Monday, September 27, 2021

Q&A with Savannah Johnston




Savannah Johnston is the author of the new story collection Rites. Her work has appearead in a variety of publications, including Gulf Coast. An enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in New York City.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories collected in Rites?


A: I started writing most of these stories in 2013, just as I was beginning graduate school. Over about three years I wrote and rewrote the bulk of them, but I finished "Rites" way back in about 2011 or 2012, and it is still one of my favorites in the collection. 


Q: The writer Dima Alzayat says of the book, "Savannah Johnston offers us characters neglected, marginalized, hurt and hurting others, with brutal honesty and intensity that's nuanced and unsentimental." What do you think of that description?


A: I am actually flattered by this description. My characters are largely drawn from people I grew up surrounded by, some of my own experiences, and the experiences of those in my community, and I believe it is important to center those stories.


I think it is incredibly difficult to be a person operating in a system designed for your extermination at worst or that deems you irrelevant at best, and I think my stories speak to that experience without delving into "poverty porn" or the exploitation of these real traumas.


As the old cliche goes, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes the best one can do is persevere, resist, and survive. 


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: I love a collection that starts and ends with a bang, which informed how I structured the book, but at the same time, I wanted to give readers a varied experience.


The stories all take place in roughly the same area and some characters reoccur, but I wanted to place the stories in such a way that didn't over-emphasize the through line. Especially with the opening and closing stories, I wanted to show families that persist in the face of tragedy, however difficult that may be. 


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: As I mentioned, the story is among my favorites in the collection, which is why I chose it as the title of the collection. It centers around an Indigenous family mourning the unexpected loss of their patriarch.


Like all fiction, the story has some truth to it in the way my own family mourned when my grandfather(s) died, and I think the rituals we attach to mourning (and celebrating the dead) are especially important to our identities within our Indigenous communities and beyond. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm currently working on a novel, which I hope to finish by the end of the year. Like so many people during the pandemic, my best friend and I are mulling starting a pop culture podcast. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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