LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
Over the past year, there have been a lot of big stories in the news about the rights of tribes versus the federal government, themes that have resurfaced over centuries. A new novel explores those themes and their cyclical nature through the tale of two Oglala Lakota cousins living parallel lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. One cousin who takes a path of peace, the other who paves the path of conflict and the ripple effect of that tension on the generations to follow. "Quiet Until The Thaw" is the first work of fiction from author Alexandra Fuller.
Fuller spent three months on the Pine Ridge Reservation to research. But before this first work of fiction, Fuller wrote several memoirs about her childhood in Rhodesia as the country struggled to win black majority rule in what is now Zimbabwe. When she joined me in our D.C. studios earlier this week, I started by asking if her experience growing up amid that racial division gave her any insight into the lives of Native Americans in the U.S.
ALEXANDRA FULLER: I think as an immigrant, you know, from Zimbabwe, or just as an immigrant, you look at what you recognize. And when I came onto the rez on assignment, you see, you know, life expectancy for men is between 46 and 48, for women 52, annual income $4,000 a year. This is in the most powerful nation on earth. That disparity, when you see it that starkly, I know what it is, and I wanted to write about it.
SINGH: You talk about being an immigrant. Give us a little background. You were born in Britain, but you didn't grow up there.
FULLER: I was 2 when my parents moved to Rhodesia. And, you know, I've written four memoirs. I've tried so hard to untangle, you know, my own history of racial capitalism. It is for me, you know, as if Rhodesia was this little petri dish of which the U.S. is a bigger, more complicated example. But, you know, in that tiny little country, 100,000 white people trying to hold on to the land, the water, the air and the dominant narrative.
Coming over to the U.S. as an immigrant, watching my children go through the U.S. government's school system and seeing that they were taught as little about their own white settler history as I was taught about my own white settler history in Rhodesia was a horrible reminder. And this will come back and haunt us.
SINGH: So tell me about the two main characters. One is Rick Overlooking Horse, the other You Choose Watson. Tell me about each and the path that each takes that leads to some life-changing effects for generations to follow.
FULLER: The very beginning of the book is Rick Overlooking Horse didn't talk much and, you know, the sort of deep silence. And he carries the silence. He's always thinking. And so his trajectory is to go off to war, as is, you know, the highest demographic per capita in the nation to fight for the U.S. military are indigenous communities. And he goes to Vietnam. He's terribly, badly wounded, but he comes back. And he really begins a life of, you know, deep-rootedness on the rez.
And in contrast, his cousin or his rez cousin, You Choose Watson, is broken by his life on the rez, broken by the generations of trauma. And he skips out on the Army. He ends up sort of bringing his violence home. He brings this corruption home. He represents the corrupt chairman who who really was the beginning of the 1973 Wounded Knee incident.
SINGH: You overlap the fictitious with historical events. You've just referenced one, Wounded Knee. Tell us about that and your decision to overlap these two.
FULLER: Wounded Knee really was ground zero in 1973 for indigenous communities to come together and resist the U.S. government. There was a standoff that lasted nearly a month. And I write about it in the book from the perspective of Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose Watson. And that geographical site, I mean, that's undeniably haunting and haunted.
SINGH: You dedicate a specific section in your book to talk about the myth of the reservation. Could you read an excerpt from that?
FULLER: (Reading) One common myth about the rez dispelled - people who don't know the rez say it is a complicated place. They're confused by what they do not understand. The rez is not a complicated place. It's an essential place. Essential, meaning there is nothing more that can be taken away, removed or forgotten. Essential, meaning there remains only what is absolutely necessary. Essential, meaning it doesn't get more real than this.
SINGH: Back in 2011, you rode across the country with 400 Oglala Lakota to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. That was a pivotal time for you.
FULLER: I think it was the perfect way for me to go onto the rez, you know, with 400 Lakota Oglala riding 200 miles across land that is still under treaty law belonging to the Sioux. And to be a minority, which is rare for white people in this country to experience, you know, sustained, you know, identity as a minority and to come onto the rez diminished. I mean, it was a difficult ride and, you know, humbled. I think that is one way to come onto the rez appropriately.
SINGH: Were you ever worried about how people would perceive the idea of a white woman writing a novel about life on a Native American reservation?
FULLER: Yeah. I think that's - I mean, I think it's an essential thing if you are a white settler and you're taking on the stories of people, you know, who have been othered for so long. Also to remember, listen, it's not as if the whites came and just took the land. They took the land, the water, the power but also the dominant narrative. And I'm deeply aware of that, I mean, deeply, deeply aware of that because of also have growing up in Zimbabwe and seeing how the dominant narrative throughout my childhood and for a lag time afterwards was always white, even though the dominant stories were coming out of the indigenous community.
So yes, I think this is a very important question. On balance, I had to weigh it up. What is worse here, my silence or my speaking out? If it further wounds and harms, you know, indigenous communities, then I've desperately failed. But really, the conversation I want to be having is with fellow white settlers, not with the indigenous community. They already know their own story.
SINGH: Award-winning author Alexandra Fuller, who recently released her novel "Quiet Until The Thaw." Alexandra, thanks so much for joining us.
FULLER: Lakshmi, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.