The Sci-Fi Author Reimagining Native History

As Rebecca Roanhorse’s work has been praised in the literary world, it’s drawn criticism in some circles.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo courtesy of Rebecca Roanhorse
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo courtesy of Rebecca Roanhorse
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo courtesy of Rebecca Roanhorse

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

Twenty years ago, when the fantasy novelist Rebecca Roanhorse was 29, she hired a private detective to track down her birth mother. Growing up as a biracial kid with white parents in Fort Worth, Texas, hadn’t been easy. She first became aware of her difference when she was around 7 years old and a white boy in a grocery store called her the N-word. Back at home, when she asked her mother what it meant, she pulled out a box of paperwork. From her birth certificate, Roanhorse learned that she was half-Black and half–Spanish Indian. For many years, that was all she knew. But, in her late 20s, she began to dream about meeting her birth mother. “I became obsessed with this idea that I needed to find her,” Roanhorse said.

She was living in New York City at the time, working a job at a financial publisher that she hated. She was still nearly 15 years away from writing the books that would make her one of the country’s most celebrated and controversial Native authors. The private detective worked quickly; within 48 hours, she called Roanhorse with the news that her search had been a success. Soon after, Roanhorse flew to Arkansas and, for the first time in her life, found herself surrounded by people who resembled her. “It was strange and a little bit thrilling,” she said. Looking around the table at the restaurant, she noticed that her mother and aunt had the same long arms as she did, the same dimples when they smiled, the same laugh. But not everyone in the family was pleased that she’d tracked them down. On that first trip home, she learned she’d been a “secret baby.” Her birth father, a minister, had never learned of her existence. Neither had most of her mother’s extended family — conservative Pueblo Catholics from New Mexico. One of her aunts, a former nun, later told her, “It would be better if you went away.”

Roanhorse is speaking from her home in Santa Fe, overlooking the Sun and Moon mountains. She lives there with her husband, a Diné (or Navajo) artist, and their 12-year-old daughter. She rarely speaks with her birth mother. “I’m sure some people may come home and find joy,” she said, “but that has not been my experience.” Her new book, Black Sun, is an epic set in an imaginary world inspired by the indigenous cultures of North America as they were before European explorers invaded the shores of the continent. Her work has been embraced by the literary world and often appears on lists of the best “OwnVoices” fantasy novels. (The phrase, which originated in 2015 as a Twitter hashtag and has since turned into a publicity tool, signifies that the author shares the same background or experiences as the characters they write.) And since entering the scene a few years ago, she’s already received many of the genre’s most prestigious awards. Black Sun, which was published on October 13, was one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of the fall. Some have compared it to the monumental achievements of N.K. Jemisin and George R.R. Martin. Screen adaptations of several projects are already underway.

But within Native communities, the book’s reception has been mixed. Although Roanhorse has many Native fans who have hailed her work as groundbreaking and revelatory, she also has a number of vocal detractors. Not long after her debut, Trail of Lighting, was published, a group of Diné writers released a letter accusing her of cultural appropriation, mischaracterizing Diné spiritual beliefs, and harmful misrepresentation. They took issue with Roanhorse’s decision to write a fantasy inspired by Diné stories, since she is only Diné by marriage, and wondered why she hadn’t written about her “own tribe,” referring to the Ohkay Owingeh people of New Mexico. Some have even expressed doubts about Roanhorse’s Native ancestry and her right to tell Native stories at all.

At a time when the publishing industry is throwing open its doors to authors who traditionally faced barriers to entry, the controversy over Roanhorse’s work reveals a fault line in the OwnVoices movement. Native identity is exceptionally complex. It consists of hundreds of cultures, each of which has its own customs. Further complicating all this is the fact that Roanhorse grew up estranged from Native communities, an outsider through no choice of her own. This complexity is reflected in her writing — both her debut and her latest work concern protagonists who are at odds with their communities. “I’m always writing outsiders,” she says. “Their journey is usually about coming home, and sometimes they wished they’d stayed away.”

After she met her birth mother, Roanhorse blew up her life. “I had one of those moments, which I’ve had several times in my life, where I thought, What the hell am I doing here?” She was already on her second career by then. After graduating from Yale and earning a master’s degree in theology at Union Theological, she eventually found a job as a computer programmer working on Wall Street. But her work felt pointless. As she saw it, she was just helping to make “rich white dudes richer.” So she quit and moved to New Mexico to go to law school, where she studied federal and tribal law and clerked for the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. Her reunion with her birth family hadn’t gone as she’d hoped, but she thought that there were other ways she might be able to connect with her Native heritage. “I wanted to do something useful for my people,” she says.

Not long after she began law school, she met her husband, Michael Roanhorse, an artist who makes contemporary high-end jewelry that draws inspiration from Diné traditions. After she graduated and got a job working for Legal Aid at the Navajo Nation, she and their 1-year-old daughter moved into his family’s home. For a few years, she spent her days taking on corrupt payday lenders and strategizing about environmental cases impacting Native land; at night, she returned home to a crowded trailer in the Chuska mountains, with five relatives and no running water. Roanhorse loved it. “It was like coming home,” she said. “There was family and there was community. I’d never had that easiness before, that thing you only feel when you’re among your people, where that weight of performance comes off your shoulders.”

Roanhorse had been writing fantasy stories since she was a child, but she’d never considered it a viable career path. She didn’t finish her first novel until she was in her mid-40s. When she began work on her breakout book, Trail of Lightning, a postapocalyptic tale about a monster slayer in a world populated by Native gods, she’d been reading a lot of urban fantasy, a genre heavy with “magical” Native characters written by white authors who had no connection to the cultures they sought to portray. She wanted to write Native characters who reminded her of the people who’d become her family, to put down on the page the high desert mountains she’d fallen in love with, so she set the book in the same town where her in-laws lived. She drew on Diné stories she’d learned in law school (part of passing the bar to practice law in the Navajo Nation entails studying traditional stories).

In July of 2016, she began querying agents. Her manuscript went out into the world just as the conversation about race in fantasy had reached a turning point. That summer, N.K. Jemisin, the author of the Broken Earth trilogy, would become the first Black writer to win fantasy’s most prestigious honor — a Hugo Award for best novel. Roanhorse’s agent, Sara Megibow, plucked the manuscript out of the slush pile in her in-box. “I read 20,000 queries a year and sign maybe three to four clients from that. I just fell in love,” Megibow told me. “It was a unique voice and truly superior writing.” Joe Monti, the editorial director of Saga Press, an imprint of Gallery Books and Simon & Schuster, was similarly impressed. He’d spent a few weeks living on the Navajo reservation when he was in college and recognized the landscape. In an anecdote that sheds light on both the scarcity of Native fantasy literature and the lack of indigenous people working within the publishing industry itself, Monti told me he’d long wanted to edit a book like this, but none had ever crossed his desk. “It was so deep on the manuscript wish list that I never thought it would happen,” he said. As soon as he finished reading it, he reached out to Megibow with an offer. “I said, ‘You’re never going to find another New York editor who has actually been to the rez,’” he recalled. Within the week, he’d offered Roanhorse a two-book deal.

In the months leading up to publication, Roanhorse developed an active Twitter presence and became friendly with other Native writers and artists. She showed the unpublished manuscript to several of them, including a Diné graduate student who corrected the spelling and grammar of the Diné language sprinkled throughout the book. She wanted to make sure she got the story right. She also showed it to Debbie Reese, a prominent Native scholar who runs the website American Indians in Children’s Literature. Reese had a reputation for taking writers to task for misusing Native stories. She loved the book and wrote an ecstatic review for the Barnes & Noble blog. “Roanhorse lifts Indigenous readers,” she declared, “giving us a brilliant mirror that made my Indigenous heart soar.” In the trade publications, critics added to the praise, noting that she was one of the few Native writers telling indigenous fantasy stories at the time, especially in mainstream publishing. And so Roanhorse was surprised to learn in 2018, the summer the book came out, that there were people in the Native community who were unhappy with her work. After Jon Davis, the director of the M.F.A. program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, invited her to speak at the college, he heard from more than a dozen Diné writers and scholars who were caught off guard by the fact that she wasn’t an enrolled tribal member herself, and were concerned by the use of spiritual elements in Trail of Lightning. “They were disturbed,” he said. Davis said he was open to hosting the reading anyway, but he warned Roanhorse that it was likely to be an uncomfortable conversation. She decided to pass on the invitation. “I certainly don’t want to walk into some kind of ambush,” she wrote to Davis.

A few weeks later, Reese published a retraction of her positive review. After hearing from some members of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́, a collective of Diné writers made up mostly of poets and academics, she’d changed her mind about the book. Reese, who is Nambé Pueblo, wrote that she’d come to understand that Roanhorse had crossed the Diné’s “lines of disclosure,” an offense that many white interlopers had committed in the past. In the traditions of many Native tribes, only certain people have the authority to grant others the right to tell sacred stories, and some stories are never supposed to be shared with outsiders — a measure meant, in part, to safeguard communal ideas and practices that have been assailed by hundreds of years of genocide, theft, forced assimilation, and distorted representations in the dominant culture. Some tribes have official boards or committees that review cultural output, but the Diné Nation isn’t one of them, a fact that this group felt had left them especially vulnerable. That November, they published a letter accusing her of appropriating narratives that didn’t belong to her and of misusing sacred stories. They were troubled, for example, by Roanhorse’s choice to have her monster slayer use bullets filled with corn pollen, which they perceived as a violent misuse of a peaceful ceremonial element traditionally meant to restore harmony. “Our ancestors did not fight for our land and culture so that our deities, figures of profound spiritual import, could be commodified, cheapened, and turned into superheroes,” they wrote.

This critique didn’t disrupt Roanhorse’s career. Over the past two years, she has published a sequel to Trail of Lightning, as well as Race to the Sun, a middle-grade novel based on Diné stories for Rick Riordan’s “Own Voices” imprint, and a Star Wars book. These projects have only further incensed her critics, who feel she dismissed their complaints without listening. In recent months, the conversation has become more pointed. Native identity is a politically fraught subject, and different tribes have different rules for determining eligibility for tribal affiliation. Roanhorse is not an enrolled member of the Ohkay Owingeh tribe, and some of her critics have undertaken efforts to prove she’s not native at all. An article published this summer declared her the “Elizabeth Warren of the Sci-Fi set.”

And yet, even as Roanhorse’s critics suggested she was perpetuating the harms inflicted by white colonialism, a group of her defenders began to accuse them of doing the same thing. In The New Republic, Nick Martin, a member of the Sappony Tribe, wrote that their attacks fell into a tradition of anti-Black racism in Indian country. “What critics of this sort refuse to acknowledge, or quickly brush off, is the fact that their campaign against this one artist easily fits in a pattern of ‘vetting’ Black Native people,” he wrote. “The anti-Black sentiments that colonization baked into Indigenous governing structures are still being perpetuated by Native communities.”

Some of the Diné writers that signed the letter accusing Roanhorse of appropriation say they have become uncomfortable with the way that the conversation has focused on Rebecca’s identity and strayed from the content of her work. “We recognize Roanhorse as a Black Indigenous author,” Jake Skeets, a Diné poet, told me. Skeets said he regretted the confrontational tone of parts of the letter, but he still felt there was an important conversation to be had about the way that traditional Diné stories should be used by contemporary writers. The danger, he said, with transforming traditional stories into a commercial fantasy novel is that these narratives then become something that can be “displaced, erased, removed, or extracted from. When we think about the American project of conquest and colonialism, indigenous people have been subject to erasure, removal, displacement, and extraction.” When I asked him whether he thought it was possible for anyone to write a work of commercial fantasy based on Navajo stories and do it well, he said he wasn’t sure. As a younger writer, Skeets also experimented with using Navajo stories in his work, but ultimately decided against it. “We have stories that are very worthy of being told, because they’re so cinematic, so epic. But there’s always the question of what a non-Navajo reader has access to, and, in my perspective, some of that has to be protected.”

Skeets’s anxiety speaks to a debate that goes well beyond Roanhorse, or even literature, concerning the state of Native culture in America at this moment in history, exactly 400 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. “There’s a rising conversation among a younger generation about what it means to be Native in the 21st century,” Charlie Scott, a Diné Ph.D. student who worked as a sensitivity reader on Race to the Sun told me. “Yes, we need to maintain the tradition and the culture. We also need to recognize that we can blend it, and that our survival is based on our ability to evolve with the time.” Scott and a number of Native writers I spoke with pointed out that the critique of Roanhorse comes primarily from Native academics, many of whom came through Ivy League institutions or M.F.A. programs and share a particular view of what Native literature should be. For Native readers who like Roanhorse’s work, her willingness to deviate from tradition is exactly what makes her books so exciting and important. It is inherently controversial, says Amy Sturgis, a scholar of Native American studies who focuses on science fiction and fantasy, because it “does something different — it says, Look ahead, look beyond, imagine differently.

As for Roanhorse, she understands the desire to protect Native stories, but believes that impulse can be misguided, “leaving us with only white Western narratives.” “Navajo kids read Percy Jackson in their classrooms, which is fun,” she said. “But what if there was a chance for them to read a contemporary action-adventure story featuring indigenous pantheons instead of Greek and Roman gods. Isn’t that powerful? Isn’t that affirming? Why wouldn’t we want that?”

When Roanhorse feels anxious, she calms herself by sitting on her balcony and taking in the majestic view of the Sun and Moon mountains. On one of our calls, she held her phone up so that I could see her surroundings, two gentle peaks cloaked in juniper and ponderosa pine. “This is what I get to see when I drink my coffee in the morning,” she said. “I sound like such an old lady, but there’s a little group of crows that come by, and I’ll chat with them.” Roanhorse has been spending a lot of time out there lately. The conversation around her identity summons unwelcome thoughts about the messiness of her family history. Although she tries to tune out her critics, she is aware of the efforts that some of them have made to prove she has no Native lineage, and finds these campaigns to discredit her alternatively frustrating and depressing. “I cannot write down my bloodline in a way that will satisfy them,” she says bluntly. As far as Roanhorse knows, her mother had also grown up disconnected from tribal life, with only a vague understanding of her Native roots. It wasn’t until Roanhorse was in law school that she met a great aunt and uncle who told her that they’d grown up on the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. In a departure from her earlier works, the author bio that accompanies Roanhorse’s most recent book makes no reference to any Ohkay Owingeh origins. This doesn’t mean she believes her mother’s family didn’t descend from Ohkay Owingeh people; she is simply “trying to be more careful,” she said. She’d never attempted to trace the ancestry herself, partly because she’d always felt rejected by her birth family. “If my aunt and uncle somehow got it wrong … It’s just wild,” she said, “that we’re supposed to have these pure bloodlines when our whole story is genocide.”

When Roanhorse speaks about her personal life from a legal and historical perspective, you can imagine her in a courtroom, confidently arguing on behalf of a client. But when the conversation turns toward the fracturing of her own family, she becomes overwhelmed. “This is all so violent,” she said, removing her glasses and wiping her eyes. Going back as far as the 1700s, “blood quantum” laws written by white legislators limited who could legally identify themselves as Native; in the 19th and 20th centuries, state and local governments widely adopted these restrictions, and many tribes still use them today to determine who can become an enrolled citizen. “They were used to breed Natives out of existence,” Roanhorse said. “I understand the history.” She paused. “But wow. Using the tools of the master to go after your own people, to say, ‘You’re not one of us’ …  I’m not sure that’s where we want to be as a people.”

One morning, Roanhorse shows me around her Pueblo Revival house. In a black sweater and red lipstick, she leads me through an eclectic collection of Native art that reflects both traditional and contemporary styles — painted pottery that was gifted to her after she gave a reading at the Acoma Pueblo outside of Albuquerque, a poster of a painting of a can of mutton stew by the Diné artist Ryan Singer (his take on Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans). She paused in front of a large canvas of a Navajo god that looked like something out of a superhero comic, brightly colored and bold, by the Diné and Chemehuevi artist Ryan Huna Smith. “This is one of my favorite works,” she says, with a low laugh, her dimples showing. “Some of my critics are like, We don’t do that with our gods.” Her voice turns flutelike, gently offering a retort. “‘Yes, you do all the time!’ This is a contemporary interpretation, clearly.” As she reflects on why the painting moves her, it’s clear she is also talking about her own work and, in a deeper sense, herself. “I love these pop-cultural interpretations of traditional stories,” she says. “It keeps us looking to the future. It says, Hey, we’re part of the culture too. We’re not stuck in the 1800s. We’ve adapted to so much in order to survive. This is just one more way we adapt.”

The Sci-Fi Author Reimagining Indigenous History