Brandon Hobson: The Cherokee Novelist Who Quietly Kicked Off the Fifth Wave in Native American Fiction
Erika T. Wurth
Like myself, Native American author Brandon Hobson was quietly publishing novels with independent presses for years, to very little fanfare save a few glowing reviews in places like The Atticus Review, Electric Literature, and Green Mountains Review. The only Native author folks cared about for two decades was THE Sherman Alexie, and for years, he was all anyone would talk about when it came to Native literature.
To be fair, when Hobson’s first nove Deep Ellum was published in 2014, it, like the rest of his early work, did not (directly) address Cherokee identity—a rarity in Native letters. With the exception of Pueblo author Martin Cruz Smith, Native American work by Native people has historically been filled with more bombastic expressions of identity, something that American audiences became accustomed to—and which Alexie certainly exploited. (And as a sidenote, after publishing The Indians Won and Nightwing, Cruz went on to publish novels that only occasionally addressed Native identity, an interesting choice when you think about the success of his first novels—which certainly spoke to his cultural heritage, published in 1970 and 1977, right in the midst of the original Native American Literary Renaissance.) In any case, in Hobson’s Ellum, the plot revolves around a boy named Gibson who comes home to Dallas, after his mother overdoses. Similarly, in his second novel, Desolation of Avenues Untold, there is no (outward, or overt) expression of Cherokee identity. It’s set in a fictional city in Texas, focusing on a search for a pornographic film made by Charlie Chaplin by a man named Bornfeldt Chaplin, a divorced guidance counselor. Additionally, the aesthetic of both are mainly postmodern; Ellum, “rip[ing] apart the diction into poetic stanzas of absurd animalism and literary panache, creating a somber tone…supported by a surreal air of drug-induced hallucinations” while in Desolation “…the POV shifts frequently. Some chapters are articles, or overheard conversations, evoking a multimodal pastiche.”
It is at this point in his career where Hobson decided to depart fairly radically, in form and content, from his previous work. In Where the Dead Sit Talking, published with Soho—while still an independent press,a massive step up), Hobson begins with several traditional Cherokee stories, and a main character, Sequoya, who identifies as Cherokee early on. The novel is mainly in the tradition of literary realism, as it is primarily narrative and linear. Dead’s protagonist is Sequoya, whose mother has ended up in jail. Subsequently, he’s forced into the foster system, ending up in a home with an older white couple and foster sister Rosemary, who is also Native American (Ponca), and who shares a similarly tumultuous past. A killer of a novel, one that addresses urban Indian life with subtlety, and its dark subject matter with grace—a novel that in terms of language is simply a lyrical masterpiece—Dead touches on something that deeply affects Native people, but is rarely talked about: Native children that end up in the social work system. Additionally, Sequoya and Rosemary—his well-wrought characters—are complicated, disturbing, tender, and so very, very human, and yes, absolutely Native, without resorting to the bombastic.
Though a clear departure from his first two novels, and in my estimation his strongest work at the time, Dead seemed doomed to its predecessors’ fate as a well-regarded novel in small circles, but one which was unable to garner a larger audience. The Native American author people were talking about, after they stopped talking about Alexie’s transgressions, was Arapaho/Cheyenne writer Tommy Orange, who seemed to be taking the singular baton from Alexie’s tarnished hand. Represented by top agent Nicole Aragi, Orange had garnered immediate and immense acclaim for a novel that in form wasn’t all that unlike Hobson’s early work, with a lyrical essay sandwiching postmodern slices of life from various urban Indians from the Oakland area, inspired by a video project Orange had done himself in previous years. Additionally, though generally loathe to praise any of his fiction writing peers (with the exception of his predecessors), Alexie backed Orange before his fall, adding to Orange’s singular boost.
Both books—Dead and There, were published in 2018, mere months apart—and a year after Alexie’s last book. As was expected, There was longlisted for the National Book Awards. But, to my great pleasure and surprise, so was Dead. Dead, though not taking the final prize, was then shortlisted, and what I had seen the minute I’d discovered this book was soon seen by so many—and which had the lovely effect of disrupting the idea that there could only be one prominent Native writer at a time. Immediately after this, the science-fiction/fantasy work of Pueblo writer Rebecca Roanhorse began to explode—garnering a second look at Blackfeet literary-horror author Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet), who had also been toiling away for years. And, as an author who’d garnered commercial success, and like Hobson—was a Cherokee citizen not highlighted as such—science-fiction writer Daniel H. Wilson. Soon after, Cherokee citizen Kelli Jo Ford’s work came out (realism/literary)—with two reviews in The New York Times. And in crime fiction, no one is beating it up harder than Sicangu Lakota author, David Heska Wanbli Weiden.
Without doing anything more than continuing to write, writing better each time, Hobson created the second Native American Renaissance—or Fifth Wave—that I had been hoping for, for more than fifteen years.
At this point in time, Roanhorse has shot into the literary stratosphere, with a number of books out. She’s also the first Indigenous author to win a Hugo. Jones has moved house to the big presses, and has accrued numerous awards. Weiden, also nominated for every crime award in existence, is under contract for his next—and his fan base is salivating. And though Orange has both a highly anticipated collection and novel coming out, Hobson has a novel coming out, too—and Ford is hard at work on her next. This is a time for celebration, a time in which none of us have to be the only one, or the singular explainer of Native culture via our art. We can all simply write about our tiny, sometimes quietly imaginative—sometimes wildly imaginative—corners of the universe, with the kind of artistic freedom our predecessors (many of whom were and are richly talented, and worked hard for those to come) could only dream of.
Erika T. Wurth’s publications include two novels, two collections of poetry, and a collection of short stories. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at WIU and has been a guest writer at the IAIA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Buzzfeed and The Kenyon Review. She will be faculty at Breadloaf in 2021, is a Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Scholar, attended the Tin House Summer Workshop, and has been chosen as a narrative artist for the Meow Wolf Denver installation. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.