Previous Writer to Writer Mentees
Fall 2014 Session
Kenzie Allen (kenzieallen.co) is a Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program, and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Sonora Review, The Iowa Review, Word Riot, Drunken Boat, Apogee, Matter: A Journal of Political Poetry and Commentary, and others, and she is the managing editor of the Anthropoid collective. She is at work on her first manuscript of poetry and a memoir about tribal life. You can find her on Twitter at @cerena.
Kenzie worked with writer Ernestine Hayes.
What were your goals for the program?
My ultimate goal was to connect to someone who shared my background and who could guide me in that respect. It's not always easy to find Native mentorship, and I came out of my MFA program with the first half of a memoir but needed more detailed advice and insight into how to navigate its territory -- how to do right by the stories I was trying to tell and the people I might inevitably be representing. I needed to discuss colonialism with someone who has also felt its effects from an indigenous perspective. And through this extraordinary program, I gained an idol, a role model, and an ally. She has given me the strength and support to really chase after this work.
What advice do you have for people entering the program next?
I think the biggest benefit of this program is the relationship it fosters. Set goals for what you would like to accomplish in order to use the time well, and spend some time on developing and maintaining your own system for how to share work and discussions with your mentor. And, well, don't be afraid. I experienced such warmth, and openness, and sincerity, through this process. There's nothing to fear and everything to gain. And to applicants -- leap at this opportunity!
What is something you learned from your mentor or this process?
It's easy to doubt oneself, especially when one is writing about their identity, and especially, as is the case for me, when there are identity politics at play in the form of blood quantum and enrollment. The first email I received back from Ernestine changed everything for me, and was exactly the thing I needed to hear. She said: "Tribal entities (for example, in the case of Tlingit, it is the clan) are like the land: They own us. We belong to them. This is not something that can be changed by federal regulation or individual bias. Whether it comes out overtly in your writing or other creative work, it's a truth that covers and comforts and protects: You belong. You are. As someone whose identity has been challenged and questioned from all sides, I share this with you because the realization of this fundamental truth brought me strength, calmed me, and allowed me to stand where I was placed." I look back to these words whenever I am scared of writing my truth, whenever I am scared of its reception or of making mistakes, or when I feel like it isn't my place to speak. It is our place, as writers, to speak our truths. Those of us who are connected to tribal entitles in this way, we know it in our bones. Our mothers whispered to us, "you are, you are, you are." I am Oneida. And Ernestine's support was so affirmative in helping me own that. I'm not sure I could have had a better mentor anywhere else in that regard. It was a perfect match.
What is something that happened that you did not expect?
I ended up connecting with Ernestine on Facebook, and further enjoying her thoughts on current events and what was going on in her part of the world and in our communities. So this took the process from a focus on the writing to one that encompassed the living as well.
Where do you go from here?
I'm returning to my memoir and poetry with a spirit renewed. I'm connecting to shared friends and further, to Ernestine, and I am speaking my truth unafraid! I'm sending that truth out to journals; eventually I'll send out the book -- and some day I hope to also give back to this process, and be that mentor for someone else at such a vital turning point.