“Earth Shaker,” a story
10 Questions Interview with the Massachusetts Review
Jon Hickey lives with his wife and son in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the Madison Review, Meridian, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Gulf Coast. He received his MFA from Cornell University and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Jon is a citizen of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (Anishinaabe).
“Earthshaker” is representative of my affinity for ideas about Indigenous identity that I feel aren’t represented as often as they could be. Indigenous identity is very intricate and personal, of course, and without marginalizing previous works, I believe that some of those nuances of identity are lost in the filter of publishing. There are exemplars of Indigenous identity who manifest it in ways that are unrecognizable to a wider, Anglo-centric audience with preconceived notions of what Indigenous identity is: a monolithic idea that has to tick off several boxes, often including stereotypes of poverty or primitive nobility or worse, noble poverty. A commonly accepted notion—and a reality—is that there are massive inequities between Indigenous and white communities, and I am interested in works that show how those inequities exist within Indigenous communities. My story is in part a reflection of my interest—the two main characters are both Ojibwe citizens who are in starkly different economic and cultural circumstances, yet they have complementary motivations that bring them together.
I’ve written other stories about characters who feel alienated or estranged from their Indigenous communities, and my work is inspired by books such as John Joseph Mathew’s Sundown and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. Sundown, to me, seems like such a timeless and prescient story, written in the 1930s and with the express purpose of telling a non-traditional, non-stereotypical Native story about sudden economic wealth and its effect on an Indigenous nation. It’s also a story of a protagonist who is aware of the inequities and privileges he has in relation to his fellow citizens. And I’ve always admired The Round House for dramatizing the intricate and often confusing concepts of the legal system and how it operates in relation to reservations. Works such as these feature characters with a certain fluidity between worlds, a fluidity that resembles trickster narratives common to many tribal folklores.
The narrator in “Earthshaker” references the “Walleye Wars” of the 1980s. In Wisconsin, there was a movement to reaffirm tribal fishing rights, specifically the right to spear fish on Wisconsin lakes, which was met with a virulently racist backlash by white anglers, who protested at boat launches and threatened Native spear fishers. The affirmation of these rights wasn’t just about fishing—it was an expression and reclamation of sovereignty, and the meaning of treaties as agreements between sovereign entities.
Did you have any specific inspiration in mind when developing Smiley’s voice as the narrator?
JH: I have several family members, distant cousins, uncles, aunts, family friends, who seem to have an easy conduit into narrative—another way of saying they’re good at BS. Just sit around and talk to them, and they’ll always come up with a story. I’ve always admired how you might hang onto a sentence to see where it goes without considering if the content is profound or mundane—it doesn’t matter because it’s all in how they tell the story. I started writing this as a way to channel those voices, to see what it would feel like to contrive one of these casual stories. Whether I was successful or not depends on the reader, I suppose. All I know is that it was a fun break from my novel.
There are other literary inspirations, of course. Denis Johnson’s later stories come to mind, specifically those from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. I like the stories that don’t take themselves too seriously but do take themselves a little seriously, or at least take themselves seriously at the most important moment—there’s a nice middle ground somewhere and I’ve always believed that my job as a writer is to find where it is. I always loved how Johnson could do that, how he could find a beautiful glimpse of humanity in a single line that takes you by surprise. My hope for this story was that Smiley’s compassion would come through, like Johnson’s narrators. The love, the sense of humanity, that’s where his heart is, even if he doesn’t quite feel comfortable enough to admit it. He might want to undercut that generosity of spirit, but I can’t help but feel it when I’m trying to channel the voice.
MR: In a conversation with Gloria, Smiley remarks that his sons have a trickster gene that “skips a generation.” What is your connection to the trickster narrative in “Earth Shaker,” given Smiley’s credibility? What background of trickster figures should we be aware of?
JH: The Anishinaabe have Nanabozho, the rabbit, who is a trickster but also essential to the creation story and the Midewewin religion. Other tribes have the coyote, which is perhaps known more widely. The trickster operates in proximity to greater truths, and their actions and behaviors serve to illuminate those truths if you’re paying attention. It’s an archetype that’s not exclusive to Indigenous storytelling. Smiley understands the trickster as a transcendent character, a shapeshifter, an escape artist, a raconteur. Tricksters are cautionary tales, but also teachers. They are agents of chaos but masters of context.
Because he recognizes the importance of these characters, perhaps Smiley is self-aggrandizing in describing himself as a trickster, which seems like a very trickster thing to do. But he fits the bill in other ways. He’s always in trouble with someone somewhere. He goes by his nickname in most cases, but he can switch names when he has to—he is the room he’s in, if that makes sense. And I believe for all of his storytelling, he’s well-acquainted with a mysterious truth in ways that most people are not.
MR: What is the significance of placing Qadaafi and the Suez Canal among Smiley’s experience in the sweat lodge?
JH: I think in Smiley’s case, his contemporary references tend to stop sometime in the 1980s. This is for various reasons, one of them being that between substance abuse and incarceration, there are long stretches of time that are unaccounted for. It could also be because these are things that happened in what he thinks is his prime adolescence or adulthood. In this specific instance, he thought of this time in his life as when he was worldly and plugged into current events that could directly affect him, and he holds onto the details and the names as a sort of totem, something that anchors him in place while allowing him the freedom to operate in the present. His experience on the lake in the Walleye War was a similar moment: he was young, and he felt connected to a movement that overlapped with his spiritual and cultural identity. I think perhaps the sweat lodge that occurs in the end of the story brings back these big feelings, the big impressions of his younger life, and I think much of the story has to do with a sense of rebirth or rejuvenation. The story begins with Smiley cataloguing his situation at the age of fifty, the failing of his body, the embers of his former life with his ex-wife. When Gloria moves in next door, he sees the possibility of something new and unfamiliar, a way of life that he’d never considered before. And of course, the story concerns the creation of new life, and the last time he’d done that (his older, semi-grown sons) was in the 1980s. Smiley may crave the freedoms of uncertainty, but he still needs some sort of foundation, and I believe he finds it in that definable past.
MR: Smiley references the “Walleye Wars” of 1980s Wisconsin and Standing Rock. What has your experience been incorporating historical trauma into fiction? Have you ever felt limited by the genre?
JH: I’m always cautious when approaching historical trauma in fiction, and I never set out to try to record that trauma out of fear of becoming didactic. That’s not to say it can’t be done consciously; there are many Indigenous writers who are much better than me at finding gripping narratives that are steeped in historical trauma. I feel like my attempts have come out stilted. It’s always there, though, sometimes under the surface, sometimes very much at the forefront, and when I write fiction I find it’s unavoidable; somehow historical trauma has affected the trajectory of all my characters. I would say that trauma—in my work at least—comes from Relocation, the severing of a sense of home and identity. It’s the source of so many crises, so much estrangement, so much shame. It defines the lives of my characters and drives their motivations, their quests. In Smiley’s case, he is searching not just for some sense of rebirth, but a way to get home, which is a running theme in my fiction. I suppose that searching and that sense of incalculable loss are the most apparent manifestations of historical trauma. But personally, I can’t set out to write a story specifically about that trauma.
MR: How did the length of this piece shift from its initial to final drafts?
JH: This one did not vary all that much in size. I’m not sure why or when I started it—I’m in the middle of writing a novel and it just sort of fell into place on its own. There were maybe three sections, three long writing sessions on my part, where I just let him talk. Eventually, he just tied it all together. This is unusual for me; I write way too much in order to cut down to size. This one just came out the right size, and I didn’t have to do much cutting at all. This story also had the shortest development period; my turnaround time is usually measured in years instead of months, which was a happy but rare occurrence.
MR: Did you write “Earth Shaker” specifically for this issue of the Massachusetts Review or was it a piece you were already working on?
JH: Smiley was inspired by a character in the early draft of the novel I’m working on. Unfortunately his prominence in the novel faded, so he insisted upon his own story. My next project is shaping up to be a collection of connected stories with him at the center. Or maybe it’s a collection of connected stories that merge into a novel. That seems unlikely though, as he seems resistant to things that resemble an arc. In any case, I’m thinking about the next steps for his story as I finish the current novel.
MR: What influenced your decision to leave the conclusion of this piece open-ended?
JH: To some degree, I don’t think of the story being all that open-ended. There’s a kernel of fire that’s been reclaimed. Smiley embraces open-endedness. He’s uncomfortable with certainties. In the end, it’s not about what he’ll do when he gets out of prison. He’s made some big connections. Life has come full circle. He’s returned to his natural state. If he knew what he was going to say at Gloria’s door, that would seem out of character for him.
1. Lighting the 7th Fire, a documentary clip from PBS, 1995.
2. History of the Ojibway People by William W. Warren