Twenty years ago, the main characters — Ojibwe cousins Sher and Kris — emerged during a short writing exercise. It is not so much that I created them as it is they sought me out. I wrote “Carnival Lights” because the story and characters came to me, and that made me responsible for getting them down. My purpose for writing the book is the story itself. It is like having an allegiance to telling the truth, even if it is fiction.
The book went silent for years and then unfurled like a flag whipped by the wind. Then back to silence. At times I despaired that I would not finish “Carnival Lights.” That I would fail the characters — and in failing the characters, it felt like I would also fail the manidoog, the spirits. Eventually, I came to understand the book had its own timing. I trusted that.
So I did other things. I healed. I learned. I grew. I reconnected with the land in northern Minnesota. Land I loved as a girl, but had not gone back to because people had hurt me there. Then the characters and stories came to me, demanding my time and energy, demanding that I get out of bed and put in a minor, minor detail about their great-great-grandmother. I had to listen. Sometimes I would research an idea or detail about a character or event only to find historical facts about Minnesota that fit perfectly into the fictional narrative.
Getting this story down was arduous and joyful and spiritual. It was like being led. It was as if the book existed and I had to bring it into this world. This book helped me heal.
“Carnival Lights” is for those who have disappeared and for those who still could disappear. It is for those who survived. It is for all those who want justice. It is for those interested in hidden Minnesota history, the intersections of Ojibwe and Jewish cultures, and the Minnesota State Fair. It is for those concerned with sexualized racist violence, homelessness, identity, language, and LGBTQ+ youth. It is for those who want to read a good story from a perspective not centered in the dominant culture, yet central to the dominant culture and the issues we all must grapple with today. Most of all, this book is about Indigenous intergenerational zaagi. Love.
The following excerpt takes place on Sher and Kris’s third day being homeless in Minneapolis in August 1969. The girls, teenage Ojibwe cousins, left their northern Minnesota reservation for the big city lights of Minneapolis after a series of losses and changes in their family.
The following is excerpted from “Carnival Lights,” by Chris Stark, published by Modern History Press, June 2021
The girls passed the day in the shade of a stairwell near the church where they slept their first night in the city. The day turned into a blister. Sher’s ankle swelled from the heat and the twist on the pine cone. Kristin fetched a bag of ice, tuna sandwich, pile of potato salad, and sweating bottle of Sunkist. Sher didn’t ask how she got it. The girls split the food and drink, while watching the feet of those who passed by on the sidewalk. They played word games in the air, wishing they’d kept the pad of paper and pencil Kristin got on the bus trip into the city. They left once to go to the bathroom in a drugstore where Sher bought a dime’s worth of Seven Up candy bars and filled up the bag Kris had found days ago with water. After the drugstore, they remained in the stairwell, occasionally making room for various men and one woman who descended off the sidewalk into the stairwell. They opened the heavy dark wood door behind the girls with a click of their keys.
Around two o’clock, one of the men who had entered the church returned to the stairwell. “Girls,” he said, squinting at the street. “We need you to move on now.” He jangled coins in his pants pocket, never meeting the eyes of the two homeless Indian girls sitting in his church’s stairwell. He’d discussed this with the others inside. He’d said he didn’t ask for money during the sermon every week to house stray Indians in the stairwell.
The girls moved a block down, descending into the damp stairwell of a three-story brick apartment building, chunks of mortar missing in spots where they could have slipped their hands in sideways. A white teenage boy, his hair shaggy like the Beatles, exited the building. Before he shut the door, Sher glimpsed wine-colored, matted carpeting, and yellowed walls with heavy black marks as if someone had dragged the corner of their sofa against the wall many times.
Kris licked chocolate off her fingers. “Look at that, Sher,” she said, reading the package. “Made in St. Paul by Pearson’s Candy Company. Maybe we could get a job there.”
They drank the water in the bag.
A scraggly elm sapling grew out of the sidewalk, struggling to produce a handful of leaves. The heat and the elm transported Sher to the woods she’d first run through when she was seven. Waking tangled in sheets on an unusually hot June morning, the girl stumbled onto the porch. Her spirit had not completely returned from another place. Seeing the backside of her grandma as she looked out over the farm, Sher ran. She sprinted barefoot over the dirt farmyard in the T-shirt and boxers she slept in. Sher did not know why she ran. She’d woke on fire from a dream she did not remember. Her grandma turned to watch her eldest grandchild run into the woods. She lit a cigarette and asked the mishoomis — the trees — to help the young girl with the burden of the past that she carried, passed down through blood. Animoosh raised from his place next to the barn. The girl and dog hit the narrow trail her family used for hundreds of years to find medicines among the oaks and pines and swamps.
The dirt path in the woods was cool and damp. The Indian girl and her dog ran and ran, dodging tree roots, cutting east and west. Jumping over rocks. The trees were thick and massive, part of the old growth forest that covered one billion acres before the English. Their straight tall trunks had been coveted by the English military for use as ship masts, which made it possible for the English to conquer half the world. Squirrels, sparrows and chickadees, mice, woodpeckers, and a bobcat peering from a hollow tree watched the girl and dog. The sun lit up patches of leaves, the sides of trunks, the edge of rocks, ferns, and the forest floor. Sher breathed hard. Her spirit lightened. Her legs became heavy, her feet covered in dirt. She stopped in a ray of sun, looked upward, and became blinded by the brightness. Animoosh panted beside her. He licked a spot where a cherry sucker had dried to her calf. The young girl’s lungs heaved. In her moment of blindness, in the middle of the Standing People, the past fell off her. She retained balance.
Chris Stark is a Native lesbian writer, trainer, organizer, and researcher. Her first novel, “Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation,” was a Lambda Literary Finalist. Her second novel, “Carnival Lights,” was published in June.