The world as we know it has ended — or at least it has at the beginning of the new book Trail of Lightning.
The debut novel focuses on the Navajo Nation, or Dinétah, which has survived a climate-induced apocalypse and has begun a new era, when the monsters and gods of Navajo legend roam the world again.
The book’s protagonist, Maggie Hoskie, is a monster hunter, trying to survive in this new age. As she discovers a larger threat to Dinétah, she follows ancient legends, confronts heroes of old and battles witchcraft.
But more than taking readers through a fantastical tale, Maggie leads them into something not often seen on bookshelves: science fiction set against the backdrop of an indigenous culture.
Trail of Lightning is Santa Fe lawyer and author Rebecca Roanhorse’s first novel, available for purchase Tuesday. Roanhorse, who is of Ohkay Owingeh and African-American heritage, wrote the book not only to contribute to a genre she loves but to offer a group of people an image of themselves in the future tense.
“It’s important to me to show indigenous people in the future because we’re always in the past,” Roanhorse said. “It made sense to me to have a people that survived a genocide survive an apocalypse.”
When people think of Native Americans in literature or films, she said, images of the Wild West and death create the sense that the people and culture exist only as a part of history.
“I think everyone deserves to see themselves in stories,” she said. “What we see in media, books and film impacts the way we see people and their humanity.”
By portraying indigenous people in the past or as token characters with stereotypical traits such as spirituality, Roanhorse said it makes them seem unreal or inhuman, which makes it easier to dismiss issues that affect them.
“It’s great to tell our own stories and represent our own humanities,” she said. “Representation matters.”
Roanhorse is working within a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy called indigenous futurism. Similar to how the comic book and film Black Panther show Afrofuturism and the transformation of cultural stereotypes, Trail of Lightning not only includes Native characters, tribal lands and Navajo words, but also cultural values meshed with fiction.
“We’ve been out of control of our own narrative for so long,” the 47-year-old Roanhorse said. “For us not only to write our own narrative, but the future narrative, is really powerful.”
The narrative she created includes explorations of mental health, identity and community.
As Maggie, the protagonist, struggles to accept herself, she isolates herself from community, which Roanhorse said is one of the key values she wanted to express.
In the words of a medicine man who is like a grandfather to Maggie, Roanhorse wrote: “Diné way is to find the connections — between yourself and your relatives, yourself and the world.”
Roanhorse makes it clear that this is not an educational piece on Navajo culture. Her husband, Michael Roanhorse, is Navajo and the couple lived on the reservation for two years. During that time, Roanhorse was inspired by some of the stories she heard, as well as the landscape, to create an epic quest.
In order to do that, she has taken care to avoid crossing spirituality and her world’s magic, ensuring the stories she used were already available to outsiders and avoiding those too sacred to share. While not Navajo, Roanhorse said she tried to present characters and issues she hopes people from different tribes can relate to, including her 10-year-old daughter.
“I’m trying to increase positive indigenous representation across the board,” Roanhorse said. “My lived experience is an indigenous experience.”
Roanhorse won the 2017 Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for her Pueblo-inspired short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.” The story also is a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist for short-fiction pieces and a Locus Award finalist for best short story.
Roanhorse also is up for a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
“It’s been awesome,” the author said. “This is definitely a dream that I didn’t dream could come true.”
At the end of April, Roanhorse held a preview of her work at Northern New Mexico College in Española. Patricia Trujillo, an assistant professor of literature, invited Roanhorse to talk to her young adult fiction class, where students worked on writing exercises and got to share in Roanhorse’s excitement.
“It was a really powerful message,” Trujillo said about the book. “It was a really fresh perspective.”
Roanhorse already has a sequel set to publish in the spring of 2019, and is planning to complete a four-book series. Being able to take her passion and make a difference has been rewarding, she said, but she ultimately hopes people enjoy it on their own terms.
“Now it’s up to others whether they like it or what they get out of it,” she said. “Hopefully it inspires more to kick butt than to cry.”
Buy the book
Trail of Lightning by Santa Fe attorney and author Rebecca Roanhorse will be available for sale Tuesday, June 26, at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, in the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe and Red Planet Comics in Albuquerque. Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., is hosting a launch party for Trail of Lightning at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Roanhorse will be selling and signing books.