In 2018, the Ucross artist residency program in Northern Wyoming hosted its first fellows for its Native American fellowship for visual artists to have the space and time to focus solely on their art. This past fall, the program extended the opportunity to its first Native American writing fellow.
Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Diné writer and teacher Brendan Basham about his forthcoming debut novel, Swim Home to the Vanished, and his time at Ucross while on his fellowship.
Catherine Wheeler: What was the residency like for you? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do when you first got there and did it change? Or did you come in with not having a strict idea?
Brendan Basham: When I got there, I had so many ideas. I had too many ideas, really, I wanted to write some essays, and poetry, short stories that are unfinished. But just a few weeks before I arrived, I sent my agent the latest copy of my draft of my novel. So I wanted to put that aside and work on something brand new. And when I got there, I kind of went down a few different rabbit holes and I was trying to study one thing or one character. And somehow, that brought me to the mining corporations, because a lot of these private security firms work for mining corporations all over the world. And a lot of mining corporations do most of the work on indigenous lands, and they've done this for many, many, many years. And the more I looked into that, the more I ended up going back to the reservation, back to the Navajo Reservation, where my family is from and researching, and not only the coal mining industry there from Peabody mines but also the uranium mining corporations. I had no idea that I was going to end up in that place when I arrived, so that's the kind of beautiful thing about Ucross.
CW: What really first brought you into writing, like what made you want to start pursuing that as a career?
BB: I think I've always wanted to be a writer. I [have] wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school. I think I got my first couple of poems published in a little plastic spiral bound portfolio in Flagstaff for the school district. They published some crappy little poems of mine. But I think I was always interested in writing, but my entire life, everyone said, 'Oh, you're never going to make a living, you never know, you have to find some kind of a backup position.' So I learned how to cook. I taught myself how to cook to get myself through college. And I ended up being really good at it. And I ended up being a fairly decent boss until it wore me down and I became one of those bosses that I hated. And at that point, I missed writing so much, I knew that I was kind of missing a part of myself and on many real levels and artistic levels. But after my brother died, I think I really wanted to focus more on my writing. And ultimately, he became that spark for my first novel.
CW: Can you tell me a little about what your first novel is about?
BB: Well, I guess. So it's called Swim Home to the Vanished. And it's about a man who loses someone really close to him, and in this case it's his brother. And in that grief, his body changes and demands a new way to breathe. And so he goes on this journey to, kind of, acknowledge his loss, but also to confront that loss. And he finds himself in a strange fishing village full of characters who are also grieving. And I call it "transmuting," they're kind of changing that process of grieving changes them, not only mentally but physically so that they're also grieving and transmuting and have been for generations, kind of like how Native Americans in this country are kind of still grieving and living with heavy losses. So it's, you know, it's multi layered grief. And I laugh about it now, but it's a very real thing, very true.
CW: That sounds like such a good read. I can't wait to see it be published. Are there any additional themes you're really interested in exploring your work?
BB: Since I can't really be on the Dinétah, the reservation, the Navajo Nation right now. I think it's kind of my duty in some way to write about that land or my pride about my family and that history. But not just the history that we know about the reservation, but Indians now, modern Indians, of how they're living and dealing with this. I mean, for me, it is a sense of guilt, for sure. Guilt that I don't really know my language fully enough to have a conversation with my elders. Or that I'm not working directly with my peers and at the college level, or the school level, really, helping native kids become storytellers and become educators in their own right. We always think of a native existence as being pretty destitute, I guess, you know. I'm teaching a Native American literature class right now, and many of these students don't even realize that we're still alive. And if they do, they 're just living in poverty on these reservations, but there's a lot more to it than that. It's a lot more life, a lot more fun, more creativity and belief in who we are as a people. And there's pride there. So, anyway, I'm trying to always think of ways to give back somehow in that way, by sharing the stories or bringing or coming back and, you know, gathering more stories up eventually, you know, I'll come back there and do my part when I can.