The 12 stories that comprise Maine writer Morgan Talty’s debut novel, “Night of the Living Rez,” were written over the course of nearly five years and changed shape, tone and point of view multiple times before coalescing into his intimate, atmospheric, decade-spanning narrative that’s set to be published on July 5.
Talty, a member of the Penobscot Nation who spent the majority of his youth living on Indian Island, provides a window into the world of an Indigenous family living on the reservation, experiencing joy and struggling with dysfunction in equal measures.
Much of it draws on his own experience growing up, but some of it comes from his sheer love of storytelling, true or not.
“I have memories of being young and the teacher telling my parents that I would tell these elaborate stories that I would say were real but weren’t entirely real,” said Talty, 31, who now lives in Levant with his wife, Jorden. “I think I’ve always been a storyteller, even though I didn’t really start writing until I was 18.”
After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2016, Talty had his first short story published in 2017, while he was attending the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine. He’s since been published in multiple outlets, and has racked up accolades, including Pushcart Prize nominations, Maine Literary Awards and being named a 2022 Creative Writing Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Though there’s no one specific main character in the book, “Night of the Living Rez” often takes the viewpoint of a young man named Dee and his extended family and friends on the reservation and beyond. It’s a world that’ll be recognizable to anyone living in the Bangor area, Penobscot or not, though the lived experience of Native people is front and center, and rendered in beautiful, often mordantly funny detail.
Talty said that when he’s writing, he’s not thinking about speaking for his people — he’s just trying to tell the story.
“I’m just chasing after what these characters want. When I start to revise what I’ve written, then I start to realize, OK, these are Penobscot people, and this is our identity that’s going to go out into the world,” Talty said. “I get a little nervous when people categorize it as a Penobscot experience, because it’s really just one family’s experience.”
At its core, “Night of the Living Rez” is about families struggling with trauma and finding the strength to love and grow in the midst of it, and the unbreakable bonds within Native communities — in this case, the Penobscot Nation.
It’s also a highly enjoyable read, with a sensitivity and empathy that belies Talty’s youth. In between harrowing depictions of addiction and family trauma, as in “Safe Harbor,” in which Dee’s mother has a seizure while staying in a mental health facility, there’s a deadpan humor. In the opening story “Burn,” for example, the character Fellis gets his hair frozen in ice and snow, and another character comes to his rescue.
There are countless more stories that can be told about the Indigenous experience. Talty’s voice, as a writer in general and a storyteller from the Penobscot Nation, is on track to become a vital one in the conversation.
Morgan Talty, in conversation with Penobscot author Donna Loring, will do a reading and signing of “Night of the Living Rez” on Thursday, July 7 at the Bangor Public Library.