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Ari Tison on her novel 'Saints of the Household'


What is it about high school that can make you feel so alone, even when you're surrounded by so many people all the time? Ari Tison's young adult novel, "Saints Of The Household," centers on two brothers in Minnesota who are navigating that very specific isolation in their own ways. Ari Tison, thank you so much for joining WEEKEND EDITION.

ARI TISON: I'm honored to be here. Thank you.

PARKS: So I wonder if we can start there. Can you just introduce us to these two brothers, Jay and Max - less than a year apart, both are seniors in high school, but are very different?

TISON: Yeah. So the two brothers are written in two points of view, so we get a dual narrative that way. One's written in vignettes, the other one is written in poetry. And the kind of form kind of exhibits who they are. Jay is really, really smart. He's an observer of the world, and he kind of has a little bit of a mathematic brain. And so he has - yeah, he tends to focus on things in kind of short, heavier spurts. And then we have Max, who's just this dreamy, artsy boy who loves to paint, and he is expressed in poetry.

PARKS: Yeah. And as a family, their mother is a member of the native Costa Rican tribe, the Bribri. And throughout this book, they're subject to horrible abuses by their father, who is white. And I wonder, can you talk a little bit about how those abuses manifest in both of them throughout the book?

TISON: Yeah, I think, you know, they tend to be struggling in that sense of their whole identity is kind of upended by this. But at the same time, I think the book is really them trying to figure out who they are beyond the abuse, and what happens when the monster gets kind of put away, and who do they get to be after that?

PARKS: The writing in this book conveys such empathy for these two boys, and it's really powerful to read. But I'm curious to ask about a third character in this book, this character, Luca, who is kind of the villain of the book. He is the star of the soccer team. He is clearly edging towards some abusive tendencies in his relationship with the boys' cousin. Did you empathize with Luca as well in this book?

TISON: You know, I think so. I think I knew people like Luca. In fact, in some ways, I think I was a lot like him in the sense that I was very friendly, and I - you know, I played soccer, and maybe I was one of those folks with woo, you know, right? I was just - that was who I was. But you can do a lot of damage with that kind of personality sometimes, right? And people don't always expect it.

I think we all do harm. That's my own human belief, right? I think we all do harm, and we all do good, and some of us do more than others. And so I think Luca was in that space for me. He had to be a scapegoat for a lot of things for the boys. But also, you know, at the end of the day, I do kind of, as the writer, I guess, wish him well. I hope he figured things out.

PARKS: Yeah. Yeah, me, too. I want to turn to the women in the book. It seems like to me there's a parallel between the boys' mother, who is stuck in this physically abusive marriage, and then the boys' cousin, who is dating Luca for much of the book, who is also exhibiting some kind of problematic tendencies. Is that a mirror or a parallel that you - that was apparent to you as you were writing it?

TISON: Well, their mom came first, and Nicole actually came out in later revisions. And I think for sure their mom and her are in conversation. Their mom doesn't have the tools that Nicole has. And so the choices that she makes in a generation before are different.

Also, the people that Nicole has surrounded herself with - her community, her dad, her mom, her family - it's complicated, but it's a good one. It's a healthy one. And so it allows her, I think, to be able to start making decisions for herself that maybe, you know, other generations before, at least in my people group and other spaces, might not have been able to have the power to do.

PARKS: I'm curious that Nicole came later because she's such a key support system for Jay. How did you kind of get to the point where you kind of added a character that helped him through this?

TISON: You know, I thought about my own system and who I have around me, who has helped me grow and all that. And I thought about intertribal relationships. For me - right? - there's only five Bribris in the U.S. So we don't have a huge group of folks that I can kind of lean on here in the States. When I go back home, when I go to my reservation, my land, I absolutely do. But here not so much.

So who has that community been? It's been folks from other tribes around here who get it. And, you know, we can laugh through really tough, crappy stuff like colonization and all that stuff that we - you know, we have mirrors, parallels in our own people groups, I think, of very similar issues. I think that we do have those people around us, even when we feel alone, that we could lean on. And I think Nicole is that person for him.

PARKS: Going to this idea of leaning on your tribe as a support system, Jay really finds a lot of solace in his tribe's history, thinking about the stories that have been told for generations. Is that the same for you? In hard times, have you kind of gone back to some of the legends and stories and things like that?

TISON: Oh, absolutely. You know, I did a retelling for another anthology. And that retelling was called "Blood Kin." It was a transformational story about a character who turns into a panther. She comes from a legend where the grandfather and a granddaughter both transformed after their land was getting taken.

For me, that story ended up being hugely transformational for my own story in the sense that I could figure out justice. I could figure out ferocity. I could think about how that's really built into my people. And we don't always use it, but we use it when we need to. And that really helps me to get grounded in bravery, especially in spaces of abuse and my own junk in my life.

That story - I think about that one often, but there's - you know, we have a story for everything, I joke. So, you know, you could look at a butterfly on the side of the river, and we're like, yep, we got a story for that.


TISON: That's just the way it is when you're Indigenous. You've got stories for everything.

PARKS: Yeah, that's beautiful. And it reminds me of a line in the book actually, that I had written down of the hard and good all feel at home with me, which I think is something Jay says late in the book as he's taking stock of everything that's happened. I think that complexity is really powerful. And I wonder, what were you hoping for people that age that - what they would take away from this book, I guess?

TISON: Yeah, it's kind of twofold. One - books can be very secretive. You can read them, and not everybody is looking over your shoulder and reading the book with you. But also, same is true for growing up in an abusive household. Not a lot of people know about it unless you share, and it's really hard to get to that space of sharing.

I think that books can reach that space. You know, I'm meeting teenagers now because the book's coming out, and my whole heart is just kind of growing in a new way to think - you know, talking to teenagers who have gone through similar things. It's really special to be able to have a book that can speak into those spaces when even I can't, right? I can only talk to a teenager so long. But a book - a book can be there with them.

PARKS: Ari Tison - her new novel is "Saints Of The Household." Thank you so much, Ari, for joining us.

TISON: Thank you, Miles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.