The Nostalgia and Sorrow of the Southwest

There is something special for me about Native American literature.

Maybe it’s because so many of the stories take place in lands that I also have known. For I too am a child of the southwest and have the desert sands, the hostile wildness and the frightening monsoons raging through my own tempestuous soul.

Native American

In my own youth I would explore the wildness of our lands. Wildness which the soft people of the east don’t really understand. A world of grand distances, of dangerous animals and deadly insects. Of guns and a war both against nature and each other and salted by the recent reminders of life scraped out at the very fringes of civilization. Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die. Photographs of Geronimo and Big Nose Kate and Wyatt Earp not imported by the elites but because that’s where they were taken, and its where they belong. Jerome, a city lost now in its own past as well after the mines dried up, the resting place of the lost ghosts of our past. The tribal lands that we pass through often stopping to eat some food – fry bread perhaps – while looking at a monument sacred and enduring. The Navajo and the Pueblo and the Apache. The Hopi with their amazing artwork; in silver and turquoise, delicate like the desert mountain flowers, the spirits of the land awakened by the expert care of the craftsmen.

Life out west is filled more with nature – we are closer to our forests and our lakes and our mountains; we remember days when they were not fully contained in the national imagination, when they were still empty and unconquered; they often still are. “The French have romanticized the Tuareg, like we have our own western history,” an uncomprehending easterner once told me, his voice thick with the sneer of the calcified supervised societies of New England. We were working together in Mali, and he couldn’t understand it – just as he didn’t understand my desert and the indomitable spirit of its wanderers. “They don’t realize that those times have moved on forever, that the past is gone.” Except its not gone, because it still lives in the caves where we find the remnants of ancient fights; in the guns we still carry because the distances are too great and we are responsible for ourselves. Where we still look out over a vast free open space, big skies and indomitable mountains and we contemplate the wildness and the freedom.

But there’s the other side too; that which makes Native American literature haunting. The stories are so full of sorrow and nostalgia; of a past long lost and forgotten, stories of defeat without future, of a futility and sadness that has become such a part of the lives of the people from the ancient tribes and clans of American pre-history. To have lost everything; but yet to still abide – that is the great dilemma; and it is the job of the good writers to capture it. My writing is also full of desperation and hardship and trials, from places I have been and things I have seen; of past and meaning and loss. It is for the sensitive writer to fill pages with this; not with adventure and sex, but instead with yearning.

I just finished The Man to Send Rain Clouds. It is a collection of short stories written by Native American authors – and they are lovely and haunting and powerful. Full of the richness of a life lived close to the land and the bitterness of loss. You must read these, if you claim to love literature – to love America. Read them even, or perhaps especially, if you are from the calcified safe societies of the east. You will be better for it.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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3 Responses to The Nostalgia and Sorrow of the Southwest

  1. mentorman says:

    Joel…on this Saturday morning, ’tis the second time I’ve read this exceptional post. Having been raised in the lush NW in western Oregon, and having married, 51 years ago, a wonderful woman who grew up in the sparse SW in Arizona, in what was then a “remote suburb” of Phoenix, we have come to deeply appreciate the intriguing differences and the unique sameness of where our lives got started. Now we live in the Denver, CO area, with access to the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains. Barren desert, lush forests, vistas that take our thoughts and hopes to the edge of the horizon are to be celebrated for their purpose-filled differences. Your welcome writing aids us in celebrating life…no matter where we find ourselves. Thank you………..!!!


    • Thank you for your words!! Denver is indeed part of our “west”, with idiosyncracies all its own. My parents lived in the springs for almost 8 years – and my little boy still talks about “grandma and grandpa in colorado springs”. Enjoy it; and enjoy our amazing west. I have spent so many years now in hard places, right now still in West Africa; and its memories of our wide open, clean places that sometimes center me.


  2. I would love to read this book Joel, wish it was in our bookstores here in Uganda. I’ve always felt terrible at the systematic genocide carried out against the native Americans and thought much of their stories were wiped out, since they mostly told stories and didn’t write. This should be a treasure indeed, akin to the lost stories of ancient civilizations like the Mayans or dare I say – Atlantians. Thanks for compiling them.


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