Deena Metzger is a novelist, poet and essayist, and my long-time friend and teacher. Her new novel, A Rain of Night Birds, is an exploration of the fate of Earth though a meeting between four characters, two of European descent, two Indigenous American. Their bonds are formed in the context of climate change, personal and global healing, and the role of Indigenous wisdom. I believe this is her best book yet. This interview is excerpted from our recent podcast recorded in advance of her upcoming visit in Santa Cruz. I will read with Deena and the writer Stan Rushworth on Friday, Oct 13, 2017, and she will offer a Writing Workshop the next day.
Carolyn Brigit Flynn: I did a count, and you’ve published twenty books. So you’ve been at this a long time. Your latest novel, A Rain of Night Birds, explores environmental issues, but the novel itself is character-driven. I’d like to explore the book by talking about your characters.
Deena Metzger: I would love to do that, but I have to start by saying they’re not my characters. They were presented to me, and I had to let them slowly reveal themselves. The first one arrived in an incredible way. I was walking in the Joshua Tree desert about six years ago, and I heard a voice say, “You know, her name is Sandra Birdswell, and she is a meteorologist.” Well, I didn’t know! This was not a name that I would have ever thought of. I knew nothing about meteorology, the study of weather
CBF: You’ve said you did an internet search to see if she really existed.
DM: I did! But I didn’t find anything. Over time, I learned Sandra had become a climatologist. She was the daughter of John Birdswell, a physician who spent two years working on the Four Corners Indian Reservation as a young man. There he met the medicine person Hosteen Tseda. John and Hosteen had a difficult first meeting, but over time become deep friends. Hosteen is able to teach John some of the essence of Indigenous medicine.
CBF: John and Hosteen’s friendship is very important in the book, alongside a compelling love story. How was it to write that?
DM: Really wonderful. Sandra Birdswell begins to study climate change, and the chair of her university department is Terrence Green, a mixed-blood man. He’s a well-known teacher and academic, but is split between affinity with his Native grandparents and his affiliation with western science.
CBF: Sandra and Terrence have a wonderful love story, quite erotic, and I wondered how you do did it, because, you know, you are no longer 35!
DM: (laughter) Yes, readers often say how much they like the love story. But in my view, the book is really a love story between four people, Hosteen and John and Sandra and Terrence, and how they all come to meet in complex, layered relationships.
CBF: What was it like to have Native characters appear to you, a woman of Jewish descent?
DM: I think that Judaism, which is very strong in me in its cultural and ethical aspects, has also fallen away from my consciousness. Over years, I have become aware of Indigenous wisdom, and Earth-based and Spirit-based ways of knowing. I had to learn an etiquette, the etiquette of the writer to the characters, and the etiquette of the writer to characters who are from different cultures.
CBF: We watch your non-Native characters wonder how to interact with Native characters in a way that has integrity. It seems you were doing the same as writer.
DM: Yes. I had to ask Native people I knew to read the book, to be certain that I was respectful. There were many times when I thought, I don’t have a right to do this. I had great trepidation about writing about Terrence Green, in as much as cultural appropriation is an ongoing violation. But I didn’t have the right to refuse him either. I had to accept what negative consequences might come to me from my limitation, and hope I had the skill to record his true self.
CBF: What has been the reaction from Native readers before publication, and other Native readers since the book has come out?
DM: I have been so fortunate. I went through the book again and again and again, and things were re-written, altered and refined. But at this moment, I have had a consistent response from Native people that has been salutary. When I speak with a Native person, it feels that we are in alliance with the common goal to honor and respect and bring forth Native wisdom.
CBF: Your pre-publication reading was at Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Bookstore in Minneapolis. She’s is an important Native writer in the U.S. today.
DM: What an honor! Particularly to work in alliance on behalf of our poor, beleaguered Earth. It seems clear that Native wisdom would never act as western cultures act, would never contaminate and violate the Earth as we do.
CBF: In some ways, the essence of your book is that Sandra and Terrence, both climatologists, are forced to look at this directly.
DM: Yes, it’s true. They fall in love just as they are confronting the horrors of climate change. Their love story–the profound love between them–allows us to bear what is happening to the Earth, and also requires us to bear witness to what we know.
CBF: Of course, we have recently seen the frightening impact of climate change this year, with ferocious hurricanes stronger than ever before.
DM: That’s right. It was difficult to write the book, because I had to learn what Sandra and Terrance already knew. I had to read all of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports. In the book, reading the devastating IPCC Report of 2007, Terrence understands that the same mind that’s trying to heal the situation is the mind that created it. He remembers his entire history, and the history of colonization, and the conquest of this country, and it undoes him.
CBF: The reader also watches him slowly be put back together, despite his grief, through the relationships of the four characters. I think that A Rain of Night Birds is for all of us who are in grief about climate chance and all that is going on with the Earth.
DM: By the end, everything is not resolved, but the characters are holding each other up as they bear witness. What conclusions they come to… well, the reader will I have to find out. The book calls us to start a conversation on how we meet these times in ways we never imagined we might meet them. We have to step out of the limitations of the seemingly all-powerful Western mind, which feels helpless, and look for other ways. These characters open a conversation. They help us all begin an original and unexpected conversation, that will take each one of us on a new path.