“The best part of Humanity is the fluidity of it all.” An Eagle Drums Interview with Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson
There once was a time when origin myths from a wide variety of cultures populated children’s libraries all around our great nation. Now that sounds lovely, but there was a bit of a catch. Sure, we had lots of books with tales hailing from different parts of the world, but it is notable how infrequently the people telling those myths actually hailed from those cultures. Notable too how often those authors would fail to credit where they got their tales in the first place.
Time passed and such tales stopped being published in great quantities. Consequently, librarians bought fewer and fewer. But there is a happy end to the story. In the last few years there has been a renewed interest in hearing stories told by people with a deep and abiding familiarity with their own cultures. Maybe that’s why I was so excited to see the starred Kirkus review for Eagle Drums by Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson. If you missed it, here’s a recap from the publisher:
“A magical realistic middle grade debut about the origin story of the Iñupiaq Messenger Feast, a Native Alaskan tradition.
As his family prepares for winter, a young, skilled hunter must travel up the mountain to collect obsidian for knapping—the same mountain where his two older brothers died.
When he reaches the mountaintop, he is immediately confronted by a terrifying eagle god named Savik. Savik gives the boy a choice: follow me or die like your brothers.
What comes next is a harrowing journey to the home of the eagle gods and unexpected lessons on the natural world, the past that shapes us, and the community that binds us.
Eagle Drums by Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson is part cultural folklore, part origin myth about the Messenger’s Feast – which is still celebrated in times of bounty among the Iñupiaq. It’s the story of how Iñupiaq people were given the gift of music, song, dance, community, and everlasting tradition.”
On a recent trip to Canada I had a chance to devour this book cover to cover and it has rapidly risen to become one of my favorite books of the year. Now, today, I get to talk with its author Nasuġraq herself about the work, her process and more:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for answering my questions today! Can you tell us a little about where this book came from? Where did you first hear the origin story of the Iñupiaq Messenger Feast, and why did you decide to turn it into a work of fiction today?
Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson: This book originated from an Iñupiaq oral origin myth. In our language we call these stories Unipkaat. Many of these stories are lost to history and colonization, but small pieces have survived. The feast itself was revived in the 1980’s, after a hundred years of its absence. I first heard of the origin story while attending the feast from an Elder who mentioned it briefly in passing. I was entranced immediately. My mind filled with images of Golden Eagles, flying high in the sky. I started writing it into book form on a whim, mostly because I thought to myself; what would it look like? What would an unipkaat written look like? How would it feel to be in such a fantastic story?
BB: Your book was initially described to me in this way: “It is both specific, allowing Iñupiaq kids to see themselves on the page for the first time, while also being a universal survival story stressing that we are all better when we work together, a lesson we could all learn from.” Do you feel that this is a fair appraisal? What would you add or change to this description?
NRH: Yes, that would be a fair appraisal, and is much more succinct than I could ever phrase it! I would only add a small bit; that we are better working together, but this in itself is a skill that needs to be practiced over and over again. The best part of Humanity is the fluidity of it all, so celebrate and rejoice with one another frequently so you don’t miss anything good!
BB: Have there been any books that have influenced your writing over the years? What are some of the books that you look to for guidance when you write?
NRH: My writing is heavily influenced by 90’s and Early 2000’s Science Fiction and Fantasy. It was a period in my life where I would devour books overnight. These are the two genres that I loved simply because they had characters that experienced the things I experienced as a kid, or the closest you could get at the time. In a world where there were no Inupiaq main characters, sometimes you had the most in common with the dragon rider burning threads from the sky or the space explorer encountering oddly shaped aliens. But one book that I will always return to and read when I need to quiet the doubting voices in my head is Two Old Women by Velma Wallis. Mostly because her voice is the voice of hundreds of years of oral story tellers and it comforts me in the most specific of ways. It reminds me that we have been telling stories for generations. And we will continue.
BB: Was there anything you added or wanted to add to this book that didn’t make the final cut?
NRH: I am very lucky that I had the chance to work with an amazing editor who I feel has the same vision as I do! So, there wasn’t much that I feel didn’t make it in one way or another. There was a part where I wrote out basically detailed directions on how to trap ptarmigans that was cut that I think would be really interesting for kids like me. But I totally understand why it was cut!
BB: Finally, what are you working on next? What inspires you?
NRH: I am currently writing a second book that is similar in vein to Eagle Drums, along with a couple of other exciting projects that include me trying my hand at illustrating a children’s book written by a good friend of mine. I am always looking to pursue projects that will add to the world bits and pieces of my culture, and that celebrate our unique world view and experiences in an authentic way. I have only wished to express the love I have for our People and for the place that has taken care of us for centuries in my writing and illustration, and to share that love with everyone.
I want to offer my sincere thanks to Nasuġraq for taking the time to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for helping us to put together this interview. Eagle Drums is, I am happy to say, available for purchase starting today. Order it whenever fine books are borrowed or sold!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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