Bojan Louis is Diné of the Naakai dine’é, born for the Áshííhí. He is the author of the short story collection, Sinking Bell (Graywolf Press 2022), the poetry collection Currents (BkMk Press 2017), and the nonfiction chapbook Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona (The Guillotine Series 2012). His work can also be found in Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, Native Voices Anthology, and The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature. His honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, and he is the recipient of a 2018 American Book Award. In addition to teaching at the Institute for American Indian Arts, Louis is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing MFA and American Indian Studies programs at the University of Arizona.
Sinking Bell is Bojan Louis’s second book, his first of short fiction. Lyrically resolute, the collection sits at the edge of the void and looks directly into it. It asks the reader to not only question what “progress” looks like, but more so to consider what its absence entails. What do we do with a bell whose primary function of warning has been muted? Can there be balance in absence? This interview was conducted via a Google Doc.
Alexa Luborsky: Since we both sometimes find titles to be difficult (per previous interviews), let’s start with a few questions about the title of your forthcoming collection of short stories, Sinking Bell. Get it out of the way? Yeah?
Most obviously, the phrase occurs in the final sentence of “A New Place to Hide”: “My head rang sharply and then, like an enormous bell cast into the ocean and sinking, I heard nothing at all.” The sentence interestingly points less towards the sound of the bell and more towards the absence of it after it is rung. This particular “sinking bell” seems to be the narrator’s innocence and sense of aloneness brought on by powerlessness. There are a lot of “voids” touched on in this collection. I mean we even start with ejection/excretion: “My stomach sank gradually, as if escaping, toward my asshole.” Can you talk a little bit about the title in the context of voids/absences/loneliness/impotence/lust in these stories?
Bojan Louis: Titles do often feel impossible, or perhaps it is that there is a lot of unnecessary weight placed on them. Whether that is an effect of the workshop experience or simply a general malaise of being a writer I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it’s both. I often think back to T. S. Eliot—a deeply influential writer in my younger years—and his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” (though I don’t know if anyone is reading Eliot anymore, more specifically his prose), but he uses the term there too, and this is my summary and paraphrase, meaning that all the pieces, images, sounds, characters, voices, etcetera, all the “small machinations” (a term coined by William Carlos Williams) of a poem, or in this case a story and a collection of stories, evokes or represents a particular emotion without the emotion ever being stated. So, in essence the central emotional landscape of these stories is the image of a bell that is sinking. It is, and has been rendered obsolete; its purpose to summon, notify, signal, or warn is nullified. Now, is the bell sinking in water, in sand, in mud, or perhaps it is sinking metaphorically? Could it sink through historical trauma or lived trauma? The possibilities are endless.
In “A New Place to Hide” the character is powerless, naive, gullible, traumatized, and abandoned, which are all characteristics and places in his emotional landscapes that he is too young to recognize as warning signs for potential dangers. But he survives, he is a survivor, and the reader has no clue from where or when he is telling this story. Perhaps from the abyss, which seems like the place to be, if you ask me. By creating, and staring face first into a void, or the abyss, an infinite number of possibilities, realities, or imaginings is possible. The opening sentence of the first story, “Trickster Myths,” in the collection really does say, and really signals it all. As you note, “voids/absences/loneliness/impotence/lust” are all ripe for abysmal possibilities, but they are also grounds for new beginnings, new landscapes real and emotional that are without the symbol of urgency, time, danger, duty, or prayer, which can be reflection. When a version of a person or character dies, changes, or is altered, that is an opportunity for a new way of being. Much like the coyote in our (Diné) trickster stories. Since I began this collection over sixteen years ago the title is one of the only things that has survived. The rest has been scrapped, rewritten, and reimagined many times over that much of it is, or has become, unrecognizable to me.
AL: My second question actually involves something you mentioned about your previous book of poems, Currents. You credited one of the lines in “Ko` doo leeschch’iih” to the track “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” from the Boris and Sunn O))) collaborative album Altar. You mentioned listening to the song as you wrote the poem but felt “something was missing”; then you found the lyric in that song to complete the poem. So, firstly, did this song have anything to do with the choice in title? And if so, this might relate to this idea of “voids” in the work, which you can most definitely touch on if you’d like as well, but more so I want to ask: where do you feel that this book stands in relation to your first book?
BL: Good question. “It’s the shape I’m in.” That’s the line from the song I used in the poem. It can infer much taken alone or taken out of context, and applied to any emotion or any situation, it is resounding. I love it. Love saying it, love the look of its alphabet on the page. It’s balanced, a perfect circuit. Boris and Sunn O))) are two bands I listen to frequently when writing or spacing out, and they are also two of the bands whose discography I own on vinyl, CD, and digitally. Their collaboration, Altar, was released on October 31, 2006, which would have been the fall of my first semester as an MFA fiction candidate. I listened to that CD nonstop, without any intention that it would influence my writing. I was trying to get my bearings and was used to a completely different lifestyle as a graduate student having come from being an electrical foreman. I entered the void of academia and there is still no bottom to this day. I knew that I wanted to write stories, to study and delve into the form, and I had a title then that I was aiming for, that was my objective correlative. Actually there were two: “Trick” and “Throwing Rocks,” both of which I find insipid and stupid now. I drafted two collections with those titles in mind and abandoned them.
But all that writing and discarding brought me to draft a story a year after I started my MFA called “A Sinking Bell,” which was inspired by the French movie (2007) and memoir (1997) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and the metaphor of its title. “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego, or for King Midas’s Court.” Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief for Elle, and suffered a stroke at forty-three, and wrote his book using blinks to communicate. I haven’t viewed the film since then, but I did embark on a sort of literary and artistic quest for anything to do with bells in the title, which did lead me back to the Boris and Sunn O))) track and predominantly to a church, dubbed The Sinking Bell, somewhere in the Philippines, that is literally sinking into the ground because it is so heavy. At one point, I had a whole reading/viewing/listening notebook that I’ve long since destroyed and mostly purged from my mind, much like my fascination with the Modernists, though it lingers and is piqued, often, without my control. In my mind, Sinking Bell is my first book, the book I set out to write all those years ago. Currents came along through my study of modernist poetics, electrical work, and my own Diné ideology and lifeways. It was completed first because it was shorter, more condensed, and was able to find its form more quickly. It suited the circumstances of my life as I blended and then shifted my career from skilled trade to eventually becoming an assistant professor. It was utilitarian. Sinking Bell required a greater change, a more difficult acceptance and alteration of self, and more life experiences perhaps. I needed to survive and remake, or alter, myself.
AL: In a previous interview, you mentioned that “short fiction is psychology and description, a narrative aimed at encompassing a world through a moment or instances.” Do you feel that this is true of the stories in Sinking Bell? To me it seems that these stories are all paralleled by, or undone by, myths of varying temporal distances from the primary narrative. There is a story held in a moment but it is in relation to another, older one. So I’m wondering if you can speak more about these pieces in relation to their genre. Why did these specific stories need to come out as short fiction? Why not, for example, as long narrative poems which you have mentioned can be useful when “crafting a voice or persona within each poem”?
BL: A tough one. I’ve probably changed my mind about what I think, or believe, poetry or fiction, or even writing, to be. And I’ll keep changing my mind. I certainly believe that the tools of fiction, or poetry, are capable of anything, so long as one’s imagination is allowed to wander and thrive, but also when one’s imagination is stifled or limited, whether by internal or external forces, or by the urge to break free, to transcend, to do in spite of, to destroy and dismantle borders. These ideals can be planted in one’s psyche and soul. At this point in my writing life, I know what form or genre each piece I write needs. I don’t think I’ve ever made a poem into a story or vice versa, at least not recently, recently being the last five years. If I want to write a poem, I write a poem. The same goes for stories.
AL: A quasi-follow up. Your poetics feels very concerned with the void/abyss/in-between, and so too does your short fiction, which is an interesting concern for someone whose background is electrical work. The work of precision and connection (to me, who knows very little). A common trope is to turn to religion, or fate, or chance when confronting the void. And while these stories have elements of all those things, your approach seems different. More concerned with looking into the void than about how to get out of it. For example, you’ve said, “Religion, for me, is often a thing of destruction.” Can you say more about that? And if relevant, how it connects to your background as an electrician, working in the physical realm of things?
BL: I’m all for that no gods, no masters kind of vibe. I’m a spiritual person, but that’s no one’s business. Religions are institutions designed by humans, usually men. There are buildings, temples, churches, structures; there are positions, hierarchies, denominations; there are texts, songs, prayers, relics, totems, etc; there is a populace/people/gender who are deemed other, dirty, unchosen, inferior, damned; there’s always a chosen land, of beginning, or emergence. And, if you stand in the way of the chosen, don’t believe what the chosen believe, or have what the chosen want, then your blood is simply fertilizer for seeds of salvation. When religion becomes a physical and tangible thing, death and decimation follow: from a stone to an arrow, to a sword, to a gun, to a missile, to a bomb, and from a decree to a constitution, to a bill, to death and imprisonment. If you don’t believe what the chosen believe, then your physical reality is imprisonment, confinement, and limitation. Something to that effect. I’m all for heresy, even heresy of the self.
AL: I’m curious about the sequencing of the pieces. There are two to three trajectories that came up for me. Maybe this is a poetic thing to think about, but hey, we’re both poets in some regards so, if you’ll humor me? I’ll bring up one. It seems to me that the stories are structured around downfall or let’s call it “sinking.” To some extent, each story feels like a retelling in different characters that gets modified more and more as we progress. The earlier pieces end in death, murder, death of innocence, death of culture . . . etc. It is not until “Before the Burnings” that we see a character (maybe?) be redeemed. He may pull himself away from the land of the dead and ash or jump into it, we don’t know for sure. Then finally, with “Usefulness,” Thrush, whose conflation with a bell is not only signaled in her name but is also signaled explicitly in the story, makes her getaway with the nameless ex-convict, after pulling him out of a hole he literally dug himself into. Can you talk about the relation of the stories to one another, to what redemption means in the context of the work, and if you want, how the retelling of myth plays into these narratives?
BL: The order was the most difficult aspect of the collection to harness. Honestly, as I look at the table of contents I don’t really know how this order arrived, what my thoughts were or my intention. It certainly wasn’t the same intention I had a year, or two, or ten years ago. The collection manifested its own shape in the way all stories, all human experiences can be connected, and even severed. If you’re able to read well and widely there are an inexhaustible amount of models, or forms, available for consideration and study. Stories from the Diné bahane’, from my relatives and relations, from religious texts, and literature in English and in translation, all those forms, or shapes, those weavings and circuits, they have all provided inspiration and introspection. And, at some point, they all seem to have the potential to move in similar or familiar ways. As far as I can tell, we’re born, then we die; what happens after that isn’t a concern of mine. Other stories may suggest a better place, a worst place, an in-between place, a place that is not a place, a place that is without, or a nothing within nothingness. If there is indeed a soul then the sacks of skin that we wear are only that: a temporary adornment that has the same genesis and end time as every other sack—welcome and goodbye. I don’t know where I’m going with this but some tools of effective fiction are character and place, fragmentation and honesty. All the stories essentially take place in the same area and town, though at varying points of time, none of which are linear. So, there are already layers, myths as you say, and stories that have energized the place, that feed a preconceived notion or imagining of it. The characters are spiritually, for lack of a better word, connected, small circuits of a larger system and existence. Life and recovery, for example are work, and the practice of work is a tangible reality of human existence—the physical and mental exhaustion, the effects of class, the burning desire for more, but more of what is what so many of us cannot answer–that lead and guide us to how we spend our days, or how we’re able to spend our days. At the center of each story is the desire for “a good life,” which can be mirage-like, an empty concept devoid of meaning and shape. “A good life” sounds good, but what the hell is it? For an addict it could be recovery, but that’s just a word. What recovery is, or how it looks, is a lifetime of work. The collection begins with addiction and relapse, which are social constructions of perceived failure, and descent, and ends with a character who has some years of recovery under his belt and yet, his “good life” is somewhere out there, beyond the capabilities of his imagination and hands, but still just within reach.
AL: Last one, and this is a two-part question.
Of the coyote in “Trickster Myths,” the Navajo writer explains: “His chaotic behavior brings harmony, whether he has an adventure, comes to a realization or epiphany, or gets beaten to a pulp and dies.” It reminds me of something Czeslaw Milosz said: “I am not seeking an escape from dread but rather proof that dread and reverence can exist within simultaneously.” If we think about it, the problem with a void could be the yearning to fill it, not the void itself. To resist the urge is harmonious, in a way. Do you agree with Milosz? Is the way to find harmony by allowing both dread and reverence for the characters of Sinking Bell, or in life, I suppose?
Second part. With “Before the Burnings,” there is a statewide euthanizing project (of coyotes, strays, even human beings). Karl works the incinerator and, potentially, jumps into the fire after them. This story feels different from the rest. To me it feels like it opens the void wider. But then, with the next story, there is a kind of redemption. This makes me want to make a parallel to “trial by ordeal,” the final stage of Dante’s purgatory, before entering paradise. Can you talk to me specifically about “Before the Burnings” and its function within the collection? Maybe in the context of the first part of the question, if relevant?
BL: First part. Absolutely. An aspect of Diné ideology and lifeways is the recognition of balance and imbalance, of harmony and discord. Take, for instance, the design of our “wedding baskets.” The white part represents all the happy and good shit in life, the red the merging of bloodlines, stories, histories, and relatives, and the black parts that go up and down, that’s all the hardship, and there’s a lot of it. Life isn’t easy. My parents were of the “life is hard and then you die” mindset, or maybe it’s a generational thing. But, anyway, I ate that shit up. My uncle is a medicine man and he conducted the Diné wedding ceremony for my wife and me. He said something like, “Son, you’ve known your hardships, your dad, your mom, all your family, we all know hardship. We have had, for a long time, everything taken from us, life and our homes, everything. But here we are today celebrating, happy, and ready for the next hard time.” Something like that, but since we are talking story, this paraphrase of mine could be a distillation of varying similar things that my uncle has passed on to me over the years and now it’s becoming my own myth. Who can say?
Second part. “Before the Burnings,” at one point began the collection, was removed, and then replaced with a different story now entirely scrapped. Before sending it off for consideration to the editor at Graywolf I put it back into the collection at the end. The story after it was a completely different story with a different title, and was placed in the middle, I think. I substantially revised three of the stories in the collection, “Before the Burnings” included, and wrote a new one, which totally disrupted any notion I had about the collection’s order. I’m ever grateful to my editor Katie Dublinski, who is a hell of a reader with a keen eye. So, in part, any reading of the collection’s themes, threads, or parallels are entirely your own. However, Dante’s Commedia is one of the few books I reread every few years. Parts of its structure are all over the first story in the collection, though in more asinine ways perhaps.
AL: Thank you so much for your time and for allowing me to interview you about Sinking Bell. I can’t wait to read your responses.