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  • NYS Writers Institute

Writer and visual artist Eric Gansworth (Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ)

"As an indigenous person living on this continent, I’ve never found it especially hospitable. It is as if, for some people, our continued survival is a rude reminder of the past."

Eric Gansworth (Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ)

We spoke with Eric Gansworth (Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ) whose Young Adult memoir, Apple: Skin to the Core, about his Native American childhood was named one of Time magazine's "10 Best YA and Children's Books of 2020," and was longlisted for the National Book Award.

Written in prose and verse, the book takes its title from a Native American slur-- an "Apple" is someone "red on the outside and white on the inside."

An enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, Eric Gansworth tells his story of growing up on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in Niagara County, New York, just outside Niagara Falls.

"In Apple: Skin to the Core, Gansworth continually returns to the term ["Apple"], working to reclaim it as he unveils his family history and charts an intricate web of intersecting identities. He covers everything from his grandfather’s harrowing experience at a government boarding school to his own complex childhood as an enrolled Onondaga raised at the Tuscarora Nation. Throughout, Gansworth centers his raw and moving personal story in a larger discussion about community, identity and language." -- Time magazine

“Easily one of the best books to be published in 2020. The kind of book bound to save lives.” — John Freeman, LitHub

Purchase Apple: Skin to the Core from the independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza:

Gansworth's award-winning books include If I Ever Get Out of Here, Give Me Some Truth, and Extra Indians. He currently serves as Professor and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo.

What are you most looking forward to in your personal life in the coming year?

Being able to hug friends. The coming year, realistically, might be too soon for that desire.

What is your biggest hope for America in 2021?

As an indigenous person living on this continent, I’ve never found it especially hospitable. It is as if, for some people, our continued survival is a rude reminder of the past. If you feel like my presence near you forces you to adjust your language, that says more about you in your daily life than it says about your relationship with me. The animosity was always there, and recently it’s just been louder and prouder again. I am the only indigenous person in my neighborhood. I live on a long, dead end street, and the only people who travel it are residents, and yet, my car has been vandalized in my driveway, while I slept. This happened in 2006, not 2016. I think back then, the volume only got cranked to 11 on occasion instead of staying there. If I hope for anything, it’s that some responsible being gets ahold of that dial and works on lowering it. The recent appearance and disappearance of that monolith in the desert, and the narratives surrounding both actions, tells us that dial is still wedged at max.

What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?

I’m no scientist but before seeking a formal artistic education, I had enough medical training to achieve an associate’s degree. I’ve retained that information all these decades later, witnessing major infection in action. I’ve been reminded that opportunistic organisms don’t care about your beliefs. They will use you to propagate and move on when you’re no longer valuable as a source of sustenance. If you have any sense of self-preservation, you should be aware that they exploit any weakness in you, so they can thrive enough to move on to their next hosts.

What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?

Live music. When I was young, the rock concert spectacle was the major status mark. The first big show I attended was KISS, on the Alive II tour, the height of their spectacle. I was 12 and it made a lasting impression. Live shows have been a major part of my life ever since. The last concert I attended was in October 2019. From 1977 on, I hadn’t lived 12 consecutive months without attending a live music show. Until now. I had advance tickets for 2020 shows, but I also distinctly remember seeing concert posters outside a venue when I gave a talk in early February. A few people had been coughing in the audience. For the first time in my life, I thought: well, let’s wait and see before getting tickets. The early hints of seriousness grew, and the likelihood of our world changing seemed inevitable.

Is there anything on Earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?

At the risk of sounding like an indigenous cliché, I look for beauty in all kinds of places you’d least expect it. I take photos of sunrises and sunsets, and as much as I hate the cold, I bundle up even if it’s below freezing, to commune with the moon on a clear night. Those are obvious, predictable, but lately, heating water for pasta, I’ve been taking photos from above, of the moment you pour olive oil into the hot water. The way it forms shimmering, light refracting circles and magical penumbral mirrors is striking. I love these transient dances of beauty, the tension between oil and water, lasting no more than a minute or so, always changing, giving you something new to appreciate before it dissipates into Supper: Stage One.

What new social or technological development excites you the most?

I’ve never been a fan of planned obsolescence, though clearly I fall for it over and over, buying new “better” versions of things I own. I don’t have time to continually “improve my experience,” learning new tech, because it takes away from my experience. Hunting out the new place for the same old toggle is time stolen from my work. I don’t need dancing emojis that look like me. I need to know how to crop an image and maybe straighten and brighten it, things I could have done ten incarnations ago in basic photo software that I currently can’t do. I don’t allow proprietary personal-information harvesting or know the thirty “sparkle-tastic” hoops I’m required to jump through to get to basic editing. What would excite me is stabilization so that I could actually do my work instead of watching endless tutorials that don’t help me, anyway.

What did you most enjoy about writing Apple: Skin to the Core?

The exploratory phase. I knew it wasn’t going to be a traditional memoir, in an “I was born in 1965” kind of way. I knew it would be closer to collage. I loved thinking I was in the middle of writing a poem that I thought would capture a moment, only to discover that each poem was a door leading to further doors that had not been available to me creatively before that moment. As just one example, the book includes a series of poems about a friend/family member. The first one was published maybe a decade ago, a complete idea. The book now contains maybe a dozen more about that relationship, with several other poems that didn’t make the cut. One memory leads to another, onward, and you learn about your life even as you try to document it.

What idea, subject or field are you most looking forward to exploring in 2021?

My whole body of work has been about cultural survival, and 2020 has been about literal survival. I’d like to return to my lifelong concerns instead of worrying about the air around me. So I guess I’m most looking forward to non-lethal air.

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