Author Brandon Hobson On His New Novel 'The Removed'
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. government violently uprooted Cherokee people from their lands in the southeastern U.S. and pushed them west, starting in the 1830s. The Trail of Tears ended in what is now Oklahoma. Reverberations of that trauma echo nearly two centuries later inside a new novel by Brandon Hobson. In it, the Echota family struggles to heal 15 years after a police officer kills Ray-Ray, the oldest son. The novel is soaked in questions of forgiveness, justice and vengeance and laced with images from Cherokee spiritual tradition. It's called "The Removed." And I asked Brandon Hobson about that title, whether there was a connection between the removal of Cherokees in the 1800s and the removal of Ray-Ray from his family's life.
BRANDON HOBSON: The violence against Natives and especially Cherokee in this case is still happening. And so I started thinking about specifically police violence against Native teenagers. And that violence against Natives continues to happen today that happened, you know, 200 years ago.
HOBSON: I wanted to emphasize in this novel.
CHANG: Well, in several of these chapters, the voice of a family ancestor named Tsala is the narrator. Can you talk about who Tsala is and why you chose to weave Tsala's story in with this family's more modern story?
HOBSON: Well, Tsala's an ancestor. And Tsala's name is a shortened version of Tsalagi, which is actually the word Cherokee in Cherokee language. And so Tsala was actually based on a real man named Tsali, who was killed for refusing to leave the land.
CHANG: Killed by the U.S. government.
HOBSON: Killed by the U.S. government, absolutely, because he refused. And he fought them for refusing to leave and was killed for it. And I had been reading about Tsali. And so I based Tsala on him and being a spirit ancestor to the Echota family, who is narrating his story and his suffering through the U.S. government.
CHANG: So in a way, were you trying to place these two characters, Tsala and Ray-Ray, on some sort of continuum of state violence?
HOBSON: Yes. I wanted Ray-Ray's killing to be by the authority of the police officer in the same way that Tsala was killed by the authority of the soldiers from the U.S. government for refusing to leave the land, so I wanted to show that parallel in terms of the violence against Natives.
CHANG: There's also this constant blending between the physical and spiritual worlds in your novel. Not only does the ghost of an ancestor, Tsala, narrate some of the chapters. There's Edgar, the brother, who winds up in this netherworld called the darkening land. I mean, sometimes, as I was reading your book, I wasn't sure if I was among people or if I was among spirits. And I'm curious, for you personally, Brandon, what is the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds?
HOBSON: Well, I'm a very spiritual person, and I feel like there's a very fine line between the physical and the spiritual world. And so I feel like, you know, often, people are able to feel certain spiritual connections. And that's really what I wanted to try to show through, in a very surreal way, Edgar's sections. Edgar goes to the darkening land, which is a term that was used in the old traditional Cherokee stories.
CHANG: Yeah, what was the darkening land?
HOBSON: The darkening land is a place where spirits go until justice is served. Once justice is served, one can leave the darkening land. And so the fun part of this, of writing this novel, was I was able to play with the concept of this entirely different world and make it my own sort of universe, which is really fun for a fiction writer to do because all the laws, you create. And so - but I - on one level, I didn't want this world being too different from the world that we live in now.
HOBSON: But on the other hand, you know, I wanted it to feel very ghostly and surreal and that people are coughing dust and, you know, walking around very much like ghosts.
CHANG: You know, as I was reading your book, I came away asking, is forgiveness overrated? Does it really take forgiveness to move forward? - because Maria, the mother - she never forgives the police officer who shot her son, Ray-Ray.
HOBSON: Right. Right.
CHANG: And yet she did find some healing.
HOBSON: There's a difference there, I think, between healing and forgiveness. I think, at least for Maria, that - you know, she confronts the police officer who shot her son and says, you know, I thought I could forgive you, but I'm not able to do that. Yet at the same time, she feels like she's still able to heal. And maybe it's just that time heals us - right? - that the old cliche is true. But I think, you know, one of the important things about Maria is that she really longs to heal from this trauma, right? She really is doing everything she can with the family to try to heal from this horrible catastrophe that has happened to the family.
CHANG: And healing is different from justice. I want to ask, you know, what does justice look like, especially when we're talking about wrongdoing that happened almost two centuries ago?
HOBSON: Those are the big questions and the questions I start with. You know, Chekhov says fiction should begin by asking questions, and that's where I start is, what is justice? And what is healing? And how do we heal? And the answer is that maybe there's not a resolution, you know? I often get asked about my work not having any kind of traditional resolution, right? And part of that is, I mean, do things really feel resolved in the world? Do these questions really feel answered? And the answer for me is no.
CHANG: Well, I have another question that I suspect has no resolution. The final word in your novel is home. Where is home for the Cherokee?
HOBSON: Home is with family. I would say home is with family. The Cherokee Nation is in Oklahoma, but the Eastern Band Cherokee are still in North Carolina. And home is among each other. And home is a part of this world and a part of this Earth. And a big part of this novel, for me, was drawing attention to nature and to bird imagery and the land and landscape and the sky. And all that is fitting to qualify as home for us.
CHANG: Would you say that not only is home a part of this world, it's a part of the next?
HOBSON: Absolutely, home is part of both worlds.
CHANG: Brandon Hobson - his new novel is called "The Removed."
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us today, Brandon.
HOBSON: Thanks so much for having me. It's an honor.
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