Ryan McMahon Innovates With 'Powwow Shades of Grey' Twitter Fiction
Twitter fiction is not a new concept, but since 2009, early pioneers have struggled with the art form that strives to publish original works confined to 140 characters or less. Novelist Rick Moody was among the first to try this style of bite-size prose when he began tweeting Some Contemporary Characters three years ago. But the experiment drew criticism in publishing circles after Moody and his collaborators began flooding Twitter feeds with his work.
In November 2011, a writer from Austin, Texas, Sean Hill, evolved the craft upon release of Very Short Stories (Ulysses Press). He culled hundreds of tweets into an entire novel; its seven chapters produced a generic compilation about relationships, life, and death. Converted into an e-book for $9.99, it reads, in many ways, like a collection of curious and colorful quotes.
Few in the Twitter fiction world have successfully serialized a storyline that collectively builds plot and character from one tweet to the next. Earlier this summer, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan tested this technique for the New Yorker magazine in tweeting “Black Box,” an elegant short story about a futuristic female spy. Egan tweeted the tale over the course of ten days for an hour each evening from @NYerfiction. The compilation was later printed in the magazine’s June science fiction issue -- but the Twitter experiment seemed to fizzle out. The printed layout, comprised of 47 text-filled boxes (were they chapters?), failed to explain the significance of the writer’s style or approach. A pay-wall today restricts access to non-subscribers, but a simpler version can be read on the sites PageTurner blog. As for all those original tweets? Presumably lost to the Twittersphere.
Aboriginal comedian Ryan McMahon is trying another method in this emerging genre—one that attempts to preserve the gimmicky qualities inherent in the Twitter fiction form. On July 5th, the Ojibway-Metis comic from Winnipeg, Canada began tweeting Powwow Shades of Grey, a spoof on E.L. James’ bestselling erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. Set against the backdrop of a weekend powwow somewhere in Indian country, McMahon’s first-person narrative follows a young man in his quest to sleep with Glenda Old Crow, a no-nonsense Native woman who wears Coors Light t-shirts, cutoff jeans and a scowl on her face that says "don’t fuck with me." No, this isn’t mommy porn, but rather a Twitter tale infused with raunchy humor and nuanced portrayals of a slice of contemporary indigenous life.
Since it started two weeks ago, Powwow Shades of Grey has been developing into a series of plot-driven chapters emerging from McMahon’s Twitter feed (@RMComedy). Those tweets are then packaged as installments using the curating site Storify. The platform, widely used by journalists and bloggers, is intended to preserve real-time social media moments in which selected tweets, videos, photos and the like can be organized to tell a linear story. McMahon’s microfiction may represent the first time the site has ever been used to publish a Twitter novella. A spokesman for Storify said they can’t recall this happening ever before.
The chapters (which can be accessed at McMahon's Storify page) look and feel like you’re reading a Twitter feed, bringing an added value to the overall Twitter fiction form. As of this writing, Powwow Shades of Grey consists of six chapters, each roughly 40-50 tweets in length. The last and final installment has yet to be released. In between writing chapters five and six, McMahon waited five days before engaging his readers with more content.
Those waiting in anticipation for the final chapter include McMahon’s modest, but enthusiastic following. Upon the tweet-release of chapter 5, @PsteinND messaged: “YES #PowwowShadesofGrey CH#5 has started….YESSSSS.” Over the weekend, @kziervogel asked: “Where is chapter six?”
According to McMahon, his readership—currently 2407 Twitter followers—grew by 400 within the first week of writing his spoof. But he says he also lost about 100 others. McMahon believes some people likely grew weary and even offended by his continuous stream of irreverent tweets. Chapter five unfolded in a three-hour session that introduced readers to Arlene Two Trees, a new-age hand-drum singer who sings poorly, eats organic soy-beef Indian tacos and becomes the unnamed protagonist’s latest object of lust.
Powwow Shades of Grey's accessibility on Storify makes it easy to read on a smartphone, tablet or desktop device. More importantly, it’s also a way to bring the uninitiated reader closer to understanding Native Americans and First Nations peoples through the amusing anecdotes the 35-year-old comedian has deftly created. “You’re gonna walk away with a better understanding of who we are,” said McMahon in a telephone interview. “My goal is to be funny for everyone.”
McMahon grew up about a two-hour car drive north of Red Lake, Minnesota on the Couchiching Reserve in Northwest Ontario. He majored in drama and went on to study comedy at the esteemed Second City Conservatory in Toronto, a satellite program of the original improv theater group based in Chicago. It was there that McMahon said he discovered his voice and began testing his material in stand-up routines and to audiences online. It wasn’t long before he launched his brand identity, Red Man Laughing, the name behind a mobile app designed to stream episodes of his weekly podcast -- a kind of indigenous Howard Stern show featuring interviews with Native American and Aboriginal rockers, actors and other entertainers.
McMahon admits Powwow Shades of Grey happened accidentally when he composed what later became the novel’s opening line: “She had dirt under her fingernails from chasing her kids around the powwow grounds all day & she smelled like camp fire.” Having spent much of his life experiencing powwow culture, McMahon’s laconically vivid narrative depicts a human and hilarious odyssey of sex, lust and falling in and out of love in a setting and style few writers have explored before. At the end of chapter one, the young character goes to the sacred fire in search of guidance to help him win Glenda’s affection. McMahon tweets, “Firekeeper hears my prayer & says, ‘It's messed up that your asking the spirits to help you snag. Good luck with that.’”
What separates McMahon’s Twitter fiction from that of other writers is his brazen mix of erotica and ethnic humor. Its PG-13 content, at times, addresses awkward topics involving masturbation, sexual fantasy—even pubic hair. McMahon says he simply gleans his material from what he knows, while exploiting cultural stereotypes as a way to draw enlightenment for all who reads his work. He spoke about the time he encountered a couple at a powwow having sex in a tent. This scene made its way into his narrative in chapter four. The main character, turned down by Glenda, stumbles upon a similar situation. As McMahon tweets, “They're having 'The Roundest Dance' in that tent. You can tell they're chubby - they're weezin' & barely able to talk.”
As a comedian, McMahon says he’s not afraid to confront the uncomfortable, even if it may challenge indigenous sensitivities about the taboos of sex. “I want [readers] to understand that having sex in a tent is difficult no matter who you are," he says. "It’s just content and writing with integrity that will bring us all closer together. We’re human.”
Having tent-sex becomes the proverbial reward the young protagonist tries to pursue. Along the way, he burns down his own tent, crashes an indigenous wedding, and even joins an all women’s drum circle for the chance of having a one-night stand. But McMahon wisely ends each chapter leaving the reader to guess what will happen next. In chapter six, the hero is swept away by a tree that supernaturally transforms into a powwow dancer. They fly into the future to imagine the unwanted consequences of the young man’s ways. When asking the tree why it has given him this vision, “Tree laughs, ‘Be smart when horny.’ He picks me up. We shoot through the bush. Back across the river, over the hill.’”
Will the hero heed Tree’s warnings? Will he ultimately win the heart of Glenda Old Crow? Presumably we'll find out in Chapter 7. As for McMahon, whether he will try his tweets at another novella has yet to be determined. A husband and father, he’s juggling family life with the challenges of pursuing a career in comedy. Last week, he signed on with a small record label to bring his stand-up routines to an mP3 player near you.