A Conversation with D. László Conhaim
2022 Finalist Best Traditional Western
Will Rogers Medallion Awards
2022 Finalist Best Novel, Western Fictioneers' Peacemaker Award
You are a white novelist who prominently features characters of color in your books. For example, in The Unredeemed African-American sergeant “Tops” Chance [from Comanche Captive] emerges as a major character struggling with his race within the command chain. How does this resonate in today’s #ownvoices atmosphere?
In my view, a writer’s work shouldn’t be DOA simply because he explores experiences outside those of his own people, particularly if he’s got a new angle or a discovery to make. As an independently published author, I’m not taking publishing opportunities away from anybody. Finally, success or failure rests with the reader.
In The Unredeemed you re-create a little-known event called The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy. It was the first I’d heard of it. How come this case of profound human suffering has escaped the notice of posterity?
I don’t attribute its obscurity to the rank-in-file’s color, if that’s where you’re leading. There simply was no battle to remember. It was a failure of leadership—white leadership—while it remains a testament to the unwavering loyalty and heroism of the black troopers.
Most Indian captivity tales concern white women and children kidnapped by Native Americans; yet you reveal that black children were abducted and enslaved too. Were those disappearances and acquisitions treated similarly by both sides?
First, it must be emphasized that kidnapping was a commercial trade practiced by the tribes. The book demonstrates how the abductions of African-American children elicited little or no official response. In fact, having found no references to any officially sanctioned search party for a missing black child, I sought out an historian of the black American West. He knew of none either. On the Indian side, an initial period of slavery led to full assimilation for any captive unless they were traded back, as many were. As the novel makes clear, a child who nobody was looking for had little or no trade value, except to other tribes, and was therefore destined to remain with the Indians.
The German-speaking “white Indian” Karl Hermann makes for one of the novel’s most colorful characters. Is he based on an historical figure?
Oh yes, on Herman Lehmann, whose autobiography Nine Years Among the Indians is a classic of the genre. As an immigrant [to Israel] who acquired a new nationality myself, and whose immigrant grandparents once re-identified with an adoptive society, my imagination was captured by Hermann’s elastic sense of self. This white boy, absorbed by Apaches, and who comes to identify with them, but who later assimilates into white society, reacquiring its language and customs—that’s great stuff!
"Death Valley Dunes" cover image © Terry Thompson: https://www.terrythompsonphoto.com/