Coyote masks

CSU professor’s essay collection speaks from the ‘in-between’ space of mixed ethnicity

Portraits of Harrison Fletcher for his book about his father in Denver, Colo., Jan. 4, 2010. (Photograph by Barry Gutierrez)

You can tell a lot about a person from the way they say the word “coyote.” 

The conventional wisdom is that people west of the Mississippi River say it kai-ote, without the ee sound at the end made popular by Road Runner’s nemesis Wile E. Coyote and common throughout the rest of the country. 

There’s also a third pronunciation, koy-yo-tae, and that’s how author Harrison Candelaria Fletcher says it.

The writer adopts the persona of the coyote, also New Mexican slang for “mixed,” in his book Finding Querencia: Essays from In-Between, which was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in the Creative Nonfiction category this year. 

Fletcher, who teaches creative nonfiction in the English Department at Colorado State University, says the meaning of the word has changed somewhat over the years. 

“When I was growing up in New Mexico, somebody they called a ‘mutt,’ or somebody who was of mixed ethnicity, was a ‘coyote,’” he says. “Now a coyote is predominantly known for the immigration connotations, as a trickster who ferries people across the border and often screws them over.”

By using the older definition, Fletcher takes the power back from the derogatory term, wearing it like a veil that allows him to speak in a voice that transcends his own.

“The coyote mask allowed me to see myself clearly,” he says. “It allowed me to see myself as if I’m on a screen and gave me a distance I never really had before. Using the slur and repurposing it was a way to actually talk about things I wasn’t able to talk about.”

Throughout these essays, Fletcher speaks from the “in-between,” stylishly capturing the nuance of racial identity and life writ large. “We all inhabit liminal spaces in our lives,” he says. “None of us are one thing or another. It’s an attempt to embrace the multiplicity that we all are.”

Fletcher has lived in Colorado since 1997, working as a journalist and teaching on the Front Range. Exploring in part how place affects persona, Finding Querencia is largely longing for safety and belonging.

“That’s part of what I was trying to negotiate in this book — being from somewhere that you’re not living in,” he says. “New Mexico has had a huge influence on me, but I’m also a Coloradan, and I’ve probably lived here almost as long as I’ve lived in New Mexico. The struggle with the book is in finding a connection, finding one’s place where you belong. It’s something I’m still negotiating.”

Where he’s calling from

A common rule in creative writing is to ask, “What’s the story that only I could write?” 

In penning Finding Querencia, Fletcher distilled his essence and viewpoint to explore the difference between writing about something and writing from something.

“You want to write from your heart, from your core,” he says. “I’m writing to discover what I didn’t know that I knew. I’m writing to try to understand something.”

In spite of the heavy themes, the book itself isn’t somber or overly contemplative. The structure is more experimental than the title describes, and many of the pieces resemble prose poetry as much as they do essays. Fletcher says he wanted the pieces to read like he was reaching toward understanding.

“I’m not a poet, and I wasn’t trying to write poetry,” he says. “I just wanted to see what would happen if I pushed toward what I was trying to reach.” 

In that push, the sentences gained intensity and often ended up somewhere much different than where they started, according to Fletcher. 

“That felt invigorating and also kind of true,” he says. “It was the mask of the coyote and his intense reaching for something that led to the way the book was written. It wasn’t by design.”

To Fletcher, the book works best when it’s read aloud. 

“There’s a cadence and a rhythm and a delivery that may not come across on the page,” he says. “The pieces are probably better understood if they’re delivered. I don’t do the poet voice thing, but there’s a rhythm to it.”

As for cultural influences and touchpoints, Fletcher cites Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior as a genre-bending book that’s classified as fiction but is a memoir at heart. It weaves Kingston’s personal story with old Chinese folktales.

“Instead of trying to use a Western narrative to make sense of her world, she’s like, ‘Why? That’s not how I understand things,’” Fletcher says. “That book gave me the permission to speak the language I grew up with. It’s liberating when … there’s not a box you fit in, to see people who are not even trying to fit in the box.”

For his next book, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher says he is working on more essays wearing his coyote mask: “He still has things to say.” 

ON THE PAGE: Finding Querencia: Essays from In-Between by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is out now in hardcover and paperback via The Ohio State University Press.