We are pleased to introduce the winner of the 2016 New Voices Contest, Benjamin C. Jenkins. What follows is a short essay by Ben, about writing about his winning story, “Headdressing,” and his perspective as a Native American writer.
I didn’t set out to write “Headdressing” with any Native American elements in mind, but somehow they found their way into the story. While I am a card-carrying, tribal member of the Choctaw Nation, I never grew up on the reservation. I wasn’t a member of any tribal clubs during school, and didn’t even attend a pow-wow until I was in my thirties. None of these were conscious decisions, it was just something that was part of my life—and not part of my life.
My grandfather, Jesse, had all of those experiences. He was sent away to a boarding school. He was told not to speak his language. He must have experienced prejudice, but he never talked about it—at least not to me.. Whether his silence was out of some sort of shame, or because he wanted to protect his children from the experiences he endured, I’ll never know. Regardless, by not talking about it, his kids and his grandkids lost an immediate connection to their own story.
The silence is so persistent on that side of my family, and within that culture, really, it’s hard to hear the stories, and it’s hard to tell them. But, I think we need to tell our stories to heal. For those of us that are indigenous, even if it’s just a little bit, we need to speak up, speak out, and make our voices heard. Especially today, with racism so prevalent in our leader’s rhetoric, we need to let it be known that we won’t stand by silently while the injustices of the past are repeated.
I never considered myself an indigenous writer before. I’m no Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday, or Leslie Marmon Silko. I’m certainly nowhere near as talented as them, but also, my writing hasn’t been as focused on the lives of Native Americans. With “Headdressing,” I could feel that side of me speaking up. The game of cowboys and Indians the children play was inspired by a story about my uncles. They used to cry when watching westerns as kids, because the Indians were always killed. I don’t blame them. It had to have been hard to see a larger than life representation of your culture killed in Technicolor.
One of my favorite quotes is one from Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” I love stories in all forms and about all things. I love them because they teach us about others and about ourselves. They warn us about how things might turn out, and they show us how good things can be.
I’m extremely grateful to See The Elephant Magazine and Metaphysical Circus Press for giving a voice to emerging indigenous writers, and for letting me tell my own tall tale. Only through silence do we die. This is true of writers, of people, and of nations. By giving voice to the underrepresented, we strengthen our society and weaken those that would do it harm by censoring all but a few.
Benjamin is a former chef, graduate of San Diego State University’s MFA program, and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He has published his work in the Aztec Literary Review, Poetry WTF!?, and Funny In Five Hundred. He hosts workshops on creative writing in San Diego and avoids cooking dishes for holiday parties everywhere.