It’s hard to pinpoint how a subject becomes important to a writer’s work, sometimes more difficult for the writer to see than it is for a careful and astute reader. Just how the writer decides what to focus on is evasive, always on the move. Maybe it’s not a decision at all. Maybe by a writer’s nature and the nature of the lived-in world, the writer unconsciously falls into subjects. There is the writer’s background, which produces certain influences and fascinations, even obsessions. There are the barely grasped elements. Then there is the attraction of what is called “literary weather.” Here, issues of little consequence in one time period unexpectedly emerge as riveting topics in another. How are they to be addressed? What network of consciousness makes meaning? Consider the fairly recent, transformative changes in the place of gay and transgender people in our culture, of male dominance, of the nature of white supremacism, and of the regard for people of different races.
My father was a preacher. As a preacher’s kid I was taught that there are important things to say and that a person is obliged to say them when called upon, even when they are difficult. I am from Canada, an immigrant brought to the United States by my parents. From early boyhood through college I lived all over California. I came of age during the sixties and grew up surrounded by anti-gay bias, the misogynist treatment of women, and the assumed dominance by heterosexual men at the portals of power. These were accepted as givens in what seems now my pre-cognizant life; they were woven into the fabric of everything around me, including my mother’s attempts to broaden her role as a “minister’s wife.” I would later see that it caused her great pain.
Also, during my early teenage years, I learned about “Indian lore” from an amateur archeologist. On Saturdays his family and mine traveled into the California desert in search of artifacts, focusing on burial grounds. We were stocking a San Bernardino museum. Although I learned something about desert Indians in the process, I was in a state of complete ignorance about what we were actually doing. I had utterly no conception of how our taking possession of the artifacts and spiriting them off—arrow straighteners, matates, heavily ornamented stone arrow points and hatchets, even bones—might be seen as white raids on past lives.
My father studied in Berkeley at the Pacific School of Religion with the Christian existentialist and Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. He then joined the American Congregationalists (now the United Church of Christ) and came to be known for his commitment to integrating inner-city churches. He was “called” by several San Diego–area churches, the chief among which was in National City, one of three “American” communities south of San Diego, the others being Chula Vista, where we had also lived for a year, and San Ysidro.
Before we moved there, National City had experienced white flight to San Diego suburbs, leaving the church in decline yet still under the control of the few whites who returned to National City for Sunday services. At the time, I am told, San Diego County was second only to Orange County in California for the presence of arch-conservatives. During the very early sixties, the John Birch Society became a force. My father knew his calling was to redefine the church, to allow it to speak for the community, but these outsiders harassed him for installing a Japanese choir director and a Black soprano soloist and for welcoming Mexican Americans to church events. Awkward though he may have been at times, my father was a staunch believer in ecumenical religion. On Sundays after his own services, he gave over the space of the church to a congregation of Samoans, who had no church of their own. Above all, I remember them for their mesmerizing hymn-singing, which I eavesdropped on from the church’s narthex. Unlike our own congregation, this congregation sang in harmony as if it in its entirety were a well-practiced choir, the men with booming bass lines and the women with eerily penetrating melodies.
National City was a navy town. Its high school had a marginal white student majority, yet the closest thing to a nonwhite faculty member was an Iraqi immigrant who taught civics. Nearly equal in numbers to the white students were Mexican Americans, followed by Samoans. There were fewer Black students and fewer still Asian students. I knew of no Native Americans, probably because of my own ignorance, or their quietude, but I counted Mexican Americans among my friends, including a couple of baseball teammates, one of whom went on to play professionally.
When I left home for my first year at the University of Redlands, two out-of-town church members, John Birchers, took to harassing my mother. My father was often away during this period, and the two men had apparently learned his schedule. They badgered my mother with phone calls, filling them with accusations about the race mixing that was being wrought in the church by her husband. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. I don’t believe she ever fully recovered from this scenario, even though she and my father soon moved far away, to Albany, New York.
In 1980 I published my third novel, Yellowfish, and in it refined two topics to which I would return again and again: racism, in this case represented by a group of illegal Chinese immigrants, and white supremacy, represented by a coterie from northern Idaho’s Aryan Nations. Ruby, the wife of the novel’s protagonist, was conceived as a forceful and independent character. Some thirty years after that book, another novel, The Shadows of Owls, had a full-blown treatment of the Aryan Nations and of an heroic woman scientist victimized by them. This book was intended to partner with a book of short stories, published in 2005, and my latest work, an historical novel entitled The Appointment: The Tale of Adaline Carson. This latter book has a male narrator who recounts the life of a woman who is half Arapaho and explores the roots of American white supremacy. To true believers, this seems to mean the hoped for waning and ultimate disappearance of minority cultures in America and the renewed domination of white men.
I’ve been writing long enough—over fifty years—to look back and see an evolving shape to such subjects, particularly the attraction of this twin obsession—white supremacy and the experience of minorities in the face of it. A major thread includes Native American experience. I have always believed that a part of the writer’s duty is to imagine the world through other eyes. How else is the meaning of interconnections to be understood? I suspect that my old friend and colleague Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe, would feel that a white man has no business writing from the perspective of Natives, that it’s an appropriation and falsification of history. I know she has a point. Still, I persist in investigating my own role and the role of others through these durable fascinations. It’s a fine line between the appropriation of a culture, with salient features unlike my own, and the practice of caring for and having a clear-headed acknowledgment and appreciation of the alien in that other culture.
John Keeble is the author of eight books, including Yellowfish, Broken Ground (both reprinted by UW Press), The Shadows of Owls (a UW Press original), and The Appointment (Lynx House Press, distributed by UW Press). He is also author of Out of the Channel, the definitive study of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and a collection of short stories. Keeble was co-founder of the graduate Creative Writing Program at Eastern Washington University where he taught for more than thirty years, and has also taught at Grinnell College and three times as the Coal Royalty Trust Chair at the University of Alabama. Most recently he served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Boise State University. With his wife, Claire, he lives in a house of their own construction on a wooded hillside west of Spokane, Washington.