By Traci Sorell
Tony, I’m delighted to welcome you to Cynsations! You have written a detailed, well-paced historical middle grade novel, Chula the Fox (White Dog Press, 2018), set in the Chickasaw homelands of what is now Mississippi in the 1700s.
Congratulations on winning the 2019 Ben Franklin Award Gold Medal from the Independent Book Publishers Association and the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal for Multicultural Fiction in the Juvenile-Young Adult category for your debut work!
Tell me about your initial inspiration for writing this book.
Thank you, Traci! I’m so glad to have this chance to speak with you and Cynsations readers!
My journey to write Chula the Fox began with my father’s sudden death in April 2009. My father was a proud citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and he often told stories about my ancestors and our family land.
I took it for granted that I’d be able to learn more—until my father was gone. Then, I realized the connection to my Native ancestry that I lost.
Living in England made the gap even harder to fill; I couldn’t simply visit relatives or spend time in the Chickasaw Nation to learn more, but the distance—and my hope of having a family of my own one day—made it all the more important.
I needed to understand the past so that I could better appreciate the present.
I started by reading books about Native American history (like James Wilson’s The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America (Grove Press, 2000)) and realized how little I knew about my own ancestors or the hundreds of other Native peoples.
These books helped, but I didn’t feel like I could connect with my ancestors as people. It’s one thing to learn about treaties, wars and other historical events—but quite another to learn about how people lived their lives and viewed the world.
Around this time, my wife and I were watching old episodes of Little House on the Prairie on DVD. My wife is from Moldova, a small, rural country in Eastern Europe, and I thought that might be a good introduction to American life and history (despite its flaws from a Native American point of view). It struck me that Laura Ingalls Wilder had humanized the pioneers and built connections between them and future generations of young people—and that something similar was needed for Native peoples.
That need grew more intense when my son and daughter were born in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Living in England, it would be very hard for them to appreciate their Chickasaw history and culture. I needed a way to help them connect to it.
I wanted to write a book on day-to-day life that could be read by younger people as well as adults. Youth is a time of wonder, when people are still dreaming and learning about the world; this is the perfect audience to share stories with. I wanted to immerse the reader in the world of my ancestors, so they saw how my ancestors lived as if the reader was there amongst them. I wanted the reader to relate to them as people. This was when Chula the Fox began.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
Writing Chula the Fox was an eight-year journey of learning and growth for me—and it was filled with challenges. Above all was the challenge of translating an idea from a vibrant picture in my mind into words on paper.
Chula the Fox is set in the 18th century in the Chickasaw Homeland, which is centered around present-day Tupelo, Mississippi.
I chose that period because I wanted to show that the Chickasaws were a sovereign people before there was a United States (and still exist today), and because good sources were available from this time period to describe their culture and world-views.
However, those sources had their limitations—not least the Eurocentric beliefs of their writers. For example, one writer, a British trader named James Adair, provided valuable information that was entangled with a detailed argument to prove that the Chickasaws were descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Some information these writers had—such as on social structures such as clans and house groups—conflicted or were incomplete.
There were also practical questions not raised in the sources, such as what—or how often—Chickasaw warriors ate whilst on a mission. I overcame these challenges with support from the Chickasaw Press and experts from the Chickasaw Nation, who helped fill these gaps.
I also had to see the Homeland for myself; having never been to Mississippi, how could I describe it? Books alone weren’t enough. I took a week off work and explored the area around Tupelo, Mississippi, which is the setting for Chula the Fox.
I wandered around the remains of a Chickasaw village and walked along the Natchez Trace. I closed my eyes and felt like I was in Chula’s world. I took photos of the village and the woodland and recorded the sounds of birds and grasshoppers. This made it much easier to immerse myself—and the reader—into the story.
Finally, I had to learn the craft of writing so that Chula the Fox could come to life.
Because I wanted the reader to connect to 18th century Chickasaws as people, I needed to take the reader into Chula’s mind. The reader had to see what he saw, feel what he felt.
There was no better way than to write this in the first-person, present tense—but doing so is a craft of its own. I taught myself by reading books on the mechanics of writing fiction, and also read other historical fiction books by Native and non-Native writers to see how they approached their work.
Not many authors wrote in the first-person present tense—and, as my writing continued, I could see why they didn’t! In terms of plot development, it’s much easier looking back in the past (and moving between different time periods) than looking around the present.
What do you hope a young reader will take away from Chula the Fox?
I hope they get an appreciation for how the Chickasaws and other tribes in what is today the Southeastern U.S. saw the world as the Europeans began to settle.
I also hope it sparks an interest in the culture and lives of Native people that encourages them to learn more. Entire Nations rose, fell and adapted long before the first Europeans set foot on the continent, but this isn’t taught in schools (or certainly wasn’t for me growing up in Oklahoma in the 1990s!). By writing about my Chickasaw ancestors—one tribe among hundreds—I hope young readers get at least a sense of what life was like in its time (the early 1700s).
I also hope that Chula the Fox gives Native readers—especially young Native readers—a sense of pride in their Native culture.
I hope Chickasaw children enjoy learning about this important time in our Nation’s history, and that other Native children, and their families, are inspired to learn the stories of their Nations.
I hope they embrace their Native culture as a part of their day-to-day lives and that they live their lives with their heads held high. Our young people are the future of our nations. Our Native past shaped who they are today, and their own lives will shape the stories yet to come.
Could you tell us about your path to publication? What were the high points and stumbles along the way? What were your best decisions and those you might reconsider if you had to do it all again?
I was quite fortunate, because the Chickasaw Nation has its own publishing house; it’s the only tribe in the United States to have one. Knowing this was there gave me confidence as I researched and prepared to submit the manuscript for their consideration.
It was a relief being able to focus on my writing, rather than hoping that a literary agent might see my vision and possibly open the doors to a publishing house.
At the same time, it raised the bar quite high; I knew that the Chickasaw Press (through its fiction imprint, White Dog Press) had to take great care in accepting a book like this.
Publication, in this case, is an endorsement of the book as a story and its portrayal of my Nation’s past. For me, that endorsement was the mark of a good book and respect for my ancestors—and so my choice for publication was clear.
The publication journey was a long one; the usual challenges of writing a good story were compounded by the challenges of getting the history and culture right. I researched contemporary sources carefully as I put together my manuscript, but the information I needed went beyond what European writers recorded.
For example, accounts of European traders described the kinds of food Chickasaws ate in the early 1700s, but not how often they ate (e.g., set times of day?) or where they ate (e.g., on the ground in their homes?). Historians in the Chickasaw Nation helped fill in these gaps, which made Chula the Fox a richer story.
Not all of the information needed to fill in those gaps was readily available, even for historians. This meant that, as more tribal experts reviewed the manuscript, new information would lead to more needed changes.
Whilst some of these could be quickly revised (e.g., descriptions within a scene), others created ripples in the plot that needed to be found and smoothed. One example was around how—and whether—Chula was chosen to go on the revenge mission.
Great care was taken on how the toli (stickball) match was used for this, and this scene—and other aspects of the plot—evolved as we learned more. The rewrites could be challenging at times, but it was well worth the effort.
It’s hard to identify things I might have reconsidered; in some ways, it was not knowing “better” that made this book possible! I completely underestimated how big this project was, or how long it would take to finish.
Had I known at the start, Chula the Fox might never have been written—given everything else going on in my life. I just focused on putting my vision onto paper, taking one step at a time and dealing with hurdles as they came. The hard work was worth it!
As more Native authors publish, a conversation is arising around framing cultural content – what is appropriate to share, what will or won’t readily translate in classrooms, what might be some practices that should stay private, etc. With regard to these dynamics, how did you decide what to share with young readers, both Chickasaw and non-Native, and what to leave off the page?
That’s a good question! This was actually a challenge I dealt with regularly as I wrote Chula the Fox.
Some stories were meant to be shared orally within a tribe, and not shared for the world to see. However, there has historically been a “scientific” drive to demystify everything from spiritual beliefs to preparation of food or medications–particularly when concerning Indigenous peoples. In doing so, however, this crude approach to reason misses the nuances of tribal cultures and ends up dehumanizing those being “studied”.
With this in mind, my general approach was to err on the side of caution and include less detail rather than more. This works well in theory when writing, but it’s complicated by the realistic challenges of developing plots, characters and scenes.
Writing has to engage the reader, especially in a historical fiction book like Chula the Fox set in a time that most people (Native or otherwise) know little about. This need was complicated by the book’s approach of immersing the reader in Chickasaw life as it happened.
I found myself getting as close as I could to the boundary, without crossing the line. I couldn’t have struck that tight balance without the tremendous support and expertise of the Chickasaw Press and tribal historians.
For example, I came across this when describing Chula’s encounter with a woodland spirit (also known as a “little person”) after his father’s death.
Woodland spirits are most commonly known for playing tricks on people, but they can also appear at a time of crisis or great need. They are an important part of Chickasaw culture, but aren’t often talked about. The Chickasaw word is rarely used.
As the book took shape, I found myself going back and forth on whether to include the Chickasaw name for the woodland spirit. I sought guidance from tribal historians through the Chickasaw Press and, with their approval, I included it.
The work of healers and spiritual leaders is another example where caution was needed. Part of the issue is that little is actually known about how they did their work; this wasn’t passed down in as much detail as, for example, the lives of warriors.
The other part is that their work was in many ways spiritual; it relied on their interaction with the divine. There is an inherent mystery in this that has to be respected, much as we see with aspects of religion today.
One example I dealt with was when Chula and the others prepare for their mission. The book describes the first evening of a three-day purification ceremony, giving the reader a taste of what happens whilst preserving the sacredness that underpinned it. In this case, I had a more detailed account that I pared back after receiving guidance from tribal historians.
This careful approach enabled me to share as much as I could with the reader, giving them a clear view of the story whilst respecting what should remain unsaid.
What do you have coming up next?
Good question! I do have a sequel in mind, though I haven’t started writing it yet. Chula and his friends are finding new roles in their lives when Chula the Fox concludes, and there’s much more to write about what happens next. Chula’s village (Ayanaka) was destroyed by a Choctaw attack in 1723 and that will inevitably change their lives. I look forward to exploring those changes and hope readers will enjoy that journey as well!
Anthony Perry grew up in Oklahoma and now lives in England with his wife and young children. He works as a quality improvement manager in the National Health Service in England and volunteers with hospitals in Pakistan to improve health services. He loves history and enjoys spending time with his family and traveling.
Perry has an undergraduate degree in comparative religion from Dartmouth College, a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a master’s degree in public policy from Birkbeck College, University of London. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.
Note: Both Native readers and allies have spoken out about the flaws, including racist content, that Anthony mentions in Ingalls’ Little House series. For more context, see posts from Dr. Debbie Reese on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog and also one from Kelly Jensen, author and former teen/adult librarian. Last summer, the Association for Library Service to Children renamed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award at the 2018 annual American Library Association Conference.
Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.
Traci writes poems, fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies. She is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.
Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, Fall 2019); and, Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, Apr. 21, 2020).
Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.
She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.