Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee)
Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand; used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. We’re marking Thanksgiving week by posting an interview I did earlier this year for the issue of the NEA’s magazine American Artscape that focused exclusively on Native-American artists. I had spoken with author and NEA Literature Fellow Kelli Jo Ford whose award-winning novel Crooked Hallelujah is a semi-autobiographical novel of 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. And before I tell you how everything unfolds in this wonderful book: Here’s my conversation with Kelli Jo Ford.
Jo Reed: Well, first of all, Kelli Jo Ford, a) thank you for joining me; but b) thank you for writing "Crooked Hallelujah." I think it is a fabulous book!
Kelli Jo Ford: Thank you so much! I'm so pleased to get the chance to talk to with you today and thank you for reading the book. That's really nice to hear.
Jo Reed: Oh, thank you for writing it! <laughter> and I'd like to begin by just having you read a little bit from it, so people get a sense of what the book is about, but also your style of writing.
Kelli Jo Ford: Sure, I'd love to. Thank you! 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 an impromptu prayer, she noticed 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.”
Jo Reed: That is Kelli Jo Ford reading "Crooked Hallelujah" and actually there is so much about that first page-and-a-half that really gives us through lines that we see across the book. And this isn't where I was going to start, but you just read one of the passages I had marked. And that's when you write about Lula, "She was a secretary now and she liked to tell Justine people called her "Mrs." and complimented her handwriting." And that small amount of detail tells us so much about who Lula is and what that job means.
Kelli Jo Ford: It does, it does. 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: Well, as I said, that section you read touches on a number of through lines and obviously that fierce love that mothers and daughters and mothers and granddaughters, this intergenerational love these women have for one another, and we see the different manifestations of it and there's Lula and Justine. And Lula is mired in a religion that keeps her sane.
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, the way it's described is that she turned to a harsh fundamentalist religion to, 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, and that sets off a lot of the story, the action of the book and the trouble.
Jo Reed: I found it so interesting, though, that as important as religion is to Lula, at a very, very important point in the book, early on, she sticks up for Justine at the church at a moment that counts the most. When it counts the most, she absolutely chooses her daughter.
Kelli Jo Ford: She does, and that's pretty early in the book, and that's really one of my favorite parts of the book, when you see the three generations at that point coming together. 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?" You know? 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: It was very surprising that Granny, who is this quiet constant love-- and I don't mean to portray her as soft by any means, because she's not-- but there's a quietude that she has, and her love is so strong. It was very surprising that she would be a part of this very strict fundamentalist church.
Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah, I guess it is perhaps surprising, but also I think that you can see her approach is more of a moderate approach. When Justine-- she doesn't exactly come to her openly when she realizes she's pregnant. But it's a situation where she goes home, where her grandmother is, and it's just the two of them there. And it's a safe space, and sometime when we're troubled and we get into a safe space and we know it, we know that it's okay to fall apart and let go. And I think that's part of what happens. Granny seems to intuit what has happened to Justine. And Granny offers help. You know, she says, "You need to talk to your mother," but she also says, "How far along are you?" And it's not super explicit, but she's asking that in order to determine whether or not they can get herbs in order to abort the baby. Justine's just a girl. She's been sexually assaulted. And so, you know, she takes a much more moderate approach, but I think that later we see that her questions of faith aren't resolved either.
Jo Reed: Yeah, indeed, indeed. And then there is Justine and Reney, who's her daughter. And the bond those two have are extraordinary.
Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah, 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: Early on Reney says that Granny is her soulmate and how rare that is that a soulmate isn’t a romantic partner, especially for a young girl.
Kelli Jo Ford: That is one of those moments that I pulled straight from my own life. Like I remember realizing that I had a really close relationship with my great grandmother, and I remember having that realization that I felt like that my grandmother was my soulmate, and that that was a really beautiful realization. So-- <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, I like that realization that a kid has! That you can have a soulmate that isn't an in-love person.
Kelli Jo Ford: I think I came to that realization later than Reney, but nonetheless. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Another through line in the book is place. This is a book that's so embedded in place. And I want you to describe a little bit of both Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and then Beulah, Texas, where Justine and Reney move.
Kelli Jo Ford: Sure, so the Cherokee Nation is really beautiful, beautiful country. That I didn't realize when iw as growing up. I missed that beauty when I was little kid there. You know, you just, 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. But I feel like I feel those places more than I see them, in a way.
Jo Reed: I'd like you to talk about how Cherokee Nation factors into the book. Granny is Cherokee, and really the only one who can speak the language. But there's little in the book that talks about how being Cherokee frames their lives. And I don't know if this is accurate or not, but the characters are Cherokee, but the book isn't about being Cherokee. Does that make sense?
Kelli Jo Ford: It does make sense. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that's an interesting thing to note. And 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. But 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-- 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, you know, we learn 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 ; but in the book the characters are struggling in some senses just to survive. So.
Jo Reed: Well, yeah, you know, what's so interesting, we glean a sense perhaps of-- and I'm using inverted commas here, what it means to be Cherokee in this time, in this place, from the point of view chapter in the book by a white man, Ferris, Justine's father-in-law, who refers to her throughout his narrative as "The Indian." It's constant throughout that narrative.And that explains so much without explaining a damn thing, if you know what I mean.
Kelli Jo Ford: Right, yeah, yeah, readers just kind of plop down in a world, I think, in some sense. And right, that's there. 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. And 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 close enough, 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: Then, as an adult when she's living across the country, Reney 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.
Jo Reed: And also, when you're thinking about home and what home means.
Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah, 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're an outsider, too.
Jo Reed: Well, I know it's a work of fiction and imagination, but as you mentioned the characters have echoes of your own background and upbringing. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Kelli Jo Ford: Sure, yeah. 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, you know, 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-he-- 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, 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-- they're 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 did religion play a big part in your upbringing as well?
Kelli Jo Ford: Sure. Yeah. 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. So it was kind of a thing where if I was with my grandmothers we were doing the church thing or had to put on a dress to go there. But with my mom she didn’t go to church. But very much I think the way that she was formed, and so me too, is this kind of 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 fun 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 and this separation of somebody watching a football game and somebody doing dishes. People were just telling stories. And it would be the same 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 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. 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: The book is also really looks at class and about people who struggle financially and work with their hands, and work hard as hell often and forget about the American dream. Half the time they can’t even pay the light bill.
Kelli Jo Ford: Right.
Jo Reed: And I'm grateful for that because you don’t see that often in literature.
Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah. And that’s something that you don’t. 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 rez in Wisconsin. But then 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. 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.’ 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 stories are really important. We need to see ourselves reflected in terms of class and culture.
Jo Reed: I'm curious, as a reader, when you were younger and as you are coming into your own as a writer, were you looking to see yourself represented on the page? Were you looking for Native voices in fiction?
Kelli Jo Ford: Not 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 I’m really curious about this, and this is a complicated question-- because on one hand it’s absurd and totally unfair for you to somehow be portrayed or seen as “representative of” in your writing. And yet as a writer who’s a member of the Cherokee Nation I assume you at least have to grapple with that.
Kelli Jo Ford: Sure, yeah. I mean we need more diverse books and voices because, right, 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. So, right, yeah. It’s something that I grapple with. 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. We want to be judged by our merits as artists as well.
Jo Reed: You received literature fellowship from the Arts Endowment.
Kelli Jo Ford: Yay.
Jo Reed: And I’m wondering how did this, does this make it difference in your writing life?
Kelli Jo Ford: Oh my goodness. It makes such a difference already just in terms of, you know, just it relieves stress. It is a source of great relief like economically and emotionally as well. I’m setting up the spring really differently. I’m stepping back from teaching. And I have a book on my mind. And I’m going to have time. I'm going to have time to write. I’m going to have that support that allows me to just really get back into the process of creation and that kind of work, again. I can’t believe it.
Jo Reed: And finally Kelli, what about the title “Crooked Hallelujah”?
Kelli Jo Ford: That title was once again, I think, that’s one of those gifts-- I felt like that was the title of the book almost as soon as I began to conceive of it as a book. And I worked on the book over the years. I went back-and-forth with my agent especially over different possibilities, and I was open to them. One we considered was “You will miss me when I burn”, but I thought that was too cynical for Justine and Reney’s story. I thought, you know, the exultation hallelujah I thought it just always felt right. And it was not something that-- I don’t even know where it came from. I just think it was a gift.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I thought it was a perfect title. And I don’t often think that. And I really, really thought that. And I rethought it after reading the book.
Kelli Jo Ford: Yeah, thank you.
Jo Reed: No, thank you. And thank you for giving me your time and thank you, again for this book. And I look forward to whatever it is you’re going to be doing next.
Kelli Jo Ford: Thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure to talk with you today. And I’m so excited about the fellowship.
Jo Reed: We are, too. Thank you so much. That was novelist and NEA literature fellow Kelli Jo Ford. We were talking about her novel Crooked Hallelujah. Another version of this interview heard this year in the online edition of the NEA’s magazine American Artscape titled “Contemporary Culture: Equity and Access in the Arts for Native American Communities.” We’ll have a link to it in our show notes. And we’ll also include a link to our latest issue of American Artscape which just posted on line—it’s called Original Threads: Equity and Access in the Arts for Hispanic/Latinx Communities
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us on Apple Podcasts I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
We’re marking Thanksgiving week by posting an interview I did earlier this year for the issue of American Artscape that focused exclusively on Native Americans artists. I spoke with author and NEA Literature Fellow Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee) whose award-winning novel Crooked Hallelujah—a semi-autobiographical novel of linked short stories—takes us through the complicated lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Crooked Hallelujah, which is Ford’s debut novel, is not about “being Cherokee”; it is about these particular 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. Ford talks about writing Crooked Hallelujah, the importance of geographic place that resonates throughout the book, and the limitations and the fierceness of the love these women share. She also discusses her own upbringing on the reservation raised by generations of Cherokee women, living off the reservation as an adult, and her pushing against her own fiction as necessarily needing to contain cultural or historical explainers of what it means to be Cherokee.
And check out latest issue of American Artscape which just posted—Original Threads: Equity and Access in the Arts for Hispanic/Latinx Communities.