Now she's turned those services into a side business called Madcap Retreats, which hosts writing retreats for authors at all stages of their careers (and having attended October's Colorado event, I can tell you that she does a great job at it). But did you know that on top of retreats and releasing next week's Behold the Bones and editing the forthcoming anthology Triangles: The Points of Love, Natalie also plays three instruments, works a day job developing grants, and helps young Native students learn to write at a college level? I'm tired just typing all of that out, but it's a regular day in the life of Badass Lady Natalie Parker.
Natalie: I think I am constantly reshaping my career. Or maybe it’s that my career is constantly reshaping me. In addition to writing, I do three things: grant administration, workshopping, and event coordination. The grant administration piece is mostly what you think: paper-pushing in the extreme. It’s also a little unusual in that I was invited to help develop the program of the grant. Our focus is Indigenous Communities and Climate Change and since my other skillset is writing, I’ve spent the past three years developing writing workshops for undergraduate and graduate tribal college students.
I think part of what led me to this place is my academic background. I have a Masters in Women’s Studies and while my job started off as purely administrative, my boss saw my intellectual interests as something that enriched the programs we were creating. It’s one thing to go to school and study the mechanics of hegemony and systemic oppressions, it’s another to become a part of a team capable of addressing those issues from the ground up. When you’re in school pursuing your passions, it’s sometimes hard to see how they’ll translate in the real world. In many ways, I was just in the right place at the right time. But I was also looking for things with foci that were intersectional and interdisciplinary.
The third thing, event coordination, grew out of the first two, but is more intimately connected with creative writing. I’ve recently launched a small business, Madcap Retreats, with the goal of offering workshops and retreats to a wide variety of writers. There’s an incredible cost that goes along with attending events like this, but they have the potential to advance skill, ambition, and careers. My great hope is that I can bring these experiences out of the realm of luxury and make more accessible.
Kate: As a tribal citizen, I’m very interested in Native issues, so of course I want to hear all about your day job. Can you explain a little about what you do? Do your work experiences influence your writing?
Natalie: Working with tribal college students has been an incredible honor. It has also been a challenge. On paper, my job is to teach all kinds of writing. But in reality, I am constantly learning.
Once a week, I meet with students in small groups where we workshop their writing and discuss how to offer feedback to their peers. From the beginning, I’ve been aware of the power dynamic I bring to that space – I am a white woman in a position of authority over my students. I’ve learned that in order for these relationships to be productive and beneficial, trust is incredibly important. My students have become my friends – they are patient when I encounter my unexamined privileges, I listen when we find that I have no capacity to understand their current struggles without story, and together we have charted paths through an academic institution that is riddled with unexpected barriers.
One thing I’ve learned is that language alone can be a powerful barrier. For many of the students I work with, English is a secondary language. We discuss patterns of speech that are powerful in Native languages, but do not translate with that same power intact. Sometimes our work is word by word, which might sound tedious but is necessary. I cannot be an effective teacher unless I get as close as possible to their experiences of language, which are varied and passionate and smart. I think the result is that we’ve all become partial translators. We look for the story in the narrative and then we find ways to bring it out in their writing.
These experiences have changed how I think about language and community and power, which is what books are all about.
Kate: Do you have any creative outlets outside of writing? How do they influence/affect your work (if at all)?
Natalie: I play a small collection of musical instruments – piano, cello, and koto (the 13-stringed Japanese harp). I often turn to one of these when I need to engage a wordless part of my brain for a while. It certainly has an impact on my writing. I don’t think that music plays a role in all of my books, but I write with an ear for the music in the words.
Natalie: Thank you! The recent affair was really just a formalization of a relationship that started when we were living in Japan as freshmen in high school. We met when one day our mothers decided to carpool to the Kamakura Daibutsu. I climbed into the back of the van to find Tess, nose deep in a Star Wars novel. I said something super slick like, “I love Star Wars,” and our friendship was immediate and epic.
We were definitely both writers from the start – trading chapters and tying up the phone line because we were online chatting about our worlds and character arcs. Now, things are a little complicated. When our deadlines match up it means anything can happen – laundry ends up in the garbage (that was me), milk ends up in the pantry (her), and car keys end up in the fridge (we’ll never know…). But aligned deadlines are infrequent and mostly it means that we both understand the sometimes strange and tumultuous nature of creative processes (to say nothing of publishing!).
Kate: Tell us something that makes you proud.
Natalie: Just a few days ago, a librarian told me that one of her students was renewing Beware the Wild. She said this was notable because he struggles with reading and for him to renew anything was incredibly rare. It made me so, so happy.
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?
Natalie: My mother introduced me to feminism, and she was a walking paradox of ideas. She said “Your shirt is cut too low” and “You must cut your fingernails so that you can always make a fist.” She said “Be polite” and “Be whatever you want to be.” It was as empowering as it was frustrating, and I grew up both protecting the kids of my neighborhood from all the local bullies, but also with a rather limiting sense of modesty and body concern.
When I look back, I think this must have had something to do why I eventually became anorexic. I spent several years attempting to be both strong and as small as possible. At my worst, I was 5’8, about 90 pounds, and a half step away from being hospitalized.
Recovering from that was terrible. I was panicked and angry and confused about what I’d been through. That’s when my mother offered me the story of Persephone. She told me that the story I’d been taught in school was incomplete, that Persephone’s journey was about more than the turning of the seasons, but about growing up. She told me that Demeter’s story was just as important. And she told me that the story was a lens through which I could better understand our world.
The story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld offered me my first real glimpse of the insidious nature of gender roles and expectations. It’s likely that I’d have gotten there eventually on my own, but my mom shortened that journey by teaching me that stories are reflections of who we are.
Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?
Natalie: Listen to what they have to say. I think that for the most part, even feminists have done an excellent job internalizing subtle sexisms. We are great at analyzing how sexism is at work in our society, brilliant and gathering statistics to back up the facts, but what often goes unexamined are those instinctual responses that lead us to devalue the words of women, especially when compared to those of men. I think the best thing we can do to support other women is pay attention to ourselves – notice who you quote and who you don’t, notice who you consider to be experts, and don’t let society convince you that there are simply more men speaking up.
Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?
Natalie: Read widely. Practice speaking up. Celebrate the little things. And never apologize for protecting your heart.
Beware the Wild and Behold the Bones (HarperTeen), as well as the editor of the forthcoming young adult anthology, Triangles: The Points of Love (HarperTeen). She is the founder of Madcap Retreats, an organization offering a yearly calendar of writing retreats and workshops. In her not-so-spare time, she works as a grant coordinator for the University of Kansas, where she runs writing workshops for tribal college students in STEM disciplines.
www.nataliecparker.com // www.madcapretreats.com
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