Q&A: Author Vanessa Lillie tackles Indigenous erasure in new thriller

Lille talks “Blood Sisters,” dropping Oct. 31.

It’s a story Vanessa Lillie was finally ready to tell.

The Providence-based novelist has already delivered two solid Rhode Island-set thrillers — “Little Voices” (2019) and “For the Best” (2020) — but what intrigued me most about her latest was the total shift in theme and tone.

Lillie was “ready,” she tells me, to talk about her Oklahoma roots, her Cherokee heritage, and the issues that plague Indigenous communities in her new mystery-with-a-message, “Blood Sisters.”

“I definitely shifted gears,” Lillie tells me with a laugh. “I just felt ready to write about Oklahoma. I knew that when I wrote about being Cherokee, I wanted it to be the heart of the story.”

“Blood Sisters” releases on Halloween — but don’t let that title and publication date fool you. This isn’t some gory horror tale.


It’s a thoughtful, well-plotted entry into the missing-woman sub-genre, and at its heart beats a timely and critical message: “This epidemic of girls going missing has a choke hold on Native people everywhere. No one is listening…” as one character says.

Lillie, a native of Miami, Oklahoma where the story is partially set, has lived in Providence since 2011. She uses this page-turner to get deep: touching on generations of Indigenous mistreatment and erasure and underscoring an urgent message about our connection to the land.  

She begins the novel with a quote she attributes to native wisdom: “What happens to the land happens to the women.” It’s her thesis statement here.

The story: Syd Walker, of Cherokee descent, lives in Exeter, Rhode Island with her pregnant wife (pregnancy craving: Del’s lemonade) and works as an archeologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She’s on a case on Narragansett land when she gets a call to a case in her native Oklahoma: a skull has been found near a crime scene from her youth —  her friend went missing after a home invasion — and now her sister Emma Lou is missing. There are meth cooks, land rights issues, and environmental issues, as Lillie brings the towns of Picher and her native Miami to life.


I called Lillie at her Providence home, where she lives with her husband and son, to talk “Blood Sisters” ahead of the book’s launch on Oct. 31 as well as a series of upcoming events— including a book-launch party on Oct. 30 in Warren, R.I.  Closer to Boston, find her at the Brookline Booksmith Nov. 10 in conversation with Adrienne Keene — the event is co-sponsored by the Indigenous People Celebration Committee of Brookline — and at New England Crime Bake in Dedham Nov. 11.

Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.

Your first two thrillers are very Rhode Island-centric. This one drew from your Oklahoma life.

My first book, being a new mom, the darkness of motherhood was just absolutely all I could see writing about. The second book, I really needed to get into white female privilege. There were a lot of big things I was grappling with. I finally felt I was in a place where I wanted to share being Cherokee and being from Oklahoma. The liberty to share that on my own is a form of privilege. 

And what sparked the storyline?

First, I am Cherokee from Northeastern Oklahoma, and I wanted to write about that aspect. I took the opportunity to learn more. I knew there was a lot to delve into: the environmental disaster, the taking of tribal lands — the reason my family is in northeastern Oklahoma is because of the Trail of Tears —  and I wanted to explore that through a character who has a background I’m familiar with. 


My brother has been in the Bureau of Indian Affairs for his whole career, same with my uncle. I spoke to an archaeologist through the BIA, and was able to develop Syd Walker. I wanted her to be Cherokee with a similar background. Her last name is Walker — the name of my ancestor who was on the Trail of Tears. 

Why did you decide to make Syd Two Spirit and a gay woman?

I am Two Spirit and identify as queer, so it was something I wanted to include. It’s very different than the Western binary view of sexuality—  Two Spirit is the idea of holding both the masculine and the feminine. It can be associated with being queer, but Two Spirit people were historically an important part of ceremonies and rituals. So this was an opportunity to share that there are a lot of different views of people that don’t fit into this traditional gender Western binary structure.

You write in the author’s note that the home invasion was based on a real case you knew of.

I didn’t know them [personally.] The two young women were from one town over from me. It was a home invasion, they were stolen from the home and one of the girl’s parents was murdered, then the house was set on fire. 

The local authorities completely disregarded the family’s concerns. To me, this was just another example of when families — women and girls in particular just aren’t believed or valued. I’ve watched the family search for information. That pain and anger is something I wanted to put into this book — this kind of ongoing injustice.

So how much of this is based on your experience of growing up in Oklahoma?

Pretty much everything aside from the characters and plot. And I did very careful research — even the plot-line around meth. In 2008, there was this shift from, if you want to call it mom-and-pop meth, where they bought products over the counter. Laws came into Oklahoma to prevent that, and suddenly the door was open for Big Meth out of Mexico. There was a real shift of money and quantity and danger around that time.


And what was happening in the towns of Picher and Miami, the history — all of that is real. I grew up next to a creek that ran orange [from] mining pollution. We didn’t really quite understand how serious it was. 

The story opens and closes on Narragansett land here.

Absolutely. Because I live on Narragansett land now I wanted to at least reflect the place where I wrote the story. This is a series so the next book will all be on Narragansett land.

How many books are planned?

Right now the contract is just for two. Hopefully, people will love Syd and want to read more. My dream would be to continue exploring all over the country, having archaeology take Syd to different places and elevating different issues throughout native communities.

The big issue in this book is missing Indigenous women and girls.

And honestly, that’s going to probably be the heart of the series. The quote “What happens to the land happens to the women” — that’s a theme I’ll continue to pursue. There is a direct connection to our relationship with land. If we view it as a resource to be taken and discarded, that’s going to trickle down to how we treat other people, how we view the sacredness of life.

You also brought up the amount of Cherokee blood Syd has. She tells us she “looks white.” You write: “Mom said we were ‘part Cherokee.’…  Grandma seemed angry at my question. ‘You are Cherokee. Counting blood is for white people.”

Exactly. Blood quantum is really a tool of the government to control tribes. Another person doesn’t get to value or define your relationship to your tribe. Number has nothing to do with the relationship you have, the ways in which you try to embody the teachings [of your tribe.] 

It’s extremely common to think that way— it’s not meant to shame anyone — but I hope people learn about the way we’ve been told to look at native people and how often those ways come from a place of erasure.

In your author’s note, you say you write from your “narrow window of  experience as a white-presenting Cherokee woman from Northeast Oklahoma living in Rhode Island.”

The term white-presenting feels right. I feel an internal tension, to acknowledge my white privilege, which absolutely should be acknowledged, but at the same time, I am Cherokee. That struggle is not unique to anyone who has a complex background. I think it maybe even speaks to how we need to listen and learn before we judge.


For me, for now, I feel like the right way to describe it is “white-presenting Cherokee” because to me, that acknowledges my privilege, but also acknowledges my heritage. But also I’m learning and growing. So in a few years, that might not feel right. There are so many people who were ripped out of their culture and there’s no one path for reconnection or deeper connection.

I’m definitely still learning. At the end of the day, I do want to share being Cherokee with people and hopefully, they’ll see in it things that are relevant and valuable for their own lives and their own personal heritage. Because that is the story of America, in a lot of ways.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

To search for stories written by other Indigenous writers, encouraging people to look for those voices. I truly believe the tribes in this country can connect us back to the land. Supporting them is going to lead to us all being in a much more healthy, balanced place. 

Lauren Daley can be reached at [email protected]. She tweets @laurendaley1. 


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