Review: A Bay Area writer brings a powerful new voice to Indigenous literature

Chelsea T. Hicks is the author of “A Calm and Normal Heart.” Photo: Anonymous Press

Bay Area writer Chelsea T. Hicks is on a mission.

As a member of the Osage Nation, Pawhuska District, and a recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Master of Fine Arts program, Hicks pushes Indigenous writers to create art in their own language to to reconnect with – and defend – the vibrant Indigenous worldview.

In March of this year, she taught a creative writing course at Catapult, a New York writing, mentoring and publishing house, aimed at analyzing the thorny relationship between Western and Indigenous poetic traditions, the role women in Indigenous families and historical relationships and modern cultural narratives.

On the heels of that course, Hicks’ first collection of short stories, “A Calm & Normal Heart,” is about to be released. In these 12 stories set primarily in California or Oklahoma, Hicks examines the indigenous diaspora, highlighting not only the roots of his people’s alienation from their tribal lands, but also the impact that separation continues to have on their everyday life. Sprinkled throughout the collection are words and phrases written in Wazhazhe, which is the Osage language.

“A Calm and Normal Heart” by Chelsea T. Hicks. Photo: Anonymous Press

Similar to the approach she took in her studio, Hicks focuses primarily on Osage women, their strained interactions with men, their sense of belonging and simultaneous urge to break free, and how they perceive and are seen – or abused and ignored – by those around them. “My Kind of Woman” explores an evolving friendship between two hard-living musicians who bond over their determination to survive the world as “everything else.”

In the chaotic but resonant “A Fresh Start”, an overworked and underloved mother who describes her life as “infatuation, baby, abandonment, moving, marriage, divorce”, marries her boss in the hope to both hide his inheritance and move on. in the community. But whatever hope she might have walked away is dashed in the twin story “Full Tilt,” in which a third marriage to a good-for-nothing carpenter has her “quiet half the time, sobbing half the time it can’t even work”. (His children’s debate over colonization and ancestral identity is notable here.)

The two strongest stories feature characters struggling to understand — and claim — their rightful place in the world without unwanted (and often misinformed) input from others. “Superdrunk” chronicles a 19-year-old’s flirtation with an affair with a 30-year-old alcoholic ex-con to distract from her father’s sexual advances. A decision to completely abandon the two men swings the scale from devastating to triumphant in this nuanced and beautifully drawn tale.

In the ironic and contemporary “By Alcatraz”, Mary stands on higher ground when she explains to her white male host at a Thanksgiving gathering that historically the “bucolic feast celebrating generosity” was “in fact mass poisoning”. What makes this story more than just a lesson in cultural appropriation and systemic (and embarrassing) white ignorance is Mary’s particularly telling revelation: “What I hate most in the whole world right now, it’s that I feel like I’m living in another country that’s here, inside this one, but no one believes that my country exists.

“A calm and normal heart” is not perfect. Some of the stories end abruptly and feel unfinished. Others are a bit scattered plot-wise and may require a few takes before sticking around. Yet Hicks represents a powerful new voice in Native literature – a voice that hopefully has much more to share with anyone willing to listen.

A calm and normal heart
By Chelsea T. Hicks
(Anonymous press; 224 pages; $25)

Green Apple Books on the Park features Chelsea T. Hicks with Lucy Corin: In person and virtual. 7 p.m. July 27. Free. Masks and proof of vaccination required. 1231 Ninth Avenue, SF