Anthony Perry on "Chula the Fox," an #OwnVoices Chickasaw Story

The debut author of the middle grade novel Chula the Fox, which recently earned an SLJ starred review, talks process, #OwnVoices, and learning from loss.

Chula the Fox (White Dog Press, Oct. 2018; Gr 4-6) is a middle grade, coming-of-age tale set in the Chickasaw Nation in the 18th century. Chula and his tight-knit family are grieving the sudden loss of Chula's father, killed in a surprise attack by neighboring Choctaws. Determined to avenge his father's death, Chula seeks the guidance and support of his Uncle Lheotubby to learn to become a warrior.

SLJ recently caught up with the author, Anthony Perry, to hear more about his inspirations and the ways his own family heritage and history informed his writing.

 

Talk a bit about where Chula's story came from. Where did the seeds of this novel begin for you?

The seeds for Chula the Fox were sown with the sudden death of my father, who was a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, in April 2009. I wasChula the Fox book cover living in England and his unexpected passing brought on a sudden disconnect from the Chickasaw roots that gave him such deep pride. Moving overseas and becoming an immigrant opened my eyes to how special my Chickasaw citizenship was, but I always thought I'd have a chance to learn more later. When my father died, I realized how little I really knew about my family and tribal history, and how easily questions I had could remain unanswered.

Around this time, my wife and I were watching old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. As we watched, I could see how generations of American children could connect with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the pioneers—and the power of stories to make those connections. I also saw how Wilder’s perceptions affected how many generations of children viewed Native peoples. I saw the power of story and wanted to give young Chickasaw children a similar understanding of their own history. Few mainstream stories are told from a Native American perspective, and most people's views of Native Americans are shaped by limited knowledge and stereotypes that continue to harm Native peoples to this day.

I also thought about young people’s sense of wonder and how that so often gets lost as we grow older. The experiences of young people also shape the beliefs and perceptions that guide them through their adult lives. It was from this that Chula the Fox took shape.

Your descriptions of Chula's world are so detailed. Can you share your process for establishing what daily life in an 18th century Chickasaw village would have been like?

It wasn't easy! Writing Chula was as much about honoring my Chickasaw ancestors as trying to tell a good story. Looking back at my own experience, too often I found Native Americans being "othered" as objects of study or discovery, rather than citizens of sovereign nations with their own cultures and beliefs. I needed readers to see Chula and his world as real and something they could relate to. I had to get the details right.

I started by trying to better understand Native American history in general. Books such as James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep and Charles C. Mann's 1491 gave context to the American history I was taught in school, showing what happened long before Europeans arrived. I also looked at books specifically on Chickasaw history, such as Arrell Gibson's classic text The Chickasaws and John P. Dyson’s The Early Chickasaw Homeland, along with personal accounts from two 18th-century British traders.

With this grounding, I began reading historical fiction books about Native Americans, such as Joseph Bruchac's Children of the Longhouse and People of the Weeping Eye by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W Michael Gear. It helped to see how other authors translated history into story, what I liked as a reader and what I did (or did not) feel comfortable with as a writer. I also saw how important it is that Native stories are told by citizens of the tribe; it is so easy to get details wrong or overlook cultural sensitivities. #OwnVoices books matter.

The most helpful part of my research was visiting the Chickasaw homeland in present-day Mississippi and seeing Chula's world for myself. I explored the remains of a Chickasaw village near Tupelo and walked along a trail on the Natchez Trace like those used by Chickasaw hunters and warriors in Chula's time. Seeing the Homeland with my own eyes added a new dimension to what I read in historical accounts and visiting the home of my ancestors strengthened my own bond with Chula.

Last, but not least, I had tremendous support and guidance from historians with the Chickasaw Nation. I couldn't find some details, such as how 18th-century warriors interacted with each other on a mission, in a book; deep cultural understanding was needed to bring this to life, and having access to their expertise made this possible.

Tony Perry headshotThe way you depict the dynamics between adolescent boys is realistic and feels true to contemporary interactions among boys, as well. Did you draw on your personal experience in writing those relationships? Do you think the historical setting changed the way you wrote any of the young characters?

I think it was both, really. Fundamentally, I drew on my own experience growing up, seeing how different friends and classmates got on with each other and responded to their worlds. I had to live with bullies like Nukni, and I had good friends like Osi Wakaa and Mahli who, by being there, helped me get through some difficult times. I think dynamics such as these are a universal part of being human.

Thankfully, I had the hindsight of adulthood when writing. When I was Chula's age, I found it hard to look beyond the here and now, but, as an adult, I can see how things worked in ways my younger self would never have thought possible. This let me add more depth to each character—Nukni, for example, starts off as a typical bully in many ways, but he has his own growth and development as the story progresses.

The historical setting and cultural norms of the time also greatly shaped how the boys—and girls—interacted. Overall, there were clearly defined gender roles in Chickasaw society at the time. Women were the heads of households (family lines passed through women) but women primarily stayed at home, cooking and farming while men hunted and waged wars (though Chickasaw women could hold their own against an enemy as well). These dynamics shape how Chula sees the world. Tishkila, one of Chula's friends, pushes some of these boundaries as a girl. For example, Tishkila helps her mother prepare a meal in one scene but then leaves with Chula and other boys to hunt for squirrels—and brings home more than they do.

One of the things I appreciated about your book is the richness of the adult characters—adults are too often non-existent in children's literature. Was this a deliberate choice, to make the adults present and involved in Chula's life? As a parent, were there any challenges that you found in writing the adult characters as opposed to the children?

Family life, and adults, would have been an integral part of Chula's world, so there's no way I could have excluded them from the story. Adults were respected as teachers and guides, with greater respect given to elders for their wisdom and life experience. There were times when Chula tested limits with the adults in his family, but he always respected them. We also see this with Chula's relationship with other adults such as warriors and a spiritual leader. He was learning from them all.

I also wanted to show how family dynamics might have worked in Chula's time. Uncles would usually be the ones who disciplined boys and taught them how to hunt, whereas fathers would be more like a friend. We see how Chula's mother, Kayohe, heads the family even as she comes to terms with losing her husband. Kayohe makes the decision to let Chula avenge his father's death, and Kayohe lets his uncle Lheotubby prepare him.

There would have naturally been details Chula wouldn't have seen; adults would have behaved differently around children than they did each other, which provided a natural filter to work with. Chula does get a glimpse of how adults "really" feel, at times, like when he and his friends overhear warriors deliberating how and when to attack the enemy tribe. They see that the adults don't always have the answers, but try their best.

Some powerful scenes had adult themes that I had to write with great care, such as the death of Chula's father and the revenge mission with the warriors. Chula would have seen what the adults saw when and as they saw it. In these cases, I tried to give readers a clear view of what happened without crossing the line of what's appropriate for the audience. Some details are implied, so that readers can see what they are ready to see and still enjoy the bigger story.

Loss is at the heart of this book, yet it’s not a sad story. How did you find that balance?

I tried to strike this balance by viewing loss as a drive to look ahead rather than a reason to look behind. We can't change the past—no matter how tragic it may be—but we can learn from it. This is where Chula puts his energy, and it gives him a sense of purpose that helps him move on. He sees his father not as a dead man, but as a worn spirit seeking vengeance. This drives him to become a better hunter and, ultimately, to fight. It also reinforces his role in the family, as a son and as a big brother. He knows he has to help those around him as he continues his journey to become a warrior. By supporting each other, the family grows closer and begins to heal. This sense of purpose and support made it possible for the lighter moments in the story.

I believe that death isn't the end of life, but the start of a new stage in it; the dead move on, and so should the living. We cannot bring the dead back, but we can honor those we've lost by remembering them, seeking justice where needed and doing what we can to ensure their lives mattered.

One of the key themes in Chula's coming of age is the definition of manhood, both in Chickasaw culture and overall. Was that a particular topic you wanted to address, or did it arise naturally out of Chula's story?

I think the topic of manhood flowed naturally in the story as Chula came to terms with his father’s loss. It wasn’t something I had set out to address directly. To find his peace, Chula essentially had to make the transition from a boy to a man. He had to grow up.

As I wrote, I did reflect on the idea of revenge. It’s such a basic human desire; it was also a fundamental part of justice in Chickasaw culture in Chula’s time. Revenge restored balance. A boy couldn’t bring about that balance; only a warrior could, and warriors were men. Chula’s real growth, however, wasn’t his journey to become a warrior, but in seeing the burden that comes with it. Chula knew that warriors restored balance in his society, but he didn’t see the price they paid to do it. Killing an enemy was one thing, but living with their actions was another.

Chula finds that being a man is, fundamentally, about putting his family and community ahead of himself. It means listening and learning, so he can do the right thing—even when it’s hard or unpopular. I think that holds true today as well.

Chelsea Couillard-Smith is a materials selection librarian for Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis, MN

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