Think Out Loud

Theodore Van Alst’s latest book “Sacred City”

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Dec. 17, 2021 4:45 p.m. Updated: Jan. 7, 2022 10:06 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Dec. 17

Theodore Van Alst’s new book of short stories, “Sacred City,” follows the young narrator in his journeys through Chicago. He is accompanied by ancestors and spirits who help him see his native city as Indian Country. Van Alst is also the Director of the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State. He joins us to talk about his book.


The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with Theodore Van Alst Jr. He is a Chicagoan, a professor, a former gang member, a storyteller and a native writer. All of these facets of his identity are at work in his new collection of interlocking short stories. The book is called Sacred City, and most of the stories feature a young narrator who on the surface seems to share many biographical details with its author. The stories are funny, surprising, emotionally complex and historically informed. The collection is a follow up to Ted Van Alst’s debut book, Sacred Smokes. Ted Van Alst, welcome back to TOL.

Theodore Van Alst: Hey, thanks for having me, Dave. It’s really good to be back talking with you in radio-friendly Portland! Thanks so much for having me.

Miler: It’s great to have you on. In your acknowledgements — which so often yield such interesting things and didn’t disappoint in your long acknowledgements  — among them  you thank Amy, who you say tried to get you to write these stories for years. The implication there is that you didn’t and you’re only putting them on paper now. What took you so long?

Van Alst: The stories have always cooked along and I’ve always been a good storyteller, and I had a couple of folks at the Native Lips Symposium who were like “my dude, you have got to write these down”. And so I think it’s just sort of a singularity of my wife saying, “you know what, you need to write these down” and then getting corroboration from other people. It’s some of the goods, so for them to come out the way they are, and sometimes it’s just a lifetime of a story kind of percolating to get it just right.

Miller: Is there also a sense, I mean a lot of these stories, the sense I get is that some of them come from childhood, some of them are pure fiction, some are a blend, but are they different now? And in what ways are they different now than if you had written them 25 years ago?

Van Alst: It’s a great question. What’s happening here in the second book is that the narrator is getting older, it’s getting a little more sophisticated in their language, and I want the writing to reflect that. I’m fortunate to be able to publish at the University of New Mexico Press, great editors and a great publisher down there and Stephen Hull. They trust me and they trust in what I’m doing. So I’m able to sort of do this longer art. There’s actually a third book that sort of finalizes, because everybody loves a trilogy, right? But the way that it’s sort of set up is that for me, I had a super photographic memory when I was a kid, and I think I just kind of recorded a lot of these things. And sure, time puts filters on things. But at the essence when I’m writing the stories I have to have to transcend. Writers are just actors, for the most part inhabiting these sorts of characters that they’re writing [about]. And when you inhabit that, there’s a shift that happens and a lot of sensory memory and and even psychological memory comes back when you make that shift. And so writing them now, I have the skills . . . I mean I didn’t have for a long time. I’m a high school dropout, have a GED And a PhD. So there’s a large, long gap in there. But now I have the skills to kind of process them. I can service them and write them in the best way, the ways that they deserve.

Miller: It’s a great line and probably a relatively unusual biographical fact in academia to have a GED And a PhD. Are you proud of saying that?

Van Alst: Oh yeah, definitely. I went to Chicago public schools. It’s a difficult place to take classes and it’s a difficult place to graduate from. Graduating high school’s a big deal. I taught GED courses, prep courses in prison in Connecticut when I was a grad student. I talked to students all the time about going back and getting their GED. It’s essential and school wasn’t important in my family, and it’s everything to me now. So yeah I think I think getting that GED off the coast of Beirut was important to me. And so I’m proud of it. I’m not ashamed of it at all.

Miller: In a lot of the stories in this collection, the narrator the voice telling us a story is himself a storyteller, meaning he maybe hang out with his friends, maybe they broken into somebody’s house, and then he starts telling a story, and then the story he tells becomes a story we’re reading in various ways. And he’s spinning tales to amuse his friends or to scare them or to pass the time. What’s the connection for you between telling stories and writing stories?

Van Alst: That’s a great question. Dave, you’re knocking it out of the park today. So to me storytelling is essential, right? That’s all we are, are stories. So the ability to tell stories or to listen to and learn from stories is really important. I love stories. I used to cut school when I was in high school and stay home with my girlfriend to watch soap operas. We’d watch All My Children. I just love stories, right? So storytelling is really important. But the thing that I try to do- and again, this goes back to New Mexico Press, allowing me these things is that when I write there’s break, there’s breadth, there’s tone, there’s even how it looks on the page, which to me as essentially a storyteller, how do I do this with writing? My PhD is comparative literature and cultural studies. So I know some things about lit in theory, but so I work really hard. How can I have a physical book that I’m not a part of, or I’m not in the room with the reader, sound like a story and look like a story and make the listener hear it as a story if it’s being told. Voice and all of those things come together and you know when people tell me “man, it’s like you were there telling me the story”, that’s success. To me that’s huge.

Miller: When you were hanging out with your buddies when you were, I don’t know, 16 years old, maybe getting high, maybe getting drunk, getting into various kinds of bad behavior, quote unquote. Did your friends turn to you and say “Ted, tell us a story”?

Van Alst: Teddy tell us a story. Yeah. A lot of what happens in that growing up and that, is there’s a lot of downtime. And I usually had a book in my pocket to be honest with you. Like the cops are like, “hey, what are you reading now professor?” That’s for real. You’re killing time in between things. A whole lot of nothing happens and then a whole lot of something happens really quick. But in the in between, you’ve got to do things. Sometimes I got tired of reading. So I was like, hey, let’s tell stories or let’s make up a story. So yeah, that’s interjection in there; of story is a time passer. I think it bonds to. Part of it too is to keep things at bay because you’re not telling a story, you’re not making people laugh. We usually just spent the time making fun of each other, because that’s what you do when you’re a kid. You spend a lot of time doing that, especially if there’s eight or 10 of you, you know?

Miller: If you were telling a story, you weren’t going to be made fun of, or there was less likely to be violence.

Van Alst: As long as I didn’t violate the first rule of storytelling, which is, get it right. And so, that mood in the room, or in the park, or sitting on the bench or whatever. If you’re getting it right and people are listening to you, then you’re okay. You’re good to go.

Miller: But what did getting it right mean on the park bench?

Van Alst: I think getting the facts right. I think there’s part of teasing that has to happen in there, but in gentle ways that are agreed upon. That moves the story forward, because you have callbacks to remember when he did this or remember when you know, Jimmy said that or whatever. And so you have to move stories along with the sides I think. And that’s part of the mechanism that gets lost a lot in novels. It can be difficult for me to read a novel because it’s kind of a drag. They just don’t move right for me. They’re just slow and baggy.

Miller: Your stories are not slow. It’s interesting, because you noted that getting it right is a key that you that you learned as a kid and that seems like you’re still thinking about now, but it reminds me of a striking end to one of your stories, which is  – and it was actually hard: I didn’t choose any readings because we would have had to put change so many of the words for the FCC, so people can imagine the bleeping here. But this is how one of your stories ends, after a character has told a story to his friends and to us the readers: “you’re such a bleeping liar, man”. And then the narrator, you I imagine,  responds, “We’re all bleeping liars Jimmy.” What were you getting at there?

Van Alst: I think I’m trying to say to them, it’s a lie, but it’s a lie that you’re in on too. It’s a lie that you wanted to hear. You listen to this story the whole time? And we’re all storytellers, right? We’re all liars. We’re all making it up as we go I think. But the thing for me is that fiction is where the real truths come out. Right? Those lines that you tell, those are your truths, man. Those are the things that you try to hide from. But that come out and fiction sort of forces that. Facts are malleable any more, right? There’s truthiness in the world. But fiction doesn’t lie.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Ted Van Aalst. Theodore Stephen Van Alst Jr. He is the director of the Indigenous Nations Studies program at Portland State University and the author of the new short story collection Sacred City. One of the stories is called Forever Young, where your narrator is an older version of you or himself. He is in Minnesota for an academic conference and one evening in a sports bar, he has an encounter with a fellow Indian man from Chicago, his hometown, also no longer a young man who was – they figure out by looking at each other and having a very brief conversation – he was in a rival gang. Can you describe their exchange?

Van Alst: Yeah. That was wild, because I told that story. I went home to Chicago and I did a reading from the first book, and for the Ho-Chunk Outreach Center, which is really cool – Chicago’s native community is really something else – and so I was telling this story to somebody that I knew there. I hadn’t written it for it’s obvious, it’s in the second book, but it’s a story I know, and I’m telling this story and the woman there who is in charge goes, “I remember that. I remember, that was ME, that’s my nephew, right”? And so I was like, oh my god, it’s such a small world.


Miller: Because, and I hate to be the interviewer asking a fiction author if that was true, but it’s irresistible sometimes. So this actually happened to you?

Van Alst: Yes. I was in Minnesota watching the White Sox game. I was there for a conference and these guys came in and I was like, what’s up? I knew this guy. This guy looks familiar. And so we just started talking, and because you hear that accent – I mean I don’t think I have a Chicago accent, but maybe I do – you hear that accent. You’re like, hey, wait a minute. You’re having a couple beers and you’re just talking and then we figured it out. You have that interloper, that third party who is observing this. And that person comes from a different class than the two of us came from. So there is a sort of voyeuristic cast to the whole thing from this from this other person who is a friend of mine and still is a friend of mine that was there. I don’t know if they know they’re in the book or not, because I try to hide it. So there’s this moment, and the possibilities. What I wanted to say was that never leaves you. I mean you have opposition, and you have your colors, and you have all that stuff. I still don’t wear red. I’m an old man.

Miller: You still don’t wear red because you would wear blue, and wearing red could have meant that you could be killed if you went to the wrong neighborhood?

Van Alst: Yeah, that was the opposition. They were red and black. You know, those were their colors.

Miller: And you were a Royal.

Van Alst: Yeah. Our colors are royal blue and black, and so my clothes still reflect that even at this age, it’s kind of weird.

Miller: You were already an academic, you had gone at that point from, as you noted, GED to the PhD, you were a grad student. But you had to some extent, I imagine maybe to a great extent, you had left that part of your life actively behind. Did it feel when you’re sitting at that bar, like violence was still a possibility? It was in the air?

Van Alst: Definitely. Because I don’t know this cat, I don’t know this guy, and because that’s how it was growing up. But it gives you this sort of sense of like you have to be on your toes. Like how men have to go to Sears for school shopping? Like “what neighborhood are we going to? I don’t, I can’t go to that Sears dad”. You know, he’s like “what are you talking about?” Because there are all these maps and boundaries and territories within a place like Chicago that are claimed by multiple people and a few are in opposing nations. You have to know those boundary lines. And obviously everything is shifted since 1980. We’re talking 40 years ago, but it’s still there. Chicago has a really long history of that and it’s very territorial.

Miller: At the end of this particular story, and maybe in real life, instead of fighting him, your character buys the man a drink and then he says to us, to the readers, “I’m saying goodbye to my youth, just not forever.” I was wondering, reading the story, because in that story, and in a bunch of them, there’s a real nostalgia and love for your youth, even when you write about danger and fear and violence. How much of what you’re talking about that you experienced in that bar, do you wish you could let go of that, that constant vigilance, and how much are you actually happy to hold on to in some way?

Van Alst: That’s a great question.  I think that’s important, and things that are foundational to us, I think we’re wise to remember those things. That was sort of how I would explain, my hands are tattoed, cover ups of some old tattoos from when I was a kid. And there was a lot of stigma, throughout my life, I would go to job interviews and sit on my hands. But I would tell myself, you know, that reminds you who you are and where you’re from, and that’s a really important thing. So for me, yeah, you want to lose some of the stress that’s induced by that. And obviously, at a certain age, he should be able to walk away from those stressors of youth, but they’re also motivators there. For me, you gotta work hard man, you gotta go to work, you got to do the thing, you have to just work harder, because that sort of underlies who you are and where you come from.  That’s the ethic, you know? And I remember when I first came to academia we were at a party and I was like, oh yeah, I think I bring a working class sensibility, and my wife had a different take on it. But the assessment was that that working class was kind of aspirational. So to me, do the work and remember who you are, where you’re from. It really matters, at least to me it does.

Miller: Do you consider yourself a Royal right now?

Van Alst: I’d be retired. I mean, no, I left that a really long time ago, but that’s something that always stays with you. Obviously active you know when you’re in your fifties or whatever.

Miller: It reminds me of Marines. It was drilled into me that there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine or a former one, there are just retired ones, in a sense that’s the language you’re using.

Van Alst: That’s right. It’s a really similar thing. I saw a thing, a guy who was a retired guy, a retired Royal and he has the tattoo Retired Royal. He’s down in Mississippi or something. I think it was on CNN. Did Lisa Ling do the whole sort of, not expose, but just a newsmagazine of it.

Miller: A lot of your stories start as one thing, start focused on one thing, and then they just swerve hard, from comedy, or something like comedy to tragedy, or from third-person close observation of people, to first-person narrators own life. What attracts you to these swerves?

Van Alst: I think they’re reflective of the way your mind works, and the way that interactions with people work. I think that a lot of what’s happening in people’s lives is just episodic, sometimes, and when I’m thinking about writing, I think about the novel, it’s like a movie, as a film. People who write novels, it’s like a whole film and I write TV. I’m a kid [who] grew up on television. So here’s 20 minutes of something, knock yourself out. And I think on a micro level within the storytelling, that’s how you get to it.  How do you know all those parts of your brain are sort of pressing in on you, if you’re telling the story. Even if you’re hearing a story and you’re paying close attention you’re like “oh yeah, what about . . .” and things just creep into your mind. Maybe it’s an ADD thing, I don’t know. But to me I’m just trying to reflect what that natural rhythm looks like. Because it’s just a straight narrative for hundreds of pages. Man, who can do that?

Miller: Another way that you break up this book, the collection of stories, is that threaded throughout the kind of stories that we’ve been focusing on, are often other shorter stories, many of which are conversations that your narrator is having with various tribal elders or figures from the past. And these people are sort of half there, shimmering, sometimes, they’re flickering in and out. They talk often about the past. Sometimes they’re disappointed in what they see. Sometimes they’re encouraging in various ways. Why did you want to intersperse the book with these presences?

Van Alst: I think I wanted to be reflective and respective of the title, Sacred City. It took me a long time to start to figure out why Chicago and why do I have the flag tattooed on me? And why do I? Why Chicago? Why am I still a Bears fan when I can only watch two games a year on the west coast? I think that what I really wanted to do, and I’ve had conversations with folks back in Chicago, particularly Doreen Leeds who I quote in the intro, Chicago has always been Indian country. And when we think about places like Portland and Detroit, Chicago, these have always been cities, right? Prior to European arrival, they were still cities. There were still when we consider city’s: sites of trade, sites of interchange uh you know, commerce, storytelling, whatever it happens to be, all of those things happen in these likely sites. There’s a reason Portland is where it is, and Chicago is where it is. And it was really important to me to talk about those histories and how we got there. The book is dedicated to all the Indians who will now be ghosts. So when I think about that, to bring in those voices of people who have historic relationships with Chicago, whether it’s Blackhawk or it’s Tecumseh or its Tecotocowa, that it was important to have their stories and to sort of help this young narrator of the book understand how important it was to be from Chicago, to know what that means. Because people from Chicago, I constantly meet people from the city, and they’re from neighborhoods. I meet people from the burbs, people from neighborhoods are really about it, no matter what neighborhood they’re from there, they’re about being from Chicago. And so I wanted to give that sort of lineage and talk about the stories that cook underneath cities. Whether it’s here or there. I mean that those stories should live.

Miller: Your first book was called Sacred Smokes. The new one is Sacred City. What does the word sacred mean to you?

Van Alst: I think it means sacred, and sometimes it means not that sacred, and it encompasses the profane too. It’s a really fluid definition of what’s sacred. The time it takes to sit down and go outside smoke a couple cigarettes, read a story, check it for whatever, that’s time unto you. And that’s a sacred moment. And so I think sacred is something that we need. I don’t want to preach, but we need more of in our lives, we need more reflection. We need to think about the preciousness of life and our time here on the earth and just know that it’s fleeting, and it’s short. So find the sacred where you know, where it lives, which is everywhere. You know that spirit is everywhere. I think it’s important to remember that.

Miller: Ted Van Alst, it was a pleasure talking to you. Congratulations on the new collection and thanks for spending some time with us.

Van Alst: You bet, Dave. Thank you so much Dave. I really appreciate it. You all take care.

Miller: You too. That is Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr, the director of the Indigenous Nations Studies program at Portland State University, and the author of the new short story collection, Sacred City.

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