“That writing should challenge readers with the most difficult truths”: An Interview with Heather Johnson

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

Heather Johnson is the winner of our 2017 Summer Nonfiction Contest for her essay "Nowhere Place," which is forthcoming in our Spring Issue. Click here to subscribe to Prairie Schooner today.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Your essay, “Nowhere Place,” describes both a literal space, “a nowhere place surrounded by mesas, embedded in a valley of sand and weeds,” as well as a mental space, a “sense of unbelonging even to my own self.”  How did you go about writing about the Navajo Indian Reservation and dissociation? What freedoms and challenges did each present?

Heather Johnson: I didn’t necessarily choose the subject of dissociation. Rather the topic, as with my most powerful writing, insisted on itself. What I mean is that there is a deep emotional urgency to what wants to be written—when I started free-writing this essay, I was struggling with mental dissociation and had been researching the clinical symptoms and experiences of other people who cope with it. At first, I resisted writing about it, because it’s difficult to engage in that depth of self-analysis without triggering traumatic memory. But it was something that needed to be written, that needed to be recorded, because mine is not a singular experience, but rather encapsulates the experiences of many Native American children who grew up in a Western educational system.

Also, what helped me to overcome my reluctance to write the essay was recognizing that most people don’t want to acknowledge the sources of psychological dissociation, the trauma, because it makes them uncomfortable: that recognition was a direct challenge for me to write. In fact, I wanted my essay to point a finger back at the reader to force them to acknowledge how, as a society, they participate in that silence around survivors of abuse. I didn’t want to perpetuate that silence, that avoidance, and I’ve always believed that writing should challenge readers with the most difficult truths.

So, practically, writing about my mental dissociation lead me to the metaphorical dissociation I navigate within the classroom environment: my dissociation is a result of trauma and some of the trauma I’ve experienced has happened in academic spaces. That was the lead I followed. Indeed, the academic classroom is still, at times, a loaded, hostile space. I still struggle in it because it’s normally in conflict with my identity, my values, my sensibilities, as a Native American woman from the reservation. It is still a dissociative space.

SFM:  This essay, along with your fiction and poetry, examines surviving personal and historical trauma. How does the genre of nonfiction allow you to explore these complexities? How do you approach these subjects in fiction and poetry?

HJ: Before this essay, I hadn’t written much nonfiction, except for my poetry, although my fiction can be described as thinly veiled nonfiction. I think I first needed to write about personal and historical trauma obliquely, through poetry and fiction, before I was ready to write something like this essay. As an artist, a writer, I realized I was limiting myself by not writing nonfiction. I was not doing justice to my own lived experience. Nonfiction has been a more natural, more intuitive, form for me to use as an artist. Its elasticity, its malleability, allows me to delve deeply into the complexities of trauma in a way that I’m not able to do as effectively within the constraints of fiction’s traditional form. I’ve found that with nonfiction I am better able to organically reflect the dissociative nature of trauma in the essay’s modular and associative forms. Also, with nonfiction, there is greater allowance, greater range and opportunity for reflection and commentary than what I’m able to do with my fiction.  

With my poetry and fiction, or, more generally, with all my writing, I let the subject matter choose me. I let what feels most urgent manifest on the page. And trauma is something I continually live with—I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and it affects my day-to-day living and my traumatic experiences are still vivid, still deeply felt, so that it is what carries over into my writing. My former nonfiction professor described my experience best: “layers of trauma”. And it is these layers that I’m always able to access, that feel most immediate, most compelling, for my writing. 

SFM:  In the essay you write, “When I learned to read in the first grade, there were no stories of people like me.” How does this essay and your larger body of work allow you to write the stories you were missing as a child?

HJ: My writing tends to be critically conscious and that itself was something I was not given the opportunity to read as a child. Writing that critically examines the systemic ways in which society perpetuates bias, prejudice, and power over marginalized populations was always conspicuously absent throughout my education, until I came to college. I was a critical theorist even as a child in first grade and I didn’t know the word for it until my first intro. sociology course. As a writer, I must be a truth-teller, so I can’t allow myself to write what is convenient, what is easy, because that has not been my experience. I don’t write to assuage or placate the collective conscience or easily satisfy sentiment. I hope that my writing will one day be widely accessible so that it can help fill the gap of those missing stories. I want my writing to represent those marginalized voices and experiences. 

SFM: What other writers tell the stories you were missing as a child? What writers and pieces speak to you?

HJ: Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers. I enjoy his narrative poetry and appreciate the critical lens he applies in all his writing. I’d say his memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, of all his collected works, has resonated most with me. Kiese Laymon’s book, especially his title essay, How to Slowly Kill Yourselves and Others in America, is a powerful, pull-no-punches read. I also enjoy ZZ Packer’s short stories and Joy Harjo’s poetry. Other writers who have influenced how I explore the intimate nature of personal trauma and the complexities of mental health are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Robert Lowell’s books of poetry, Life Studies, The Dolphin, and Notebook always leave me stunned and have profoundly affected the lyricism of my prose.

SFM: Finally, what are your current projects? What writing discoveries or challenges are you working through right now?

HJ: Currently, I’m writing a novel about a homeless 15-year-old prostitute who was kicked out by her mother for having a homosexual relationship with her girlfriend. The book is my critical commentary of our society, especially how it treats people who occupy several marginalized identities simultaneously: the main character, Jane, is half Native American, half Hispanic, bisexual, female, and from a lower socioeconomic class. Her life reflects my own experience as a former child protective services social worker working with unwanted teenage foster youth. It’s a difficult book to write simply because of its subject matter. Because of how the book directly addresses trauma, I have to intermittently take breaks and turn to other projects, like my short stories and essays. I’m also working on a book of poetry.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011. Her memoir, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, is forthcoming with The Ohio State University Press, and she is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press 2017), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press 2014). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, The Normal School, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.