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10 Questions for Michelle LaPena

The ilium represents the pelvis of a female. If the remains are one individual, it appears that she was a female​, and DNA testing indicates Native American ancestry. However, given the limited data for various tribes of the area, and the custom of intermarriage that results from a taboo against cousin marriage, it is difficult to ascertain her tribal affiliation. DNA cannot prove actual tribal identity.
—from "Excavation: She Was Dug Up," Volume 61, Issue 4 (Winter 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My first published piece was written a very long time ago, when I was an undergrad at UC Davis. I was assigned to write an essay for a class taught by Professor Inez Hernandez-Avila called Native American Literature. The essay was to be modeled from a book called “I Tell You Now, Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers”. It was the first time I read Native writers in such form, which was autobiographical, most with poetry woven into the prose. I was writing a lot of poetry myself at the time, and I was able to pull together a piece that was very personal and difficult. It was my autobiography. My professor encouraged me to enter it into a writing competition in the English Department and I was selected as one of the winners that was published in a collection called “Prized Writing.” I love that it was published and started my love for writing, but I hate that it is still out there because it is so personal.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I have so many influences, but I love Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich. They are my inspirations. I read them whenever I am really deep in writing because I think reading their work makes my writing better. 

What did you want to be when you were young?
I think that I have become what I wanted to be. I am a practicing tribal attorney, a partner in an Indian Law firm. I have had the blessing to write and change laws, and from those experiences I have so many stories that influence my writing. What a dream. I draw on my work life for my writing, and while I have a strong legal career, the pull to writing and publishing has never faded since my earliest days of writing poetry in college. 

What inspired you to write this piece?
"Excavation. . ." was inspired by my work in tribal cultural site preservation. My undergraduate degree was in Native American Studies and Anthropology. I hated archaeology from the first class because the errors in the assumptions about what archaeologists dig up are shocking. They assume so much from a completely alien point of view compared to who is being exhumed. The piece is a back-and-forth between what the voice of archaeologist telling what he thinks he found, and the voice of the woman that is dug up. It is contemporary though, as if the excavation happens in the year 2090. It is another deeply personal piece.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My writing draws on what this land used to look like, what it would look like if it was not settled in such a brutal way. My ancestors in Native California were subjected to genocide. My great-great-great grandmother survived a massacre of her village as a child in the 1800’s in Northeastern California. I think that history is in my DNA, and the stories of my family keep me grounded in the land here in California. These lands are characters in most of my writing. 

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No, I just write whenever I can. I used to like to write when I was tired as I felt like it kept me from overthinking anything. Today, I just try to write whenever I can and see what happens. I wrote a poem this weekend because I was sad. While I don’t like particularly enjoy the feeling, the blues seem to bring out my inner poet.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I used to share my work with my two older offspring, but now my younger one is home and gets to see it. I now have a fiancé and he gets to see most of the work early on. He is the only person who has read my novel manuscript. He even gave me edits. But it has not been accepted by any agents, so I think it might not be very good. Maybe it needs a total re-write.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I have always dreamed of learning to sculpt. Sculpture is another form of storytelling that I would really enjoy.

What are you working on currently?
I am shifting gears to a poetry chapbook and possibly trying to send out more queries on my novel manuscript.

What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading Elissa Washutta’s White Magic. She is an amazing reader and writer. I also have a guilty pleasure of reading Stephen King, and right now I’m reading The Institute. I tend to read several books at the same time, so right now I am still reading James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Sun, and Heid Erdich’s older poetry collection Cell Traffic. She is amazing.


MICHELLE L. LAPENA is a member of the Pit River Tribe and a mother of three. She is an Indian law attorney, and she has represented Indian tribes since 1999. She has lectured at primary, secondary, and university levels on topics related to California Indians and federal Indian law for over two decades. In addition, she has published a number of law review articles, essays and nonfiction articles on topics relative to her work with California Indian tribes. She received her BA in 1993 and her J.D. in 1998, both from the University of California, Davis. She was a recipient of the 2015 Truman Capote Creative Writing Fellowship and earned her MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2017.

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