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On “Choctalking”

January 9, 2009

On January 23-24, 2009, I’ll be performing Choctalking on Other Realities in the Studio Theater at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, Illinois. The performance is taken from a short story I wrote that appears in literary journals, Cimarron Review, Grinnell Magazine, the anthology Sister Nations and Evidence of Red, my collection of poetry and prose.

In the past several days, I’ve been working a short essay on why I wrote Choctalking. Often the reason a story is written is mysterious. It can be as obvious as a character’s name, or the sound of a car moving, trekking down a bumpy highway. For me, stories begin with images. But Choctalking first came to me as a series of broken events. When I tell people that in my first real job I earned $1.15 an hour as a waitress, they stare at me in disbelief, especially if they are students. They can’t believe someone could live on that. The year is 1969. Wages are low for unskilled laborers, our country drafts eighteen-year-olds to fight in the Vietnam War, and America is gripped by civil unrest.

By 1970 I will have helped to vote in the union at Sky Chefs Inc., the company I worked for at the Oklahoma City Will Rogers World Airport. At that time, Sky Chefs was still owned by American Airlines, another reason I continued to work there. Sky Chef employees had the same flight benefits as airline flight attendants. I remember my first trip to Germany in 1970 cost me $29.00 roundtrip, nearly a month’s salary, after taxes and union dues. And this was after my hourly wage had risen to $1.20. Thanks to the union.

Yet, the economics of American life forty years ago are backstory. It’s true the events shaped the beginning narrative but events often feel sterile, if not tied to characters. For nearly a decade in the 1980s, I continued to write and rewrite the story. Yet, it wasn’t until I traveled to Israel and Jordan in 1992 that another piece of the story came into view. What I saw and experienced in Jerusalem seemed to relate to what I had seen and experienced in Oklahoma in the late 1960s. Oppression, colonialism, yet the story was still not fully realized.

Then sometime in early 1997, Mike Wilson, now Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was guest editing an issue of Cimarron Review. He asked me to submit a story and I’m eternally grateful to him, because it was during the seven-hundred and fiftieth revision of Choctalking that I inserted the final element that had been missing, the metaphor of “running,” a memory from my own childhood. As you will see in performance, and in the films, the metaphor of “running” from soldiers, “running” from missionaries and church, “running” from a hail of bullets becomes a universal tragedy that plays out in the lives of all the characters, both past and present. (And we filmed the feet of the children running to show the metaphor in performance.) That’s when the story came alive and began to speak for itself. While I continue to call Choctalking, “fiction” there are many elements of the story that have been taken from events in my life. But isn’t that the truth of fiction, anyway? Ourselves, but always in disguise?

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