For thousands of years, stories have been serving the purpose of making our world and lives meaningful. Over the past several years, the therapeutic potential of both fiction and nonfiction stories has been increasingly realized in the US, especially in the field of mental health. That is how Anya Achtenberg’s The Stories of Devil-Girl (Modern History Press, 2008) is valued and has been recently picked by a reading group with urban Native Americans many of whom have suffered similar abuses as depicted in Anya’s book.
Olive Lefferson, Art Coordinator at the Chief Seattle Club in Washington, is here with us to talk about her reading group and what made her pick The Stories of Devil-Girl to use in her group.
Ernest: Olive, thank you for taking time for this correspondence. Please tell us briefly about Chief Seattle Club.
Olive Lefferson: Because around 70% of the Native population lives off their reservation, they need a support system, a place to connect with other Natives. Chief Seattle Club is a center for Urban Natives that was started around 45 years ago. It has evolved from a program that was open only three hours a day and moved from one store front to another in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle to an organization which employs eleven staff and has a budget of $650,000 per year, most of which comes from private donors. We offer many services to our members, including: hot breakfasts, showers, a laundry service, computers and phones, a TV room, a legal clinic and the Art Program. We have wellness groups similar to AA, talking circles and trauma groups. We have partnerships with providers such as a mental health counselor, drug and alcohol counselor, nurses from Healthcare for the Homeless and Seattle Indian Health Board and a worker from the Department of Social and Health Services. About half of our members are homeless or in shelters or other transitional housing. Virtually all of them deal with addiction, mental health issues, and trauma.
Ernest: How many people on average attend your reading group? Please tell us a little about the group and its activities.
Olive Lefferson: The writing group is a part of the Art Program and we meet every week for an hour. There is a core group of six to ten people with others who come and go. We’ve been meeting for about two and a half years. It started out as a poetry class with a volunteer who came and worked with us. When she changed jobs and couldn’t volunteer anymore, I started leading the group by providing writing prompts. I have a BA in English with a creative writing emphasis; I write mostly short stories and memoir and have taken writing classes with Anya. We all read our writings out loud – although they are always given the option to not read aloud, rarely does anyone choose not to share their writing with the group.
The group is made up of both men and women. Their ages range from early twenties to sixties. They come from tribes all over the U.S., including Alaska, and we have many members who are First Nations from Canada (I’m a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana).
Ernest: How frequently does your group read storybooks?
Olive Lefferson: The Stories of Devil-Girl is the first book we’ll read as a group, although I often print poems and excerpts for them to read. Even though the narrator comes from a Russian Jewish immigrant family, some of her experiences were similar to our members and I wanted them to see the commonality of life experiences that cross cultural barriers. Our members have lived through their own trauma and hardship and I think it will be illuminating and hopefully healing for them to see that someone from a very different culture/background has some of the same issues. The next book we plan to read will be Winter in the Blood by James Welch.
Ernest: Speaking from your experience, how do you think storytelling and reading help with the healing process?
Olive Lefferson: Storytelling and oral history is an integral part of Native culture. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s and mother’s stories. It’s what we did and still do to keep our stories alive and in the telling comes healing. Also, in hearing and reading about other people’s troubles, even fictional characters, our members will be able to talk about their own issues or write about them.
Ernest: So how does The Stories of Devil-Girl enter your reading interest?
Olive Lefferson: I was struck by the abuse the narrator was subjected to but even more compelling was the fact that she came through it intact, went to school, and became a teacher. I want our members to know there’s always hope for a better life.
Ernest: How do you plan to use the book in your group? Will you choose some stories specifically for your readers according to the nature of their experiences?
Olive Lefferson: I was planning on reading the whole book with the group. I sent a copy with several of them at our last meeting. At our next meeting we’ll talk about it: their overall impression of the book, what they thought of the writing; what they understood different passages to mean; how it relates to their lives. I’ll give them a prompt, for example, the title of a chapter, and ask them to write about what that means for them.
Ernest: Do you think the book will be more helpful to women who are able to identify with the characters in these stories?
Olive Lefferson: I’m guessing the women will get the most out of it, but there are lessons for men to learn, if only to hear from the women’s perspectives. One of the lessons to be learned from the book is the resilience of the human spirit, that a person, whether man or woman, can make it through such adversity and still come out of it whole, go to school, teach, write books, stay sober, make art, hold down a job, whatever it is that they aspire to. I want them to always be hopeful for a better life.
Ernest: With continued expansion of urbanization in and outside the United States, are native communities increasingly being exposed to new challenges, especially cultural ones, that other Americans have become more familiar with already?
Olive Lefferson: This is a question that will require a detailed answer because there is so much to say about the subject. The challenges that I see every day for the population we serve at Chief Seattle Club are poverty, homelessness, addiction, high rates of diseases like diabetes, poor nutrition, mental health issues, police brutality and racism. Other challenges that face natives in general are issues of sovereignty, cultural identity, how to live a more traditional life and how much of the dominant culture do we want in our lives, the struggles surrounding environmental issues like fracking, coal trains, the destruction of our earth, high dropout rates, suicide.
Ernest: So does your reading group also write and publish their writings or share with the general public through any publication?
Olive Lefferson: Yes, we have started self-publishing a zine with our writings in it.
Ernest: Thank you Olive!