Carrying Witness: A Conversation with Toni Jensen

October 10, 2020


Two photos, the photo on the left is an image of author Toni Jensen. The photo on the right is the cover of her book Carry.

Toni Jenson and book cover.

 “Toni Jensen is a writer of power dynamics, physical trauma and generational pain. She is a writer of human error and environmental impact. She is a writer of uncommon beauty in unexpected places. Jensen’s deeply personal essays also serve as dispatches from the frontlines of an America often willfully ignorant of its own crises. Her new memoir Carry is about gun violence, land and Indigenous people’s lives. The book’s prose is both stately and riotous as Jensen moves through childhood memories of hunting trips with her father into the adult dread of a violent American culture, one which continues to assault native bodies. An associate professor in Creative Writing and Indigenous Studies at the University of Arkansas, she also teaches in the low-residency  MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. On the last day of July 2020—amid the anxieties of a pandemic and the national outcry against police brutality—I was privileged to talk with Toni (over Zoom) about the language of violence, what it means to be American, and the bright, wholesome things that have sustained her writing process.” – Miriam McEwen


Miriam McEwen: I just wanted to start at the beginning, if we could, at the literal beginning with the title of Carry. Could you talk about how the prominence of that word signals to the reader its various meanings throughout the book? How did that materialize for you? I know sometimes titles can be suggestions that come later. Was that word really singular in your development of the book?

Toni Jensen: The book started with a couple of essays. The ones that were written before I necessarily thought of it as a book were “Women in the Fracklands” and “Carry,” a much different version of “Give and Go” and “The Invented Histories of Domestic Birds.” So the first handful of chapters—except for chapter two—mostly were essays that I wrote as individual essays. It seemed clear after writing those that I was headed toward a book. I think it was one of those rare instances where the title was my idea, and no one questioned it. Just the idea(s) of campus carry, concealed carry, carrying guns, carrying history, carrying witness, the different things we carry around in our bodies—those were some of the ways I saw Carry working.

MM: I think it works so beautifully and so powerfully. You say, “the different things we carry around in our bodies.” And in the book, you write about the distinction between the words survival and survivance. How did you arrive at a deeper meaning through—I’m not sure what to call it—this particular conjugation?

TJ: Survivance is a term coined by Ojibwe writer Gerald Vizenor. He and Diane Glancy were the editors of From the Hilltop, my first book. So I really love both of them, and I really love their work. But that word of Gerald’s is one so many of us have picked up. I think [survivance] is different from survival because survival implies that it’s in the past. It implies that you’ve gone through this process and you’re done, and survivance implies the process, the continuation. It’s ongoing. And I think survivance better describes the circumstance so many people are in right now.

MM: Right. This word is one that probably a broader population than ever can understand, given the rise of coronavirus. And did COVID-19 change the trajectory of the book, or did you kind of touch down in the same place of coming home, wanting to find home, meanings of home and family and land?

TJ: I wouldn’t say the pandemic changed the book because the book was mostly written when coronavirus happened. Just having a chapter called “Contagion” in the book made it feel necessary to integrate that, and also the fact that there’s more violence now. We’ve had more gun violence since coronavirus began. In the same way that back in March there wasn’t toilet paper on the shelves, there were also lines and lines at gun stores. And so, to address that trend was important because I think a lot of people in urban areas on the coasts are maybe unaware of what happens in the middle of the country. In Arkansas, where I live in Fayetteville, we’re just south of Bentonville . Everyone shops at Walmart. There are at least seven or eight Walmarts in Fayetteville (maybe more). All those franchises in a city with fewer than 80,000 people. This is Walmart country, so it’s common for people to also buy guns there.

MM: My geographical context here in Mountain Rest, South Carolina is only slightly similar. But I have witnessed how Walmart can often double as a gathering place of sorts, and I so appreciate the awareness your work has for rural consumer culture. All right! I’d like to talk to you now about birds, and please forgive the terrible transition. But the recurrence of bird images throughout the memoir reflects your principle themes really well. I kept thinking about the way a bird collects materials to carry back to its nest. The essays use the vocabulary of bird groupings so viscerally; these definitions almost train the reader to examine the ways in which a woman’s body is objectified. Was that use of language intentional from the very beginning? At what point in your writing process did you realize that you wanted to include that more scientific consideration of birds?

TJ: The first essay I think that would have started with is “Women in the Fracklands,” and it began pretty organically. I’m interested in the definitions of things: how we name birds, how we name animals, how we name each other. There’s a lot in the book about categories of violence, too: domestic violence, domestic shootings versus workplace shootings versus school shootings—how some [phrases] are considered escalation as far as terminology and also as far as criminal sentencing, and some are considered demotion. I guess how we name anything affects our perception of it, so I was interested in birds for a similar reason. But, also, the book is heavier content, and I’m keenly aware that heavier content needs balance. You have to have something concrete and beautiful, or something funny or both, as balance. So the birds are woven in as part of that consideration.

MM: You really challenge the reader to define for themselves what constitutes violence by using phrases such as “everyday violence” and “extraordinary violence.”  It’s that verbal act of demotion and escalation you just mentioned. I was also very taken with this refrain of “our America,” which appears throughout the essays. What do those words, presented as a whole, signify to you? And what do you hope the repetition of “our America” will instigate in the reader’s emotional consciousness?

TJ: “Our America” is really purposeful because mostly the only people I hear saying “in our America” are from an entirely different political viewpoint than my own. So we can find common ground in that, if we reappropriate it, if we take it back. It is all of our America. We all live here. And I think for Native people in particular—we like to be defined by our tribes, by our places, by our communities, by our nation’s first. Not everyone, but in many cases that’s true. But, also, we do live in this greater construct called America. We vote in national elections. We vote in local elections. We vote in city elections, if we live off-reservation. I think it’s important that we are considered in the framework of what it means to be American. Also, we were here first. It wasn’t called the United States then, but we were here. I think that’s very important. As far as “everyday violence,” I do think there will be people who find some of the things I consider everyday to be extraordinary. I know that, but I think that gets us questioning differences in worlds, right? And I think questioning is good.

MM: Yes, you report on the violent discrepancy between definitions of “normal.” And in the same way you talk in the book about groupings of birds, you also have kind of a master list of words that speak to hidden violence, or else words that convey troubling multiplicities. I’m wondering how it became apparent to you that so many common words (shooter, verge, off-season, in season) were in need of serious investigation.

TJ: Several of those words are related to sport. I knew that I wanted to have sports be in there because even the NRA was once a sporting organization. A sporting organization for outdoorsmen. That was true through the seventies, and I think that we forget that. It’s easy to forget that. Especially for a lot of readers of the book who will be younger than I am—they don’t have living memories of the seventies or eighties.

MM: Right. I know I always think of the NRA as this monster we have to combat, but having it put into a context of innocuous (for people, at least) sports living was just very educational for me. And I hope for others.

TJ: I hope so, yeah. I think that it makes the NRA seem like it can be changed. If, in my lifetime, it can go from a sportsman organization to what it is now—basically a political gun lobbying group more than anything else—it can change again. It can be taken back; it can be shifted back to what it once was. I’m not suggesting dismantling the NRA because I don’t think that can be accomplished in our lifetime, and because I don’t think [dismantling] would serve all of its members. There are a good many members who joined because their fathers or grandfathers were members before them. Or their grandmothers, in some cases. There’s still that population.

MM: Clearly so much travel and research and investigation went into the creation of this book, so I wanted to ask what you were reading, watching, and listening to during its development. What were some of the things that were most helpful?

TJ: In 2016 through 2018, there was a lot of back and forth travel. There’s a band called the Water Liars; the name comes from a Barry Hannah short story. I listened to their album Wyoming all the way across the country and back. I love that album. There were a few books of poetry I read and reread: Joy Harjo’s A Map to the Next World, Jamaal May’s The Big Book of Exit Strategies, Ada Limón’s Sharks in the Rivers, Louise Erdrich’s Baptism of Desire, Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, Joan Kane’s Milk Black Carbon. Proxies by Brian Blanchfield is a book of nonfiction written by a poet, and it really opened up the lyrical possibilities of nonfiction for me.

MM: With all the places and histories this memoir represents as parts of yourself, do you feel at all that this book is its own sort of destination? What was the awareness or understanding you arrived at upon its completion, and what intellectual and/or emotional space do you hope your readers will find themselves in upon reaching the end?

TJ: I do feel like I’m certainly not in a unique position, having lived in all of these places. Many people have lived in a lot of places across the country, but I’ve lived in a lot of places that are considered particularly violent. And I liked living in most of them, at least to a degree. I had these experiences with violence, or people I love did, so I described those. But I hope that readers come away with a sense of the scope and history of a place, of each place. I think showing the beauty of the landscape and the tribal history of each place is important. It’s how I see the world.