We sat down with Darlene Campos to discuss her book, some of its characters and the significance of the title, Behind Mount Rushmore.
Explain the significance of the title.
A: I remember learning about Mount Rushmore when I was in fifth grade. I learned it was in South Dakota, specifically in the Black Hills, and of course I learned about the faces that make Mount Rushmore – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. However, it wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I learned about Pine Ridge Indian Reservation from one of my history professors. He showed us a presentation about the reservation and told us about the poverty, the alcoholism, the teacher turnover rate, etc. Until then, I had no idea Pine Ridge Indian Reservation even existed. How could this be possible when Pine Ridge is located, in my professor’s words, “just behind Mount Rushmore?” Since many have heard about Mount Rushmore, I knew using its name in the title would make the book stand out. The word “behind” lets the reader know the book is focusing not on Mount Rushmore, but what’s going on behind it.
What made you choose a Native American reservation as the main setting of the story?
A: I must admit that before taking the history class I mentioned above, I knew very little about Native Americans. This was quite a shame because I have a large percentage of South American indigenous roots in my family. I feel like I should have known at least a little something about indigenous people, especially the indigenous people of Ecuador, which is where my parents are from. Anyway, all I knew about the Native population of the United States was basic information I learned in elementary school: They helped the pilgrims. They grew corn. Squanto spoke English. They live on reservations. When my professor gave us that first presentation, my interest in the Native community sparked. I started learning more about Pine Ridge and more about the Lakota tribe in general. After this history class was over, I took a Native American literature class the following semester and I was frustrated because we were assigned nothing but old Westerns. The texts were very outdated and stereotypical. My professor claimed there wasn't literature featuring contemporary Native Americans and I thought, "Well, you're obviously not looking hard enough." At the advice of a creative writing professor, I became inspired to write my own book after reading the works of Sherman Alexie, Vic Glover, Adrian C. Louis, Mary Crow Dog, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. My literature professor was wrong – there were lots of contemporary novels featuring Native people available.
There are many elements I find appealing about the Native community such as close-knit family life, traditions, and humor. These are elements I enjoy with my own family, so it was lovely to see the similarities. While writing this book, I read several novels with contemporary Native American characters written by Native authors and some by non-Native authors. In 2012, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Sherman Alexie, thanks to my college. He told me as long as I made sure my writing was good, I should be okay as a writer. I also attended numerous pow wows and spoke with Native Americans about their day to day lives. This was the most fun in my opinion. You can read all the books in the world, but the best learning experience is immersion.
In total, I spent about six years researching to make sure I didn't stereotype or misrepresent the Native community in the United States. As a minority myself, I know how much it hurts to be stereotyped, so I definitely didn't want to write one of those outdated Westerns my professor assigned. It’s a tricky thing to write about a culture you didn’t grow up in, but with sufficient research from the right sources, it can be done. I DO NOT recommend writing outside your culture without researching first – you’re going to mess up badly, trust me.
In this political climate where immigration continues to be a hot-button issue, how important was it to discuss the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout their history and into present day?
A: The treatment of the Native Americans in the United States has a long history of despair, betrayal, and genocide. After going through massive tragedies like Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, and the Kingsley Cave Massacre, the Natives who survived had to endure boarding schools where they were forbidden to be in touch with their culture. They weren’t allowed to speak their Native language, allowed to practice their religion, and do anything which stemmed from their upbringing. Some Native children were very young when they were forced into boarding schools and when they returned home, they did not remember how to speak their Native language and could not communicate with their family members anymore. Then, you bring in more injustice such as the fact that Natives were not even considered citizens of their land and could not vote until 1924. Their voting rights were not extended to all 50 states until 1965. They did not have full freedom of speech and expression protection until 1968. They could not practice their Native language in schools until 1990. On top of all of this legislation, they had to (and still do) deal with racism, misrepresentation, and stereotypes in the media. Right now, they are protesting the Dakota Pipeline - in 2017! When will enough be enough? The biggest issue is how they are and have been disrespected and nearly destroyed in their own home. Imagine not only being disrespected, but having everything taken from you and huge numbers of your relatives murdered and your culture nearly obliterated. The Natives in the United States are strong – no matter the odds they have faced, they are still here today. History has a habit of repeating itself. I say we repeat the good parts of history and leave the bad parts behind. But, the only way to do this is by educating this generation and the next.
What in particular do you want readers to take from your characters and their interactions with others? Is there anything you hope resonates beyond just the characters themselves?
A: The main purpose of writing Behind Mount Rushmore was to show readers that Natives are still here – they are so much more than the old Western movies you see on TV. More so, I wanted to show the positive. As I said earlier, my heritage is Ecuadorian. I can’t express how irritated it makes me when I see a travel show go to Ecuador and they only show the slums and the crime. They don’t show families eating and laughing together. They don’t show the rich history of the cities. Yes, there is poverty in Behind Mount Rushmore. There is also death. There is racism. But above all of these instances, there is love, friendship, and humor. As for going beyond the characters, I want the reader to see Native people as people first – not as a stereotype, not as exotic, not as weird, just as people. When we start to see other populations as people equal to us, this is when we are able to change our perspectives from negative to positive.
Are these characters based on people you know?
A: Some traits are based on people I know. Nimo’s father says a few lines my mom has said in real life. The humor in the story is heavily based on my mother, too. My parents divorced when I was 14 and my household became a single-parent household virtually overnight. There were times when food was scarce and there were many sleepless nights due to there not being much money in the bank. These were hard times. There’s a part in the book when Nimo says he has to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all the time because it’s a cheap meal. I had to do this at one point myself and let me tell you – as much as I love peanut butter, I HATED peanut butter during that time. However, we survived with humor. I remember one evening years ago when I was sitting at home with my mom and we were talking about something, I don’t remember what. We laughed and laughed throughout the conversation and then she said, “The devil must be so mad at us. We don’t have much money, he wants us to be sad, but we’re here laughing.” Since I survived with humor, it was easy to place humor into Nimo’s life. The medical aspects of the story are based on my father who is a physician. I grew up seeing himself in a white lab coat and hearing him talk about surgeries. He’d talk about his co-doctors and new innovations happening in the medicine field. The medical world is very close to my heart – I knew I had to include it somewhere in the book.
Discuss how Nimo interacts with those closest to him such as his family and friends? How do these interactions enrich his character and theirs?
A: Nimo’s a shy kid – he lives on a huge reservation, yet he doesn’t really have many friends. When it comes to friends, he listens. He might not express everything he’s thinking out loud, but he has open ears to anyone who talks to him, even the infamous Ray Firebird! In regards to his family, he’s more comfortable opening up to them, especially to his father. When Nimo talks to his father, he not only learns about his father, but his father in turn learns about him. The same happens when Nimo speaks to his mother. Just by talking to their son, Nimo’s parents build a strong relationship with him. Since his parents are deeply involved in his life, Nimo grows to appreciate and love his parents even more. Now, if it wasn’t for John David, Nimo’s best friend, who knows where Nimo would be? Nimo’s very hesitant, too. He needs John David’s metaphorical pushes to succeed. In turn, John David has Nimo as his closest source of trust. I feel that all the characters need each other in some form, even the ones who don’t get along.
Many themes are touched on regarding sexuality, race, income disparity and others. What made you choose these constructs over others and how do they all intersect?
A: I chose these issues specifically because I believe they are issues which deserve greater awareness and reading a book with characters a reader connects to is a way to accomplish this. Income disparity is a big issue because there’s this idea that the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough, they want handouts, they’re entitled, etc. It’s the same with a lot of other issues. I’ve heard people say the LGBT community should ‘just snap out of it.’ I’ve even heard some people say racism is over and that it ended with the Civil Rights Movement. This is just plain ignorance. In fact, the last time someone called me a racial slur to my face was in 2015. These issues need attention and education so we can fix them. Once you learn about people who are different than you on a personal level, it becomes harder to hate and easier to love. When we generalize people, it’s so easy to think, “Yes, those people are dangerous” or “Yes, those people are wrong and we are right.” The truth is we are all equal and we can all connect to each other. It’s just a matter of putting love over hate.
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
A: The answer, hands-down, is Jay Eagle Thunderclap AKA “Ate,” Nimo’s dad. Years ago, in the first drafts, Nimo was a baby and the story was told from an omniscient narrator. The narrator shared the day to day lives of the Thunderclap couple and their baby son. However, Jay Eagle was not the same person he is now. In fact, he was booooooooooooooring. Instead of cracking jokes and having his devil-may-care attitude, he would sit around on his porch and share vague words of wisdom with everyone who passed by. Eventually, I thought, “Wow, you are so boring. I either need to kill you off or massively change you.” Thankfully, I’m not George R.R. Martin. So, I decided to keep Jay Eagle and drastically change his character to who he is now. I can’t imagine Jay Eagle not being in Behind Mount Rushmore. Here’s a word of advice to aspiring writers – if you think your character is boring, your reader will think the same. Back when I was submitting the standalone chapters to journals, most of them said “We love this story! The dad is amazing!”
A close second favorite character is Ray Firebird. You know that person who always interrupts you when you’re busy? The one you pretend NOT to see when you run across them? That’s Ray Firebird. We all know Ray Firebird. If you don’t, you are Ray Firebird.
Do you see yourself in Nimo at all? If so, how so?
A: Yes, definitely. He’s fairly shy and doesn’t open up easily just like me. He only confides in a small circle of people. And, of course, he’s an aspiring writer. He has a best friend he deeply cares for and I did, too, back in the day. I don’t know what she’s up to now, but I wish her the best. The relationship he has with his mother is about the same as the one I have with mine. His relationship with his father is where we differ greatly. I’m not saying I had a terrible father. My father was and still is a very hardworking man. He came from an impoverished family of ten children, but he dreamed of being a doctor someday and he made his dream come true with his strong determination. I admire him for never giving up despite the situation. As a kid, I had everything I needed like clothes, food, a place to live, and I got to go on trips to Europe every year for my father’s medical conferences. Having a doctor for a father is not easy. My father was almost never home and he didn’t know much about me, not even the grade I was in. He didn’t know the names of my best friends or the names of my teachers. After my parents divorced, I didn’t talk to him or see him for several months. He wanted me to follow in his medical footsteps even though I told him many times that I wanted to be a writer. Nimo has a solid, loving relationship with his father. The reason why I did this is because it’s my imagination of what a good father-child relationship is like. I wish my father was like Jay Eagle, but life is what it is. Nimo is definitely a lot worse off financially as a young child than I was, but there is no amount of money that can buy you a close relationship with your parents. Nimo’s riches lie with his family.
If there's one thing you want the reader to take away from reading your book, what is it?
A: Laugh every single day – make the devil mad at you.