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'Night of the Living Rez' chronicles one tribe's struggle with poverty and addiction

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A woman leaves her husband, takes their young son and returns to the small Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine. She takes up with a volatile alcoholic. And through the 12 interconnected short stories in Morgan Talty's new book, "Night Of The Living Rez," we witness how life unspools as her boy grows up.

MORGAN TALTY: (Reading) Riding over the bridge to the island, I sense that even though their problems were their own, there was no escaping how those problems shaped us all - no escaping the end, like the way the ice melts in the river each spring, overflowing and creeping up the grassy banks and over lawns, reaching farther and farther toward the houses until finally the water touched stone, seeping inside and flooding basements - insulation swelling, drying only when the water has receded. But what remained was a smell, a reminder that the water had come and risen up and would rise again in time.

BLOCK: The narrator, David, nicknamed Dee, has his own problems, addiction among them. On the reservation, there's never enough money. There's more than enough trauma and just enough love and wry humor to make it through. "Night Of The Living Rez" is Morgan Talty's first book. He's a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, and he grew up on the island in Maine.

TALTY: I think of the reservation or the Penobscot Nation here as this sort of space that gives these characters some definition, you know, some sense of indigeneity, right? There's a moment where Dee is off the reservation, and he's with Fellis at a hospital where Fellis is getting treatments. And the janitor, you know, says something to Dee to the effect of, oh, you're Penobscot. And Dee said, I didn't know how he knew I was Penobscot. And then he realized he was wearing a shirt that said Penobscot.

BLOCK: (Laughter) That's kind of a tell, isn't it?

TALTY: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So for Dee and I think for a lot of Indigenous people, you know, there's this - how do you express your indigeneity, you know, in a way that is not feeding into what people think Indigenous people look like and behave and act like? And so the island, you know, in the book is really this place where these people, you know, draw their sense of indigeneity. And when they leave, it may feel like it's missing.

BLOCK: The narrator in these stories is David as a boy, and later, as he gets older, we know him as Dee. And it does sound like many of the threads of his family's story line up with your own. How much autobiography is woven into these short stories?

TALTY: Yeah, a fair amount. We look at a story like "Safe Harbor" and - you know, my mom had passed away last year, last February 2021. And when she was alive, she suffered from severe depression. And she used to go to crisis stabilization units, which are, you know, great places for people, you know, who are suffering in this way. And one time when I went up there to bring her cigarettes, I watched her have a seizure. It was one of the most frightening things that I'd ever seen before. And immediately when I got home, I wrote from the very beginning of "Safe Harbor," all the way up to the point where she had the seizure. And so it was only later when I felt that urge to be like, I wonder how I can push this story. Did I move forward? And obviously the end of it is - did not happen.

And I won't give it away, but the stories, there's a lot of moments that are, I think, very similar to my experiences. But I think even thematically when it comes to themes of alcoholism or addiction - drug addiction, you know, gambling addiction - violence, pain, you know, all of these things, as well as love and happiness and forgiveness, like, they're all things that I have intense experience with.

BLOCK: All of the characters, it seems to me, in "Night Of The Living Rez" are struggling in some way. There's a lot of pain. And I wonder how, as a writer, you keep that from being unrelenting, just too much to bear, if that factors into how you're writing and what you include.

TALTY: Yeah. I think - I never want to exploit those moments of violence, those moments of intense, you know, struggle. I think to do so is to miss an opportunity to highlight the way we go through it, because for as much pain and suffering as there is in this book for these characters, I still feel like there is that same level of hope and caring and love and forgiveness for them. It doesn't seem difficult for me to do when writing, I think, just because I'm so very opposed to positioning my work in that way, you know, to get a tear-jerk reaction from something. I want to, you know, try harder. I want to go deeper and further than simply, you know, showing something terrible and then moving on.

BLOCK: You do also find ways to fold in humor into the stories. And I'm thinking of the first story, which is titled "Burn." And there's a scene where the narrator, Dee, finds his friend Fellis, who is drunk. And it's wintertime. He's fallen asleep in a swamp, and his long hair has frozen into the ice. And Dee has to cut his friend's hair to free him. And he later makes a wisecrack to Fellis. What does he say?

TALTY: He says, I never thought I'd scalp a fellow tribal member. I mean, I thought that line was absolutely hilarious. And I'm like, did I write that, you know, because I don't - I feel like the moment you try to be funny is the moment you're not funny. But just the image of doing that, you know, the - cutting the hair and the connotation it has or would have had, you know, 100, 200, 300 years ago compared to now, right? But it was. It was just such a funny moment. I could not - I could not, not say something.

BLOCK: And to try to turn that into something funny, something benign.

TALTY: Yeah.

BLOCK: When you think about your identity as a Penobscot author and the stories that you want to tell, how do you weigh that responsibility of the portrait that you paint and maybe your responsibility to the tribe?

TALTY: I do - I feel a strong sense of responsibility and pride in being able to write about Penobscot people and my ancestors and these characters for a mainstream audience that I think is usually used to getting Indigenous stories that seem familiar to them. And I feel like this collection might feel a little unfamiliar, but also familiar in the way that these characters are human much like everybody else is. Their past histories and their culture is there as sort of an extra defining factor for them. And so I never try to cast these characters as representative of a specific culture. They're more just a sliver of it.

BLOCK: That's Morgan Talty. His debut collection of stories is titled "Night Of The Living Rez." Morgan, thank you so much.

TALTY: Thank you so much, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.