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'Night of the Living Rez' author Morgan Talty follows up with novel 'Fire Exit'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you've ever done one of those DNA tests like 23andMe, you might have found something interesting or curious about your background, a surprising thing that made you go, oh, what's that about? But for Indigenous Americans, the question of lineage, of bloodline, of blood quantum is an ever-present question with its own legal ramifications. It's something explored in the acclaimed debut novel by Morgan Talty, called "Fire Exit." He talked to Andrew Limbong, the host of NPR's Book of the Day, all about it.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The inklings of "Fire Exit" started when Morgan Talty took a couple classes on Native American law and literature. So on the one hand, he was reading legal texts as literature.

MORGAN TALTY: Yeah, you pick up any court case, and there's always a narrative to it. You know, there's characters. There's conflicts. There's, you know, setting.

LIMBONG: And on the flip side...

TALTY: We would then use literature to kind of think about, well, like, if your ruling is based purely on logic, what happens if you would have based it on morality - right? - or, you know, empathy? Like, thinking about the ways literature can make or improve or critique the law.

LIMBONG: Don't get me wrong. "Fire Exit" is not a legal courtroom thriller. It's a family drama about a guy named Charles Lamosway, who is white. But he grew up on the Penobscot reservation because his mother married a Native man. Now, here is where the legal stuff comes into play. Now that he's an adult, Charles lives just outside the reservation. He's not Native, and so he can't live there as an adult. But he spends his days watching his daughter, Elizabeth, grow up, just across the river. And that's as close as he can get because Elizabeth's mother, Mary, doesn't want anyone to know who Elizabeth's real father is. See, Elizabeth, because of how mixed her background is, because of her blood quantum, she shouldn't technically be an enrolled member of the Penobscot Nation.

What is it that Mary is trying to do for Elizabeth by hiding her identity?

TALTY: That's exactly it. You know, what is she trying? Like, you know, what is her reasoning for it? And I think the answer could be multifaceted, right? There could be a number of reasons why. One, you know, I think she wants her daughter to be a citizen. She - you know, like, legally. Think about how many people who come to the United States and want to be citizens. And imagine what a parent will do and has done in order to make their child a citizen of the United States, and what that affords them. I think and the other thing is too, is, like, there's also racism involved with, you know, growing up. I mean, my friends used to fight over who was more Native, and it came down as looking at the percentage book. And then we got older, and we realized it was [expletive], you know?

LIMBONG: Talty doesn't live on the Penobscot Reservation anymore, either. He has a son now, who, again, thanks to genealogical math, isn't an enrolled member of the Penobscot Nation. But that's not going to stop Talty from taking his kid to the reservation, doing things he grew up doing.

TALTY: Because he's Penobscot. You know, he's Native. I don't care what number they assign him or how they see him. And if they ever try to kick him off past the 10:00 curfew line, I'll be like, you know, talk to me about it, officer.

LIMBONG: In the novel, Charles makes the decision to tell his daughter everything, and he gets pushback from his buddies. One asks him, what do you expect to get out of this? And Charles thinks, quote, "I didn't hope she'd love me. I didn't hope to be brought together at all. All I wanted was that she know the history that was hers." Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.