The Ties That Bind

A Talk with Author and NEA Literature Fellow Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee)
Woman with black hair wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt smiling and posing outdoors.

Author Kelli Jo Ford. Photo by Val Ford Hancock

People are praising the award-winning novel Crooked Hallelujah by NEA Literature Fellow Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee) for all the right reasons. The semi-autobiographical novel is a collection linked short stories that takes us through the complicated lives of four generations of Cherokee women. But this isn’t a history of the Cherokee Nation or an insider’s look at Cherokee culture; Crooked Hallelujah is not about “being Cherokee.” It is about these Cherokee women, how they fail, succeed, and survive. It’s an important distinction. They are not on the page to give us a history lesson, but their experiences of intergenerational poverty, trauma, the scars of forced assimilation, and an unforgiving church are informed by that often unspoken history. It informs their struggle to survive and competes with the resilience and fierce love that they share. Ford shares her thoughts on writing the novel in this audio interview. 

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is an online edition of American Artscape, I’m Josephine Reed

People are praising Kelli Jo Ford’s award-winning novel Crooked Hallelujah for all the right reasons. The semi-autobiographical novel is a collection linked short stories that takes us through the complicated lives of four generations of Cherokee women. But this isn’t a history of the Cherokee Nation or an insider’s look at Cherokee culture. Crooked Hallelujah is not about “being Cherokee”; it is about these Cherokee women, how they fail, succeed, and survive. It’s an important distinction. They are not on the page to give us a history lesson but their experiences of intergenerational poverty, trauma, the scars of forced assimilation, and an unforgiving church are informed by that often unspoken history. It informs their struggle to survive and competes with the resilience and fierce love that they share. The book opens in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1974, 15 year old Justine lives with her mother Lula and Grandmother Annie Mae. They moved in with Granny after Justine’s father had left Lula and their three daughters seven years earlier. Lula embraces a small strict “Holiness” church which provides coherence to her life and a rigid inflexibility to her daughter’s. Before the first story ends, we learn that Justine is pregnant.  Here’s Kelli Jo Ford reading from the Beginning of Crooked Hallelujah

Kelli Jo Ford:  I'll read from the first page from a story called "Book of Generations." And the story takes place in 1974 in Beulah Springs, which is a fictional town in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. "When Lula stepped into the yard, the stray cat Justine held took off so fast it scratched her and sent the porch swing sideways. Justine had been feeding the stray, hoping to find its litter of kittens in spite of her mother's disdain for extra mouths or creatures prone to parasites. She tried to smooth cat hair from her lap. She'd wanted everything to be perfect when she told her mom that she had tracked down her father in Texas and used the neighbor's phone to call him. "That thing's going to give you worms." Lula dropped her purse onto the porch. She hadn't been able to catch a ride from work. With a deep sigh, she untucked her blouse and undid the long green polyester skirt she'd started sewing as soon as she had seen the "Help Wanted" sign at the insurance office. She was a secretary now and as she liked to tell Justine people called her "Mrs." and complimented her handwriting. "I'll wash up," Justine said. She'd already decided that today wasn't the day, like yesterday and the day before that. "Well, at least let me say hi." Lula kicked off her dusty pumps and let her weight drop into the swing beside Justine. The swing skittered haywire as Lula pulled bobby pins from her bun, scratching her scalp. Her long salt-and-pepper braid fell past her shoulder and curled under her breast. "Bless us, lord," she said, the words nearly a song. She closed her eyes, and as she whispered in an impromptu prayer, she touched the end of her braid to the mole on her lip that she still called her beauty mark. As a girl, Justine had pored over the pictures from Lula's time at Chilocco  Indian School, trying to see her mother in the stone-cold fox who stared out from the old photographs. Lula's clothes hung loosely, even more faded than the other girls in the pictures. But something about her gaze, framed by short black curls, of all things, made it seem as if she were the only one in the photo. If Marilyn Monroe had come of age in an Indian boarding school and had fierce brown eyes instead of scared blue ones, that would have been young Lula." And I'll stop right there.

Jo Reed:  That’s Kelli Jo Ford reading from Crooked Hallelujah. As we heard, Ford paints a picture of women who are equally strong and vulnerable. And this is especially true for the character of Lula.

Kelli Jo Ford:   Lula is a character, I think, who is immensely proud, but she's been put in a situation by a husband who left her with three girls to raise on her own with no support at all. So, she's been put in a really dire situation but she's extraordinarily proud and determined to do her best to raise the girls to also be proud, determined Cherokee women. And in doing so, it makes her a hard woman in many respects, but she's doing the best she can and I just see her as a character with tremendous dignity and strength.

Jo Reed:  Ford returns again and again to intergenerational love—the fierce love that mothers and daughters and grandmothers have for one another in its many manifestations, beginning with the love and conflict between Lula and her daughter Justine.

Kelli Jo Ford:  Yes, Justine and Lula are the middle generations of the four generations I write about in the book. And early in the book, readers learn that Lula turned to a harsh fundamentalist religion, as you said, to hold onto her sanity, really, when her husband left her. And she's raising Justine and her girls really the best way that she knows how. She’s found solace in this religion. That's not working for Justine, for her daughter. And Justine begins to rebel and push against that religion, which ultimately comes out as pushing against her mother as well. And that sets off a lot of the story, the action of the book and the trouble.

Jo Reed:  But as important as religion is to Lula, at the moment it counts the most, she chooses Justine over the church.

Kelli Jo Ford:  Lula stands up for Justine when she's getting a hard time from church elders for being a pregnant teenager, an unwed pregnant teenager. And there are questions of, "What does that say about our church community and us if we allow a pregnant girl in our church?" And Lula absolutely stand up for Justine in a moment when she's having a hard time holding herself together. And Granny, or Annie Mae, who is Lula's mother, also stands strong. And so, the three women create quite a force in the face of judgment from their own church community. And that's one of my favorite moments, because later in the book, there's kind of a coming apart of the women of the family for different reasons. And so, I just love that moment when they're all together and they're standing resolutely for one another.

Jo Reed:  Teenage Justine gives birth to her daughter Reney and their intense bond forms the heart of the book.

Kelli Jo Ford:  They're kind of two halves of one whole. And that's probably because they grow up together. You know, and Reney doesn't know her biological father. She never does, never really meets him, and so Justine is kind of her everything for a long time. Of course, they live with Granny and Lula, so she has them, but really in a great sense Reney and Justine are growing up together and supporting one another and looking out for one another in the same way that we saw Justine looking out for Lula in the first story of the book.

Jo Reed:  Crooked Hallelujah is a novel embedded in place and Ford vividly describes the landscape of both the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and Beulah Texas where Justine and Reney relocate.

Kelli Jo Ford:  The Cherokee Nation is really beautiful, beautiful country that I didn't realize when I was growing up. I missed that beauty when I was little kid there. I guess you take for granted where you're from. But we've got creeks and beautiful views and wild country. It's kind of-- there's a lot of woods for rambling around in. You can get lost in there. And then North Texas is different. It's flatter, the sky is more expansive. It's littered with pumping units and mesquite trees, short, scrubby trees. Beautiful in its own right, amazing sunsets. I haven't lived in either of those places for a long time, but I feel them in my soul, because I did grow up in both places, like Reney in the book did. So, when I go back home, I'm able to see them both, Cherokee Nation and North Texas with fresh eyes.

Jo Reed:  Ford makes interesting choices in Crooked Hallelujah because while the women she’s writing about are Cherokee the book isn’t about being Cherokee; in fact, there’s little in the book that explicitly details how being Cherokee has shaped their lives.

Kelli Jo Ford:  I think it is an important thing about the book, and maybe important for readers to recognize as well. I think sometimes readers outside of our cultures or communities might come to fiction written by Native and indigenous people looking for maybe more of a cultural framework or explanation. That's sometimes what our books do, but it's not always. And something that I think about and talk about with writing students I get the chance to work with is that that our books should get to be considered as art, too, and not sort of cultural explainers. And that sometimes we have to insist upon that. So, the characters are Cherokee through and through, you know, their experience, their existence is-- everything they do is colored by the fact that they're Cherokee women who grew up together with one another in the Cherokee Nation. But there's not a lot in the book that goes through in explaining history. Both of the matriarchs, Lula and Annie Mae when to Chilocco Indian Boarding School. You know, but there's not really an explanation of that or what that means aside from later in the book that Granny didn't teach the younger generations the language. And when pressed as to why not, she simply said, "That it was easier for those who didn't speak it." So, you know, there are clearly Cherokee characters but there's not going to be like a history of boarding schools. It's there, but you know, and the book is also about leaving the Cherokee Nation and Reney growing up kind of losing those matriarchs and growing up in North Texas, and so it is also about cultural loss and disconnect that, but in the book the characters are struggling in some senses just to survive.

Jo Reed: We perhaps get the clearest sense of what it can mean to be Cherokee living off the reservation from the chapter in the book written from the perspective of a white man, Ferris who’s Justine’s father-in-law and refers to her through his narrative as “The Indian.”

Kelli Jo Ford: You see the casual racism, you know? <laughs> Not so casual racism, sometimes, we see that. We see that they've gone to this town that is mostly white. They don't know any other Native people, much less Cherokee people there. They go from the Cherokee Nation living in a Cherokee community and household to a place where Justine's father-in-law refers to her, good-naturedly, he would think, as "That Indian," you know? So, it's a whole different world for them when they leave. But they're always drawn back. They never really leave. Well, I think that's part of the struggle. Do they have roots and where are they is part of the trouble of the book. I think, one of the questions of the book, perhaps.

Jo Reed:  When Reney, Justine’s daughter, is an adult living across the country, she then becomes interested in her Cherokee identity.

Kelli Jo Ford:  Yeah, and I think that's probably a pretty common experience of we get older and only then do we begin to realize some of what we've lost and yearn for reconnection and that's a complicated process, particularly when you're looking at generations of connection and knowledge that have been lost.

Kelli Jo Ford:  You know, my path in terms of where I've lived, follows Reney's early path pretty closely. So, it's something that as an adult, somebody who hasn't lived in the Cherokee Nation-- I'm at-large citizen of my Nation-- I haven't lived there since I was a young girl. Have family there up until just a couple of months ago, my grandmother was still there. But those intermittent visits are-- you're from there, but you're still in some ways, you know, you come-- you're an outsider, too.

Jo Reed:  While Crooked Hallelujah ss a work of fiction and imagination, but the characters have echoes of Ford’s own background and upbringing.

Kelli Jo Ford:  Sure, yeah. When I was a little girl… I don't know my biological father. And I had the tremendous blessing, and now I know, honor, to be raised in a household of generations of Cherokee women. As I mentioned earlier, you know, this book was very much kind of a looking toward home for me. And a celebration of tough women and the trials of motherhood and connection. You know, when I was a little girl, I was in a household with my great grandmother, my grandmother and my young mother. You know, and sometimes one or two of her sisters would be there, or who knows, cousins might be with us, too, living there, or staying there a lot. And I got the experience of sleeping with my great grandma. That was my preferred place to sleep. And so, I think that's very much like the kind of the foundation of the story. Like this group of hard-lovin', sometimes hard-- well, always hard-headed <laughs> women, living close together and struggling to get by. That was very much inspired by me looking back, being a little kid, getting to be surrounded by these really giants in my imagination in terms of their strength and their personalities and their love. So, that's kind of the jumping off point for the story. It is fiction, and the characters are fictive. They get to make their own mistakes and have their own joys. You know, it's definitely not a memoir, but it's definitely influenced by those bonds that I formed early on from living in such close quarters and needing one another so much probably.

Jo Reed: And religion played a big part in Ford’s upbringing as well.

Kelli Jo Ford: Sure.  Yeah.  You know, the church community that I wrote about in “Crooked Hallelujah” is fictionalized as well.  But as a little kid I did grow up in Holiness churches. In some communities Christianity can really coincide with more traditional beliefs and traditions spiritual wise. But for us in the Holiness church we couldn’t go to stomp dances and powwows and things like that because they were worldly which is a term that comes up in the book as well.  But that being said, growing up as a little girl, I didn’t know that I wasn’t getting this other experience. 

Jo Reed: You’ve said you’ve come from a family of storytellers.  Was reading always a central part of what you did?

Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah, for sure. Reading and listening to storytellers in my family because growing up in and around the Holiness church my mom left the church when I was young.  But very much I think the way that she was formed, and so me too, is this in a way like this Holiness ethos of, you know, you don’t have televisions.  You can’t watch movies.  You can’t go to football games.  So what do you do?  I don’t know.  You make your own interesting things and fund and conversation, and you tell stories. Cherokee people are storytellers, too, so I don’t know where it started, or like a chicken or egg thing.  But I just know as a girl when family came together there was not a football game on the TV that-- and this separation of somebody watching a football game and somebody doing dishes.  People were just telling stories.  And it would be different versions of the same stories that I had heard over and over and over again.  But I would always want to get them talking because I just loved-- I loved the stories, but I also loved the act of storytelling.  I loved my aunts and uncles and cousins just laughing.  They’re so funny and creative.  So I grew up with stories rather than TV. But when family came together it was about storytelling.  And then when we moved into Texas we married into a family of big talkers as well.  So I kind of got on all sides.  .  And then when we moved into Texas we married into a family of big talkers as well.  So I kind of got on all sides.  But books, as well.  The Holiness people that I grew up with were tremendous readers from early, early ages.  Again, no TV. You just you read.  So I think that I probably picked that up, too.   I was a big reader when I was a kid for sure. 

Jo Reed: Crooked Hallelujah is one of the rare books that looks class and people who work with their hands and work hard and struggle financially. Forget about the American dream.  Half the time they can’t even pay the light bill.

Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah.  I remember when I first went to or took a fiction class in undergrad. I think it was Chris Chambers at Loyola University in New Orleans put “Love Medicine“ in front of me from Louise Erdrich. And a book like “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake”. And I remember those two books, in particular, that was kind of the first time.  Even though one takes place in a fictional res in Minnesota and Pancake’s stories take place in West Virginia. And so, you know, in terms of region it’s worlds apart.  But in terms of the people I was reading about that was kind of the first time I realized that oh, right, there is literature out there.  It’s about people who feel like people I could know.  You know? And it helped me realize that you could write about what you knew.  And so my very first stories I was writing in an introductory workshop were stories similar to the characters in “Crooked Hallelujah”. I was just, again, the first time I sat down and tried to write a short story I was looking back toward home.  And I don’t think that there is any explicit desire to tell these stories because they needed to be told.  It seemed to be all that I was able to do.  These were the characters that I felt like I could get to know through and through.  And I think that these stories are out there but not enough.  And I think that we need more-- we need to be supporting our first generation students helping them afford to get to school, understand they can go to school, afford to stay in school.  I think the story is really important. We need to see ourselves reflected in terms of class and culture. When I was young I didn’t know any Native voices in fiction. You know? They were out there.  The Native Renaissance had happened, was happening, but, no, I didn’t know those voices at all when I was young.  But I do think that I was looking.  I remember being a high school student in a small mostly white town North Texas and searching for African-American literature which we did have some of.  And checking out all of those books that I could get my hands on in our school library.  So I think that I was looking, but I didn’t know that there was really Native literature out there.

Jo Reed: And as a writer who’s a member of the Cherokee Nation, Ford has had to grapple with her work being seen as “representative of” that nation.

Kelli Jo Ford:  We need more diverse books and voices because, it would be completely unfair to me, but also to Cherokee people who live in the Cherokee Nation or grew up in the Cherokee Nation.  I’m no less Cherokee because I'm what’s called an at-large citizen, but I haven’t lived there in a long time.  And I have my own feelings or insecurities of not speaking the language or not growing up there in the Cherokee Nation.  So it’s a complicated thing.  And if somebody categorizes my book as Native literature then that’s good and quite honestly that makes me feel really proud.  And I feel really honored by that.  And at the same time Native literature is literature.  You know?  We want to be judged by our merits as artists as well.

 Jo Reed: That was novelist and NEA literature fellow Kelli Jo Ford. We were talking about her novel Crooked Hallelujah. This has been an online edition of American Artscape, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Music Credit: Excerpts  from "Traces of Hope" taken from People of the Willows arranged and performed by various artists, used courtesy of Makoche' Recording Company.