Watermelon Nights (1999) – novel
In a powerful follow-up to his widely acclaimed short story collection, Grand Avenue, Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris tells a tale about the love and forgiveness that keep a modern American Indian family together.
Told from the points of view of a twenty-year-old Pomo Indian named Johnny Severe, his grandmother, Elba, and his mother, Iris, Watermelon Nights uncovers the secrets behind each of these characters’ extraordinary powers of perception. Johnny is trying to organize the remaining members of his displaced tribe; at the same time he contemplates leaving his grandmother’s home for the big city. As the novel shifts perspective, tracing the controversial history of the tribe, we learn how the tragic events of Elba’s childhood, as well as Iris’s attempts to separate herself from her cultural roots, make Johnny’s dilemma all the more difficult. Gritty, yet rich in detail and emotion, Watermelon Nights stands beside the novels of Louise Erdrich, Michael Dorris, and Sherman Alexie as an important work, not only in Native American literature, but in contemporary American fiction. A Los Angeles Times Bestseller!
“Mothers and daughters, unknown and absent fathers, love, cultural isolation, bigotry–these are the big issues that Sarris wraps his able arms around in this gorgeously written, compelling drama.” –New York Newsday
“Fans of Michael Dorris should be excited and reassured by Watermelon Nights that there are other, equally compelling voices in American Indian literature.” –San Francisco Chronicle
Grand Avenue (1994) – short stories
Greg Sarris‘ first work of fiction, a novel in 10 interconnected stories, probes the disenfranchised lives of a Native American community in California. Grand Avenue, a street in the center of the northern California town of Santa Rosa where “everybody’s connected to everybody,” is home not only to Pomo Indians making a life outside of the reservation, but also to Mexicans, blacks, and some Portuguese, all trying to find their way among the many obstacles in their turbulent world. Bound together by a lone ancestor, the lives of the Native Americans form the core of these stories – tales full of cures, poison, family healing rituals, and a kind of humor that allows the inhabitants of Grand Avenue to see their own foibles with a saving grace. A teenage girl falls in love with a crippled horse marked for slaughter . . . an aging healer summons his strength for one final song . . . a father seeks a bond with his illegitimate son . . . a mother searches for the power to care for her cancer-stricken daughter’s spirit. Here is a tapestry of lives rendered with the color, wisdom, and quest for meaning of the traditional tale-telling in which they are rooted. Vibrant with the emotions and realities of a changing world, these stories are all equally stunning and from the heart.
“Set in a small city in northern California, these ten stories focus on Santa Rosa’s poorest neighborhood, Grand Avenue. The most noticeable population on Grand Avenue is a clan of Native Americans, Pomo Indians who live in dilapidated army barracks at the end of the street. Drunkenness, family fights, welfare payments, and illegitimate children abound. Each of the stories is narrated by a different character, yet all the speakers sound the same. The message is that there are no individuals on Grand Avenue; everyone is related by blood and guilt. A particularly good example is “Joy Ride,” a tale of a good husband undone by a teenaged temptress. Many of the stories are narrated by middle-aged women, sisters or half-sisters. Surprisingly, timely doses of dark humor and human hope imbue this collection by the author of Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream (LJ 8/94) with a sort of true joy.” –Library Journal, James B. Hemesath
Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream (1994) – biography
A world-renowned Pomo basket weaver and medicine woman, Mabel McKay expressed her genius through her celebrated baskets, her Dreams, her cures, and the stories with which she kept her culture alive. She spent her life teaching others how the spirit speaks through the Dream, how the spirit heals, and how the spirit demands to be heard. Greg Sarris weaves together stories from Mabel McKay’s life with an account of how he tried, and she resisted, telling her story straight–the white people’s way. Sarris, an Indian of mixed-blood heritage, finds his own story in his search for Mabel McKay’s. Beautifully narrated, Weaving the Dream initiates the reader into Pomo culture and demonstrates how a woman who worked most of her life in a cannery could become a great healer and an artist whose baskets were collected by the Smithsonian.
Hearing Mabel McKay’s life story, we see that distinctions between material and spiritual, and between mundane and magical, disappear. What remains is a timeless way of healing, of making art, and of being in the world.
“In among the most dramatic one-two literary genre punches in recent memory (Toni Morrison’s simultaneous 1992 publication of “Jazz” and “Playing in the Dark” comes to mind), Greg Sarris, a professor of English at UCLA and himself a mixture of California ethnicities (Filipino, Jewish, Miwok), has written a dazzling pair of books, one superb fiction, the other a mesmerizing interplay of biography and autobiography. Read individually, each is a spotlight trained on the complexity, sadness, humor and strength of modern Pomo people; read in tandem, they vault Sarris’ subjects–and the author himself–into brilliant, enduring relief.” –Michael Dorris, Los Angeles Times
“Wonderful, and urgently needed in these days of confusion over Native American identity and spirituality. . . . Vibrant testimony to the survival of American Indians and the power of the old spirits.” –Leslie Marmon Silko
“All the lean wit of a Castaneda tale, the lyric spark of the Black Elk translations, Weaving the Dream is a modern-day Indian classic.” –Kenneth Lincoln, author of The Good Red Road
The Sound of Rattles and Clappers: a Collection of New California Indian Writing (1994) – editor and contributor
In this anthology of poetry and fiction, ten Native Americans of California Indian ancestry illuminate aspects of their respective native cultures in works characterized by a profound love of place and people, as well as by anger over political oppression and social problems.
Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts (1993) – essays
This remarkable collection of eight essays offers a rare perspective on the issue of cross-cultural communication. Greg Sarris is concerned with American Indian texts, both oral and written, as well as with other American Indian cultural phenomena such as basketry and religion. His essays cover a range of topics that include orality, art, literary criticism, and pedagogy, and demonstrate that people can see more than just “what things seem to be.” Throughout, he asks: How can we read across cultures so as to encourage communication rather than to close it down?
Sarris maintains that cultural practices can be understood only in their living, changing contexts. Central to his approach is an understanding of storytelling, a practice that embodies all the indeterminateness, structural looseness, multivalence, and richness of culture itself. He describes encounters between his Indian aunts and Euro-American students, and the challenge of reading in a reservation classroom. He brings the reports of earlier ethnographers out of museums and into the light of contemporary literary and anthropological theory.
Sarris’ perspective is exceptional: son of a Coast Miwok/Pomo father and a Jewish mother, he was raised by Mabel McKay–a renowned Cache Creek Pomo basket weaver and medicine woman–and by others, Indian and non-Indian, in Santa Rosa, California. Educated at Stanford, he is now a university professor and recently became Chairman of the Federated Coast Miwok tribe. His own story is woven into these essays and provides valuable insights for anyone interested in cross-cultural communication, including educators, theorists of language and culture, and general readers.
“This stunning collection puts humanity and mystery back into the text where they profoundly belong. . . . A must for any serious student of native literatures, or for any serious student of life.” –Joy Harjo, poet, author of In Mad Love and War
“A wonderful, empowering book.” –Michael M.J. Fischer, co-author of Anthropology as Cultural Critique