Art Talk with NEA Creative Writing Fellow Toni Jensen

By Rebecca Sutton
Profile shot of woman with short brown bob haircut

NEA Creative Writing Fellow Toni Jensen. Photo by Sophia Spirlock

In 2016, national headlines about gun violence began to bleed uncomfortably into the personal experiences of NEA Creative Writing Fellow Toni Jensen. There was the incident at the water protector camp near Standing Rock, where she was confronted by two men brandishing a gun. That same summer, her nephew had his own encounter involving racial tensions and guns. Both episodes were separated by just a few months from the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were killed. “All of that, I think, propelled me to not think of this as just a few moments in my life, but rather as a book project,” Jensen said.

The result is Carry: ­­­A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, which was released in September by Penguin Random House. Part personal narrative and part national reckoning, the book is a meditation on the intersection of gun violence, violence against women, and America’s long history of violence against indigenous communities, drawing powerful connections between how the body and the land are treated—and mistreated—by our society. Jensen, who is Métis, recently spoke with us about Carry, and how she hopes the book will impact our personal and national psyche.

NEA: You do such an excellent job of weaving together personal trauma with cultural trauma, and then linking them together with observations of the natural world. How did you go about finding the links between those many strands?

TONI JENSEN: That's the way that my brain works. I notice a thing, especially in nature and out in the world, and then immediately, I'm seeing that in relation to everything else. I think a lot of people have either grown up with the idea, or been conditioned, that what's happening with the trees, or what's happening with the cow, or what's happening with the birds is secondary. But I didn't grow up that way. I grew up and have always lived my life in the way that those things are equal to what's going on with people. So they get time in the story. The cow is a part of that story, and then that cow is in relation to my life and those kids' lives. In the “Women in the Fracklands” essay, and it had to do with mothers and mothering, and who gets mothered and who doesn't, and who gets protected and who doesn't. I guess all of that was clear to me at some level. I always have drawn connections like that with the natural world.

NEA: You've spoken before about balancing things that are difficult to read about—and presumably to write about—with beauty. How did you strive to achieve that in Carry, and how do you hope it affects readers?

JENSEN: In 2016 and '17 when I was writing the first essays, it was harder because [I was writing about] things that had just been happening. They were close, timeline-wise, in proximity to my life and other people's lives. So there was still a lot of weight and import given to those. Things that happened further in the past, some of those were hard to write about, but there was more distance and I had already had the time to really think through those. But for all of them, I felt like either I needed something to break the tension in a moment, in the memory, or I knew readers would.

Everyone's read books where you're not really given that, and instead the book has an interest on delivering the hardest part, and just delivering the hardest parts. Those books are hard for me. I think that people need a breath. When I teach, I talk about it with my students as if you built a beautiful house, but there's no door. No one can get in, because no one wants to go in that house. As beautiful as it is, and well-crafted, there's literally no entry point. So I see the moments of beauty and humor, too, in the book. You notice the bird, you notice the cow, you remember that time where you and your sister were fighting over candy, which is humorous. Those sorts of things exist in the world—it's just a matter of what gets privileged. It's necessary to give those moments time; otherwise, there's no door. There's no window even into that house you've built for readers. They won't have that moment to catch a breath. And that's necessary.

NEA: You mentioned that some of the more recent events you described in Carry were more difficult to write about. Does writing help you process experiences, or does it have a cathartic element?

JENSEN: I don't think it's cathartic, but it does help me sometimes understand if I have complex feelings about a subject, which I really do about guns, and gun ownership, and gun policy. Through the book-writing process, they became more simple or straightforward. But I started out with a lot of complicated impulses and feelings. I live in Arkansas, and I've mostly lived in rural areas with just a few urban experiences. A good many of the people in my acquaintanceship own guns, or believe at least in the right to bear arms pretty strongly. All of that was really complicated for me, and I do think that writing this book helped me process.

In particular, I was writing one of the last chapters, “Contagion,” about Contagion Theory in relation to the subject of guns, and mass shootings. If the media gives publicity to a mass shooting in Pittsburgh on a Friday, then the next Wednesday, if there's a mass shooting in Kansas City, was that person inspired by the coverage from Pittsburgh? Sometimes the answer is yes. I think quite often the answer is no, there's no clear correlation. But in any case, I'm writing about contagion theory one night here in my office in Arkansas when there was a shooting downtown, and my daughter and all her friends were there. It was the Lighting of the Ozarks, which is a big event where we go crazy here at Christmas. A man had a gun, and he ended up shooting to death, for no reason that anyone's been able to discern, a police officer. The police then chased him down, and there was a shootout. But everyone's thinking, of course, what would have happened if that man had gone a half-block further to the square? My daughter heard the gunshots. To be home writing about Contagion Theory and have that happen, and to have to finish that essay because the book is coming up due, really showed me that, yes, I do process things through writing. I kept writing that night after I knew she was safe, I kept writing after I checked in with a colleague who was having a birthday party a half-block away. I do think there's value, sometimes, in getting it all down straightaway.

NEA: There is a huge amount of research in this book about gun violence, as well as Native American history and culture. What was the most fascinating, shocking, or upsetting thing that you learned throughout the research process?

JENSEN: The most surprising thing for me was that the average profile of a gun owner in America now is someone who's white and who makes $90,000 or more per year—so upper-middle class or wealthy, depending on where you live. Knowing that, you can't unknow it. Then you look at the way the news coverage slants away from that. When we talk about gun ownership in this country, we don't talk about that demographic very often. And now, of course, I think we should.

NEA: How do you hope Carry might change the narrative about gun violence?

JENSEN: I really hope that people will start talking about domestic violence more openly. It's always the last thing that gets talked about. Almost all people who become mass shooters start as domestic offenders, statistically speaking. So if we're not going to talk about domestic violence as part of the broader conversation, if we're not going to have open conversations that include ourselves and our neighbors and people we know who've gone through this, including our own experiences, then it still pushes that subset of violence down. We can't address all the violence if we're not addressing one of the root causes. If little boys and little girls grow up in American households thinking it's regular and commonplace that domestic violence related to guns exists, then where will we even begin to start when they leave the house? So I think that that piece is crucial. In the same way that people are talking about being victims of mass shootings, I think we have to start talking about the domestic.

NEA: What else do you hope readers take away from Carry?

JENSEN: I hope that they see the interconnectedness of the taking of this land from indigenous people with the present day violence. When you asked earlier about startling [research], at some point someone fact-checking said, "Are you sure that it's always, ‘The Cherokee were removed? The Seminole were removed?’ That it's always passive like that?" And Googling and looking through history books, it was always passive. It was never put into the active voice. It was never, “The government sent,” or even, “A particular person in the government sent X-amount of soldiers with bayonets and long-guns to remove Cherokee on such-and-such day.” It was always, "The Cherokee were removed." That really has stuck with me, how passive our language often is around the erasure of indigenous people in this country.

There was a good example from the election: “Something Else” was the category on CNN for Native people. I couldn't believe in 2020 that that was the category of voters. Now it's become a meme, and if you're Native, you can buy a T-shirt that says you're really “something else.” People are already breaking out with full humor. But, I mean, c'mon, America! At what point are we going to reconcile the founding of our country? When are we going to start to understand Native people's sovereignty and the right to exist on their own land, and the right to govern on their own land? I think that understanding that in relation to guns and gun violence, and the violent history of our country, is going to be really crucial as we move forward as a country.

NEA: How do you feel that being an indigenous woman has shaped your identity and perspective as a writer?

JENSEN: I think that's impossible to say. You just are the thing; you don't split it apart and think about which thing is indigenous and which thing is not indigenous. I will say that when we talked earlier about world view, you're certainly not the first person to ask how I'm bringing in the birds in such a way as to make them seem like really crucial to the scene, or the cow. I just didn't grow up thinking of those things as separate from myself. They're part of everything. So there's not the demarcation lines that I think non-indigenous Americans want to make so often between themselves and the outdoors, or themselves and their neighbors, themselves and the environment. I just don't understand those lines. I guess that's probably the biggest part of what I bring.

My father, even with dementia, when he talks about place, he'll always talk about the land and the Native people who live there. Rural farmers do a similar thing—not the tribal part necessarily, but they orient by land and place, too. "Oh, that's the old Johnson homestead, but now it belongs to so-and-so. And in-between, so-and-so farmed there for 20 years." So it's hard for me to say, of those things, which is strictly indigenous and which is just growing up very, very rural. But I know that those worldviews are not common in regular mainstream America today.  

NEA: Do you have a preferred place or time of day to write?

JENSEN: I can write any time of the day. When I was younger, I was a late-night writer. For a while when my daughter was little, she was never a super early riser, so early morning. But these days I can write most any time. I like to have the TV on in the background. Something that has a regular rhythm like a game show, or a soap opera—something where you can turn around and you know exactly what's happening. Something about having that regular rhythm of people talking is helpful, but I don't want to have to pay attention. Back when I was on airplanes more, I got a ton of work done on airplanes. Just something about that space where you're not required to speak to the people next to you.

I like to write in bursts. I set the timer on the microwave for 45 minutes, and I write. I don't do anything else for those 45 minutes, and then I take a 15-minute break. There's not too much weight on it then—45 minutes, I mean, that's not a whole lot. I feel like that's one way that work gets done for me.

NEA: How do you approach your research and editing and drafting process?

JENSEN: I research and edit as I go, and then I have another whole layer of doing that at the end. With essays or with nonfiction, I generally will have what I call an “extra” file. The point of that is if I like a particular paragraph I've written, or a bit of research, but I suspect that it won't actually make it in, or if when I'm editing as I go, I realize I have to cut it, it goes in the extra file. Sometimes I have to weed through the extra file later and pull things out, and other times the extra file just sits there, all lonely and forgotten forever. But I do quite like working like that, because then it allows me to work quickly but to not be overly worried about those choices. I'm not deleting anything, it's just going over there. That has really been helpful in finishing fairly quickly. We went under contract in fall of 2018 for Carry, and it's already out. The majority of it was written in about a year-and-a-half.

When you're working that quickly, you have to develop processes that will serve you and the material. So the research happened as I was going. The same way that I'll set the timer on the microwave to write for 45 minutes, I'll do the same thing with research if I feel like possibly I'll go down a rabbit hole too far. You know, it's good to chase a rabbit a little ways, but maybe not all the way down the hole until you end up in the neighbor's yard. I really want to keep research to a discrete amount of time and then get back to the writing itself. So I try to have a balanced approach there.

NEA: What was it like having a book come out during this strange COVID environment?

JENSEN: I've been fortunate that a good many of events that I had set up already just moved kind of seamlessly onto Zoom. I heard from friends who had books out in March and April, and that was a whole other thing, and it was difficult and kind of heartbreaking, I think, for some of them. By September and October, people had really worked it out, and it was so much fun to Skype in or Zoom in and see people from all over the country. There was a reading recently that former grad students from Arkansas organized, so I got to see all these former students, and some from other universities. That was a reunion that never would have happened if we weren't in the pandemic, honestly. So I'm trying to think about those things, instead of all of the book tour things that were canceled because they would have been in person. I think it's better to think about the gems.

NEA: Speaking of former students, I wanted to ask about your teaching. What is the most important thing that you try and teach your students?

JENSEN: I think the most important thing for me is not necessarily about craft or about any particular tidbit of wisdom about writing itself, but rather what it means to be a part of the community of writers, and what responsibilities come with that. It's in my book already, some of the things that I went through in workshops. I am not interested in my students replicating those experiences. I'm not interested in the students of color, or the marginalized students, being on one end of that, and I'm not interested in the other students replicating those patterns either. So the most important part for me is the making sure that they understand the connection between making community and making good writing.

When I was a graduate student in my PhD program, once we got through all of the hard times, I had a terrific experience. But it's in part because we went through hard experiences. A lot of sexism, a lot of racism, a lot of really hard questions and issues came up in workshop. I want to make my classrooms a place where those sorts of things can come up, but I also want to make it the kind of place where they don't have to come up as much, if that makes sense. Where we know the ground rules, and we know that the whole point of being here is to craft our writing.

NEA: Jumping off that, how would you describe what it means for you to be a part of the community of writers, and what responsibilities do you feel that carries?

JENSEN: I see it in sort of a tiered way. First and foremost, I see my responsibility to other indigenous writers, especially women. Then probably also more broadly to other people of color, or people from other marginalized groups, especially people whose experiences have been overlooked by mainstream publishing. Those are the voices that I really think need to be first and foremost in the literary world as we move forward.

From there, I also have a responsibility more broadly to my students, from everywhere I've taught, and to making sure that if they're writing and applying for jobs and PhD programs, that I do the best I can by them by writing letters, by linking them with editors, and suggesting journals for their work. Because they're the next-generation editors. I've been in this long enough that I have a handful of students who graduated and went on to become editors at good, solid journals, and some have gone to work in publishing. I'm glad that I know them well enough to know they're going to be looking for diverse work. So I think that my responsibility is in helping create this next generation of writers, but also editors and agents and publishers.

NEA: What do you feel is our responsibility as the arts community at-large? What do you think we need to be doing to further amplify these voices?

JENSEN: We're starting to be at a much better moment. There are some hiccups still, though. After George Floyd was killed, most everyone in mainstream publishing announced they were taking a day or two off to try to figure out how to better serve their clients and writers who were people of color. Meanwhile, people of color were still publishing books, and all of a sudden, you couldn't reach a publicist. So how we go about that is important. Predominantly white, upper-middle-class women taking a day off doesn't help any Black person grieve. That doesn't help any Black person whose book is about to be launched.

So just thinking through what it really means to be an ally, and what it really means to do that work, and understanding who should be leading those conversations—when it's time to be quiet and listen, or to offer up somebody else's words. I think that's where we are right now as I see it in the broader arts and publishing community. There's a lot of well-meaningness, and we need to translate that into action. There also needs to be more equity around who gets the opportunities to intern at those organizations, and making those positions paid so that someone who's not from privilege can get a foot in the door. Those are the things that I see right now that we're working toward.