Diss Talk: Reading oneself in Lisa Hogan’s ‘The Woman Who Watches Over the World’

By Anna Trowby

A year ago, as the effects of the pandemic started to settle in and we were all locked down in our homes, I was just beginning to prepare research for my third-year dissertation. As was the case for many students, the term was severely disrupted by Covid-19 and the mock exams that I had been preparing for were cancelled. As inconvenient as these developments were, it gave me more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation. I knew that I wanted to study something that would push me out of my comfort zone and engage with ideas in literature that I had not previously thought about before. After spending the entirety of second year writing a turgid dissertation on T.S. Eliot, I wanted to occupy myself with something more peripheral – something that would make me feel impassioned about English again. I stumbled across inspiration for a topic when I was perusing the English Faculty Website’s suggested authors for the Postcolonial paper. It struck me as odd that the suggested American and Canadian authors were almost exclusively white – wouldn’t it have made more sense to centre indigenous voices in this syllabus, given that they were the main targets of colonialism by Western forces? As a result, I decided to write about Native American literature. Over the next year, I read various works by indigenous authors, studied indigenous postcolonial theory, and tried to write sensitively and compassionately about a culture I became deeply invested in. 

It’s worth noting at this point that I am not Native American myself. I am of indigenous heritage, my mother being an indigenous Buryat woman from Southern Mongolia; however, as with any other indigenous person, my background does not make me privy to adopt other identities as my own. Indigenous identities are often collapsed into one another as if they are indistinguishable, but with 350 million indigenous people in the world, it is not possible to treat ‘natives’ as interchangeable. I was therefore careful not to displace the Native American experience with my own, and I was also aware that I should treat indigenous Americans and their various tribal nations as societies and cultures in their own right, as opposed to feeble projections of the Western imagination that conceives the indigenous as ‘other’. Conscious of my own position as someone from outside of this culture looking in on its literature and traditions, I challenged myself to dispel my Western-inflected lens when writing.

I discovered many exciting authors whilst researching this topic. Some of my favourite writers include Zitkala Sa, Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Orange, Jake Skeets, Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich (I particularly recommend Erdrich’s revelatory novel, The Roundhouse). I ultimately decided to write about The Woman Who Watches Over the World, a memoir by Linda Hogan. The memoir is a painstaking documentation of Hogan’s life, which intersperses autobiography with Native American history, religion and ecology (Hogan is an ardent environmentalist). Although I cannot fully identify with Hogan’s struggle, the way in which she wrote about pain and the difficulty of survival for those who, as Audre Lorde writes, were ‘not meant to survive’, spoke to my own history of endurance. I come from a difficult background, and to discover a Native American writer who was reflecting on indigenous survival was revelatory for me. Writing about Hogan’s memoir was, at times, incredibly painful; it was only two years ago that I started to think of myself in indigenous terms, and analysing the way in which Hogan writes about survival excavated my own journey of self-discovery. Hogan’s memoir was instrumental for me in coming to terms with myself, and I am so grateful to her for that. I must again emphasise that I am by no means claiming Hogan’s Native American identity as my own. Rather, I have a strong affinity with her reflection on the difficulty of endurance for indigenous people, and the way that she incorporates historically dispossessed voices into her narrative, namely when she writes about her troubled daughter, Marie.

Reading and researching Hogan’s memoir not only taught me about the variety of indigenous literature and Native American forms of storytelling; it taught me essential truths about myself, and the sheer difficulty of overcoming trauma. The memoir is by no means an easy read, but it is a testament to the complexity of the human spirit.

Image: Black Mesa State Park by Christopher Gabbard

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