Womack, Craig S. 1960-

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WOMACK, Craig S. 1960-

PERSONAL:

Born February 29, 1960, in San Pablo, CA; son of Coy (an electrician) and Wilma (a homemaker) Womack; partner of Gerado Tristan. Ethnicity: "Oklahoma Creek and Cherokee." Education: University of Oklahoma, Ph.D., 1995. Hobbies and other interests: Jazz guitar.

ADDRESSES:

Home—2036 Northwest 17th St., Oklahoma City, OK 73106. Office—University of Oklahoma, English Department, Norman, OK 73019; fax: 405-325-0831. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Educator. University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, professor of Native American studies until 2002; University of Oklahoma, Norman, associate professor of English, 2002—.

WRITINGS:

Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.

Drowning in Fire, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 2001.

WORK IN PROGRESS:

A biography of Muskogee Creek resistance leader Chitto Harjo; an historical novel about playwright Lynn Riggs.

SIDELIGHTS:

Craig S. Womack is an educator and writer who has focused his work on the lives of Native Americans. In his novel Drowning in Fire, published in 2001, Womack "sets a new standard" in fiction concerning the future of native peoples, according to Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review contributor Daniel Justice. Womack's first book, the nonfiction study Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, was described by Justice as "a revolutionary work that argued for grounding Native literary analysis in the tribal specificity from which it arose," while Multicultural Review contributor P. Jane Hafen praised Womack's "insightful critical essays" and noted that the author "convincingly and clearly explains how contemporary literary theories are inadequate and colonial for American Indian literatures."

Drowning in Fire focuses on Creek teenager Josh Henneha. Growing up in his Oklahoma town, quiet and artistic Josh realizes early on that he is attracted to boys, and his affections soon come to rest on Jimmy Alexander, an older boy who acts as Josh's defender. The story of Josh's coming of age and efforts to deal with his homosexuality are balanced in Womack's story by the accounts of Josh's aunt Lucy, a musician and ardent feminist. Praising the book, Justice noted that, rather than serving as a "drama of unrelenting trauma and tragedy," Drowning in Fire "celebrates the happiness of gay men in love" and "provides a touchstone of hope" for gay Native Americans. In Library Journal a reviewer dubbed Womack's fiction "satisfying and well-written," while Thomas Fagan praised Drowning in Fire in Rain Taxi as a book of "unexpected depth and richness," "a provocative novel of sexual and cultural identity, filled with the best traits of the people it portrays: wisdom and compassion."

Womack told CA: "I wrote my first book, Red on Red, a literary history of the Muskogee Creek Nation, out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the gap that exists between literary criticism and the community of living people who are supposedly the subject of literary works and criticism. In other words, I felt much was being written about Indians that Indian people themselves were not interested in. This posed an ethical dilemma for me, this possibility of writing the literary history of the Muskogee Creek Nation in a language only accessible to literary critics. Creek writers and Creek readers have played an integral role in the life of the nation since at least the 1830s, so books going unread cannot be blamed on a lack of interest. Instead one faces the daunting question: why are certain books irrelevant in a community with such a vital intellectual life?

"To that end, I tried my best to find a language that would be meaningful to a Creek readership. Some of my critics have responded by saying 'Who does this guy think he is, assuming that Creeks read his books? We all know the majority of his readers are non-Indians.' There are two ways in which such critics are mistaken: The first is the literal fact that I get phone calls, e-mails, and letters frequently from Creek readers both praising my work and raising interesting challenges. So what are my critics saying? Is this a 'size matters' argument? Let us say, hypothetically, I only have one hundred Creek readers. Does this mean that this particular audience, then, does not count? I might argue that qualitative concerns, rather than just quantitative ones, matter. Secondly, even if these critics were correct in assuming that no Creek people read my work (and they are not correct), there would still exist a primary Creek audience: the one inside my head. This imagined audience has a dramatic effect on what stories I choose to tell, what stories I choose not to tell, the language I employ while telling them, and the ways in which they are told. That constitutes a pretty important audience, does it not?

"In Red on Red, then, in between chapters of conventional literary history, I placed dialect letters with fictional Creek characters, the kind of old guys who might be sitting on a town bench in eastern Oklahoma, except in this case, unlikely as this might be, they are commenting on literary criticism and its relevance—or irrelevance. This creates a call-and-response structure in the book, an influence from the musical traditions of my community, as well as my experiences as a jazz musician. This comic dialogue convention is not original with me but a passed-down Creek tradition whose most well-known practitioner was Alexander Posey, a Creek writer who sent letters to the Eufaula Indian Journal, an eastern Oklahoma newspaper, at the turn of the twentieth century, pretending to be a Creek speaker whose keen insights were perfectly expressed in his 'Red English.' In my case, I use the dialect letters to seek a language to express literary criticism that might actually be meaningful to the people the literary criticism is supposed to be about—that is, to the Muskogee Creek people.

"In terms of my novel Drowning in Fire, I often say, tongue-in-cheek, that it is your typical Indian story about two Indian guys who grow up together, fall in love (with each other), and live happily ever after. My irony here reflects the lack of such stories in print, but my intent is serious: why shouldn't this be a typical Indian story? In a community marked, if anything, by tremendous cultural and racial diversity, this particular story certainly reflects the reality of a number of Native people's lives whose same-sex attraction shapes their world in fundamental ways.

"In Drowning in Fire, I wanted to show how two Muskogee Creek men's love for one another might be supported by their community, as well as deal honestly with the racism and homophobia that might inhibit that support both inside and outside the Indian world. My larger purpose, like any author's, was to give people a little feeling for what my corner of the world is like—how we speak, think, go about our days, the feel and look of the countryside, our history.

"The novel's multigenerational structure, and its cast of first-person narrators, is my attempt to create a community of voices, an ensemble whose solos weave in and out of each other, thus constantly shifting the meaning of any single soloist. More simply put, Josh Henneha and Jimmy Alexander begin to mature as gay men, and as a couple, when they start to contemplate the meaning of the stories that have surrounded them. The novel, I hope, makes an important point about history. We can grow up in a vibrant oral tradition or a vibrant written tradition, or, more likely, a combination of both. Until we are willing to imagine that tradition for ourselves, however, to dream the past, even to author it, these histories will remain the 'capital H' kind of history that never moves beyond obscure facts and dates. Creating history is not merely the work of historians. In fact, historians are often the least qualified for the job. This imaginative act is vital for anyone who wants to have an ethical relationship with her past.

"Thus, in Drowning in Fire, the characters become realized to whatever degree they are willing to invent their histories. In today's computer age, we might call this a 'virtual reality' approach to history, one that emphasizes a participative, rather than a passive, relationship to our pasts, an act of resistance to simply accepting the version that is handed down to us. The novel, I hope, achieves a balance. I am not advocating a 'separate reality' à la Carlos Castaneda. One can imagine himself or herself wrong, fantasize a false image of oneself; in short, be deluded. I am talking about the complicated field that history and language play in, and the opportunities we have to join in the play."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Indian Quarterly, winter, 2002, Peter J. McCormick, review of Drowning in Fire, pp. 153-154.

Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, January-February, 2002, Daniel Justice, "Native Men in Love," pp. 39-40.

Great Plains Quarterly, winter, 2001, Daniel Justice, review of Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism, pp. 85-86.

Lambda Book Report, January, 2002, Karl Woelz, "Queer Indians," pp. 20-21.

Library Journal, October 15, 2001, Joseph M. Egan, review of Drowning in Fire, p. 111.

Multicultural Review, December, 2000, P. Jane Hafen, review of Red on Red, p. 74.

Rain Taxi, winter, 2001-2002, Thomas Fagan, review of Drowning in Fire, p. 30.

Southwest Book Views, spring, 2002, Robert Murray Davis, review of Drowning in Fire, p. 20.

World Literature Today, summer-autumn, 2002, Robert Murray Davis, review of Drowning in Fire, pp. 156-157.

ONLINE

Nebraska Center for Writers Web site,http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/NCW/ (January 2, 2004), "Craig Womack."

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Womack, Craig S. 1960-

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