An interview with Tiffany Midge

By Allison Stalberg Siebens

When a Diné/Navajo child is born, the community holds a ceremony called A’wee Chi’deedloh in honor of a baby’s first laugh, believing it a sign of the child’s transition from spiritual existence to the physical world.

With this information close to heart, author and essayist Tiffany Midge argues, how can one not believe that laughter is precious, even sacred?

In her book of essays, Bury My Heart At Chuck E. Cheese’s, Midge uses humor as an act of resistance and reclamation. While humor categories in traditional publishing are dominated by white authors, it’s high time Midge take her place as one of the funniest names in satire.

We spoke with Midge about Native humor, writing about trauma and grief, and tips for writing satire. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your book mentions that there are preconceived notions by white people that Native American women don’t have a sense of humor, that Native Americans are dour. Did you go into humor intending to dispel those notions?

I was always interested in comedy and humor. Certain family members were always clowning. I grew up with Native women drinking coffee and cackling around kitchen tables just having the best time telling stories and teasing and making fun. They were big into hyperbole and exaggeration, making light of dark situations, gallows humor, or morbid humor.

I wouldn’t say that I intentionally decided to dispel tropes and stereotypes about Native people, but I definitely unintentionally happened upon using humor in my writing. Humor is an extension of whatever sensibility, so it happened organically. A lot of my sensibility is poking fun at the stereotypes and misunderstandings. I am not always sure non-Natives get the humor, but I’m okay with that.

While Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese is funny and satirical, the essays also come from personal experience. It discusses serious subjects like death, politics, and identity. Do you face challenges when writing about these yourself and these subjects?

When one writes of personal experiences and/or actual individuals in their life there’s often risks to that. I love the quote by Anne Lamott who said, “You own everything that happened to you, tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That’s one way to approach things. Insofar as speaking out against racism, discrimination and intolerance, we have a social contract with the universe to speak with integrity and hopefully create better awareness and understanding.

Are there influences that shaped you as a writer? Like books, movies, shows, music, or people?

My family members, like I mentioned. And popular culture. My dad loved stuff like National Lampoon and Monty Python. My mom always had Erma Bombeck books lying around. I used to love to listen to comedian records — I’d listen to records over and over until I could recite them. Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin. Stuff like that.

Also children’s programming; there’s not enough credit given to our first influencers, and for my generation it was things like The New Zoo Review and H.R. Pufnstuf. And it goes without saying The Electric Company and Zoom. We’re all a little bit twisted because of these shows, but in good ways.

How does Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese relate to subjects like mental health and grief? What attracted you to that subject matter?

I am suspicious of trauma writing because it can be exploitive in some situations, and often used as spectacle and consumption for non-Native readers or for the overculture. But the weird thing is that a lot of the subject matter in Bury My Heart actually is about trauma, grief, colonialism, genocide, etc, beginning with the title, its re-mix of Dee Brown’s infamous book.

Maybe writing humor and satire helps me to transcend and approach healing. I do know that satire, poking fun at and mocking institutions and whatever corruptive industrial complexes that harm people and societies, can add years to one’s life.

Humor also serves as an act of resistance, which ultimately can lead to empowerment and transformation. Humor and satire are audacious — it takes audacity to count coup on one’s enemies by laughing at them, and it is also disarming; laughter is the absolute epoxy for truth and understanding. My writing motto is, “Strike while the irony is hot.”

Humor has always been a hallmark of Native cultures and is a measure of our resiliency and is considered to be part of the reason we’re still here. A survival mechanism. Natives have always valued the sharing of good stories, we’re a storytelling culture — we’re descended from practitioners of the oral tradition.

Do you have advice for writers that want to write essay collections that are both thought-provoking and funny?

There are so many different approaches and many different audiences for one’s work. I’m interested irreverent points of view, thoughts and ideas outside of the popular discourse. Yet, at the same time it’s important to respond to and reflect upon what’s current and relevant and consider whether one’s writing is topical or evergreen.

A friend pointed out to me that “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret” has been a fixture in our popular culture since its debut in 1970. Over 50 years ago! And that seems especially surprising, particularly considering that the movie version was just released. Talk about timelessness. But insofar as creating work that is “thought-provoking and funny?” Be true to yourself. Rely on your own interior litmus test: Is your topic/story/idea thought-provoking and funny to YOU? And start from there.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

I love the small and seemingly insignificant moments noticed in the day to day. Don’t underestimate the usefulness in occurrences that appear meaningless. There will always be the impactful and important events but the little things matter also, so pay attention. Some of my favorite opinion editorials are about the mundane. I once wrote 750 words about can openers. Another time I wrote a column about office supplies.

I had a professor in my graduate creative writing program who asked of students’ submitted essays, “Why should I care about this?” And, “Who cares?” It was a good and fair question, I thought. It’s good to cut to the chase. I enjoy the challenge of elevating the banal. But maybe that’s just part of my shtick.

A woman with blue eyes, dark-rimmed glasses, and dark pink lipstick smiles with her mouth closed.

Tiffany Midge is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and was raised by wolves in the Pacific Northwest. Formerly a humor columnist for Indian Country Today, she currently writes a column for High Country News and has published articles for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, First American Art Magazine, World Literature Today, and more. Midge is the author of essays Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s, a finalist for a Washington State Book Award and the poetry collection The Woman Who Married A Bear, winner of The Kenyon Review Earthworks Indigenous Poetry Prize. Her collection Horns won the Wilder Prize and is forthcoming.

A woman with light brown hair and purple, heart-shaped sunglasses smiles at the camera.

Allison Stalberg Siebens is an indie author and foster cat mom. She is in the process of getting a Masters in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University.

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