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2021 National Book Festival Highlights: Native Writers

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Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the 2021 Library of Congress National Book Festival! Here, we offer highlights from this year’s treasure trove of programs celebrating the theme, “Open a Book, Open the World.” Whether you’re tuning in for the first time, or revisiting favorites, we hope you enjoy these programs — and that they continue to open the world for you. Make sure to explore the full video collection from the 2021 Festival.

This week, as we continue to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting programs from the 2021 National Book Festival that feature Native writers.

Kelli Jo Ford (“Crooked Hallelujah”) and Toni Jensen (“Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land”) discuss their new books with Nick Martin, contributing editor at The New Republic. Both writers explore the importance of Native representation in their work and in broader literature, and speak on their approach to writing for Native and non-Native audiences.

“I thought about readers back home,” Ford says about who she pictures holding her book. “I thought about my family. I thought about Cherokee people in Oklahoma, people from Oklahoma and North Texas and rural towns. I thought about those people, and I wanted them to read the book and feel like I had gotten something right, some parts of these characters in the world they live in. I felt like I wanted them to read the book and have some sense of recognition.”

Jensen agrees. “I also feel like I was thinking first and foremost of family. And my book takes place all over the country, all the different places I’ve lived. And so I was thinking of all the different communities. Not just the Métis community, Alberta Métis specifically, but all the communities I’ve lived in all over the United States. And I’m representing them. I’m talking about Native history and Native lived presence in those regions.” Jensen also points out that “I was writing to and for my own communities all across the country, you know, places I’ve lived and worked. I was thinking of those people first. And I think that who you’re writing to and who you’re writing for  those can be separate questions. So I was writing to those people, and I guess until the very end, I didn’t allow myself very much to think about who I was writing for.”

Rep. Sharice Davids discusses her new children’s book, “Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman,” which tells the true story of how the author became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress and the first LGBTQ Congress member to represent Kansas.

In her National Book Festival video, Davids says she was inspired to write “Sharice’s Big Voice” because “a lot of us know what it’s like to sometimes feel small, or maybe feel invisible, or just feel not heard. … I wanted to make sure to share the things that felt really important for me like recognizing that when I was a kid, I talked a lot, and I had to learn how to listen. And sometimes it would feel like something was wrong with me, but there wasn’t something wrong with me; I just needed to learn … to recognize that I’m unique in my own way.” She wants readers to see that “all of our paths are different, and no matter what, that you deserve to be heard, you deserve to be seen, and that you’re not alone in some of these things.”

Davids also talks about how she struggled to connect with books as a young reader. “I don’t remember reading books that kind of changed my life, or my view of the world, necessarily, when I was younger and, you know, that could be because I didn’t see characters that I connected with. … Only one percent of characters in all books have any Native characters, and that’s a pretty big thing to think about. And so I hope that we’ll get to see more and more books with lots of different kinds of characters, with lots of different kinds of experiences.” You can learn even more about Davids and “Sharice’s Big Voice” by watching her 2021 Festival Q&A with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

You can also watch Poet Laureate Joy Harjo discuss her new memoir, “Poet Warrior,” in a Washington Post Live interview that kicked off the 2021 Festival. When asked what we can learn about our lives by listening and connecting to the stories of our ancestors, Harjo says, “Well, we’re part of that story. I think there’s a family genealogy, family genealogies, but there are also ‘stories genealogies.’ I’ve learned that, really, genealogy is a story field. It’s also how we know history, and we are kind of like a tree. And those stories, whether we know them or not, they are the stuff that form the marrow in our bones, and they give us a kind of sense, even if we are not aware of them.”

You can watch programs from the 2021 National Book Festival on our National Book Festival website. For up-to-the-minute Festival news, highlights and other important information, subscribe to this blog. The Festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the Festival, too, by making a gift now.