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10 Questions for Wakaya Wells

Our old ones are dying. Their parents restrained every syllable. the children floated away from their homes to boarding schools. graveyards, and war zones. It is my fifth day in the hospital. Outside for the first time. I hold my medicine bag in my pocket, and I think about Granny Marie. A dandelion stands out amidst a patch of grass.
—From "Snake Dance," Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first piece that I ever got published was a poem called "The Falling." I wrote it as an underclassmen in college, and was thinking a lot about drought and leaving the church. The opening line was one that had stuck in my mind for awhile and I don't remember the original reason it came to me. It read: "Where I come from, rain is the same thing as love." But by the time I sat down and used the line, I think it went a different direction as the next line is "falling rarely, and spoken about even less." I didn't really know at the time I was leaving the church, and I did still go back a time or two after that, but that poem was a big moment for me as a young person realizing I didn't have to keep sitting in a church pew for a preacher that didn't even pray for rain. It was all about reclaiming my own power and individual connection with my creator, that I could pray on my own. I never really looked back after that.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I feel like everything I read influences me in some way. I think about Native writers from the Southeast like Linda Hogan's Power, that novel really moved me in a significant way. Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe, anything by Joy Harjo, Sacred Wilderness by Dakota writer Susan Power is one that has influenced the novel I'm working on now. These are writers who I think play with the idea of tribal realism a lot in their work which I do as well. I'm also influenced by Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon; I so enjoy the work of Ocean Vuong and think, me being a poet first, I relate to him a lot.

What other professions have you worked in?
I've been working the longest in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I'm an educator in a school district. I usually tell people that it's mostly getting people to be kind and not be racist, which is harder than it sounds on some days. It feels like the front lines of this late-stage capitalistic, unraveling-white-supremacy world that we live in, and I'm battling hate with love and old teachings like we're all related.

I tried to be a salesman once, I lasted three months in a cell phone store. I've always been somewhat of a phone addict and thought it'd be a nice fit while I got my MFA, but I think it compromised my values too much selling shit people couldn't afford.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Like a lot of young people, I wanted to be lots of things and changed my mind a lot. I think in high school I started to think more about being a movie director. I liked using a video camera from an early age, and used to make little sketches and skits with my friends and family. As college got closer, I really thought New York City was calling my name, live the big life, big city and whatnot. But then by the time I visited Columbia, I had so much sensory overload that I ended up in the woods of New Hampshire at Dartmouth.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I wanted to write about what life is like in a mental hospital and was inspired—or haunted—by my time spent in one. There's this unique balance between safety and danger, what's diagnosable, clinical, and things that can't be explained. I think in our world and in the Native community we talk so much about historical trauma, and rightfully so, but there's this thread of a snake in this piece that really is about generational healing and protection. This is what is carrying and pushing Preston through as he deals with a debilitating manic episode.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Oklahoma, particularly the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, influences me the most thus far in my writing career. It's where I grew up and where all my mom's side of the family lives. There's something about it, how it's not really our homelands, how we got forced to live there, and what's been built since, and the culture that exists. There's a lot of southern influence; it's racially diverse, it's rural, and there's lots and lots of characters.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Samantha Crain is a Choctaw folk artist I like to listen to. In her past two albums she's put out two original Choctaw songs. They are breathtakingly beautiful, and I think remind me that while we have our old traditions, it's also important that we create new things, sing new songs, and write new stories. I want to be a part of that creating just like she does with her music.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Definitely my wife. When I finish a first draft of something, I usually bring it to her and see what she has to say, especially with fiction. I joke that she's my agent, because she gives good advice and knows me better than anyone. She also hears a lot of the writing ideas that circulate through my head on a daily basis, for better or worse.

What are you working on currently?
This piece actually comes from my novel in progress, so I'm still working on it. It being my first book I think it has been a bumpy ride, going back and forth on what it wants to be and how it wants to begin. I still feel like fiction is somewhat new to me as well. I'm also working on completing my first poetry collection, it's something that sort of just came to me through conversation with a friend, when she said "I mean if you wanted to put out a poetry book you would've already done that." And I was like oh yeah, why don't I do that?

What are you reading right now?
I've been reading Morgan Talty's Night of the Living Rez. I'm so impressed by his storytelling and how it's a book of short stories but the same characters are weaved together throughout. I also just started re-reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, who was born in Oklahoma and really tackles a lot of issues that are still relevant today.

WAKAYA WELLS (they/them) is Choctaw and was raised in District 8 of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They received a BA in Native American studies at Dartmouth College, and an MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Wakaya is a Queer Two-Spirit writer, storyteller, and educator. Their work is found at the intersections of identity, mental health, and community. They are currently working to finish their debut novel and poetry collection.

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