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English Alumnus Portrays Reservation Reality in YA Novel

English Alumnus Portrays Reservation Reality in YA Novel

Posted: December 4, 2013

A drawing of two actors starring in the ‘80s cult film Blue Velvet hangs in Eric Gansworth’s office at Canisius College where he serves as English professor and Lowery Writer-in-Residence. Gansworth, ’89, ’90, created the charcoal drawing in a fine arts course as an undergraduate at Buffalo State decades ago.

Along with a lifelong passion for the visual arts, Gansworth realized his talent with the written word early on. After starting a novel at Niagara County Community College (NCCC) where he was studying medical technology, Gansworth transferred to Buffalo State in the mid-1980s to pursue a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English.

“I figured if I was going to be a writer, I should get an English degree to have some legitimacy in sending out manuscripts,” said Gansworth.

In the ensuing years, the 48-year-old writer has definitely earned legitimacy. Along with teaching a slate of writing and literature courses, Gansworth has published 10 books—a mix of memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.

His first young adult novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here, (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) was released in August. A coming-of-age tale set on the Tuscarora Reservation to a soundtrack of Beatles hits, If I Ever Get Out Of Here has garnered praise from book reviewers at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Gansworth was invited to read excerpts from the novel at the National Book Festival held in September in Washington, D.C.

“Weirdly, at the National Book Festival, a large number of self-identified ex-Buffalonians and a startling number of Canisius alums were in attendance and asked questions in that part of the program,” he said. “They weren’t people I knew, but I guess they came out of loyalty to our region, which was a neat experience.”

A member of the Onondaga Nation, Gansworth grew up on the Niagara County reservation featured in the book. Although it isn’t an autobiographical novel per se, Gansworth said elements of his childhood are woven into the story. Like his 12-year-old protagonist, Lewis “Shoe” Blake, Gansworth attended a reservation elementary school before he and his classmates were required to transfer to a white, middle-class junior high. He remembers the loneliness of having to start over and developing a lasting friendship with a non-reservation boy.

Gansworth didn’t set out to write a young adult novel. For years he toiled on a novel about two middle-age men who reconnect years after their junior high days together.

“I realized I didn’t care about these adult men,” Gansworth explained. “I really wanted to explore their adolescent friendship, who they were when they really had an impact on each other.”

The resulting book has resonated with readers of all ages, capturing both the specific experience of a Native American boy and the universal desire to fit in during the tumultuous junior high years.

Gansworth’s other novels, his nonfiction, and poetry all focus on the indigenous experience in one way or another. 

“Most of my work takes place in the same universe, with many of my characters reappearing,” he said. 

Gansworth said he initially tossed out his acceptance letter from Buffalo State because the city seemed daunting after his relatively cloistered life on the reservation. But once he got to campus, he discovered camaraderie with his fellow students and support from his professors, a few of whom encouraged him to continue in the graduate program. He made enough of an impression in his graduate work that the English Department offered him a part-time teaching position upon graduation.

“Twenty-eight days after finishing my graduate program, I stepped back into a Ketchum Hall classroom as an instructor,” he said.

He then taught English at NCCC where he earned tenure before accepting the Canisius position.

In addition to teaching and writing, Gansworth continues to pursue painting. His work has been exhibited in solo and group shows across New York, including venues such as the Niagara Arts and Culture Center and the Castellani Museum. 

“I consider myself as much a visual artist as a writer. In Haudenonsaunee communities, the visual and the verbal always go hand in hand,” he said.

“I was lucky in my time at Buffalo State. Though I was an English major, I was able to find both English and fine arts majors as friends. They fed both sides of my spirit at a formative time in my life. Whether they remember or not, I do, and will always consider myself fortunate for my experiences on campus.”

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