Morgan Talty doesn’t want to be known as an “Indigenous writer,” at least not solely.
But he also doesn’t want to ignore his past, as it informs a lot of his work.
“I think the expectation is that when non-Indigenous people read about Indigenous people, they want a colorful and easy tour of the culture, something that doesn’t challenge them,” Talty said. “I knew I wanted to work against that.”
The 31-year-old, who grew up on a Penobscot Nation reservation north of Bangor, had to walk that line in his first book, ‘Night of the Living Rez,’ a collection of 12 interconnected short stories out July 5. .
The stories are fictional, but they are rooted in his experiences. Things he saw. Things that happened in his own family. Most of the characters are Native American, but they are not portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures. They are not filtered through a white lens of Western culture. They are just people.
“There really hasn’t been any depiction of the Penobscots in popular culture,” he said. “I don’t feel the weight of having to represent the entire Penobscot Nation, but at the same time, I feel tremendous pride in presenting fully realized characters, who have the same emotional journeys as everyone else.”
So far, the reviews have been strong. The New York Times and the Boston Globe each included it on lists of the best books of the summer.
“His debut collection, full of startling drama, offers a fresh take on the precarious lives of marginalized people in the 21st century,” read the Times review.
The awards came as a surprise to Talty who, in addition to writing, has three different teaching positions: at Husson University in Bangor, at the Stonecoast Masters in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine (where he graduated from graduate school only a few years ago), and at Bay Mills Community College, a public tribal land school in Brimley, Michigan.
The book started with a piece he wrote in 2015, but he didn’t think of creating a cohesive collection until a few years later. The stories are told either by a young narrator, David, or by an older version of the same character, known as Dee. They explore emotionally heavy themes such as poverty, addiction and mental illness. The results of the characters are sometimes dark, but there is also a tenderness in their relationships.
“Morgan is singularly the most talented writer I have worked with,” said Cara Hoffman, an author who taught him at Stonecoast and keeps in touch with him regularly, in an email. “His work is funny, sly, a deep meditation on class and love; on the burdens that women carry; on the power and powerlessness of men. On what it means to be good in a very imperfect world.
Rick Bass, another author who mentored Talty at Stonecoast, offered similar praise.
“He was assigned to be my mentee, but he was always a peer from day one,” Bass said. “I was lucky when I worked with him at Stonecoast. Everyone knew immediately what he had.
ROAD TO WRITING
Talty was born in Connecticut but moved as a child to Indian Island, a Penobscot Nation reservation near Old Town that shares a border with a river of the same name.
Today the reserve is home to around 750 residents, but the population was closer to 500 when Talty was growing. It’s a close-knit community, and one that has struggled for decades to balance tribal sovereignty with economic stability.
All around him, stories abounded and he too discovered a love for storytelling early on.
He attended elementary and high school on Indian Island, then went to Orono High School as the reservation does not have its own high school. He was not good at it, he said, and college was not a certainty.
Unsure of his next step, Talty ended up in community college for a few years and had professors there who really encouraged him to pursue writing.
“I had a lot of support, but I’m not sure I believed it,” he said. “I still doubt it, honestly.”
Something clicked, however. With a college under his belt, Talty transferred to Dartmouth College and earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies.
He returned to Maine and enrolled in the master’s program in creative writing at USM known as Stonecoast. He chose the low residency option, which is a two-year program that includes 10-day intensive residencies and six-month faculty-supervised independent writing projects. Talty worked on the stories that would become her debut.
“I read a draft of ‘Night of the Living Rez’ in 2018 when it was a tie-in storybook,” Hoffman said. “From the first sentence I knew it was brilliant, and after the first few stories it was clear that this was a book of enormous artistic and social significance and was going to be huge.
“For a student manuscript, it was extremely sophisticated. He played with timelines and narrative voice, the rhythm of sentences had a musical cadence, his ear for dialogue was impeccable.
By this time, Talty’s stories had been published in literary magazines, but selling a collection of them would be different. One of the first agents wanted to turn his stories into a novel.
“They basically said, ‘I don’t know how to sell this,'” Talty recalled.
He dropped that agent and instead signed with Rebecca Friedman, who represented Hoffman. She helped sell her stories to Tin House, a reputable small publishing house based in Portland, Oregon.
Talty said his Tin House editors didn’t force him to make the characters “more Indigenous”, and he was grateful for that.
Still, he worried about whether readers would react if his characters didn’t fit an archetype.
“At the end of the day, I think everyone feels the same emotions, so that’s something I’m looking for,” he said. “Making people feel something is the best way to connect.”
Talty said he drew inspiration from other Indigenous authors — Tommy Orange and Chelsea T. Hicks, for example — who helped make room for more disparate voices in literature.
But he also said he was careful not to lean too heavily into social or political commentary in his work, and when he did, it was subtle.
“I really love the craft of fiction, character building and setting,” he said.
Hoffman called Talty’s characters “deeply intelligent and complex”.
“He’s a master of understatement and surprise,” she said. “The setting – the Penobscot Reserve – is so richly drawn, it is its own character.”
According to Talty, to many people, Native Americans seem like a “dead culture,” even though that’s not true. Yet even a simple Google search of the term yields mostly 19th century images.
“A lot of what people know is what’s presented in popular culture,” he said.
Some topics were tricky. In writing about poverty or substance use, for example, Talty said he fears perpetuating stereotypes.
“But these are things that I experienced, things that I knew,” he said.
Bass said he doesn’t like looking at Talty’s work, or anyone else’s, comparing it to others.
“My daughter says, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy,’ and there’s a lot of wisdom in that,” he said. “What I love about Morgan’s work is that there is a softness that remains. No matter how dark or eerie the outer environment becomes, the characters have an inner light.
Talty now lives in the Levant, just northwest of Bangor, not far from Indian Island. He still has family and visits him about once a month.
His writing is increasingly noticed. He’s already working on a follow-up, and this year was among 35 writers to receive a $25,000 creative writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
And with all the advance praise from “Night of the Living Rez,” he hopes the book will sell.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so if that can support more work, I think that’s… well, of course it is,” he said.
In his future work, Talty expects him to continue to draw on his past, but he remains aware of being confined to a specific label.
“I think the label of Indigenous writer is both a fact of who he is and part of how publishing categorises,” Hoffman said. “He could also be called a feminist writer, a working-class writer, a pastoral writer, a comic writer. It’s clearly working in a tradition of great Native writers like Richard Van Camp, and ‘Night of the Living Rez’ is about the people of the Penobscot Nation, but I think Morgan has created a novel that transcends all labels. It is a literary work in the true sense of the term. It’s complex, clever, funny, heartbreaking, sad, beautifully written. It’s brilliant.”
Bass said he wasn’t surprised that Talty’s work was receiving praise.
“That’s what I was hoping and wishing for him, but you hope and wish for a lot of good books,” he said. “You never know what will catch the wind.”
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