Who Gets to Reinvent Themselves in the West?

Téa Obreht's "Inland" subverts the toxic white masculinity of the Western to center women and immigrants

Photo by Daniel Burka on Unsplash

Téa Obreht’s Inland is a more than worthy follow up to her breakout debut, The Tiger’s Wife. Her smart new novel plays with narrative destiny while raising massive questions about settlements, journalism, and law servants.  The book, which follows the narratives of the low-key homemaker activist Nora and the haunted journeyman, Lurie, deals with frontier-era aspects of life and cultural politics that are oddly prescient in today’s era of fake news and flim-flam.

We spoke by phone on a quiet Thursday afternoon and quickly dove into the whys and wherefores of the novel. 

Eric Farwell: It’s been about eight years since your debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, came out. I’m curious about how the success of that novel impacted your feelings about this book. Since your debut made you kind of a literary star, did you feel pressure or raised stakes for Inland? Did you feel hindered at all by the success of the first book?

Inland by Téa Obreht 
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Téa Obreht: I was pretty surprised, and I continued to be surprised by all the positive reception The Tiger’s Wife received because I tend to be a pessimist. As for pressure, let me put it this way: I’d never written a first book before The Tiger’s Wife, and then I’d never written a second book before Inland.

The most challenging thing about it was the fact that, maybe six months after publication, my writing style had begun to move in a different direction, into something more distilled. I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know if it was normal, or if it was something that happens as a result of still touring and being in the mind-space of the previous book and therefore being unable to totally sink into the new one. A lot of the pressure probably came from wandering into this unknown territory and not knowing that it was okay to just wait for the stylistic changes to happen, and for the brain to get used to a different mode of writing.

Going from the first-book mode of “this is something I’m writing in secret and no one will ever read it,” to second-book mode, wherein you realize, “oh, this is a project that might actually have an audience”, is a bizarre psychological shift, one that naturally affects your relationship with your work, and it just took forever to get through it. I’m a very trial and error type of writer, and I’ve become more and more of one in the last eight years. I’d try my hand at something, and get two-thirds of the way through, and realize that it wasn’t anything—which was a good sign, of course, and meant that progress being made, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.

EF: That makes sense. I’m curious how much research went into getting this novel historically accurate in both language and behavior? I mean there’s the writing part of the novel, but what was the gestation like for research and development in context to making sure it made sense and felt right historically?

TO: I was extremely lucky to have been doing some research in the West for a little while, working on what I thought was going to be a completely different novel. In the course of that research, I stumbled upon this episode of a podcast I love, Stuff You Missed in History Class, which detailed this Arizona campfire tale about two women who encounter a beast of possibly supernatural provenance on their homestead one evening, and how this yarn is connected to the true history of the Camel Corps. And I remember hearing it and going, “how do I not know this?” And as I began delving deeper and deeper into the research, I realized a couple of things. The first was that the story’s grounding in history confines the novel structure to a very particular state. I knew that it had to have two narratives, two points of view: one was going to take place over a single day in Nora’s life, and one was going to take place over the forty years that Lurie needs to arrive at the novel’s present day. Everything else was a matter of exploration. I didn’t know who the characters were. I didn’t know what they were doing there. I didn’t know who Lurie was, or anything about him.

The kind of research it required allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom to nerd out on the minor details of the era: technological innovations, how people spoke, how they ate, how they sourced their water, etc. Since none of the research could ever go into affecting the foundational narrative, I realized it could only impact the characters and how they relate to one another, and what’s going on with Nora over the course of this chaotic day and the political situation in town. It was a really, really fun process, and I adored having to be hemmed in, one the one hand by narrative, and on the other hand by the facts of the time that limited how characters interpreted and processed the world.       

EF: Both Nora’s domestic narrative and Lurie’s more outlandish one are deeply political. Nora’s starts off with her having to navigate her marriage, and increasingly spools out to be about local politics. Lurie’s focuses on the politics of outlaw gangs and motivations. Even though they’re different, their political concerns don’t seem that distinct from one another. I was wondering if you could speak to that at all, the fact that though they’re different, there’s a lot of commonality there? 

TO: I think their commonality hinges on powerlessness and placement in society. Speaking from the point of ingress into a narrative: my grandmother, in her declining years, had gotten very open about certain facts of her life, and I was struck by how much rage she had been carrying. Despite the fact that she loved her family, and loved my grandfather, she spoke about what it had been like to be a woman in her time, to be born to an ethnically Muslim family and then marry into a culturally Christian one, and struggle with heart disease, and live in a nation that tended to cast aside its Muslim citizens; basically what it had been like to be a young woman having her life dictated by everyone around her. And because of the war, and the scattering of her family, she also struggled with a great sense of displacement. All that came up in our conversations about life, and identity, and what home meant—which we were having more and more as she was fading—and the way it invaded the narrative truly surprised me.

The freedom to reinvent, to be anything or anyone on a whim, was the province of white men.

And of course you don’t know that while you’re in the thick of writing, but it’s interesting, now, to look back and consider why I trapped Nora in these circumstances, and why she’s trying, in every possible way, to wrest whatever control she can out of an environment that doesn’t position her to have power, all of which leaves her very rage-filled. On the other hand, there’s Lurie, who suffers from this initial displacement when his father brings him over from Bosnia as a child, and is then constantly trying to parse not just who he is, but what he is in connection to society through a haze that always seems to be pulling him in different directions. And his relationship with Jolly, with Hadji Ali, the cameleer with whom he bonds most, centers him a little, clarifies that through commonality of language, commonality of expression, a sense of belonging he doesn’t really know he lacks. 

EF: In Nora’s case, you have the small citizen crusading against the corrupt politician. I was struck by how this isn’t something we’re seeing a lot of in fiction, and was curious if you were influenced at all by how you’re feeling now about the political situation here?

TO: So, it was interesting. I had a very particular sense of the Western as a genre when I began researching this book. And the more I studied about the period, the more I realized there would be no getting away from this narrative of land-grabbing, and boom and bust cycles, and range wars, all these tropes we’ve come to associate with the genre in modern times. The range war, in particular, interested me, because I hadn’t realized what a significant role newspapers played in the conflicts between cattle barons and small communities, and how publication affected the way those narratives came down in the historical record.

The first draft of the book was completed sometime in September of 2016, and shortly thereafter things changed. And I was surprised then to find myself editing the book while watching our country slip back into some of these patterns, and recognize the degree to which warring newspapers moved to prominence, and to see these age-old cycles being played out again in 2018, 2019. It was deeply terrifying and hilarious in the worst way, after having done all this research, to see it play out, in particular because so much of Nora’s small-guy-in-a-big-world fight ended up being about the way we push our individual goals, even when we’re blind to the advantages of our own position and the consequences of our personal aims. 

EF: To pick up on that a bit, the novel, to some extent, covers truthiness, flimflam, and sensationalism in local news as it pertains to local politics. What research went into understanding how that played out on the frontier, and how do you feel it’s changed since? Has it changed that much? 

TO: Shockingly, I think no. It’s bizarrely similar, and when you stack up newspapers from the Johnson County War, or the Pleasant Valley War, and you have a situation in which one newspaper is actually owned by a powerful, land-grabbing party, and the other is run by a person who just lives nearby and pinches pennies to churn out copies on a tiny little old printing press, and you pit the two against each other, you see familiar dynamics playing out over and over again.

Even at that time, the confirmation of what you already believe completely entrenches your response to a situation, and how you write the editor, and whom you stand with, and what you tell authorities when the going gets tough. It’s shocking. It’s unbelievable how little things have changed. Even the way products are sold. One of my favorite things to do while researching Inland was to go through old ads and sit there for hours, lost in the way people sold tonics, and medicines, and the newest irons that are going to help you finish your work twice as fast, and the corsets that can tighten like no other. It’s literal snake oil. And it’s not all that different from the fact that now, every third photo on my Instagram feed is trying to sell me some new product, some snake oil. The form has changed, and perhaps the concept, and there are more rules about how to regulate, how to advertise, how to create mass hysteria, but the tone is still the same.   

EF: I agree. Myth-making, and this American idea of inventing the self are a big part of Lurie’s story, and give him a lot of agency. What kinds of things were you thinking about when you decided to explore that idea through Lurie?

TO: I was thinking about the contrast between the freedom that certain individuals who occupy this society had and the freedoms that others did not. It’s interesting how often the memoirs of homesteading women, or just the historical accounts of the time, list these professions that the husband had taken on. And it would range from, you know, woodcutter, to assayer, to prospector, to bank manager, to schoolteacher. There was this great sense that you had the ability to go anywhere and land on your feet if you had half a brain. That possibility, I think, is one of the primary lures that called a lot of people westward. This notion of, you know, “things aren’t so great for me here, let me go, I’ll get my acreage, I’ll stake my claim, I’ll prospect, and if that doesn’t work out, I’ll do this other thing.”

Women and immigrants of color—their place in society was fixed and regulated, and their ability to reinvent or just exist was utterly curtailed.

It also applies to lawmen, who often vacillated between enforcing the law and breaking it. You could be a marshall in one territory, and an outlaw in another. People wouldn’t know. They’d have no way of identifying you—unless your bounty followed you, or you had a particularly low reputation. For the most part, that prospect, that freedom to reinvent, to be anything or anyone on a whim, was the province of white men. Women and immigrants of color, former citizens of Mexico who just woke up north of the border one day, the descendants of people who moved West after Emancipation, to say nothing of Native American people—their place in society was fixed, and very carefully regulated, and their ability to reinvent or just exist was utterly curtailed.

The canvas was blank for a very specific kind of person, and set for everybody else. And how people navigated that is the primary tension between what is true and what we mythologize about the West. In particular, thinking about the Camel Corps, and the drovers, you have Lurie, who is an outlaw but can still remake himself a little. And then you have Hadji Ali, who came over as a young man and was already a convert, already an outsider twice over, and who came here with the camels and worked for the army and tried his hand at prospecting for forty years before dying penniless in a town in Arizona, only having become a citizen as a result of petitions to the government his friends took the trouble to make. And his job list was scout and mule-packer, and that’s it. 

EF: In the background of the novel is the conflict between white settlers and native peoples or non-white immigrants. Did that aspect of the book change shape over the last few drafts? I mean, as you started honing in on how that would play out and be a heartbeat in the novel, how did that crystalize and take shape in the project? 

TO: It was a tricky thing to navigate because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t apply 2019 politics to the minds of 19th-century characters, some of who are illiterate and have no clue about the bigger picture of nation or globe. I knew Lurie, like Nora, would have a great deal of blindspots, and wouldn’t really have a frame of reference for his role in this conflict, at least in historical terms. I think his primary mode is to always be wondering about the world, learning as much as he can, and his starting position is that he doesn’t know much, but he’ll always figure it out. I knew that he would be marginally clear on what was going on, but still drink the Kool-Aid, and carry this fear of Native people, and this excitement about the nation-building project in which he was participating. His doubts about this would have to come through Jolly, who, having grown up as an occupied person himself, would recognize the gestures of empire, but would still, as I think many people do, find a way to justify the continuation of his role in it. 

EF: One of the things you don’t waste any time setting up are these building blocks for Nora and Lurie of this sense of being haunted by history, and the connection between feeling haunted and the passage of time. Why did this interest you? 

TO: The sense of upheaval in the west, and in the Southwest in particular, and its very turbulent, very violent, often horrific history, has never made it feel, at least to me, a place of rest. In a mythological sense, so many cultures frame death as a sacred passage, and think of the afterlife as this paradise field, this homecoming. In a place that’s seen so much upheaval, so much renaming, and so much individual and historical agony, the idea that afterlife wouldn’t be as turbulent as life felt impossible to me. And the idea that these two isolated people, Nora and Lurie, would not be haunted, would not be touched by that unrest, seemed impossible, too.

If there was one way for them to square with the turbulence of what was happening, and to access their own place in history, it had to be through their relationship with the dead. That landed on the page in an early draft: Lurie starts out being able to see the dead, and Nora right away is talking to her dead daughter. And I can talk about it now that the book is finished with a little more understanding, maybe some recognition of why it ended up on the page, but it wasn’t planned. It just happened. 

EF: You write of using legacy and a sense of history to stir political action. Do you think that there was something distinct about 1893 that made legacy and decorum more valuable than it is today?

TO: I think every society’s, every generation’s center of power places a value on what they deem to be “decorum” and “legacy” only insofar as its useful to maintaining the status quo. The content is different, but the tone is the same. We can only hope that our ability to see through the bullshit to what really matters grows with each passing generation. 

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