Feathering Custer, 2001
The noted Nez Perce fiction writer and critic W. S. Penn turns his wry and penetrating gaze on the state of modern Native life and literature and considers how modern scholarship has affected the ways Natives and others see themselves and their world. The result is a uniquely frank, witty, and unsettling critique of contemporary theory and its ability to come to terms with the real lives and literatures of Natives in North America.
Key to this critique is the troubling issue of what properly constitutes a traditional "Indian" identity and an "Indian" literature within Native communities and in the academy. In confronting this issue, Penn exposes some of the sillier uses of the serious language of diversity as well as the impact of identity politics on Native professors. And yet, Penn argues, the storytelling traditions so central to Native communities remain very much alive today, hidden in the corners of the literary canon.
"[Penn] attempts, with commendable verve and insight, to take the measure of Native American studies today. . . . Penn refuses to take refuge in jargon or doublespeak, and his attempts to negotiate complicated cultural thickets prove winning."
Killing Time with Strangers, 2000
Young Pal needs help with his dreaming.
Palimony Blue Larue, a mixblood growing up in a small California town, suffers from a painful shyness and wants more than anything to be liked. That's why Mary Blue, his Nez Perce mother, has dreamed the weyekin, the spirit guide, to help her bring into the world the one lasting love her son needs to overcome the diffidence that runs so deep in his blood. The magical (and not totally competent) weyekin pops in and out of Pal's life at the most unexpected times—and in the most unlikely guises—but seems to have difficulty setting him on the right path. Is there any hope for Palimony Blue?
"Magical realism is an excellent way to tell love stories in this disenchanted age....Through the lens of Pal's erotic itinerary, Penn creates a novel satirizing Californian mores as it balances personal, soulful dreams against the big one: the American Dream."
featured book review
This is the World, 2001
In this first collection of short fiction, renowned American Indian writer W. S. Penn reveals a writing life that has been both difficult and fortunate. Penn has moved away from conventional narrative methods, through what his own oral tradition encompasses, to arrive at telling stories as they must be told as opposed to the ways they might be told.
In This Is The World, Penn moves through spaces, encounters characters, and confronts humanity with a sage's omnipotence, yet at the same time with an unassuming voice, devoid of pretentiousness. His words are unflinching, but also unselfconscious.
"Penn writes in an unadorned style that achieves remarkable power when his fictions reach their restrained but often haunting denouements."
As We Are Now, 1998
The thirteen contributors to As We Are Now invite readers to explore with them the untamed territory of race and mixblood identity in North America. A "mixblood," according to editor W.S. Penn, recognizes that his or her identity comes not from distinct and separable strains of ancestry but from the sum of the tension and interplay of all his or her ancestral relationships.
"Focusing on contemporary aspects of ethno-racial formation and identity in U.S. culture and society, As We are Now is urgent and rousing."
THE TELLING OF THE WORLD, 1996
Featuring never-before-published material, The Telling of the World contains legends and stories from many Native American nations collected from both traditional and contemporary sources. These inspirational tales follow the path of life--from creation and birth, through adolescnce, love and marriage, to death and the renewal of the spirit.
"[A] comprehensive anthology of Native American art....[T]his book [is] a journey rich in wisdom, beauty, and magic."
ALL MY SINS ARE RELATIVES, 1995
The customary cant about being an American Indian goes like this: Indians must live in wide open spaces; they must define their spirituality by chant, dance, and drum; they must pass down their traditions with reverent care; and they must offer tourists Indian art and Indian experiences to take home. On one side of commercial Indianness there is sloppy sentimentality, and on the other, speechless hatred.
But what of those born between, like W. S. Penn, with an Anglo parent demanding that Indianness be abandoned and an Indian parent clinging to all that can be held? What of those who grew up in the cities? Can they express more than confusion, frustration, and rage? Are there alternatives to assimilation, submission, or revolt?
In All My Sins Are Relatives Penn finds in his own family three generations trying to come to terms with their differences and their Indianness. Within its pages, Penn describes learning the depths of his love for his grandfather, to whom he dedicated this book. “As arrogant as youth can be, I was often too busy silently grading his grammar to pay real attention and see what he was giving me.” Among the gifts was an awareness of what a story could tell, what it could conceal, and what it could never tell. His grandfather inhabited a different sense of time, and it was a long while before Penn lived there too.
When he did, he was back again with a story, working on how Indian writers wrote poetry and prose. In the work of other Indian writers and in his own Penn found that although white and Indian cultures cannot mingle, they can be bridged. All My Sins Are Relatives is a bridge.
The Absence of Angels, 1994
Albert (Alley) Hummingbird, the shy hero of this imaginative and entertaining first novel, is a mixed-blood Indian who must contend with a father who abandoned Nez Perce ways to marry a rather daft white woman, with an uncle haunted by the ghosts of pilots he sent to their deaths during WW II and with Death itself, which is treated as a character. To save newborn Alley from the grim reaper, his grandfather, the source of his Native American values, "took a disappointed Death by the wrist, put Him in the passenger seat of the 1947 Plymouth" and drove to a far-off mission, "where he left Him chained like a rabid dog." The boy will encounter Death again in pet burials and his sister's secret retreats to the graveyard. The opposite sex also causes much heartache for Alley, who feels the need to make everything right for every woman he knows. Skipping lyrically between his hero's childhood and young adulthood, Penn has produced a delightful work of magic realism reminiscent of John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War. - Publisher's Weekly
"All My Sins Are Relatives" juxtaposes memoir, history, literary analysis, opinion, and storytelling in a way that Mr. Penn sees as particularly Indian; the method depends on the association of ideas and emotions rather than chronology....moving...interesting turn of mind...."
~The New York Times Book Review
Don't ask his father, La Vent Larue; La Vent is past hope, past help, a city zoning planner and a pawn in the mayor's development plans who ends up crazy and in jail after he shoots the mayor in the—well, never mind. Better to ask Pal's mother, who summons the weyekin when she isn't working on a cradle board for Pal and his inevitable bride. And while you're at it, ask the women in Pal's life: Sally the preacher's daughter, Brandy the waitressing flautist, Tara the spoiled socialite. And be sure to ask Amanda, if you can catch her. If you can dream her.
"This author... is a master at understatement, and his sense of humor, tinged with the sardonic, keeps this scrutiny moving at a brisk pace."
Taken as a whole, the stories reveal an innate power to entertain, to instruct, to bind people together into a healing community, and to provide an identity and a unifying vision. These stories are richly illustrated with art - paintings, sculpture, drawings - created by modern Native American artists, and historically significant artifacts. Their work showcases the enduring spirit of Native American peoples who have found ways to survive and to continue telling their stories, revealing who they are for future generations.
These first-person narratives cross racial, national, and disciplinary boundaries in a refreshingly experimental approach to writing culture. Their authors call on similar but varied cultural and aesthetic traditions--mostly oral--in order to address some aspect of race and identity about which they feel passionate, and all resist the essentialist point of view. Mixblood Native American, Mestizo/a, and African-American writers focus their discussion on the questions indigenous and minority people ask and the way in which they ask them, clearly merging the singular "I" with the communal "we." These are new voices in the dialogue of ethnic writers, and they offer a highly original treatment of an important subject.
Although sometimes sad, This Is The World describes the tensions and problems that arise between the subtle clashes of culture and gender with a good deal of humor, both background and foreground, which makes this collection essential to those who love the craft of storytelling itself.
Storytelling in the Digital Age, 2013
Through a professional story-teller's sometimes humorous commentary on culture and literature from The Odyssey on, Storytelling in the Digital Age suggests that literature is not an artifact to be studied but a living process. Often irreverent, crossing literary and scholarly lines, W.S. Penn aims to discover what literature does for an imaginatively engaged reader. Aimed to amuse, provoke, and propose ideas, this book makes bold new statements about what it means to be human through an interrogation of a variety of stories told and re-told over thousands of years.
"Original in its observations, its tone, and its attractively quirky manner, Storytelling in the Digital Age is a project of great significance...Penn's style is informal, sometimes chatty - although admirably very far from chummy...a very strong piece of work."
Sarah Lawrence College