BackStory: Six Questions with Jane Hammons

Family photograph of Buena Vista (Harris) Rasmus

BackStory: Six Questions with Jane Hammons
Author of Oklahoma (1888)

What inspired you to write this ‘Oklahoma (1888)’?  What do you have in common with your main character?

This story is an excerpt from an unpublished novel, much of it based on research into my family—my great-grandmother grew up in the Cherokee Orphan Asylum before attending the Cherokee Female Seminary. I was curious about her life as well as her mother’s.

Since I share some actual history with that character, one thing we have in common is confusion about family history and ancestry. Through her I have my citizenship in the Cherokee Nation, but I’ve never lived in a Native community, so understanding what that means is a complex endeavor for me.

What are your favourite pieces of historical fiction, flash or otherwise? Who are your favourite historical fiction writers?

The Colonel by Carolyn Forché is probably the first piece of historical flash fiction I read with an understanding of the power a very short piece of writing can have. In one paragraph she creates a scene that illustrates inhumanity. Most of my favorite pieces are by poets. Two others: Run’n’Gun by Natalie Diaz and Black Boy with Coke Exploding by Nikki Finney. Each puts us into a specific time and place, often from the point of view of people underrepresented in the recorded history of the U.S.

Currently Louise Erdrich is the writer of historical fiction I read, enjoy, and learn from the most. She conveys Native American history and experience in stories that wrestle with specific laws and movements that have shaped Native American life—and thus the history of the U.S. I have recently enjoyed the triptych of books by French writer Nathalie Léger in which she weaves personal history into the lives of three historical women artists.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you? Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?

As this is an excerpt from a novel, I did a lot of research using everything from family letters to published books to archival material from the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Oklahoma to write the longer story that informs this short piece. Buena Vista was my great-grandmother’s name. I was especially moved by the discovery of family names, which inspired the theme of naming.

Since this is a “flash chapter” from a completed, though unpublished, novel, I was able to use all the details I wanted, if not in this piece, in another part of the novel.

What is your favourite part of the writing process? What do you like most about writing flash, and what do you think is the most challenging aspect of it?

My favorite part of the writing process is getting the initial draft down because I’m still in love with the writing at that stage. Finding the words to close a story is always a struggle—especially in flash because prose poems are my models, so I want the ending to resonate.

I like creating a voice that can tell a story that leaves a lot out and then working from one sentence to the next without a lot of commentary. It’s the voice that often tells me whether the writing is working or not.

Effectively conveying the experiences of a person in a time far from my own: I love the research; getting to the story is harder, but ultimately satisfying.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?

I would actually like a peek into the future!

How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

It’s very important to me.

All of the historical fiction I’ve written is set in the American West, which, contrary to Jane Campion’s recent remark about it being a “mythic space” is, in fact, a very real place. Battling the myth of the West is an ongoing project!

Jane Hammons taught writing at UC Berkeley for thirty years and currently lives in New Mexico. Her flash fiction is included in the anthology Hint Fiction (Norton) and she received a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Twitter @JHammons Instagram @muchophotos website

Family photograph of the author’s great-grandmother, Buena Vista Harris Rasmus, provided by the author.