There are certain life experiences that are inescapable. Rites of passage and absolute truths all of us must endure no matter who we are, where we’re from, or how much money, if any, is in our wallets at any given time. You know the old saying: the only certain things in life are death and taxes. Well, cliches are true for a reason. In an instant of someone passing, memories that were once fun anecdotes, shared over the dinner table, become the essence and agency by which we keep our lost loves alive.
In Brandon Hobson’s electric and haunting new novel, “The Removed,” memories are as essential to living as air, food and water. It is a story “steeped in Cherokee myths and history ... about a fractured family reckoning with the tragic death of their son long ago ... The Removed seamlessly blends the real and spiritual to excavate the deep reverberations of trauma - a mediation on family, grief, home, and the power of stories both on a personal and ancestral level.”
In “The Removed,” we meet the Echota family, 15 years after their teenage son, Ray-Ray was killed in a police shooting. The strong yet powerfully quiet matriarch, Maria, struggles privately with both the grieving of her son Ray-Ray, and embracing her role as the caretaker of her husband, Ernest, who is rapidly deteriorating after a sudden onset of Alzheimer’s. Their adult daughter, Sonja, is fiercely independent and self-isolating, and eventually winds up in a twisted and dark, violent relationship with a man whom she shares a dark and deep connection with. Maria and Ernest’s son, Edgar fled home years ago, and has been self-medicating with hard drugs to numb his feelings of alienation and the loss of an older brother he barely knew.
The book starts with the family’s annual bonfire quickly approaching. It’s an occasion that is symbolic for several reasons: it both marks the Cherokee National Holiday and the somber anniversary of Ray-Ray’s death. Maria tries to bring her family together, both physically and emotionally, but as the date of the bonfire gets closer, each family member experiences a blurred boundary between reality and the spirit world. What happens over the course of the book often feels like a fever dream, a reckoning with roots, trauma, and memory.
Hobson is a National Book Award Finalist, Professor of Creative Writing (who also has a PhD in Creative Writing), an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma, dad of two, guitar-playing, Modelo loving, thoughtful and kind writer. “GMA” spoke with Hobson who discussed the Cherokee culture and his new novel.
Read some of our conversation below:
GMA: You dedicate the book to the memory of your uncles – Bob and Leon Briggs – who quote “spirit-walked across the water to visit me during the writing of this book” – how did their legacy help you tell this story?
Brandon: Well, I don’t know that they informed the story much, but I had an experience where I felt and saw them, and they were proud. They were gesturing, showing they were proud of me. After they had passed away, I woke up one morning and saw them. It was very much a vision. I know that sounds weird. My mom talks sometimes about seeing visions of her mother, and it really got me thinking more deeply about the connection there. So I wanted to dedicate the book to them.
The story is quote “steeped in Cherokee myths and history” – animals and what they represent are such a prominent theme – whether it’s the baby owl Wyatt saves – Edgar’s fowl – the hawks – can you elaborate on this topic – and why animals are such an important part of Cherokee culture?
I wanted to draw attention to the importance of animal life, how they’re part of this earth, and that their lives are sacred. It’s very important to say here that different tribes have different beliefs. Generally people like to sort of lump Native literature into one category, but there are so many tribes. For example, one tribe can see an owl as a messenger, something beautiful and good. Another tribe will see it as a messenger bringing death. And that’s not what I was doing here because that’s not part of what Cherokee believes. The importance for me here of the birds, owls and animals, is to really show how beautiful their lives are, and how they exist in this world as we humans do, equally important. It’s as important to save an owl or bird as it is a human life.
“The Removed” touches on so many urgent, modern themes – a reckoning with our country’s history – race – roots – a complicated relationship with guns – and violence at the hands of police. In a way, it feels like this story could have taken place in any time period. Why did you choose to write it now?
I began really thinking about violence against Natives. It was not getting the national news coverage that a lot of other things were. I’m not taking away from other groups, certainly other groups of color and police violence, but one of the things I learned when I was researching and reading about the violence, specifically against Native teenagers, is the violence against Native women. Missing Native women often come up murdered, which was kind of a starting place for Sonja’s thread in this book. A lot of these articles were focused on placing the blame on the victim, saying they had mental issues, rather than focusing on or at least discussing the idea of this killing being out of racism, police brutality, or some other problem from the attacker, and saying well, ‘mental illness is often a problem with Native youth,’ and placing the blame after the kids have already died. And that really bothers me, partly because I was a social worker for seven years, and I worked with youth during those times and it’s something I really thought deeply about when I started writing this book.
Editor's note: According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, nearly 5,600 Native American women were reported missing, but “the actual number, activists say, is probably much higher, in part because local authorities sometimes mistakenly list the victims as Latina or White.”
In an article in the L.A. Times last January, “federal studies have shown that in portions of the country with large Native American populations, Native women are killed at a rate 10 times higher than the national average...the violence most frequently occurs in parts of the country from rural Alaska to the Oklahoma plains.”
GMA: So many parts of the book feel like a fever dream. Edgar spends the majority of his time in The Darkening Land after a suicide attempt – a hellish, vague and unsettling place that seems to toe the line between this reality and another realm – the dialogue is filled with micro-aggressions like a thousand paper cuts – and Edgar eventually makes a horrifying discovery in the basement of his friend’s home. What did that whole experience mean for Edgar?
Brandon: Well, The Darkening Land is a place mentioned in the old Cherokee stories as a sort of place where one goes after dying until justice is served. And, with this book, a lot of it is exploring themes of justice. As a fiction writer, I was able to take this mythological place and make it my own creation, and how it fit into the story. I wanted to address things like climate change, with the pollution and the way people were coughing dust, and walking around like ghosts. And at the same time, there is a continual threat against Natives being shot, and in the development of this real-life video game. And so, you know, the threat of Edgar being killed in the same way his brother was, out a racist stereotype, that was a big part of it for me, placing him under this threat, which I also wanted to make it feel not too different from the world we live in.
Can you talk about Tsala as a narrator and that significance?
The name is shortened and comes out of Tsalagi which in Cherokee, means Cherokee. Tsalagi is Cherokee in the Cherokee language. And so, the shortened version is Tsala. And Tsala is based on Tsali, who was a real man that died for refusing to leave and was killed by the U.S. government. And so Tsala became a way for me to bring in the historical elements of the book, the events leading up to The Trail of Tears. I wanted him to be based on that, because he and his son got killed. And he as a spirit begins to narrate what he sees, to bring that historical element of people getting sick and dying, the child getting shot by a soldier, just all this horrible violence from the U.S. government, and today, 200 years later, we’re still seeing people get shot, and that became a way for me to talk about this story, the history of what led to The Trail. I hope that it raises less discussion about Native stereotypes or what people call Native literature, and more discussion about the importance of human life and the way that we’ve been treated.
Editor’s note: For context, “In 1838 and 1839, as part of Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the "Trail of Tears," because of its devastating effects. The migrants faced hunger, disease, and exhaustion on the forced march. Over 4,000 out of 15,000 of the Cherokees died.”
In a year where the national conversation has focused on police brutality and systemic racism, many Native Americans, who have supported and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement, still feel that no one is talking about the trauma happening to their own people. According to a 2015 report by the Lakota People’s Law Project, Native Americans “suffer the most adverse effects of a criminal justice system which consistently reifies itself as structurally unjust.” The report goes on to say that Native American men are imprisoned at four times the rate of White men, and Native American women at six times the rate of White women, and that they are “routinely ignored in the public discourse on such topics.”
What do you hope people take away from this story?
I hope that it raises conversations and gets them thinking about violence against Natives and the history of removal and displacement. And I hope that it raises empathy, because I don’t know if you’re like this, but for me, the more fiction I read, I become more and more empathetic. Good art makes me more empathic and understand the human condition better. And I think that’s what art is supposed to do, help us understand suffering and sadness and feeling lost and displaced, and all the things that we all go through in life.
Listen to the full interview here:
"The Removed" by Brandon Hobson is available everywhere now. Get started reading with an excerpt of the book below.
MY BELOVED SON: time among the dead is mysterious. Time among the dead does not exist the way humans experience it during life. Time may be felt: U-di-tle-gi, u-hyv-dla!
Look to the sky, and there we are, soaring like hawks, circling in the air. We are the birds appearing like a string of red berries against the clouds. We are all around, the deities to cover every expansive body of land. We are bathed in rainwater, flying together. We are a sparkle of blue light inside rocks, the swift rising of smoke and dust, forming the hazy outlines of bodies.
We are speakers of the dead, the drifters and messengers, the old and the young, lurking in the shadows of tall trees at night, passing through the walls of abandoned buildings and houses, concrete structures, stone walls and bridges. We are the ones watching from underwater, rising up like mist, spreading like a rainstorm, over fields and gardens and courtyards, flying over towers and rooftops and through the arched doorways of old buildings with spider cracks in their walls. We reveal ourselves to those who will look. It has been said we are illusions, nightmares and dreams, the disturbing and tense apparitions of the mind. We are always restless, carrying the dreams of children and the elderly, the tired and sick, the poor, the wounded. The removed.
IN 1838, the firing squad killed you before they killed me. Your mother adorned us in gold and jewelry and buried us. You must know that adornment is as important in death as in life, so they made it known that we were beautiful, even absent of our spirits. An elder had once taught me not to be afraid of death because there is no death—there is only a change of worlds.
I refused to migrate west on the Trail, and that is why we died. I refused because it was not fair treatment, and I was willing to sacrifice my life for you, our family, and our people.Yes, I know an old man has a mouth full of thunder. So does an old spirit.
Before you were born, I helped Dragging Canoe and his son take the fleshy side of enemy scalps and paint them red and tie them to poles for the scalp dances. We imitated theEuropeans who invaded us by dancing a foolish, awkward stomp to show their clumsiness. More importantly, the dance healed us by weakening the other races who were responsiblefor harm or sickness. It was also used to heal the sick for our own people.
At one of these dances I met a man named Dasi’giya’gi whose war medicine was an uktena’s shedded skin and burned turtle shell, which he used to smear on his face and body for protection from enemies. He had never been wounded because of wearing this war medicine, as strong as yellowroot. He warned me of the seventh hell we were living in, and soon I had dreams of the blood and destruction. Dragging Canoe told me, “You will be a visionary with prophetic gifts. You must learn to understand this.”
From THE REMOVED, by Brandon Hobson. Copyright 2021 by Brandon Hobson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.