‘Even As We Breath’ Explores Race, Class Intersections Through Eyes of Cherokee Man in Appalachian N.C.

Photo: Provided/University of Kentucky Press

In the early 1940s, as the country was engaged overseas in World War II, Axis diplomats were rounded up here at home and held under the watchful eye of U.S. soldiers, not in prison camps, but often in resorts, like the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. 

The Inn serves as the setting for Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s debut novel “Even As We Breathe,” set in 1942. Her main character, Cowney Sequoia, leaves his home on the Qualla Boundary to work for the summer at Grove Park. A young Cherokee, Sequoia faces the discrimnation and judgement of his coworkers upon his arrival, but, as the daughter of a diplomat goes missing, he finds himself at the center of suspicion and betrayal.  

Clapsaddle’s novel attempts to tackle the complicated intersection of class and race in a place like western North Carolina, where three groups find their lives converging, rural Cherokee, rural whites and upper-class foreign diplomats. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ashton Marra: Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for this book, and why the World War II-era in particular was one that you wanted to set the story in?

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle: Oftentimes, when I write my narratives are character driven, or even plot driven, but this was the first time it was very much setting driven both in terms of place and time.

I had read an article that had a little snippet about the Grove Park Inn holding Axis diplomats and foreign nationals as prisoners of war, and Asheville, North Carolina, is very close to where I live, close to Cherokee. I just found it fascinating that I, one, hadn’t heard a whole lot about that part of our history in western North Carolina and then also how interesting it was that there was such close proximity to Cherokee, to a sovereign nation. 

I knew that Japanese internment camps were set up on Indian reservations out west, and that’s always been something that I’ve found ironic and interesting about our American history and federal Indian policy. And so when I learned that Grove Park held Axis diplomats as prisoners of war, I felt like it was the right setting to examine questions of identity and citizenship and belonging and race and social class and all the things that make our American identity and then also Native American identity complex in this country. So, really, the idea that a war is going on and you have individuals who are used to being treated as diplomats are being housed in this really upperclass resort in rural, western North Carolina just provided a really unique opportunity to turn up the heat on those questions of identity.

AM: One of the moments that really sticks out to me is at the end of the first chapter as your main character is getting ready to leave the Boundary and go to Grove Park Inn. Cowney is thinking about his home and about the place that he’s from and you write: 

“If I thought too much about the sweetness of my place in the world, I might never be able to leave it.” 

That was striking to me because, as a West Virginian, as an Appalachian, I so often feel that feeling. I want to ask about that draw to home, was that an important part, an important storyline for you during this book? Was it an exploration of home?

ASC: Yeah, absolutely. Again, you know, setting was important in terms of the war going on, but also, an examination of what home is like here is in Cherokee, North Carolina, which, frankly, people don’t write about from an insider’s perspective. There’s just not a lot available, certainly not in fiction. So I wanted to convey the complexity of it.

So often we talk about these places in Appalachia as places that we want to get away from, and that everything that is worth learning about is outside of where we live, and I wanted to convey how rich and how diverse the culture is within Appalachia, that it’s complex, that it is not an ideally perfect place, but no place is. But there is that sweetness about it that I don’t think everybody quite understands if they’re not from this area. So I, you know, I did want to provide an insider’s view to the complexity of this place.

AM: I won’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be a member to be a member of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, that’s not my background, but I will say that there was something in a way that Cowney is treated upon his arrival at Grove Park by his coworkers and the other staff that I identified with, that I think is very relevant to an Appalachian as well. He’s looked down upon, he’s second class to the other workers who are there to do the same job, except they’re white. You were educated at Yale and the College of William and Mary and I’m sure have travelled with your writing. I’m just curious if Cowney’s experiences in this novel at any point came from personal experiences, or the way that you were accepted or not accepted into various communities?

ASC: Yes, so one of the things that I think is interesting about how Cowney is treated when he arrives at the Grove Park is that, technically speaking, he has more of a right to be in that place on that land than than anyone there. And he is the one who is treated as an outsider. I did want to highlight the irony of that. I think that it’s interesting that we make these false assumptions as to who belongs and who doesn’t, and a lot of it is based on race, it’s also based on social class. 

While I was at Yale, I often tell a story about being in a class my freshman year. We were meeting as a small section of a larger lecture class and we were talking about folks like the Vanderbilts and Carnegies and, you know, all of those really wealthy individuals who are credited with our economic development, for lack of a better term, for the United States. 

And I don’t even remember the specific topic, but I said something about one of them being rich and another young man in my section spoke up while I was talking, I guess you could say he interrupted me, and he said, “You do know the difference between being rich and being wealthy, don’t you?” And I just looked at him. Without thinking I said, “You know, where I’m from, nobody is either. So it doesn’t matter.” We continued on with class, but I was embarrassed by the whole situation. As a freshman, being insecure to begin with and really being called out for my lack of distinction between being rich and being wealthy in a kind of casual conversation. 

But what I’ve learned from that certainly was that it didn’t affect my stance in the class or with the teaching assistant for that section that was leading the discussion, and I was walked back to my dorm by a friend who was captain of the basketball team who said, “Don’t worry about that guy. He’s just trying to show off.” 

And that was one of those pivotal moments for me, that there are going to be people like that, who hear my accent, who assume that I am not as educated as them. I wanted to showcase that all of those perceptions of people from our area are just based on kind of faulty labels and  probably an insecurity on their part.

AM: This is your debut novel. This is the first novel that’s been published by an enrolled member of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and I’m wondering if you can think both from the professional and personal terms and also from the community and cultural kind of terms, is there significance for you in putting this story out to a larger audience? 

ASC: When I was writing it, I certainly wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is going to be the first novel from our tribe.” It did not occur to me until after I signed the contract actually. 

I often get questions from folks who want a reading list and it’s fairly easy to give someone a list of other native authors across the country. When they ask for a Cherokee reading list, I can give names from Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, for example, or other Cherokees that live kind of outside the Qualla Boundary, where the Eastern Band are located. But I often get questions for a reading list of Eastern Band authors, and I just stumble, and I feel awful. I can give you some folks who have published poetry and some nonfiction here and there, but there’s just not a lot out there. 

So, it does feel important to me that we can start building that list. And I hope when folks hear that I am the first novelist, I hope it does lead to the question of why and who else needs their voice out there. There are plenty of Cherokee storytellers, but that transition from writing and storytelling to publication is a pretty big gap. We are in a very rural area to begin with, and the business of publication is foreign to most people so I hope that the one thing that this has done is make people more aware and committed to finding a way to get more voices out there. 

But I’ve also said if I can walk into the grocery store and the people in my community are happy with my book then I’m good, you know? I can get negative reviews from The New Yorker or somewhere and I’ll take it, but if I can’t walk into Food Lion then I have a problem. So there’s pressure that I wanted to make sure people felt that it was authentic, and so far, the community’s been really supportive.

I also want to say that this book would be possible without my experience with Appalachian Writers Workshop and I was fortunate enough to work with Silas House as my editor. I just want to give gratitude to both the place and the people and also Rebecca Gail as real reasons why this book is in the world. 

Sometimes people will ask me what they should do if they want to publish a novel or their writing, and they don’t really know the first step because we are in such a rural isolated place. I always just want to make sure that I mentioned places like the Appalachian Writers Workshop, because I think it’s incredibly important to find opportunities to share your work with other people and get feedback,a nd that’s just one place, of course, in our region that you can do that, but I think sometimes we feel so isolated, we don’t put ourselves out there. That opportunity there was, well, it was life changing for me.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary, and is the first enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to publish a novel. She teaches English at Swain County High School near her hometown of Cherokee. Her debut novel “Even As We Breath” was published in September by University of Kentucky Press. 

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