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'Shutter' author was inspired by her own work as a crime scene photographer

Before she became a novelist, Ramona Emerson spent 16 years documenting crime scenes. Shutter tells the story of a forensic photographer named Rita who, like Emerson, is a member of the Navajo Nation.


Other segments from the episode on November 2, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 2, 2022: Interview with Ramona Emerson; Reviews of "Argentina, 1985" and "Decision to Leave."



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross.

When your first novel gets longlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, you must be doing something right. That's the place our guest, Ramona Emerson, found herself this year with her supernatural crime thriller "Shutter." "Shutter's" hero is Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque Police Department. If you don't know, a forensic photographer's job is to document all the details of a crime scene. The novel starts with Rita driving up to one. The police have closed a part of the highway where a suspected suicide has occurred. As she leaves the scene, she is confronted by the victim's ghost who insists she was murdered and pressures Rita to revenge her.

Rita's not terribly shocked by the ghost visitation, as she's been seeing ghosts all her life. But this ability has caused her a lot of trouble, especially as she is Navajo, or Dine, as the Navajos call themselves. And in the Dine culture, there are many taboos around death. Rita reluctantly gets drawn into the case, which involves corrupt police and the Sinaloa drug cartel. The crime story of "Shutter's" interwoven with chapters about Rita's upbringing in Tohatchi, N.M., which is in the Navajo Nation, and her close relationship with her grandmother, her primary caregiver.

The first draft of those chapters was originally meant to be part of a memoir. And if you look at Ramona Emerson's life, you'll see she shares quite a few similarities with her character Rita. Although I don't think Ramona sees ghosts. Emerson also grew up in Tohatchi with her grandmother and was a forensic videographer and photographer for 16 years in Albuquerque, where she lives. Ramona Emerson is also a documentary filmmaker and owns a production company with her husband called Reel - as in film reel - Indian Pictures.

Ramona Emerson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RAMONA EMERSON: Thank you so much, Sam. And it's good to be here.

BRIGER: Well, it's great to have you here. I was wondering if maybe we could start with you doing a short passage from the book. And this is the beginning of "Shutter," where your main character, Rita, is showing up at the scene of this crime.

EMERSON: Absolutely. It is Chapter 1, which is prefaced, the Nikon D50 18-55mm DX. (Reading) Souls don't scatter like the rest of the body. They latch on for as long as they can, their legs pulled to the sky, fingertips white in desperation. Souls are grasping for us, for the ones they left behind, and for the truth only they can see. They are the best witnesses to their last breaths. I stand in that bitter, cold wind with that ghost and take its picture. Tonight, nothing was left. After two hours of metal on bone and flesh on asphalt, there were only yellow, plastic forensic markers lined up like soldiers on the darkened freeway, all 75 of them marking the resting place of this soul, who was now merged with the blacktop, the blood and tissue part of its earth and chemicals. I watched the lead investigator lay another marker in the distance - 76.

(Reading) I knew then that I would be out here for hours. I clawed into my last pack of nicotine gum, pulling two pieces from the foil, and jerked myself into my paper suit and latex skin. Neither did anything to cut the cold. I ducked beneath the tape. We were always the first on the scene, the photographers. Next month would be 66 months for me, 5 1/2 years of taking pictures of dead people.

BRIGER: Thanks for reading that. That's Ramona Emerson reading from her novel, "Shutter." So, I mean, the book begins with this really horrific crime scene. This woman's body is strewn all across the highway after being run over by multiple vehicles. It was actually pretty hard for me to read parts of that section. Why did you want to start the novel that way?

EMERSON: Well, I think I really wanted people to have a very stark introduction into what it's like to work forensics. And, I mean, I had worked forensics, and I had attended the Albuquerque Police Department civilian CSI course. And this was the first case that I learned about. And the case - we saw photos. We saw the - you know, the crime scene maps. We saw all of the reporting. And it really hit home to me about what forensics is about and what the people who work in forensics have to go through and what they see. So I really wanted people to understand Rita's world immediately and understand just how tough it is to do the work that she does.

BRIGER: Well, yeah, I mean, the amazing thing is that Rita is really able to focus on her job here, despite how terrible the crime scene is. She is just really concentrating on documenting all the evidence and getting a really sharp focus with her camera, even though - when she's training her camera on something deeply upsetting.

EMERSON: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's something that - it just becomes kind of learned when you're working forensics, especially as a photographer or a videographer. When I first started, I think, those first two years of my job, it was tough for me. I would have nightmares at night. I would carry the images that I had in my head with me for months. And it took a quite a bit of time for me to realize and to grasp the fact that we are there to provide justice for these victims. We're there to make sure that we're documenting the scene correctly in order that they have a good case or, you know, they have a good outcome for their families.

And so it becomes more of a quest for justice. It becomes more of a, you need to do your job the right way. And it's all about color. It's all about measurement. It's all about getting the details right. And you just kind of have to push to the back of your mind that this is somebody's daughter, that this is somebody's mom.

BRIGER: So, I mean, you weren't visited by ghosts, but you were haunted by this work.

EMERSON: Yes. Yeah, I haven't - I've only had a few, or a couple, of real incidents where I had maybe kind of paranormal experiences. But it was after I wrote the book, strangely enough.

BRIGER: Really?

EMERSON: So, yeah. I mean, I never really - I was on the fence about whether, you know, ghosts existed or not. I mean, I have watched enough paranormal shows to, like, roll my eyes and those guys getting - scaring themselves with their paranormal investigations. But, you know - so I was kind of on the fence, but I had a couple of things happen to me that kind of freaked me out. And it made me wonder, you know? It really it did make me wonder. So - but, no, I did not see the ghosts. But I - but you just can't help but take those people's stories home with you. And you can't help but wonder, I wonder how their kids are doing or how their mom and dad are coping.

BRIGER: What kind of events were you called in to document?

EMERSON: Well, a lot of the work that I worked on were people were still living. We did a lot of work documenting injuries and a lot of work doing accident scene reconstruction, going in and, you know, measuring scrapes on asphalt and watching traffic patterns and, you know, having to show up when something major happens, like, you know, a - refinery explosions. I had a couple of those I had to go to. I had, you know, car accidents with, you know, corporate issues behind them. So they called me out immediately. Like, a big semitruck hit somebody or did something. And they'd have to have somebody out there to document the scene immediately. And I did a lot of that.

So, you know, everything from car accidents all the way up to videotape depositions of divorce proceedings, I have done it. And it's not always exciting. And it's - sometimes it's very gruesome. You know, once I had to ride a mule up a mountain for 2 hours with all of my gear just to photograph a scene where somebody got hurt. So, you know, it's a strange job.

BRIGER: So Rita's able to see people's ghosts, and she's been able to do this for as long as she can remember. And in your story, she's haunted by the victim of this crime that opens the novel. The spirit wants her to solve her murder or really just get revenge. But how did this idea come to you?

EMERSON: Well, I knew that Rita was going to be haunted, and so when I decided to do the opening scene, I knew for a fact that this lady would not be able to go on to the next world without having some kind of justice. And so I just started developing this profile of Erma Singleton and how she is - what she would do, what her background was, all the things that were going against her, you know, and why would she need revenge? What was she involved in? All the - I mean, that was one of the first character profiles I began to develop because I really started to think about, why would somebody be so hellbent on revenge that they would come back from the dead to get it?

And the one constant for me that I could always think of was a mother. A mother will do anything for her kids. And as a mother myself, I thought about, what would happen if somebody did that to a mom, and they were leaving their kids behind? Wouldn't they want revenge? Wouldn't they be so chuffed that somebody took their life away, that they weren't going to be able to spend the rest of their life watching their children grow up? And for me, that was, like, the biggest point of contention that I could think of. And I turned it over to Erma Singleton because that is really her drive, is her child.

BRIGER: Rita's grandmother finds out that she's seeing ghosts, and it really freaks her out. I mean, it would probably freak out any grandparent. But this also plays into a taboo about death in the Dine culture. Can you talk about that?

EMERSON: Sure. I mean, I think when we're growing up on the reservation, we are always told not to talk about it. It's almost as if you talk about death, you're asking for it. You talk about somebody getting sick from a certain disease, and I was always told, you don't talk about that because it's like you're asking for that for yourself. You're asking for death to come to you. And it has always just been something you don't talk about.

And I wanted to really examine, you know, where that belief came from. And I did a lot of research about when Navajos really started to have this concrete belief and fear of death. And I just didn't - the research that I did, I was noticing that a lot of that came out of the Spanish flu epidemic, where a lot of Navajos died, and in the process of the sickness, you know, like, removing people from their homes, not allowing them to die with their families, having people having to come in and walk somebody into death...

BRIGER: Which happens in your book with your grandmother's - Rita's grandmother's mother, yeah.

EMERSON: That's why I included that because I really wanted people to look at how that flu epidemic really affected the way that we really believe about death because, in another way, I really believe that early - before that, in our old ways, that we really believed that we were moving on to the next world. It wasn't something to fear. It was our movement into our next stage of life. But somewhere along the way - and I feel like it's the Spanish flu - we became so afraid of it that it was something like, you can't even talk about it. Don't even say it because you're going to get it. You're going to get that flu. You're going to get sick.

And then while I was writing or editing this and finishing up the book, of course, we were in the middle of the pandemic, and it was really kind of like, wow, this is a real issue. And I think people right now are taking advantage of the fact that Navajos are so fearful of death. I think the funerary industry has a lot of investment in that fear, as far as it goes for Navajo communities and for Navajo people. I think they take advantage of our fear. And so I think it's really important that we talk about it. It was also very difficult for me to write this because I was afraid of how other Dine would think of me writing things like this.

BRIGER: Yeah, was there a reaction to your book?

EMERSON: I have had nothing but positive reactions so far. I actually had a weekend where I went to Gallup, which is just right outside of my community of Tohatchi, and we set up a booth at the Gallup flea market, and we sold the book. And my dear mentor, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, came with me, and she was hawking that book. I love her. She was like, come on, you like to watch that zombie stuff. You better come and read a Dine novelist.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

EMERSON: Look; she's right here. She'll sign your book. Boy, everybody came over and bought a book. And I'd say half of the people that came and bought a book and were interested in it were from Tohatchi, and I couldn't have been more pleased to see them and to see that they were - they read the blurb on the back, and they weren't afraid. And, you know, the way Dr. Denetdale explains it to me - she goes, yeah, you know, we have these traditional beliefs, and everybody always says, yeah, you know, don't talk about that or whatever. She goes, but in reality, we all know that all these Dine go home and watch "The Walking Dead," and they watch all that "CSI" stuff, so don't even get me started. And so she was like, so don't worry; I think it's going to be OK.

BRIGER: We need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is novelist and filmmaker Ramona Emerson. Her first novel came out this year. It's called "Shutter." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is writer and filmmaker Ramona Emerson. Her first novel, "Shutter," is about a forensic photographer who is haunted by a ghost that seeks revenge for her murder. "Shutter" was longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction.

Rita's grandmother takes her to see the medicine man so that her work in forensics and also the supernatural ability, like, won't make her sick. And her grandmother is always telling Rita to, like, send me your clothes so I can bring them to the medicine man to purify them. It sounds like your grandmother sent you to visit the medicine man, too, for your work in forensics. Is that right?

EMERSON: Yes (laughter). She did. I think she was shocked. When I told her what - I told her I got a job. She was very happy for me. But then...

BRIGER: Yeah, that's - yeah. First reaction is happy.

EMERSON: Oh, good - you know, kind of thing. And then I told her what it was, and she was like, what? And I said, but it's not all the time. You know, sometimes I'm just - most of the time, they're alive. Grandma, don't freak out, you know? I'm, you know, doing work. But there were, like, some early scenes - I had to process some photography and some video of accident scenes and, I think, a construction scene accident where a gentleman was crushed. And anyway, I had to - and also, another pipeline explosion scene that we had to process and enlarge - some very large - some very gruesome photographs of a pipeline explosion. And it - oh, I had nightmares for a couple of weeks about that. But, you know, my grandma knew things. Like, she knew when something was wrong. I call her on the phone. She knew. She could hear it in my voice.

BRIGER: She could hear it, right.

EMERSON: And she knew. And she would be like, I don't know what's going on with you right now, but you take your clothes off. Whatever you're wearing right now, you send it to me. And I would. And she would take them 'cause I was just - I would get so busy that I couldn't go home, yes. But also, I was avoiding it, I think. I didn't want my grandma to deal with it. And I didn't want to have to go to the medicine man every time I got a bad vibe. So I just learned to toughen up and get through it and not tell Grandma. And eventually, I just stopped telling her what was going on. And eventually, it just stopped bothering me so much.

BRIGER: You know, when you would send your grandmother your clothes so that she could take them to the medicine man, like, how long would it take to get your clothes back? Like, would you be, like...

EMERSON: (Laughter).

BRIGER: ...Walking around your house and be like, where are my jeans? Like, oh, yeah, they're at the medicine man's. Like....

EMERSON: Well, you know, she'd always - whenever I saw her next, she had my clothes. And she usually - if I had - I was wearing holey pants, like my jeans were torn, my pants would always come back, and there'd be patches on them.

BRIGER: They'd be patched.


EMERSON: All washed and patched. It's like, where are the holes?

BRIGER: It's like full service, yeah.


EMERSON: Yeah. But I was - I thought I was so cool, you know, with my holey jeans and then...

BRIGER: She'd patch you up.

EMERSON: ...Might get them back - patched them up. I'd be like, Grandma, you ruined my cool jeans. She was like, oh - you know? - I don't want you looking like a hobo walking around town in those torn-up jeans.

BRIGER: Do you have any memories about visiting the medicine man with your grandmother?

EMERSON: Yes, I do. Well, I do remember a lot of them when I was younger. When I was a teenager, I was a smoker. I had smoked cigarettes sometimes, and I would always hide it from my grandma 'cause that was, like, the worst thing I could do. Your body's a temple, she used to tell me. And so when I knew that I was going to see my grandma or the medicine man, I would not smoke for, like, two days. And I would have a shower, like, all nice, new clothes that didn't smell like cigarettes, nothing. And I would show up at the medicine man. And he would hug me, and he would tell me, I can tell you're smoking. He knew. Like, even if I tried to hide it and I didn't - and I went for days without it or whatever, he was like, you need to stop smoking. I know you're smoking. We all know. Like, they knew. You'd hide it. Whatever you were doing - you're getting bad grades - they knew. It was magical.

BRIGER: Would you feel better after going to visit the medicine man? Like, would that sort of calm your feelings about the traumas you were witnessing?

EMERSON: Yes and no. I think the relief was the fact that my grandma felt better. My grandma felt better.

BRIGER: So you did it for her.

EMERSON: Yeah. And I - for me, I was always kind of on the fence about that, about whether, you know, going to the medicine man really worked. And I was telling my grandma, you know, how - she used to go to the church, too. You know, she's used to - very devout Catholic as well. So I was always like, well, Grandma, you know, which is it (laughter)?

BRIGER: Well, that's an interesting thing in your book. You have - your grandma, on her rearview mirror, she has, like, a medicine pouch hanging right by a crucifix. I thought that was a really interesting image.

EMERSON: Yeah. And I think it's a dichotomy that a lot of Indigenous people, especially in New Mexico, can relate to, 'cause I think a lot of us are - a lot of our Indigenous communities still practice our traditional ways. But then, we also have the influence of the church, which has also been kind of brought into our traditions and brought into our communities. So yeah, it's a part of it. And, you know - and my grandma used to always say, it's just best to keep all your bases covered and - so, you know, just in case. So - but for me, I was always on the fence because I also went to Catholic school, and I didn't believe in that either. I'm kind of an atheist, agnostic kind of person. And so my grandma understood that about me pretty quickly and realized that I was probably doing a lot of that for her (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Ramona Emerson about her novel "Shutter." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with author and filmmaker Ramona Emerson. Her first novel, titled "Shutter," a crime thriller, came out earlier this year and was longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction. The book's main character, like Emerson, grew up in the Navajo Nation and is a forensic photographer, which Emerson was for 16 years. Ramona Emerson has a documentary film production company with her husband called Reel Indian Pictures. She got her MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

So let's talk a little bit about Tohatchi, N.M., where you grew up. Can you describe the neighborhood and your - and, like, your grandmother's house?

EMERSON: Oh, absolutely. My grandma has a house that really sticks out. It's a house that she built herself. It's white cinder block with a red trim - big, long house. And when you're driving by on the highway - back then, it used to be U.S. Highway 666. Now it's 491. But when I was a kid, all I remember about that is that everyone used to come to my grandma's house and visit, everybody. So many elders would come through the house and have coffee with my grandma. If they were having issues or needed something, they came to see her.

And I just have so many memories of her with so many older community members, having coffee and eating stew, and talking in Navajo and listening to the Navajo radio station every day. And it was such a friendly, open, wonderful little place to grow up in. And I rode my bike and had some friends that I would run around with all day and, you know, play in the mud and run around with the rez dogs and go eat bad candy at the gas station, and great place to grow up. And my grandma was a very important member of the community. And a lot of people respected her and knew her and loved her.

BRIGER: Well, you dedicate your book to her. What was she like?

EMERSON: Well, my grandma was the best human in the world. She taught me to read. She took care of me for many, many years. She sent me to Catholic school. She made sure I went to college. She bought me my very first video camera. She bought me my very first photo camera. She bought me my first truck. I still have it. I drove it to the interview today, a '97 Ford Ranger pickup. But she never stopped believing in me. And she sent me letters every week. She always encouraged me. She was just a great woman. And she was so smart and so strong. And she raised a bunch of - all these kids on her own, including me. And I have only the deepest respect for her. She was my hero.

BRIGER: You know, Rita's grandmother was forced to go to a boarding school, like many Native children in the 19th and 20th century. And these schools were often run by missionaries and reused to assimilate kids into, like, the European American culture, while removing any aspect of their Indigenous culture. And there was - there often could be, like, a lot of abuse at these schools. Were any of your grandparents forced into that system?

EMERSON: Yes, my grandmother was. My grandmother's story is actually in the book. And I talked - she used to tell me that story a lot, about how the big, silver train came and picked her up when she was a kid. She was 6 or 7 years old. And she didn't get to come home until she was 18. And she was forced to go to the Phoenix Indian School. And, you know, she - but she always remembered her language. She never forgot her language. She just wouldn't speak it while she was there.

But, you know, she says there was - it was a bad experience because she had to be removed from her own home. And she missed her mom and her dad. And when she got home, her mom was already gone. But at the same time - my grandma says, but at the same time, going to that school taught me a lot of stuff. It taught me a lot of stuff. And it helped me to survive out here in the world. So she kind of was ambivalent about it.

BRIGER: Yeah. There's an interesting ambivalence that she has - that the character has in the book, where, like, she learned some things about the world by leaving. But obviously, she was taken from her home. And it sounds like her home deteriorated while she was gone. Is that right?

EMERSON: Yeah. She admits she just lost a lot of years. And a lot - not all of her brothers and sisters had to go. It was just her, you know? And so she - when she came back, I think she felt a little removed from her culture, a lot removed from what had happened to her family over those years that she was gone. And she missed out on a lot of stuff. So it was always something she kind of lamented about those years that she kind of missed. But, you know, she did have a lot of fond memories as well of growing up in Phoenix. And she was able to become a teacher, I think, because of that experience.

BRIGER: Well, there's a passage, a short passage I was hoping that you might read. This is Rita's grandmother telling a little bit about her experience to Rita, where she's at the boarding school. And she's just sort of watching these kids kind of get drained of their culture. Would you mind reading that?

EMERSON: Sure. (Reading) I got so tired of watching all the Indian being taken out of these kids one after another, year after year. I felt like I was trapping their souls in a box. As they aged, they had no Indian in them left, just like me. When I finally went home, 12 years later, the land had become overgrown, the herd scattered in all different directions. My father had become a shell of the man I left behind. I think when my mom died, he died, too. But he stayed here on Earth to watch me because he knew I would one day return and would take care of what I needed to take care of.

BRIGER: So is that the sort of thing that your grandmother would say to you about her experience there?

EMERSON: Yes. Yes. And, you know, it was - she said it was just like - I just had to strap my boots on and get back to work, just like it was - like I hadn't even left when I was a kid. And that's kind of how she describes it. She just had to go right back at it and get out into the world and do what I had to do.

BRIGER: There's this real push-pull tension between Rita and her grandmother about whether Rita should live on the reservation. Like, Rita wants to live with her grandmother. But her grandmother doesn't want her on the reservation because she doesn't think there's any opportunity for her there. She says to Rita, like, this is not where I want you to end up. There's nothing for you here. Can you talk about why you wanted to put that into your novel? That issue comes out in a slightly different way in one of your documentaries, "The Mayors Of Shiprock," as well.

EMERSON: Oh, yes. That was something my grandma told me all the time. She felt like we didn't need to live on the reservation. And she said there was no jobs here. There's, you know, no opportunity. She would tell this to me all the time. And that's the reason why she wanted me to, you know, go to Catholic school and get a good education. She goes, that's going to get you where you need to go. Then you can be traveling all over the world and see cool things and experience all kinds of stuff. If you stay here, she used to say, you're just going to get - you know, you'll have nothing. You'll just probably have kids and some guy who's, you know, really crappy to you and a crappy job at some gas station out here on the reservation. Do you want that? She would always say things like that to me. And I'd be like, no, I don't want that. And she'd be like, well, get out of here. And...

BRIGER: Did you want to leave?

EMERSON: No. When I was a kid, I used to just want to stay with my grandma. I never wanted to come home to my mom, ever. I was always wanting to stay. And my grandma was like, no, you need to go to school. You need go back home with your mom. You need to go back to school. You need to do what you're supposed to do - 'cause I would just - I would count my days. My summer - I would spend every summer with her. And I would just be like, oh, no, we only have like 10 days left of the summer, and then I'm going to go back to town and blah, blah.

Anyway, so I was always crying around. I wanted to stay at home with Grandma. But she always said, nope, you got to go back. You have to go to school. And eventually, I just got used to not coming home, and living in the city and only coming back to see Grandma every now and then. So I understand how Rita felt because it's hard to do that, you know? But eventually, it just becomes part of your life.

You know, but in "The Mayors Of Shiprock," you're right, the documentary I made about those wonderful young people, the Northern Dine Youth Committee. Those guys are - they're a whole different breed, that community that they love. They love their community. They are attached to their community because they're farmers, you know?

BRIGER: This is - yeah.

EMERSON: They farm that land.

BRIGER: This is a documentary about, like, young people who live in the town of Shiprock who create this youth committee to do all this community service to help improve their town, right?

EMERSON: Right, right in - I mean, they - when I first met them, or I met Graham, who's the instigator of the entire thing is - I kind of - I just was kind of taken aback because it was the first time I had the experience of young people saying, we don't want to leave. We don't feel like we need to go out into the city to come back home and to make our community better, to do these things. They just realized and saw the need and took care of it. And they, especially Graham, really reminded me about connection to land and about connection to your people in your language, your culture.

I mean, it was something that I hadn't really thought about. And I think it's kind of the way I was brought up. My grandma went to boarding school, you know? She didn't want us talking Navajo. She didn't want us, you know, doing any of that because she used to get punished for doing that. And there's a whole generation of us Dine that have that background because we have parents who didn't have a connection to their culture. My grandma did. She still spoke Navajo, and she would still take me to Nightway dances, and she would still keep me a part of things and take me to the medicine man and stuff. But I still - she still didn't want that for me. She wanted me to go away.

But the guys in Shiprock - there's such a connection they have to their families. There's such a connection they have to their family and their land that it's OK if they don't leave. And I had an elder remind me that you don't need to go to college to be a leader. If you really want to do something and you really are committed to your community, you'll do it. And that really - Graham Beyale showed me how that's done and showed me how some people just have such a connection to the land and their culture and everything that they just don't have that belief that they have to come to the city to make themselves whole or to make themselves better.

I mean, they just - they knew where their connection was. They know what their work is that they need to do, and they do it. And I was so proud of them for that. They showed me so much. They taught me a million things just in the five years that I was with them. So, you know, they really changed the way I thought about living on the reservation.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ramona Emerson. She's a documentary filmmaker and a novelist. Her first novel came out this year. It's called "Shutter." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Ramona Emerson, a documentary filmmaker and novelist. Her first novel came out this year. It's called "Shutter." I read that you've said that your films have a story structure that's particularly Navajo. What does that mean?

EMERSON: Well, in particular, "The Mayors Of Shiprock," I think - we had a really hard time getting post-production funding for this film, and a lot of people wanted me to edit it a certain way. And there's - you know, there's a very formulaic way of editing that - in documentary. And when you're trying to get funding and you're talking about the documentary checklist and you're doing all of these things, there's, like - they need that tension. They want those pivot points in the plot. They want you to have something negative in the film so that you can show and accentuate the positive.

For me, other people dictating how to tell your story is, like, egregious. As a Dine person, I like to tell stories in a circle. So I was telling a story that would - that started at a certain point. And at the end of the film, we returned right back. And I think that's just part of Dine storytelling, maybe most Indigenous storytelling. We tell stories in a circular motion. It comes back.

So when I was, you know, putting this edit out for funding, and people were like, well, where's that arc? Where's that tension? Where's the Bubba, you know? Where's - you mean, where's the alcoholism? Where's the bad guy in the story? What's, you know - and for me - I just felt like, I can tell - we can tell our stories however we want to and whatever cultural structure that we feel lends to how we are telling our story. And it's hard for me to believe that there's only one way. And that one way is the documentary formula that's presented to us every single time that we're applying for funding. So, you know - so maybe I'm not going to get any more funding for post-production, but at least I'll be able to edit the film the way I feel it should be edited.

BRIGER: You live in Albuquerque. Do you ever feel pulled back to Tohatchi?

EMERSON: Oh, every day. I really need to go back to my grandma's house. It needs a lot of work. I need to fix her furnace. I went there last summer, and there's a hole in the roof by the fireplace I need to fix. You know, my grandma built that house in the '60s, and she did it almost all by herself. So the wiring is old. It's not to code. There's just so many things. And in my mind, I can hear, you know, my grandma saying, well, it would be really nice if we could get that done.

And I just have never had the resources to do anything - very small projects here and there with - you know, 'cause I - you know, I don't make a ton of money as a documentary filmmaker. So a lot of the income that we depend on is other people's projects, working on other people's documentaries and working with organizations and stuff. That's where we make our money.

So, you know, it's just been financial situations that have not allowed me to get out there and fix my grandma's house. But I think - beyond that, my mother still lives in my grandma's house. She's out there. And I am - you know, I love to come out there and see her and visit her. I just don't - I don't get out there often enough at all, and - as my mother will tell you (laughter). And I'm just so busy, so - but I do - I mean, I think about her, and I think about that house every second of every day.

BRIGER: So on the home page of your film company, you have in big, bold letters, Reel Indian Pictures, no flutes, guaranteed. What's that about?

EMERSON: Yeah. A lot of people comment to me about that. I cannot stand the fact that every time a native person - every time there's, like, a native person, they - even comes in a room on a series, that flute music will start playing. Or there'll be an eagle cry or the drumbeat or the heartbeat. Oh, my God, so corny.

BRIGER: Or maybe all at once (laughter).

EMERSON: Or maybe all at once.


EMERSON: Yeah, right? The flute starts, and here comes the, oh, the eagle cry. And the drumbeat starts. And then, you know - and then, some Indian comes into the room. It's, like, ridiculous. So my - I will - I refuse to put flute music in anything I work on. Even if a client wants it, I'm like, no. You can fire me. I'm not putting it on there because I feel like it's the most stereotypical thing that you could possibly do. And they've been doing it for years. And, like, I'm so excited. They've - like, a new "Unsolved Mysteries" came out, and there's, like, this Navajo paranormal kind of element to it. And then, the whole series comes on. It starts - flute music. I gagged. Gross. Anyway, for me, it's just - I don't know. It's just the most stereotypical and disgusting thing you can do when you're portraying Native people.

BRIGER: Do clients say, like, we want more flutes in this piece?

EMERSON: I've had - I only had two...

BRIGER: Like, more cowbell or...

EMERSON: Yeah, more cowbell. Yeah. I mean, I've had one client that just would not - I think it was, like, a family member's flute music that they wanted to put in there. And I had to acquiesce because that was their thing, and they wanted to do it. But anybody else, I have to talk them out of it.

BRIGER: So, you know, we were supposed to talk last week, but you had to postpone. I'm glad we're able to talk now. But I was told that you had to postpone because of a delay dealing with filming buffalo. Is that right?

EMERSON: Yes. I just returned Friday from working for The Nature Conservancy. And the InterTribal Buffalo Council and The Nature Conservancy are working together to rematriate buffalo into Native communities. So they called me and hired me to come and film the buffalo kind of being herded up and getting ready for distribution, and sent also out to South Dakota to film the buffalo arriving in a Native community.

So I was actually standing out in a pasture in the prairie reserve in Pawhuska, Okla., filming buffalo, like, 10 feet from me for, like, two days. And then, they flew me into South Dakota - Sioux Falls - and I drove down to the Yankton Sioux Reservation to see their buffalo arrive on their buffalo pastures where they have - they already have thousands of buffalo that they've rematriated onto their lands. And, yeah. So I was out there filming buffalo for four days and driving around and flying around.

And I just barely flapped my wings back to Albuquerque on Friday and tried to rest a little bit. But we had to go right back out and film 'cause we - my husband's film - he's working on a film, and we had to do interviews on Sunday in Taos Pueblo for his project called "Three Generations." So, you know, the work never ends. I might be tired from the buffalo, but we have interviews to do in Taos Pueblo, so we went and did those (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, Ramona Emerson, thanks so much for being here today.

EMERSON: Thanks so much for having me, Sam. I really appreciated it. And I'm so glad that you enjoyed "Shutter."

BRIGER: Oh, I very much did. Thank you.

Ramona Emerson's novel is called "Shutter." Coming up, John Powers reviews two new crime films. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "BIG STUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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