Navarro Scott Mammedaty, a Kiowa Indian, was born in Lawton, Oklahoma on February 27, 1934, and grew up in close contact with the Navajo and San Carlos Apache communities. He received his BA in political science in 1958 from the University of New Mexico. At Stanford University he received his MA and PhD in English, in 1960 and 1963, respectively. His books of poetry include In the Bear's House (St. Martin's Press, 1999), In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (1992), and The Gourd Dancer (1976). His first novel, House Made of Dawn (1969) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is author of several other novels, prose collections, the children's book Circle of Wonder (1994), and the play The Indolent Boys. He is also the editor of various anthologies and collections.
Momaday's honors include the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, an Academy of American Poets Prize, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Premio Letterario Internationale "Mondello," Italy's highest literary award. He is recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He holds twelve honorary degrees from American colleges and universities, including Yale University, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Wisconsin.
Momaday was a founding Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, and sits on the Boards of First Nations Development Institute and the School of American Research. He has taught as a tenured professor at the Universities of Stanford, Arizona, and California, Berkley, and has been a visiting professor at Columbia, Princeton, and in Moscow. He is currently the Regents Professor of the Humanities at the University of Arizona and a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan, a dance society.
Again the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems (University of New Mexico Press, 2011)
In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991 (St. Martin’s Press, 1992)
The Gourd Dancer (Harper & Row, 1976)
Angel of Geese and Other Poems (D. R. Godine, 1974)
In the Bear’s House (St. Martin’s Press, 1999)
The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin’s Press, 1997)
The Ancient Child (Doubleday, 1989)
The Names: A Memoir (Harper & Row, 1976)
The Way to Rainy Mountain (University of New Mexico Press, 1969)
House Made of Dawn (Harper & Row, 1968)
Did you always know what you wanted to do with your life, or did it just happen, serendipity?
Scott Momaday: I knew that I wanted to be a writer from a very early age, because my mother was a writer, and encouraged me to write. I accepted that. I got it in my head. “Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a writer.” But then there was a lot of serendipity after that too, moving into different settings that inspired the writing. A lot of things happened that I could not have expected.
How would you explain to someone who knows nothing about writing, why it is so exciting, so important to you?
Scott Momaday: It’s important to me because I am who I am. I have a certain temperament. I was born with certain potentials and possibilities, and I have been fortunate in realizing some of those possibilities. I was inspired to write at a tender age by my mother, who was a writer. I was fortunate to that extent, and I did follow in her footsteps and develop a voice, the voice of a writer. That’s what a writer does. I tell young people often, “Don’t worry about having a distinctive voice right now, it comes with experience and practice. You will develop a voice.” Someone once said to me “Don’t worry about imitating someone, that’s how you learn.” And eventually you will verge out and go on your own voice. I simply kept my goal in mind, and persisted. Perseverance is a large part of writing. So what success I have achieved has come about because of that, simply following the line.
How about your father? Did they both encourage you, or challenge you in these pursuits?
Scott Momaday: They definitely encouraged me. Challenge is too strong a word. I don’t think they applied pressure to me. My mother certainly tried to interest me in good books, and she did. She gave me an incentive to write. My father was a very gentle man and he never told me he expected this or that of me, but he encouraged me. I learned a lot about painting by osmosis, by watching him. I didn’t follow in his footsteps for a long time, but now I’m a painter, and a printmaker, and it all comes from him. It was a kind of silent encouragement, but always there.
As you developed in your writing career, how did your parents react? What did they have to say about that to you?
Scott Momaday: In a kind of quiet way, they gave me praise. They were pleased when I published something, they were pleased when I was recognized. They didn’t throw parties, but nonetheless, I could tell it was a good thing as far as they were concerned.
Many people do well in school, they’re smart, they have talent, they have potential, but they don’t always succeed. Why do you think you succeeded in all of this?
Scott Momaday: I really don’t know if I have the answer to that. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to write well, and I tried to. I applied myself. I think that writers haven’t much choice. You know, if someone really has the impulse to write, then that’s what he must do. I don’t think there’s much of a choice. After the impulse is realized, he writes. And that’s how I feel about my development. I think that I was compelled to write, and so I never had the choice of doing anything else, really. I was talking to some kids today and they were talking about happiness. One of them said “I’m going to Harvard and I’m going into science, I’m not sure that’s really what I want to do. I want to be happy, and I might be happy doing any number of other things.” I thought, that’s true in a way. But if you are really compelled to write, that’s where happiness is. It’s in doing what you can do, and being the best you can be at it. That’s what really makes for –.I don’t know if I’d use the word happiness, but James Earl Jones today talked about contentment. There is certainly a contentment, a satisfaction in doing what you can do, you know.
There’s a lot of frustration in writing. I heard an interview with a writer not long ago in which the interviewer said, tell me, is writing difficult? And the writer said, oh, no…no, of course not. He said, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter, you put a page into it, and then you look at it until beads of blood appear on your forehead. That’s all there is to it.” There are days like that. But when you come away after two or three hours with a sentence, or two, or three and you understand in your heart that those are the best sentences you could have written in that time, there is a satisfaction to that that is like nothing else. That justifies everything.
I think that there are people who have a kind of intrinsic love of language. They’re born with it. It’s a gift of God, if you want. For those people, nothing is as gratifying as writing. In my experience, most people who have had that gift know it, and they celebrate it. I think Emily Dickinson knew absolutely that she had a great, great endowment, and that was her life. It is incidental that she only published five or seven poems in her lifetime. She knew she was a poet, and one of the best. That had to mean a great deal to her.
The road to success clearly can take many turns. There are roadblocks and detours. What setbacks have you had along the way and what did you learn from them? How did you deal with them?
Scott Momaday: I’ve had different problems in my life, which I guess you could call setbacks, because I’m sure they got in the way of my work. I’ve gone through two divorces, for example, which were debilitating in their way. I have had fits of depression. I didn’t know how to deal with them in every case. It was largely a matter of waiting it out. People speak of writer’s block. I guess that one could say that after I published my first novel and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, I found it very difficult to write after that for a long time. And yet, I’m the one who says, “Well, I don’t believe in writer’s block. That’s an excuse of some kind. It doesn’t really exist.” So I don’t know. I just waited until I could write again, and it happened. And that’s how it’s been, off and on, through my whole career. I had a heart attack a little over a year ago. A mild one, thank goodness, had angioplasty. That got in the way for a time, but now I’m back to writing and being productive, and that’s what matters to me.
How do you deal with self-doubts, with fear of failure when you work?
Scott Momaday: Again, I think it’s just waiting, because that fear will diminish if you give it time. I have had self doubts and I think that’s probably part of it too. All writers, probably, are a bit insecure all of the time, and very insecure much of the time. But you work against that. That’s just how the game is played. You can’t let yourself bog down permanently into such a state of despair, or ennui, or whatever it is. You have to work against it. We get back to the idea of the writer having to write. I once read something by Kafka, a letter. He said something to this effect: “God doesn’t want me to write, but I have to write.” And so there’s this terrible tug of war, and you know who wins, but I can’t help it, it’s just something I have to do. And that’s pretty much my philosophy too.
No matter what field you’re in, you can’t please all the people all the time. Writers, especially, are subjected to critics. How do you deal with criticism?
Scott Momaday: I deal with it very well now. There was a time when I didn’t. When I first started publishing, I was deeply concerned with what other people thought of my writing, but I then came to realize, just as you’ve said, that a lot of people are not going to like what you do, no matter what it is. If some do, you’re all right. I was extremely lucky, because early in my career I was given a lot of recognition.
When I got the Pulitzer Prize, it did inhibit me in certain ways but, at the same time, it alleviated a lot of the problems that come with being a young professor. I no longer had to worry about publishing or perishing. I did have to worry about junk mail and getting invitations to ladies garden societies. That still goes on, that’s the negative side of it. But I established myself very early, and that was a good thing. It sort of cleared the way for my work. When I finally could get back to writing, I was free to do it.
Does criticism affect your work, affect your ideas?
Scott Momaday: No longer. At one time it made a difference, I paid close attention to it. Now I don’t so much. There are a lot of things written about me and my work that I don’t read,. People will say, “What did you think of that article?” And I say, “I don’t know, what did it say? Who said what about my writing?” I don’t pay much attention to it now. I think I’m better off, because it’s dangerous to go around reading opinions of your work, of your worth. You can get in trouble doing that. It’s best to shut that off and get on with your work.
Regardless of the field, what personal characteristics do you think are most important for success or achievement? What’s it take?
Scott Momaday: I think it takes a lot of resolve. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and you have to do it to the best of your ability. That calls for reaching down inside yourself and coming up with resolve, determination. That may be the most important thing, as I think of it. Writing is a way of expressing your spirit. So there’s much more to it than the question of material success. You are out to save your soul after all, and be the best thing that you can be in your whole being. In the Plains culture, which is my ancestral culture, and a warrior culture, there were four principles. A warrior had to live by these principles: bravery, fortitude, generosity and virtue. When I learned about those principles, they have been extremely important to me, you know. I would like to live my life according to those four things. I would like to do it in my writing, as well as in my other activities. That’s what I believe. I tell students, writing is the expression of your spirit, but you must live by certain ideals, and they must inform not only your writing, but the way in which you have breakfast with your mate, as well.
What do you think you know now about achievement that you didn’t know as a young writer?
Scott Momaday: For one thing, I know that it’s artificial in some ways. Acclaim is good and I love being acclaimed.
I like for my work to be recognized and appreciated. But in a greater sense, I think it’s taken too seriously by many people. It begins to be an end in itself, and that’s wrong. If you can do your own work and satisfy your own demands, then the acclaim — you know — if it’s there, it’s great, if it’s not, it doesn’t matter that much. As long as you can be true to yourself, and save your own soul, that’s what really matters.
What concerns you most these days? Is there some idea or problem that holds your attention? Especially as we look ahead towards the 21st century? What are the challenges?
Scott Momaday: Yes, there are certain things that concern me deeply. One of them is the way we treat our environment. We haven’t done a very good job in protecting our planet. We have failed to recognize the spiritual life of the earth. I feel a sense of futility, because I think there’s not much I can do about it, but I will, to the best of my ability, try to change that. I’m not at all confident that I can, but if I make the effort, that will mean something.
I want to produce a certain amount of work. I think I have things left to do. As I grow older, it becomes a race. That’s something that concerns me. Will I be able to do the things that I’ve set for myself to do? Who knows? That’s something that concerns me too.
What it is that you haven’t done that you would like to do?
Scott Momaday: I have certain writing projects that I want to complete. I’m just now beginning a play that has been commissioned by the Denver Theater Center. I want to come up with a first draft of that. That’s something I think I can do, with a little luck. I’m not not that advanced in age as yet.
Long-term things? I want to write a novel based on the ’60s, which seems to me the most important decade of this century, to date, and it looks like it’s going to hold up. I lived in California during the ’60s and it was a very important time in our history. You stop to think about what happened in that decade and it boggles the mind. We had those terrible assassinations, we had the civil rights movement, and we ended up by going to the moon. That was a good time in which to have lived, and I want to write about that. It’s on the back burner. I’m not sure when I’m going to get to that, or how long it will take to put it out, but I would like to do it. I hope I will.
In reading about you, and in thinking about this era we’re going through, with all of the controversy about immigration, and assimilation, and identity, I wonder: How does one maintain an identity, a sense of what you are, while still moving over into the mainstream of American life? How do you do that? It seems to be a big issue today, and you have done that so successfully. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Looking back and reflecting, from this vantage point, what advice do you have for young people just starting out? What do you say to them?
Scott Momaday: Fix your sight upon something and then go after it, and try not to be deflected. You have something that most of us don’t have and that is time. You have time in which to deliberate, time in which to reflect, time in which to determine who you are. Use it. Don’t panic. A lot of kids tend to panic, but I say just take it easy. But go for something. Move positively towards some goal that you would like to achieve. Ask yourself how you would like to be known. Don’t let yourself be determined by others. And this is especially true where young people are concerned, because everybody wants to determine them. And they have very few defenses against that. So I say, for God’s sake, you know, don’t let other people tell you who you are. If I had let people tell me who I was, I would have dropped back there somewhere. Determine who you are, and don’t let anybody else do it for you. That’s the best advice I can give a young person.
If you had to choose one book or two to read to your grandchildren, what would it be?
Scott Momaday: Of all the books in the world? Oh dear, how can I answer that? That’s an impossible question! You can read the collected works of William Shakespeare and find out a great deal about life in the world and the way people act in each other’s presence. You can read the Bible to the same effect. I probably would want to aim a little lower than those things though and say, “Why don’t you read Moby Dick ?” If you can read that and not be somehow fulfilled, then there’s something wrong with you.
Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
You’re very welcome.