Interview with Humor Writer and Author Tiffany Midge
I first saw Tiffany’s Midge’s work on McSweeney’s, in a piece that we’ll talk about later in the interview. Her new book “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” is a compelling collection of life, politics, and identity as a Native woman in today’s America. With an artful mix of sly humor, social commentary and meditations on love and loss, she weaves short, stand-alone musings into a powerful — and powerfully funny — memoir. A citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, she’s the former humor columnist for Indian Country Today and teaches multi-genre humor writing that elevates awareness of social justice issues. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Offing, Waxwing, Moss, and World Literature Today.
Take it away, Tiffany!
Tell us about your writing backstory — what was your entry point? When in your life did you start identifying as a writer?
When my 6th grade teacher Mrs. Williams told me that she hoped to read a book by Tiffany Midge one day. That same year I won the class “Pen & Paper” award, which I assume was for both writing and drawing. I believe what impressed Mrs. Williams so much was that the assignment for social studies was a research report on different states. I wrote mine on the state of New Hampshire as if it were science fiction– meaning that I covered the history, politics, industries, population, and landmarks as a series of AP bulletins, nightly news features, and eye witness coverage as if the state completely disappeared and all that was left was a big gaping hole. I also drew maps, but not satellite footage because I didn’t know what those were yet.
You work in a lot of different formats — poetry, prose, humor, etc. Do you tend to work in all at once? Or go through periods where you JUST want to write humor, or JUST want to write poetry?
I suspect that it depends upon which project I’ve got boiling on the burner at the time. It has been a few years — maybe a decade even! — since I tried writing something that wasn’t funny, ironic, weird, or tongue in cheek. I admire all kinds of writing, and love to read all of the genres, but for my own projects, I prefer to keep things casual. And by casual, I mean “light” and humorous.
As a writer of prose and satire, I’ve started to read more poetry recently to expand my language. Could you share one of your favorite poems written by someone else with us, as well as one of your favorite you’ve written?
Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question
By Diane Burns (1957–2006, Chemehuevi and Anishinaabe)
How do you do?
No, I am not Chinese.
No, not Spanish.
No, I am American Indian, Native American.
No, not from India.
No, not Apache.
No, not Navajo.
No, not Sioux.
No, we are not extinct.
So that’s where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great grandmother, huh?
An Indian Princess, huh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess. Cherokee?
Oh, so you’ve had an Indian friend?
Oh, so you’ve had an Indian lover?
Oh, so you’ve had an Indian servant?
Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It’s real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don’t know where you can get peyote.
No, I don’t know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn’t make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.
Thank you. I like your hair too.
I don’t know if anyone knows whether or not Cher
is really Indian.
No, I didn’t make it rain tonight.
Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
Uh-huh. Yeah spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
Earth. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
No, I didn’t major in archery.
Yeah, a lot of drink too much.
Some of us can’t drink enough.
This ain’t no stoic look.
This is my face.
And from Tiffany:
Re-Writing the Great American (Indian) Novel:
By Tiffany Midge
On the (Good Red) Road
The Grandfather of Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals, this classic post-war, road novel is an Indian tour de force that features the modern lives of the (Drum)Beat Generation as they drive into the heart of “America.”
The Bilagáana Jar
Meet Esther Yazzie; she won a scholarship to intern at Seventeen Magazine in big city Manhattan. Her sanity is tested to the brink however as she soon realizes she is the only Navajo in New York. Will she stay and bear it out? Or will she ride the bus back home to the rez?
Valley of the (Kachina) Dolls
Welcome to Santa Fe, the hot zone for the widespread epidemic of New Age tourists, culture vultures and plastic medicine men, and their addiction to Southwestern Indian culture.
The Dreamcatcher in the Rye
Alienation from mainstream society is a prevalent theme in Native American fiction, and The Dreamcatcher in the Rye highlights that sense of discomfort and distance while also depicting the tortured angst of adolescence.
Thank you for sharing those! You’ve had your own humor column — what is that experience like? How do you go about choosing topics for a humor column as opposed to one-off pieces?
Writing for Indian Country Today was one of the best writing periods of my life, one of the most fertile and personally satisfying. It had been a very long time since I’d been receiving a regular paycheck. Insofar as topics to write about, the material chose me rather than me choosing the material. The news and topics that happen in Indian country, that affect Indigenous communities all throughout the north and south American continents is abundant. And of course, so much news of the day is unsettling and disturbing. Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, #MMIWG — there’s no humorous spin on that. The border crisis and children torn from their parents and detained in cages. Nope. Not funny.
But there’s always so many ways to push back at racism, anti-Indian sentiment, colonial practices, politics, entertainment, and advertising. I still think about opportunities lost when I didn’t write about the 2017 Chergate; I fought in the 2017 Twitter Wars during Chergate. Or when Trump appointed “Apache” Kaya Jones, former alleged Pussycat Doll as Native American ambassador. And the latest absurdity, Johnny Depp’s Dior perfume campaign, Johnny Sauvage, aka, Johnny Sausage. I don’t feel as motivated to write 800 words without the incentive of pay or platform, unfortunately. But there’s always ample material to mine.
You’ve written two pieces for McSweeney’s that used the same format/tone to hold white women to task for cultural appropriation and cultural amnesia, respectively. How did those pieces and format of an open letter come to you?
There needed to be a parody of pumpkin spice from an Indigenous woman’s perspective. And just to clarify, I’m not mad about pumpkin spice, and I hope that comes through in the piece. I took advantage of a seasonal obsession, and my love for the open letter address. What better way to made an address, but to individually name stereotypical white girl names.
The Handmaid piece started from different prompts; I was seeing certain things being posted online that overlooked a part of history that’s been scrubbed away. And also, the border crisis and children detention centers was just starting to be in the news, and I saw things spoken in the media and online that seemed oblivious to Native history, to American history. I wonder if a whole book of open letters to white people would be a feasible project or not. Or if it’d get repetitive. But the idea of disabusing non-Native people, or white Americans, of their misconceptions and disturbing lack of cultural fluency with regards to Native Americans could fill volumes of books. And those books have already been written. But maybe.
The Handmaid’s piece, especially, got a lot of chatter on the internet. What did you find interesting about people’s responses? Do you think they would have been different if you had written a straight essay as opposed to a piece of satire?
Just as the majority of white Americans or non-Natives are non-fluent in Native American history and culture, usually those same people are non-fluent in humor or subtlety. So, there were a lot of inconvenienced people who took offense to my piece. Satire isn’t nice. But its targets are always going to be privileged classes or oppressive institutions. Those McSweeney pieces are very healing for people like myself, and I hope for other Native women. It is a response, and a way to fight back against the million and one offenses, slights, demoralizing incidents, and worst, worst events that occur in our daily lives, and within the daily lives of the people and communities we love and care about. Having written and published those pieces have probably added years to my life. It’s hard for me to write a straight essay. I don’t enjoy lecturing others, or acting as an authority — I’m not the Julia Sugarbaker of Native issues.
Who do you consider your audience when you’re writing? Do you have a specific group in mind?
That is a question asked of writers quite often and it’s a good question for sure. Writers should consider their audience, at least every once in a while. A lot of non-Native readers aren’t going to get some of my jokes or humor. So I imagine my audience to be woke white Native studies professors and Native people. And probably those tens of thousands of subscribers to cheezy Native American Facebook pages that pimp out a lot of wolves, dreamcatchers, and turquoise laden water maidens. I don’t mind having a niche audience, or writing niche humor. America already has a Bob Saget. What better way is there to learn of a people than to learn about what makes them laugh? To paraphrase the great Hunkpapa scholar Vine Deloria Jr.
Your new book, “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s,” is a mix of memoir and humor, with large/amazingly handled shifts in tone throughout. How did you decide on the (excellent) title, and what was the genesis of this book?
Oh, thank you! I had originally compiled a manuscript with many of the longer memoir pieces as a collection of poetry modeled loosely after Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. I had noticed that many of my more experimental or lyric prose was commenting on racial injustice, or Native social justice. About the time I sent out my manuscript it occurred to me that I could add my Indian Country Today columns and put together a book of essays. When I posted about my book idea on Facebook I received a lot of supportive votes of confidence, and even some publishers’ interest. I sent it out almost immediately to University of Nebraska Press at the encouragement of a friend and they were interested.
The title is a mashup of the infamous book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” I feel absolved from bastardizing that title because no Native person originally conceived of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The title is from a poem by twentieth-century poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898–1943). Dee Brown, then of course, used it as a title for his book about the end of the trail Indians, a book which became a sort of Indian bible, the paramount voice of authority, selling over five million copies worldwide. The book is controversial for its suggested placement of Natives as nearly extinct. A notion that still prevails today. The Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie used the title for one of her most well-known songs. Obviously, I am not joking about the actual Wounded Knees — which were atrocities committed upon my own relatives and ancestors. My changing out “Wounded Knee” with “Chuck E. Cheese” is part of a response with regards to corporatization of the sacred. Of the degradation of Indigenous rights, of tribal sovereignty. And also because it just sounds funny. The Chuck E. Cheese franchise is right up there with Cracker Barrel and The Cheesecake Factory.
What do you want readers to take away from it?
I’d like for readers who are privy to some of the inside humor and situations to come away feeling connected and proud of their cultures. At their abilities to laugh, and maybe to recognize themselves and people they know within some of the articles, and hopefully feel inspired to try their hand at writing humor themselves! There’s certainly a lot of templates and examples within the book to use as a guide. While not an actual guide to Indigenous humor writing, I’ll save that for my next book “Bead by Bead: Instruction for Indigenous Writing.” (ed note: LOLOLOL)
And as for readers not very familiar with a Native experience, I hope they come away a bit more acquainted with things. It is one thing to be sympathetic to a people, but having more understanding about Native people’s history, and from the perspective of humor, I don’t know, maybe they’ll better appreciate so called “Native humor.” Going back to Deloria’s quote “the best way to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh.” I think it is as critical for non-Natives to conceive of Native people as funny, as finding the punchline, as entertaining storytellers with great timing, as it is critical for non-Natives to know about the traumatic history, and current atrocities and struggles.
Do you have any big writing goals through the end of 2019? Got any big back to school energy you’re working with?
There will be a new collection of poetry, “HORNS” published by the fantastic Scablands Books. I’m really excited about that! It should be out around the end of, or start of the new year. I have other books in the works as well, still in the fire. I’ll be teaching humor writing at different residencies and writers’ conferences. I’ll be doing a McSweeney’s writers’ panel at AWP called Women Who Wit that I organized. I have some invitations to universities which is always exciting, and I’m hoping for more invites! This week I’m co-hosting a cheesecake kickoff reading, and going to Deadwood, South Dakota for the SD Book Festival, for 4 nights, so I’m happy to be in the Black Hills, the emergence place of my people. It’s so beautiful there.
Thank you, Tiffany!
Thanks so much! I’m grateful to you for making the time and space to chat with me and shed some light on what my world is like.
Ed note: I read an advance copy of Tiffany’s book and really, really enjoyed it — it’s been one of my favorite books I’ve read thus far in 2019. Kirkus agrees that it is great! I highly recommend people check it out and then shout it out online on Goodreads or Amazon if you enjoy it!
This is an excerpt from my monthly newsletter on comedy and satire writing, as well as creativity. You can sign up here, and here’s more about me!
ABOUT ME: Caitlin Kunkel is a writer, satirist and famed pizza scientist. Her work has been featured in Shouts & Murmurs, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places across the vast internetz. She created the online satire program for The Second City and writes for Live Wire Radio. She co-founded the Satire and Humor Festival in 2019. She’s also the co-founder and editor of the comedy and satire site for women writers by all definitions, The Belladonna.
Her first book, NEW EROTICA FOR FEMINISTS, co-written with Belladonna editors Carrie Wittmer, Brooke Preston, and Fiona Taylor, was published by Plume in the US and Sceptre in the UK in 2018! Follow her musings on Twitter @KunkelTron.