by Jordan McLemore-Moon


Ursula Pike is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work won the 2019 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest in the memoir category, and her writing has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, World Literature Today, and Ligeia Magazine. She has an MA in economics, with a focus on community economic development, and was a Peace Corps fellow at Western Illinois University. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia from 1994 to 1996. An enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe, she was born in California and grew up in Daly City, California, and Portland, Oregon. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.

(from Heyday)

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Ursula and listen to her life experiences, from her time in Mississippi to Bolivia and everywhere in between. Here are some excerpts from our conversation that I found most fascinating!

Telling What Needs to be Told

My book will be the first Peace Corps memoir by a Native American. When I was in Bolivia, I realized I was experiencing something from a different perspective than any of my fellow volunteers. My experience wasn’t something that I had seen written before or portrayed in movies, and I wanted to put [my experience] out there.

“She was there to help Bolivians, but instead they helped her.”

I definitely think that they helped me grow up and recognize things in my own life, background, and tribe that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. There are different ways of doing things and success can be measured differently than the way Western society traditionally measures it. There’s this concept of “service learning” where you recognize the people you are helping are not empty vessels waiting to be filled; they, as people, also provide you experience and perspective.*

As a Native person writing about travel, I heard feedback from other Native people saying, “Wow, I had never thought about that; I have stuff to say about that!” People sometimes limit themselves to certain niches and aspects; I think the world needs more people writing about whatever the hell they want. Everyone has a story and a perspective and something they want to tell. I thoroughly encourage everyone to write what’s in their heart; write what the world needs. Particularly those from marginalized communities and/or BIPOC, I encourage you all to write about what you are passionate about, even if it isn’t within the realm of what you “usually” write, or what you “should” write about. Write about what you want and don’t limit yourself to what you’ve been told to write about, or what you think you should write about.

There are tough moments, especially when you are writing a project as long as a book, where you wonder why you’re doing this, and you get a little lost. Melissa Febos once told me, “There’s a reason this story has stuck with you for so long; explore that!” 

Influential Writing 

I’m a big advocate of ACC’s classes; affordable, accessible classes help more people write and learn to write. I made friends in those first online ACC classes [ten years ago] that I still talk to and share my work with even to this day. Those classes helped me when I was afraid to share my work with anyone.

Stephen King’s advice of “show your writing to someone who doesn’t love you” resonated with me. It’s good to be in a class where the instructor and your classmates (who are readers) can provide feedback and help you grow as a writer and a person.

My favorite piece of writing is an essay by Alice Walker (“In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens”) and I was so inspired by her honesty and vulnerability; it was the kind of thing that made me think this is what I want to write. I’m currently reading “Carry” by Toni Jensen, another native, and it has moments where you have to stop and think, “what an incredible sentence” within its covers.

Writing Tips 

For me, deadlines are key. The year I got this contract with Heyday Books, I told myself I would submit something every two weeks. I would either submit an essay to a journal or pitch my book to an agent or publisher each time. It helped me submit things I might have held onto for a while; it wasn’t perfect, and most of it got rejected, and it took months, but eventually Heyday reached out and we began working on the process of getting the book published.

I have to set specific deadlines for myself so I can call it done, submit it, and move on to the next one. Having deadlines helped me and continue to help me as a writer.

Melissa also gave me a specific piece of advice, “Don’t indulge your strengths.” Each of us as writers are good at certain things, like dialogue, description, or language, and it’s good to know which aspects those are, but knowing your weaknesses will help you create a much more fleshed out piece of writing.

Branching Out (in publishing)

From what I’ve heard, writers who participated in the editorial process gained a better perspective; plenty of journals are looking for readers, editors, and more. It helps [the writers] learn what works and what doesn’t, and it also helps them embrace rejection a little better as well. It helps to understand that, sometimes, it isn’t about the quality of the work, but more about the fit. If the piece doesn’t work with the journal, it doesn’t mean the piece isn’t good

You’ll also gain a better understanding of publishing and becoming published; most writers struggle to pay their bills solely from writing. You can be surrounded by creative minds and gain a better understanding of how to move forward while improving your own work.

I attended a conference where a few of the speakers were African American writers [and publishers/editors] and a note that stuck out to me was the idea of securing and/or looking for editors who have similar experiences as you. The context was securing African American editors for African American writers. One of my editors is Native (Terria Smith), and her experience and insight were invaluable to me; I consider myself extremely lucky to have her assistance in putting my work together.

* There was a bit about her experiences in Bolivia, but I recommend reading Ursula’s book instead of me not giving her personal experience and perspective justice in an abbreviated manner here in this interview. Hope you all enjoyed what she shared with me, and have a wonderful day!

Relevant and Related Links

Ursula’s latest novel:

Ursula’s mentor (and her latest work):

Ursula’s editor:

Last year’s Review Interview: