Writing while Indigenous: Struggles with Failure and Voice

October features Indigenous People's Day and November brings us Native American Heritage Month in the US. Fall holidays and this time of year can bring troubles to Indigenous people with Halloween and Thanksgiving, and for me, this season brought a discovery.

The Moon-Eyed Ones was my journey for others and myself to find voice within my Melungeon heritage, and Silas' story mirrors the stories of many of my ancestors. The Thundering Ones has been much more of challenge because it doesn't just deal with heritage or ancestry, but legacy, trauma, identity, and land. Until about two weeks ago, I was having trouble conveying the feelings of Aurelia and Micajah, Silas and Amadahy's children, and the latter's reactions to war and land loss. But then, a group called the Repunkuru Ainu contacted me on a private blog of mine where I talk about race, identity, and post dumb cat videos.

I had always assumed my Asian ancestors were mixed, but I didn't know with what. The Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. We are culturally similar to other indigenous Siberian groups and the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. And there is a sizable amount of us in diaspora all over the US. I only have DNA and possible migration patterns to go off of, but my grandmother was most likely mixed Korean and Ainu from Sakhalin that later returned to Korea. Discovering a hidden indigeneity knocked me for a loop and I finally found an idea of how to write these characters: what do you do when you're mixed, you're indigenous, you're angry, and you're lost? You get The Thundering Ones.

My ancestors I know struggled with this; my great-grandmother was raised Cherokee culturally and most likely spoke the language. But she was also Melungeon and frequently got racist mail from neighbors and even family members because of her dark skin. I look ambiguously Asian, and sometimes I get asked: Why do you write about Appalachia? Why do you write about Melungeon and Indigenous identity?

The simplest answer is I feel like I have to. Even the days when I feel like an impostor, when I feel like not writing at all because I think I'm not qualified. When I wrote The Four Gods: Prince of the North, that was the first brush with failure I have had as an author. It still isn't anywhere near publishable, and I've struggled with it since day one. And recently, I felt the urge to get my writing to turn back to Asia. I don't know if I'll ever pick up The Four Gods again, but after The Thundering Ones, I would like to tell what stories of my Asian ancestors that I know. That like Appalachia, we are not a monolith, we are mixed and indigenous, we have stories that not a lot of people know of. But something else I've learned is this writerly path isn't a rushed one. There is peace in rest, and I may not write or post as much as my other writer friends, but that's okay. Sometimes your path makes a U-turn and you have to re-evaluate.

And most importantly, I'd like other people in my position to see themselves as heroes beyond assumptions and stereotypes, and to have the courage to tell their stories, too. I listened to an episode of All My Realtions with Kim Tallbear recently and I loved how she put being in relation with others, whether it's professional, friendships, romantic, or otherwise. As an indigenous person, I am in relation to all my folks out there, indigenous, writers, friends, loved ones, etc. And I'm in relation to my homelands and the histories it shares. Even if all I can do is write books about our stories, albeit in fiction format, then that's something for our communities. I can also use my platform and my writing to support our BIPOC brothers and sisters out there fighting for our land and equality. It's sometimes a lonely path to walk, but it's fulfilling.

I'm still researching and when I'm not writing, I'm learning embroidery and revamping my cooking with Ainu recipes to accompany my Korean ones. With a busy day job schedule and chronic illness compiled, writing has been at the back of my head, but I'm hoping to return to The Thundering Ones and hopefully, many new, and indigenous-centered, stories to come.

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