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MFACW Director Deborah Jackson Taffa on her Memoir Whiskey Tender

Jun 5, 2024

Deborah Jackson Taffa (Kwatsaán and Laguna Pueblo)

Since releasing her coming-of-age memoir Whiskey Tender in February, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) MFA in Creative Writing (MFACW) program director Deborah Jackson Taffa (Kwatsaán and Laguna Pueblo) has seen her book highlighted in best-of-lists and rave reviews by sources such as, Elle, Esquire (Best Memoirs of 2024 and Best Books of 2024), The Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, and The New Yorker. The strong reception to her book has kept Taffa busy with press interviews and a book tour.

While the book has quickly received recognition, it was a decade in the making. “I held it close to my heart for a long time because there are a lot of ethical considerations when writing memoir,” Taffa shares, as the story involves sensitive experiences within her family. “. . . ultimately, what I tried to do, and what felt good to me, was to expose the wrongheadedness of hidden histories and governmental assimilation policies through my family stories. The book also takes aim at education policies in this country. My high school curriculum was so damaging. Not being taught about the accomplishments of my tribes and my people when I was in history class was very hurtful, very harmful to me, and it’s harmful to all Native people.”

Asked to describe her book with one word, Taffa calls it a reclamation. “The story reclaims Indigenous values while overturning negative stereotypes and pejoratives,” she says. The provocative title Whiskey Tender is Taffa’s way of challenging anti-Indigenous tropes by using an unexpected and catchy “high-low juxtaposition.” “Tender is an adjective, an adverb, a noun. It’s a verb. You can use it in different ways, and I believe it complicates the narrative by challenging readers’ assumptions,” she explains. “Towards the end of the book, I use the word tender as a monetary unit, calling attention to the history of whiskey being traded for valuable items, a swap that was, essentially, an exchange for an unhappy life.” She further explains that tender “is meant to offset [whiskey] and highlight the fact that [her] family was both joyous and problematic, just like everybody else’s.”

Termination policies, World War II, the American Indian Relocation Act, the Major Crimes Act, open-pit uranium mines, and the government’s funneling of Native men into difficult labor jobs are all shown to have deep impacts on Native peoples’ lives through Taffa’s family experience in the book. “Many Native memoirs focus on a sliver, or small era, of a writer’s life: a divorce, an illness, a period of alcoholism, or an occurrence of sexual harassment,” Taffa explains. “I wanted to create something more comprehensive, so that the context of American history came through. A true bildungsroman (coming-of-age) reveals how a person is shaped by societal pressures. I wanted my story to be in context, to offer a personal view of a family and the way our ancestral sacrifices played into the birth of our nation. My book highlights the contributions of Natives for the betterment of this country, as well as the political history surrounding the American Indian Movement. Readers may learn more than they expect. The story scopes into small details but also out to a national focus.”

While these matters are certainly heavy topics, Taffa balances the delivery with humor. “I give people permission to laugh at my foibles as a child. My goal was to hook and entertain readers with an engaging story and then sneak in the heavier stuff. In fact, when I sold the book to Harper, they purchased it as a family story that didn’t have all the history woven in. I was afraid the digressions would rob from the emotional arc of the child. When my editor at Harper asked how I wanted to change the book in the year that I worked on it, I told her I wanted to keep the fun family story, while also infusing it with more serious content. My editor understood my vision and was able to help me. If the child’s story tugs at heartstrings, the larger American narrative gives it political power. However, in the end, it’s a migration tale about a mixed-tribe girl moving off the reservation to grow up in mainstream America, where she went to Catholic school and listened to the Clash on her Walkman.”

The need to be tough as a Native youth in America is conveyed in the following excerpt from Whisky Tender:

Dad always said, “Broken bones grow back stronger,” raising us the same way his older brother, Gene, raised him. A father’s job was to control the pace of the world’s wounding, to dole out the pain in slightly bigger doses over time so that his kids would learn not to break under pressure. This is what I think of when I think of my sisters and me growing up: we didn’t get anything for free and we blossomed because of it, blood flowering in bruises, skin thick and ripened under the Sonoran desert sun.”

Taffa’s memoir can be situated within two large publishing periods in the Native literary world. After many Native baby boomers told their stories in the 1970s, the breadth of published Gen X Native authors writing about life in the 1970s and 80s dwindled to only a few storytellers who were mostly men. According to Taffa, there was a dearth of Native Gen X women writers telling their stories. Now, the support of diverse Indigenous authors from a younger generation, intersectional and urban, is expanding, with IAIA’s MFACW program on the edge of that development. “Some people are calling this a second Native Renaissance, alluding to the first that began in 1968 with N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize,” Taffa shares. “And while it’s true that younger people are now publishing, I hope it’s not a short-lived burst of interest in Native stories by the publishing industry, because a renaissance suggests a peak and decline. Instead, we want this new interest to last. There can be no scarcity mentality when it comes to Native literature and art. Our voices are important and necessary.”

“Our creative department at IAIA often talks about mutual support. We can’t have a small number of Native voices that dominate the field. I don’t want to be one of the few who find support from a large publishing house. Native cultures in this country are very diverse, and we need many books and many authors to reflect that diversity. We deserve to have many different books from all regions of the country, portraying all types of Native American lives,” Taffa emphasizes. “We deserve to have narratives about our struggles, as well as narratives about middle-class concerns. I know many professional Indigenous people in this country. They work as doctors, lawyers, professors, photographers, and librarians, and we need to see their stories depicted as well, so our children have heroes they can look up to beyond the usual trauma narrative about poverty. Native publishing is barely scratching the surface.”

“I tell my students that their path, like any artist’s path, is very individual,” she clarifies. “As a writer or artist, it’s important to know that your path doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s. Take your time. Don’t rush. Insist on quality. You only get one shot at your debut. Insist that your book sing. I knew that I wanted mine to be as lyrically and poetically powerful as possible, and so I hung onto it. I revised it many times. As a tribute to my family and tribe, it needed to be excellent.”

Taffa’s takeaway message is that there is room for us—everyone. “The mission is to support a new era of Native influence via sovereignty in our storytelling. We want more television, film, plays, poetry, memoirs, and fiction. As Native creatives, we need books published by big presses, medium presses, and small presses—and we need Native literary agents, editors, publicists, and book reviewers.”

The MFACW program continues to thrive, with mentors and alumni active on the literary scene. Since August, there have been books released by Brendan Shay Basham, Sasha La Pointe, Joaquin Zihuatanejo, Jamie Figueroa (Boricua), Stacie Shannan Denetsosie (Diné), Amanda Peters (Mi’kmaq), and Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma)—(both of whom have best sellers). Forthcoming titles are anticipated by David Weiden (Lakota), Ibe Liebenberg (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma), and others. “I tell my students, no matter how long it takes them, we will be here to sing their praises and promote their books,” Taffa says. “IAIA is an art movement, and I’m very proud to be the director of this program.”

For more information about the MFA in Creative Writing program at IAIA, visit our website.