?
EW: To be clear, my grandmother went to an urban Indian day school (in Houston), which I don’t seem to hear about a lot in the States. And, though I like to think that my work is imaginative and not autobiographical, there are certain things that I try to give space to other Native writers to write about when it’s part of their backgrounds. But with this character, because she’s a minor character in a larger universe that I’ve created where the central characters are closer to my biography, I felt that I had to include boarding schools. Because they’re obviously an important and incredibly tragic part of Native history, and I feel that this character has been influenced by something that her parents experienced that was so profoundly damaging they didn’t know how to talk about it. So she doesn’t know how to talk about its influence on her.
MR: How did you go about exploring identity in this piece, and how did it impact your process?
EW: This always feels like an unfair question because I don’t feel like white people are ever asked it. I don’t ever purposely go about writing something to explore identity. I think about the people that I’ve known, and then there are parts of who I am, and then mainly acts of imagination that go into the creation of my characters/worlds, and I think their identities are hopefully organic within that experience.
MR: How does community influence your work, or this story in particular?
EW: Like most writers, there are ways in which I feel very alone. And I feel like Native American writers are forced to authenticate themselves to the communities that they supposedly belong to, whether they really do or not. That said, I do feel strongly about where I come from (being urban, being a descendant) because I write about it, and I feel that it’s something that I know intimately. And I also feel strongly about especially the Native American fiction writing community. I want it to be diverse—I work incredibly hard, writing articles to prop up my peers, so that we never again live within a world where there can only be one authentic Indian to represent us all. It’s dangerous because it gives one person, who always happens to be heterosexual and male, all of the power. It’s boring. I’d like a world in which Black Natives, enrolled Natives, unenrolled Natives, Natives from urban and reservation backgrounds, are all given a voice.
MR: You mentioned in a previous interview with the Massachusetts Review that “Cecilia” has grown into a speculative novel. What makes this work speculative? How do you define that term?
EW: My novel, White Horse, will be coming out with Flatiron/Macmillan in a couple of years (probably spring of 2023). My character, Cecilia’s daughter, loves horror and heavy-metal—and hates her mom, who she thinks abandoned her when she was two days old. But when her cousin digs up an old bracelet of her mom’s, and Kari touches it, it thrusts her into a world of visions, monsters, and hauntings, and she goes on a quest to find out what really happened to her mother. As for the definition of speculative literature, it most simply means literature that engages rules that violate the normal rules of the world that we know, and is an umbrella term for the genres of horror, science-fiction, and fantasy. And for some folks speculative fiction also indicates that something is also of literary quality.
1. Wurth’s essay in Waxwing Magazine, “The Fourth Wave in Native American Fiction,” discusses the changes in movements that have influenced and shaped contemporary Native literature.
2. Wurth reviews her top reads in 14 Contemporary Books by Native American Writers to Get Excited About.