31 July 2012


Dá'ák'eh: the whole family goes out and works the fields

Every one plays a part in the preparation of the fields. The youngest members are given seeds. "They represent life, innocence and purity." They represent the seeds themselves. They place the seeds into the broken earth—with their own hands. We rely on them. This becomes a part of who they are, these young people working the field with their elders.

As they grow they experience the process and take the prayers inside their mind and soul. They see their family, from toddlers to elders, out upon the earth taking care of it. She takes care of them in return. This a relationship. They have been a part of this themselves, growing alongside the crops, over the years, some years better than others, but always the process of going out and working the field together.

A lot of people say dá'ák'eh means cornfield. One person is responsible for that field. The person with the tractor. They sit on the seat and start the engine. The engine muffles the prayers of the planter. "The tractor prevents families from passing on tradition and precludes family unity." Ha'ní. They say.

When you understand the word in the context of the life it creates you understand that the whole family goes out and works the field speaks to a unique process of cultivation and a particular experience of time and place. The whole family goes out and works the field requires seasons to accomplish. Winter: tools are prepared, seeds are sorted and stored. Spring: we wait for thunder. Prayers are made. People take their feet out on the earth and bring them together. There is a language between the soles of one and the surface of the other. It is spoken at these moments. Summer: everyone is involved, the plant people (weeds and seedlings), the birds and animals who desire food of their own, and the corn tassels that begin to spill from the husks. Prayers for rain abound. Water is life giving the stalks their reach. Fall: within it there is a harvest, a thin one and a big one.

Late in the season everyone is tired. The earth is weary and she needs rest. The tools need rest too. After every empty stalk has been cleared everyone is given leisure. This time we share to relax and relieve ourselves from fatigue. We lie down. We recline. We stretch ourselves into the shape of sleep beneath cloaks of night and snowfall.

All quotes are from Diné Bizaad: Bínáhoo'aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language by Evangline Parsons Yazzi, Ed.D. and Margaret Speas, Ph.D.

30 July 2012


"Parents had not bothered to teach their children this language [Yiddish]—their mother tongue—nor anything about the beliefs of their forefathers. Neither did they tell them about what had happened to them in the Ghetto and in the camps. In fact, they had hidden their lives from their children and had molded (albeit unintentionally) a life devoid of the thread of family history and without a spark of belief."
(Aharon Appelfeld, Table for One: Under the Light of Jerusalem)

"The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love."
(Junot Diaz, (interview) The Search for Decolonial Love, Part II)

for part one:

I descend from a rape culture—close among shik'éí and saturating this land through the generations. My mother's mother's mother was raped. My eldest aunt was born from that rape. When anything needed an explanation, we would say "you know she was born from," and nothing more. She didn't know who her father was, there were many among us who did not know. That was important, but it did not explain it all. The rape silenced everything. We were formed and ordered by her experience. Shimá sáni's language hid our shame and hate. We learned to speak from her.

Life is spoken within the silence. People and places are revealed by their absence. Language shapes by what can be said and to whom. Silence does not interrupt speeches, the moans, the cries of happiness and despair—silence shapes. I see it on our bodies and in the ripped fabric we clothe ourselves in, calling it family, shik'éí.

In music, the articulation notation legato tells the player that the notes are to be played smoothly. Legato notes are to be connected. The connection is indicated by a curved line, drawn under the notes that are intended to be played without an intervening silence. This notation does not necessarily indicate a slur, though a slur is sometimes the means of expression available on the instrument.

Legato is what is known as an articulation. How is this music to be played? Articulation gives direction.

"This language—their mother tongue—anything about the beliefs—and what happened." These are the curved lines that hold our notes together.

When playing legato on strings virtuosos are known for their ability to play extremely complex runs, permeated with notes, at extreme tempos; on keys one note is held while the other is depressed, allowing the fade to resonate, introducing the new note that takes over without proclaiming a discontinuity from the rest; voices try to sustain vowels and eliminate interruptions by consonants. They call this the line —it should be maintained.

26 July 2012


"Experience remains the unexplored metaphysical terrain of the 21st Century and it is likely that the best scouts will be Indians—not by virtue of superior 'intellect' as commonly understood, but simply because there remains among many of us a predisposition to live in the world as opposed to living on, above, or in control of the world." (Vine Deloria, Jr. and Daniel R. Wildcat, Power and Place: Indian Education in America)

Silko writes about a time when the land is all that survives. It had happened before. It would happen again. People had an age. They would come to the end of it. Many are preparing for that time now. Many have been preparing for ages.

At the time I was afraid. I still dream about the end of this world. I still cling to this life. Her words haunted me, because I knew their truth, though, at times, I am still a child, afraid of knowing.

I spent each day outside with my Grandfather watching him work the dirt. He taught me to respect the plant people and the insects. They were my friends. I spent hours with them, beneath the sun, talking and listening. They told me things: the insects and my Grandfather.

He had a stove just inside the door and would cook what he grew there, on four burners of his own. My Grandmother's stove, with six burners and a griddle, was upstairs. By the time I arrived he'd lost his upstairs privilege.

When he died his sisters sent for me and taught me the intricacies of water. In the city water was easy to come by. I was a child and didn't think beyond the faucet. They lived with rations and each sister had their way to work within the rules and to work around them. They answered to their plants—the city could try to catch them and figure out how to fine them.

Generations of Navajo found happiness and meaning in a world of agriculture, livestock and hand made essentials. Clocks, currency and employment did not dictate their days, nor define their personalities. Land based economies and land based peoples lived and continue to live by the sun and seasons. My grandparents, like many urban Indians, applied their knowledge to their circumstance, using tried and true theories to navigate the very difficult task of raising a family in San Francisco. Tradition helped us retain our shape as humans, as particular humans, informing our daily life, on or off reservation, in or outside of the city.

Today we face the same task our ancestors faced—making choices in a novel world with indigenous knowledge and traditional ethics for guidelines; our goal is to retain our belief in and our ability to be ourselves.

The key to decimating a people for good is to instill hopelessness. Economics, formal education and consumer/media culture emphasize, unequivocally, that living seasonal lives is absurd at best. For generations we have been told that the only way we can survive is to fundamentally change who we are and to completely abandon our knowledge and language.

I learned how to be human in kitchens and cornfields.

I learned our responses in times of crisis, and the practical applications of our philosophy to our contemporary place.

Each of us face an increasingly hostile economic, educational and political terrain, often working long hours and having little time for meaningful relationships.

As a Navajo and a novelist I face the parallel beliefs that my existence, as well as my vocation, is obsolete. The skills, philosophy, oral tradition, and languages, as well as the narrative structure and style of the prose I work within, operate inside a land based oral tradition. This writing is meant to be taken in, contemplated and applied to daily life (activities and decisions). I am consciously offering this content in this form as an alternative to the immediacy and disconnection that characterizes the status quo (on and off line). The Axe is not business as usual. My goal is to create a space and an experience similar to the kitchens and cornfields I grew up in where highly complex historical, scientific, philosophical and spiritual knowledge was presented at a high level so that every member of the family/community could partake in the confidence and joy intrinsic in an indigenous upbringing. These complex stories were told on a seasonal bases and it is often not until your fortieth year of hearing and living that individuals really "begin" to understand. What is elemental is the process.

25 July 2012


URBAN NIZHÓNÍ is my response to D'Arcy McNikle's novel WIND FROM AN ENEMY SKY, Linda Hogan's poem Those Who Thunder, and Gertrude Stein's WARS I HAVE SEEN.

"A man by himself was nothing, a shout in the wind. But men together, each acting for each other and as one—even a strong wind from an enemy sky had to respect their power."

Part One:
Those Who Thunder

The novel opens to a moment when worlds collide and the people must learn a new language. They must translate between peoples and desires. War: the White Man wants them (Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa) to make their heads one (becoming Indians, then becoming Americans). The people desire and are responsible to remain Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa. Part one introduces "those who thunder" through a process of immersion, revealing the way stories walk among us. Like Dorothy Allison's A River of Names the novel is season of stories you step into. You let it wash over you, not attempting to still bits, hoping to identify one drop of water from another.

Indians are not a naked running wild. We live a disciplined life. Reciprocity shapes every relation. War involves a question of enemies. The novel defines these questions of war and warriors. There are no chapter breaks, just a season of stories, one following the other. Illustrating McNikle's point that man alone was nothing. The work assumes and requires the reader develop fluency, through immersion in the oral tradition. Those Who Thunder's narrative cycle and language considers the nature of warriors, war and power, illustrating the role warrior societies have in maintaining order—social and military, among relations and enemies. The novel turns over a stone of truth: once we had each other, that was a lot to have, and that was a lot to lose.

Those Who Thunder refuse to make their heads one and refuse hate. They reveal the way stories provide direction and power through cycles, repetitions, epics and continuity. Part One begins: "The season is here and stories are evenings, one following the other." The first story framing the season, and the entire novel is of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Alfred, one of the novel's two storytellers begins: "Wah. Now I will tell you about the white man's Dream that we make our heads one."

A season of stories: Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851; NIKIL©; Four Bears the Mandan; Karl Bodmer; Language Is Life; Miss Navajo Nation; The Scalped Man; Mato Tope; Francis A. Chardon; Not Afraid of the Enemy; The Arikara Bear Medicine Men; Arikara Ledger Artists; the Navajo Delegation of 1874; Isaac Many Goats; L. Frank; Speaking from the Earth, We Are Gathering Power; Two Stans; Green Bible; waaRUxtií'u'; Urban Nizhóní; Thomas Short Bull; the Arikara Crazy Dog Society.

Understanding requires you place yourself within their world. Warriors and artists are not like other people. Men together create an immersion. Some of the men promised are women.

Men alone are people who refuse relations. Men together realize that sorrow takes its place in the company of words in the open field of silence. The health of the nation requires every part to complete the whole. Destruction, through hate and extermination, is the wind from an enemy sky threatening us all. The Urban Nizhóní are goats. Power, they possess their own, transforming the artifacts of consumer capitalism into the compost of Armageddon. Their powers of digestion are spiritual, manifest in the real. This is not a metaphor. They are real goats eating real metal and wood, and shitting real goat shit. Isaac Many Goats is their leader.

Part Two:
Putting The Sun Back Into the Sky

The novel continues with the artists (warriors) who have come together, transcending time through language and place. They know art markets and international negotiations—archives and road shows. The economy is in our hands and stomachs as we struggle to control images and narratives. Stories continue to walk the earth; we walk beside them. Isaac Many Goats, his Urban Nizhóní and NIKIL in her studio of the street continue into part two.

Putting The Sun Back Into the Sky describes a different beginning, post treaties intended to end The Indian Wars. In this beginning, place defines our world. We retain possession. Our souls cannot be purchased. Our words become weapons. They travel these newly structured networks, one reservation to another, and one city to another. This is a story of what we (Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa, Sioux, and Diné) share: experience and power.

Putting The Sun Back Into the Sky opens with connections and conversations between Indians of all Nations, reflecting new alliances, new understandings, and our varied responses to the white man wanting us to make our heads one. These moments of unity reflect a response to our American Heritage, a shared experience under United States' occupation, a belief among the colonists that they have succeeded: The government has made us Indians—our heads are one.

Putting The Sun Back Into the Sky declares: it is best for humans to be human. We eat. We shit. We make survival. Genocide is a mold that grows on every surface. Dead Indians ferment the mind. We live by staying alive.

A season of stories continues: Short Bull; the Ghost Dance; Wounded Knee; One Kernel of Corn Woman; Stuwi; Garbage Warrior; Pine Ridge Earthship; MHA Nation Direct Living; White Headed Eagle addresses the Great Black Father; The Horse and the Hoe; the Gun and the Loyalty of Dogs; the Forgotten Ear; Pawnee Grass Dance, the Diné Policy Institute; and Isaac Many Goats and his Urban Nizhóní.

Putting The Sun Back Into the Sky ends as Isaac Many Goats and his Urban Nizhóní make their way along this warpath, north to the MHA Nation, among the descendants of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, among kitchen and cornfield warriors, those who keep the stories through action. They are those, like Gertrude Stein in WARS I HAVE SEEN, who say: "A long war like this makes you realize the society you really prefer." They run the food joints that can't pass code, publicly declaring our existence. These people live in their own language. They are who they are, strong enough to face the emotion life raises, reaching into the unknown and developing a relationship with it. They live by staying alive. They know war is weak; it cannot destroy everything. They know books and peach orchards can be burnt, but the people go on.

You can read the novel at Urban Nizhóní.

24 July 2012


"Two speakers must not, and never do, completely understand each other; they must remain only partially satisfied with each other's replies, because the continuation of dialogue is in large part dependent on neither party knowing exactly what the other means. Thus true communication never makes languages sound the same, never erases boundaries, never pretends to a perfect fit."
(Wayne C. Booth, introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson)

I have found myself in a narrow world. I have always sought an escape. I often find one in language.

Circumstance—ill health, war, and poverty—often leads to a narrowing of worlds. Survivors, of environments that have closed in, share experiences that often result in a code of ethics among the survivors.

They have bonded. You, if you stand outside, cannot understand. They are sure of it. They are right in their understanding. I don't think we can "completely understand each other." Problems derive from the belief that we should never try.

It is not necessary to so completely dissolve the space between us that it ceases to exist.

My world is shaped by bridges, some natural, others constructed over years. Some of these bridges are near. Some require a great and costly journey to even glimpse them in the distance. They change light. They offer a means of travel. Some are rainbows. Some are stone. Others hard metal stolen from the earth, our mother.

I was in Minneapolis when their great bridge fell. Many were injured as a result of neglect. Bridges must be maintained—at a cost. They cannot be erected from bodies that tire and decay. Bodies are not bridges. We should not suffer the illusion that bridges are problems belonging to others—those not I. Even those who rest confident in their refusal to travel anywhere outside their understandings.

Circumstance—health, peace and wealth—often leads to a narrowing of worlds. Celebrants of these circumstances often develop calluses. The thick and hard are insensitive to meaning. Meanings are fragile, subtle and supple. They cannot bear the weight of hate (of oneself or others).

Survivors and celebrants share in this, the development of codes and calluses. We must work on the project of translation (from me and mine, to you and yours) in light of these bonds and in consequence of these calluses. They keep us from hearing and from recognizing each other's speech as language. They leave us incomprehensible, and estranged with nothing to say to each other.

The idea that "we must not, and never do, completely understand each other" offers several possibilities: continuity, responsibility, compassion and patience.

The idea that "we must not, and never do, completely understand each other" also rests on one significant assumption: desire.

23 July 2012


"So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives. I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn't a hiding place. It's a finding place.
(Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal)

Reviewers of Adrian C. Louis' Ceremonies of the Damned say it's a book about Alzheimer's and the loss of love. The poems are "tough-minded and moving." The book "elegant, crafty and a quiet victory."

I don't claim to understand Louis' work. I need it. It floats in troubled water. My constant refrain while swimming is "don't drown don't drown don't drown." I reach the edge and hold on. I can no longer swim in public pools and I'm afraid to take to the ocean. Still the waters overwhelm me. They are familiar. I think they are familiar to Louis.

The summer of 97 was cruel, or maybe it was the woman. I was teaching a summer class on American Indian Literature (full of the men I loved) and doing research for $10 an hour. I was also packing boxes for the impending move to Riverside California. The woman, my woman, got a job and we were taking it—together. For 5 years we had done everything (except write and file my dissertation) together.

Days before the move she left me for a man, well maybe not a man, but because she didn't know if this was all there was and if it was, well, maybe there was more. Maybe there would be more with him. "Lesbians." That was what she didn't want. She didn't want to be walking down the street and have someone yell that at her. It had happened before. She didn't want it to happen again. When they walked down the street people got out of the way. How could I compete with a six foot something Black man?

I haven't written, or talked about this, for fifteen years. I haven't avoided it. I haven't felt it necessary. The particulars of that end are an ugliness I chose to turn away from. But that summer I was teaching, and every day I had to stop crying and stand before a room of humans and say something.

I couldn't figure out why I assigned these men (Louis, Vizenor, Ortiz and Alexie). What was I thinking? So much violence. How would I survive? I thought I could illuminate the beauty within the violence. Hubris.

Three days a week I imprison you
among the shrieking aged,
the palsied pukers, the damned
and abandoned, the certifiably insane.
I do this because I am weak
and I think I'm going crazy, too.

(Adrian C. Louis, Ceremonies of the Damned)

I have always refused to accept the notion that the damage has defined us, but that summer I realized I spent too much time fingering the hole of despair—my own and the collective. Fifteen years later I am only beginning to face the impact of mental illness on my soul. The relationship between that end and recent others. Seeking compassion for myself within rigorous honesty. Understanding that "Sometimes it's hard to comprehend that ceremonies of the damned are useless."

I know there is no alibi in being. We can be, more beautiful than broken.

20 July 2012


"I have indeed seen and felt the beautiful in the simple, but to see and to paint are not the same thing. The best that an artist can hope is to persuade those who have eyes to look also." (George Sand, Notice to The Haunted Pool)

The Axe is one month old with just over 400 readers!

I want to thank everyone reading in the United States, Germany, Russia, Colombia, France, India and Mexico.


Mail bag still empty.

19 July 2012


In Beyond the Writer's Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction Carol Bly presents a challenging project: 100 stories.

She suggests we ask children to endeavor to learn, verbatim, 100 stories by the age of 18. She does not, as emphatically or clearly, state that this attempt, this devotion, requires they have access to 100 stories, and a person to listen to their recitations. I ask that you keep this in mind as you read along and determine how this project can work for you (regardless of your age).

Bly argues for the merits of this project, offering the following observations:
1. Storytellers use Language.
2. If children are asked to memorize great stories—they will use classic language.
3. They will hear themselves speaking great words.
4. They will hear themselves narrating the lives of creatures very unlike themselves.
5. They will directly experience something other.

This lays the groundwork for many things.

I ask you to add to the notion of classic languages, the project of learning and using ancestral languages (often considered endangered, impracticable, extinct, or obsolete) for your own 100 Stories project.

Bly further argues that memorizing and telling 100 stories (to listeners) lays the foundation for empathy. Children will fill their mind with classical feelings and humor. She also writes, for the purpose of this project, "do not translate the language of each story into something familiar, current or provincial." She says you will lose the wonder and the tone—I agree and add you will lose much more.

Bly writes: "Children love strangeness if they're not afraid of it, and they are not afraid of it when they get to say the strange words in their own voice. When they tell stories of unlike creatures and unlike places they free-heartedly exercise curiosity about otherness—about things that will never be like what they know."

Further details about the project, as defined by Bly are on pages 163-170.

Some insights I had while reading Bly's project and her understanding of story. Her 100 stories project provides a concrete way (for people who do know how) to relate to the unknown, without killing it. She asks the young storyteller, and the related listener, to allow the mystery of the unknown and to memorize its language. She asks them (us) to relate to others without changing them, or reducing them to the known, the understandable or the same. She asks the young storyteller not to kill others, but to take the details of them into our mind and memorize them. Perhaps so we can recognize them when we encounter them? Perhaps to know they exist, even if we never have the honor of meeting them.

Many might ask who does this?

I do.
We do.
The Urban Nizhóní do.

Many ask who has the time to do this? (Meaning memorizing stories is impossible, or not worthwhile.)

I've heard and been persecuted by the notion that the oral tradition is always one generation from extinction. Stories need someone to tell them. They need someone to listen to them. Given the state of books and libraries I have an easier time now when I make my argument that books and archives are equally vulnerable to loss (by decidedly different means and methods). They need someone to care for them and read them too.

Devoting our lives to the stories that walk among us is more then a contemporary possibility, or a creative nonfiction workshop idea, it is an essential part of the project of life.

This project has merit, especially when you make a devotion to the stories themselves and the ethics of storytelling. Please remember, this project is not founded on theft. Do not go stealing stories. Make an honest and true devotion to story and start there. Start with your own stories, respect them. If you do not have access to them, start asking around, start reading.

18 July 2012


"The situation [K. looking for the crime himself—in his actions and history] is not at all unreal: this is actually the way some simple women hounded by misfortune will wonder: what have I done wrong? And begin to comb her past, examining not only her actions but her words and her secret thoughts in an effort to comprehend God's anger." (Kundera, Testaments Betrayed)

I recommend Breon Mitchell's translation of The Trial released as The Trial: A New Translation Based on the Restored Text, Cornell University Edition, ©1998 Schocken Books Inc.

Just as Beckett sat with Caravaggio's The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, I invite you to sit with The Trial yourself. Read it—not what other people say about it (practicing this week's theme, making a relationship to original art yourself).

I believe it is necessary to experience the novel—for the first or for the 100th time. Give yourself over to the world of it. Do not let go of your own world (you have the responsibility to know that world, reside in it, and participate in it). Be able to hold in place, across time, both worlds simultaneously, the world of the self and the world of the text. Bring them together without losing the integrity of either. From there we can discuss. This is not a forum for me to tell you what to think about a particular piece of art, but to encourage you to read specific pieces (novels in this case) that have changed me.

Calvino devotes the entire chapter (11) of If On A Winter's Night A Traveler to describing readers. [The whole book can be said to be a description of reading, but chapter 11 is particularly pointed.]

Last week's novel entry also discussed being a competent reader.
link: http://jaatarats.blogspot.com/2012/07/novels_11.html

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." I accept a world where this is true. I seek it out.

Hearing Radmilla: http://vimeo.com/13113380

"The creation of an integral self is the work of a lifetime, and although that work can never be completed. It is nonetheless an ethical responsibility." (Morson & Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics)

Ms. Radmilla Cody and Ms. Angela Webb, do not believe in simple women. Many of us comb our pasts, sifting through actions, words, and secret thoughts in an effort to comprehend God's anger. Many of us know the Gods are not angry—in this sense, seeking personal retribution, and exacting daily punishments for our existence. We are not simple women. We have stood before life and made a statement—some times lacking in eloquence, but statements nonetheless.

17 July 2012


E'e'aah: sunset, the sun is setting.

The cardinal points:

Ha'a'aah: East: Thought
Shádi'áah: South: Plans
E'e'aah: West: Life
Náhookos: North: Hope

Shił hózhóní
(the Area) is beautiful with me.
Nił hózhóní
(the Area) is beautiful with you.
Bił hózhóní
(the Area) is beautiful with him/her.
Nihił hózhóní
(the Area) is beautiful with us (2)/you (2).
Nihił dahózhóní
(the Area) is beautiful with us (3+)/you (3+).

Everyone is deeply concerned with the Mayan Prophecy and the end of days. I've been told not to expect the end of days, only the end of the time of struggle.

The Hopi say: remove the word struggle from your vocabulary.

The Navajo know the way to approach evil is to acknowledge its existence and to step away. We must not pour our energy into becoming destroyers. The world is full of destruction already. Our way is to restore balance. Hózhó. Beauty. Harmony. Health.

Begin in the east with the time of infancy, birth. Move toward the south, entering childhood. Taking on responsibilities we move west. As we age, we know life continues. The black north is a place of hope.

"'Spain,' said de Foxa, 'is a sensuous and funeral land, but not a land of ghosts. The home of the ghosts is the North. In the streets of Spanish towns you meet corpses, but not ghosts.' He talked about that odor of death that pervades all of Spanish art and literature." (Curzio Malaparte, Kaputt)

Several people have explained to me that life is a route to death. We are born and there begins our journey. Death: the destination. Everyone goes there, we may meet along the way or we may sojourn alone, but eventually we arrive among them, the dead, our future.

I know several books translated from Navajo into English, one into Gaelic, but none into Spanish. Bringing these worlds into contact has passed. We live with the consequence. Our lives our different: Diné Bizaad and Español. Translation has been difficult. We have lost many in the process. They choke. They transform. The think they can exist in one and not the other. They are right. They are wrong. We hold several things in the balance. We must take several things into consideration. Philosophy is esoteric. At the same time in the same place, we understand—land, direction, Telos—differently. Sometimes those differences are fundamental. A silence we must account for, and allow, in our transcription of the music.

16 July 2012


"Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with 'filler,' do away with whatever came from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say.)" (Kundera, Encounter)

"Metaphysical angst, he had learned, could be profoundly disquieting and depressing but it was seldom life-threatening, except for those few individuals who could not live with their awareness of the void and committed suicide. Many of the features of Beckett's later prose and plays arise directly from his experiences of radical uncertainty, disorientation, exile, hunger and need." (Knowlson, Damned to Fame)

After recovering from surgery to restore his sight Beckett and Suzanne went on a trip to Malta. He saw one thing which made the trip worth the trouble, St. John's Cathedral in Valletta. He wanted to see the famous signed Caravaggio: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.

He sat in front of the painting for an hour. It was "a great painting, really tremendous." He began Not I shortly later.

Sit in front of the painting for an hour yourself. Make a relationship with it. Don't let me tell you how you connect. Take the opportunity to connect yourself. Ask, what is my relationship to this piece of work? I know the Baptist. I have sat among the words. I have studied the holy cards from my Grandmother's collection so fully I can recall each image instantaneously.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is unlike any painting of St. John the Baptist I've seen. When I first read that Not I was begun after the work titled The Beheading of St. John the Baptist I thought, of course, "one of the most strikingly innovative pieces of modern theatre, an illuminated mouth, set high in the darkness to stage left, spews out words at an astonishing pace, telling of a sad, lonely silent life." (Knowlson, Damned to Fame)

I think of this play all the time. The first production nearly destroyed the actress (Billie Whitelaw) who played Mouth. She couldn't withstand the language—the pace of it, the lack of logic, the voice, the inflection (he wanted none, just the words in an ordered but incomprehensible stream), the physical delivery. She almost gave up. After a breakdown she tried again.

What Beckett said about her, Mouth in Pas Moi: "And I heard 'her' saying what I wrote in Not I. I actually heard it."

When asked about the voice, he said to read The Unnamable. The voice is there already. "It issues from me, it fills me, it clamours against my walls, it is not mine, I can't stop it, I can't prevent it, from tearing me, racking me, assailing me. It is not mine, I have none, I have no voice and must speak, this is all I know." (Beckett, The Unnamable)

When I read his work I am lost in the flood of words. I let go of the shores of reason and give myself over to the current. He is a loving and gentle writer and never holds me under. Something—his cadence, his vision, his compassion—keeps my head above, providing me access to air, and then I lift myself from his world, his vocabulary. I feel soothed. He has, in not answering, answered. Perhaps this is the most you can say to the void, "I have no voice and must speak, this is all I know."

12 July 2012


"Here we see that what is terrifying and inconceivable is not the infinite void, but existence." (Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium)

It's difficult to avoid the dead in Prague.

Every place remembers: Slaves were sold at the Týn Courtyard.

There are people who cannot recall their origins.

The Nazis closed the Prague Jewish Museum (established in 1906 to preserve holy objects from Synagogues demolished during Josefov' slum clearances of the turn of the century) on March 15, 1939. Their plan: Create a Central Jewish Museum for the documentation of an extinct race. Their method: Collect objects from Jewish communities from Bohemia and Moravia, catalogue and store them. Exterminate the people. What they accomplished: The world's largest collection of sacred Jewish objects, simultaneously serving as a memorial to seven centuries of oppression.

Every place remembers: Yad Vashem is a memorial for the anti-Jewish Holocaust in Jerusalem.

There are people who cannot recognize their relations.

Yad Vashem memorial has a library (with an online searchable database) that catalogues the names of the more than six million victims from the Shoah period. The library keeps the names of these people, and information about where they lived, where they were born, anything that could be known or remembered about them. The point is to state definitively that they existed, they had lives and they mattered. Those who died were not without names or bodies. They were not a mass to be buried; they were human beings.

Every place remembers: Hwééldih: (Bosque Redondo Reservation) Place created at Fort Sumner, New Mexico to incarcerate the Navajo and Mescalero Apache from 1864-1868.

They say those bought and sold on the Long Walk to Hwééldih leave no trace. Their survival transformed them into shapes left outside of documents and collections. When baptized they were truly born again, outside k'éí. They ceased to be relevant as they lost their name, their origin, and their means of locating themselves among their relations. They exist only in the space between enslavement and extermination, a vestigial organ, a biological degenerate, something or someone that once was but has disappeared, passed away, without a mark or sign. A creature that functioned, once, at an earlier stage in the development of this, our species.

11 July 2012


"Only purely mechanistic relationships are not dialogic, and Dostoevsky categorically denied their importance for understanding and interpreting life and the acts of man. " (M. Bakhtin)

"Thus all relationships among external and internal parts and elements of his novel are dialogic in character, and he structured the novel as a whole as a 'great dialogue.'" (M. Bakhtin)

This is not about Dostoevsky.

This is about being a competent reader.

"What does it mean to be a 'competent reader' of Bakhtin? Surely it means to hear a dialogue, perhaps even to recognize the major voices embedded in it, but it must be a dialogue where no voice is done the 'slightest violence.'" (W. Booth)

Life requires competent readers. Novels require life. Stories describe and ensure our survival, our continuity, our particular understanding of being human. Novels offer us a point of entry into the great dialogue itself. Hearing, recognizing and ensuring that no voice is done even the "slightest violence" can create a world very different from this one. I have taken this project on as a moral and ethical responsibility.

"suffice it to say . . .'the whole' is not a finished entity; it is always a relationship." (W. Booth)

A relationship between the work (art) and the worker (artist). T'áá ałtso ałhił ka'iijée'go. Every thing in the universe is related. A relationship between the speaker and the listener. T'áá ałtso ałhił ka'iijée'go. No word exists in isolation. T'áá ałtso ałhił ka'iijée'go. No person exists without place. T'áá ałtso ałhił ka'iijée'go. Every relation requires an ethics of exchange, an agreement between beings, a willingness to be inside oneself while another is wholely inside themselves as well. Unity and empathy are not achieved by dissolution. The great dialogue is an exchange over time and across terrain (metaphysical, ideological, and geographical), where we do not disintegrate, or retain such rigid exteriors that we cannot hear, and perhaps even recognize the major voices.

Recognition requires developing an ear.

Recognition reaquires familiarity.

Recognition requires vulnerability and a willingness to being seen yourself.

all quotes are from: Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson, Introduction by Wayne C. Booth, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 8

10 July 2012


"That one aspect of Bakhtin's style most inseparable from his personality is the developing idea. Its subtle shifts, redundancies, self-quotations—ultimately, its open-endedness—is the genre in which, and with which, he worked. To translate Bakhtin, I suggest, is therefore not only to translate the ideas (they can be paraphrased) but also to reproduce the sound of the open-ended, self-developing idea. This would be his 'conversation in progress,' his dialogue about dialogue, his interlocution with readers who have still to respond." (Wayne C. Booth, introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson)

As a writer and language learner I am constantly trying to use the right word in the right way. I also believe, as a language learner, that making mistakes is a form of community service. The more people laugh, the better.

Different language communities take different approaches to correcting mistakes, and maintain radically different stances regarding when you are ready to speak and when you should just learn and listen. I suppose, like child rearing and dog ownership, this really is an artifact of the parent/owner/teacher involved. Some are loving and playful and others authoritative bullies (I include dog owners who let their dogs run and pounce on strangers, because "they love people so much" as members of the authoritative bully kind).

When speaking I don't mind being laughed at, except in English (which is my first language, and the one I am corrected in most, but that's another idea, developing). But in writing I am afraid. I try to get it right and have often asked others (native speakers) to read over work (though none have been willing to, which is another idea, developing), so I don't write some ridiculous twattle that only makes sense to me.

I had a neighbor from Brazil. We'd spend hours talking. I would talk to her in Spanish. And she would talk to me in Portuguese. We'd laugh. We'd be serious. This time, talking together, bridged the 20 year difference in our age, and the dramatic variation of our experience. My wife would sometimes be with us and would answer in English. My friend's daughter would sometimes be with us and she would answer in English too. They found us amusing. When I'd get stuck for a word or phrase I'd ask her daughter to translate. They'd laugh, her daughter and my wife, and tell us both: you are not talking Spanish and you are not talking Portuguese. We have no idea what you are saying.

A few years ago I wrote my first full page in Navajo. It might be a total mess, but it is true to the people speaking (who are a total mess themselves).

I believe in writing—in the oral tradition—taking language for what it is, an opportunity, a translation. But it was only after reading Leslie Silko's Turqouise Ledge that I started to allow myself to write as freely as I speak. To use my language books, my dictionaries, my tapes to work for me in the project of communication. Keeping our languages alive requires us to speak. Keeping them in print requires a willingness to ask others to speak them as well. Most of the work I read is in translation, and every work I read has some French, Spanish, German, Czech, Italian and Polish thrown in, even if only the names, that require pronounciation. I struggle to get my tongue and teeth around them. I feel them. I hear them. I take them in, literally. They, the translators of these works, expect me to know these languages. The languages have enough weight to warrant the expectation—so they go in the translation, un-translated.

I'm writing with that in mind, knowing the languages I work with (learning and speaking) have the same amount of weight in my own life. So they go in too, un-italicized and un-translated.

My developing idea is this: if to translate is not to betray, and all language is communication, then we should make the attempt to reach from one area in language to another. Sometimes those areas are between people, but they are often within a person themselves. Allowing those areas, allowing the elasticity of mind required of reading through, makes translation difficult and rewarding. Attempting an honest experience of these moments between asks more of the world and from ourselves, and requires that we not only speak, but respond.

09 July 2012


"We come into consciousness speaking a language already permeated with many voices—a social, not a private language. From the beginning, we are 'polyglot.' Already in process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, clan, class, religion, country. We grow in consciousness by taking in more voices as 'authoritatively persuasive' and then by learning which to accept as 'internally persuasive.'"

E. B. White claims that to develop style we must accept the whole body of language, not hack it to bits. We must cherish language's form, the classic as well as the modern. We must accept language's variety, its richness. I like White. I often turn to his Elements of Style, especially as I navigate the field of American English and grammar with a style of my own, careful not to hack myself to bits in the process.

"Finally we achieve, if we are lucky, a kind of individuality."

This is the project. Reading over my work, the best writing achieves a kind of individuality. This has been my goal and my great difficulty. Not in achieving that voice, but in accepting and expressing it. I read outside my area. I live outside my area. I speak outside my area. Migration shapes the whole of my vision and my word choice. Emergence from lower worlds, along trade routes and looking for labor, I am aware of the need to hold simultaneous realities in focus while retaining some impression of my own, something to carry with me from here to there.

"But it is never a private or autonomous individuality in the western sense; except when we maim ourselves arbitrarily to monologue, we always speak a chorus of languages."

I went to Presentation High School for girls in San Francisco to show the world we weren't heathens. I wanted to go Lowell. My first year at Pres. is best described by three (four) words: Old English 800 (tall). My second by one: Smirnoff. These were the years I started dreaming of Jesus.

I stand in a field of blinding light. I hear a moan. Slowly, bit by bit, I can see the field is flesh, the flesh is seared. The vision at a distance, comes nearer. Who is doing this? Where am I? I can see the searing. I keep looking. The moaning grows louder and more frequent. I breathe fast. I am warmed by fear. I am burning myself. I am afraid of dying by fire. The field of white is flesh. I understand, at this moment, flesh marked by burning circles of blood. There are so many they look like freckles, the white turns red beneath them. My eyes, I can see out from them. I see a man. He turns. I see his face. It is Jesus. I ask him who is doing this? Why don't they stop? He can not answer me. He can only moan. He looks down. I follow his eyes. The field of white is his back. I keep looking. It is me. I stand on top. If I could only stand still, but I keep moving. I cannot stop. I keep moving. I wake tied in sheets. My skin a fever.

This was a dream. I told myself, stepping into it, waking out of if. This was a dream. Half of my family took the waters (though more are being born again, a plague of frogs among us). Death through resurrection. Colonization through baptism. Papal Bulls and high school diplomas. I am dreaming. I am found. In a field of words I find myself.

"Anyone who has not been maimed by some imposed 'ideology in the narrow sense,' anyone who is not an 'ideologue,' respects the fact that each of us is a 'we,' not an 'I.' Polyphony, the miracle of our 'dialogical' lives together, is thus both a fact of life and in its higher reaches, a value to be pursued endlessly."

A river of words, a river of names, we wade in deep and sometimes we drown. One I thinking it exists alone, able to offer definitive proof of a status higher than heathen.

all quotes are from Wayne C. Booth's introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

06 July 2012

Letters to the Editor

Mail bag: empty

"You got to help me. I can't do it all by myself."
Sonny Boy Williamson

05 July 2012


from Curzio Malaparte's The History of a Manuscript (Kaputt, 1944)

"Let us hope that the new era will really be anew and that writers will enjoy liberty and respect, I say 'let us hope' not because I lack faith in liberty and its benefits—I belong to that group of people who have suffered imprisonment and deportation to the Island of Lipari for their freedom of spirit and their contribution to the cause of liberty—but because we all know how difficult it is in Italy and throughout large sections of Europe to be a human being, and how dangerous it is to be a writer."

These words were written about a time not unlike these, our own. I write with the same hopes and the same sentiment, always attentive to the difficulties of being human and the dangers of being a writer.

I constantly justify my work—novels, Navajo language, traditional arts and culture. Language itself seems to have become obsolete. Hand prepared meals and non gmo food elitist. Home a class struggle by a small percentage of people that refuse to even consider the ethics of occupying an occupied territory.

Even other artists ask me what I get out of writing—what's in it for me. Where is my fun? And why don't I make the change to something shorter and more interactive, something more likely to interface with the contemporary world, not this world I seem to believe in, this world of my grandparents.

They raised me. Their world is not a memory, but a reality I still build, around myself, every morning with herbs ground in my great grandmother's molcajete. We live in the same world, they have gone on, while I remain. This is the world they lived in: facing urbanization, baptism, English only and relocation/deportation. They planted food. They told stories. They embroidered cloth and fabricated garments from the remnants of the food we had eaten—its containers made of cotton, not hide. They clothed us in their knowledge of what it meant to be alive. Life required vision: to be human. This is the kind of human we are: cook, farmer and embroiderer.

They remind me to remember who I am and who I am related to: Navajo, Pueblo, Congolese. Writers make connections according to a grammar they find within their soul. Together, being human and making connections, I am vulnerable to severe fiscal and social punishment. It has always been this way, for a long time, in large sections of Europe and in these United States of America.

My grandparents fought. They fought each other most of all. But their overwhelming disagreement was how to achieve victory, not the absolute need to defeat the lies they found themselves under the weight of. This is their world. We live inside it too.

04 July 2012


Almost everyone agrees: Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

"You told me that that man we visited today, the one with the hollow eyes, put an end to slavery, huh? But I'm afraid that our people are still being bought and sold, even though they are dead—and have been for hundreds of years! Even worse, some of the people are not whole. They remain in bits and pieces, and yet these people are also being traded, bought and sold, like so many sheep! When does it stop?"
Anna Lee Walters, Ghost Singer

While the nation has been celebrating Juneteenth—"the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States"— few know that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, was not applied to Indian slaves. Our slavery was not regarded involuntary. When Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19th,1865, with news that the civil war had ended and slaves were freed Indian slaves, Navajos among them, were still being held in bondage. Joint Resolution No. 65 was passed five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, on July 27, 1868. The resolution gave "General William T. Sherman power/authority to use the most efficient means at his disposal to reclaim from bondage the women and children of Navajo and other tribes then held in bondage and return them to their respective reservations."

New Mexicans resisted and fought. They were successful and maintained their hold, culturally and legally, upon their slaves. Revealing that "[l]aw . . .is merely that complex of rules which has the coercive power of the state behind it." (Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study)

"For the most part, Indians carried to Rio Grande settlements and sold into slavery were lost forever to both tribe and kinsmen—as no treaty clause could induce New Mexicans to release property they had paid as high as $200 per head for." (Lynn Baily, Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest)

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter began as a novel.
I'm not suggesting you read it.
Briefly, (from the film adaptation):
"History remembers the battle but forgets the blood."
"However history remembers me before I was president, it shall only remember a fraction of the truth."
"I shall always think of myself first and foremost, as a hunter."
"I shall kill them all."

I've written about Lincoln and his historical record before: http://reidgomez.blogspot.com/2009/02/ke-heathens-and-homosexuals.html

Vampires want a nation of their own.

"Eye Killer awakened beneath a shroud of soil. Sand and dead wood pressed upon his body. He worked the muscles of his arms and flexed each cord in his hands, relishing the pull of reknitted tendons. Taut as bowstrings, he thought. And at the tip of each finger, arrowheads of iron." A. A. Carr, Eye Killers

Vile necromancers—we have warriors too: Johnnie Navajo (Ghost Singer), Anna and Wilbur Snake (Ghost Singer), Nasbah Navajo (Ghost Singer), Michael Roanhorse (Eye Killers), and Diana Logan (Eye Killers)

"Truth is facing ourselves, and seeing what we is, and swallowing the taste of it. We have to know this to live and to keep on living."
Anna Lee Walters, Ghost Singer

For the truth about slavery read: Ghost Singer
For the truth about vampires read: Eye Killers

03 July 2012


"I use words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others or let me be silent."
Samuel Beckett, Endgame

". . .with the Holocaust. Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology. Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human realm. That is not a mechanical problem, but an essential one. . .I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual and his language, to rescue the suffering from huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity and to restore the person's given and family name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him."
Aharaon Appelfeld, Beyond Despair

Sometimes I sit and read my dictionary. It's a huge Webster's New World dictionary I was given in grammar school. For a long time I hated dictionaries. You had to spell to use them. I was never a good speller. And while I currently spell better, homonyms are my Nemesis.

But I read. And I read the dictionary to find words.

I didn't start this till I took an Anthropology class while an undergraduate at Cal. Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe was our teaching assistant. We didn't have sections but she read and commented on our papers. She was eloquent, uncorrupted and uncompromising. I wanted to impress her. She assigned Malcom X's Autobiography. I read how he taught himself to read while in prison by reading the dictionary. He was like the men in my family—but they never made the changes necessary to claim El Hajj. They staid where they stayed.

I always arrived to class early and sat in the front. I was terrified of flunking out. I still lived at home and attended meetings every night in the city. On the weekends I locked myself in my room to read and memorize. During the week I rode BART to campus and squeezed myself into seats and paradigms. I was always mispronouncing. People had no shame in correcting me. I felt stupid—and often still do, when people correct my English, at the store buying groceries.

For our final we were required to write about home, using several of the texts. I only remember Malcom, Jayne's lecture on the Rastafari and Anthony Garcia's lecture on Urban Indians. (This was the only class I took at Cal, outside the Native American Studies department that even mentioned Indians—except for a cultural Anthropology screening of Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area? I had to leave midway through. I couldn't stand it.)

I'm not sure how I answered the question of home, when my world was bound by the daily journey from house, to work, to class and to meeting, but I know I couldn't speak. I started to go by the tag line: silent. Shaping words was beyond me. I was simply trying to get from one world to another intact. Getting to a meeting at the end of the day was a successful day, getting up in the morning a successful night. The process of translation requires a similar desire: to move from one place to another with something remaining—though it remains changed, it remains nonetheless.

In my experience home is not a place to speak from. Voice originates in the process of transformation and the desire to carry that over—from San Francisco to Cal, from Navajo to English, from here to there and from me to you.

02 July 2012


Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium were written in anticipation of his delivery of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1985-1986.

In his memo on exactitude he wrote:

"It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty—that is, the use of words."

Twenty six years later my own use of English is strained in conversation—I take a slow pace, meticulous and careful, thoughtful about what I say, and the exact language I use to say it. I am not surrounded by listeners. Certainly not in my public existence: at the market, post office, or among neighbors. Yet I expect more. I've been told these expectations are my downfall.

"It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meanings to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances."

I am not looking for a common language. I am looking for the deep translation required by life. This translation requires a search for meaning, most relevantly, the meaning of particular words for particular moments. A diminished vocabulary results in a diminished existence.

On my first day in High School I walked into Western Civilizations for my final period. Sr. Damien handed out an assignment sheet with the course textbook listed along with Funk & Wagnalls' A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1st ed. 1894). Our assignment: read ten pages, look up every word we did not know, and write down the definition. We should be prepared to discuss the readings. I was twelve. I already knew all there was to know and reading comprehension was my strength. I had the test scores to prove it. So I read away and didn't crack the spine on my Funk & Wagnalls. I only purchased the book because you had to show it to her the next day before you were allowed to take a seat in the classroom. On Friday we sat down and were told to take out a piece of paper and write the definitions of the words listed on the chalkboard. They were all in the reading. If we had done the assignment, we should know every word. If we didn't at first, we should have looked them up. I failed.

"It seems to me that language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner, and this distresses me unbearably."

Sr. Damien's philosophy: if we didn't understand the word we could never understand the reading. The words were assigned, someone had chosen them for us. She would guide us, however twisted the path, through them, page by page. Life does not assign everyone a Sr. Damien. I couldn't wait to get rid of her myself. But there is power in demanding exactness in thought. Everyone deserves to be asked to understand clearly and to express themselves clearly. Access to language is not a privilege. Language is a responsibility we share.

"At this point, I don't wish to dwell on the possible sources of the epidemic, whether they are to be sought in politics, ideology, bureaucratic uniformity, the monotony of the mass media, or the way the schools dispense the culture of the mediocre. What interests me are the possibilities of health. Literature, and perhaps literature alone, can create the antibodies to fight this plague in language."

Whose responsibility is it to reverse the language shift?

In Narratives of Navajo-ness, Deborah House writes about the language shift among speakers of Navajo. She illuminates the solution very astutely, writing: "Reversing Navajo Language shift is the responsibility of those persons who need the language in their lives, and their children's lives and reversing Navajo Language shift can only be done when those individuals who can speak the Navajo language do speak the Navajo language at every opportunity; when those who can't speak the Navajo language, start taking advantage of every opportunity to learn to speak it; when those who can model benefits of speaking the Navajo Language get out there and do model it. It doesn't have to cost a dime."

How it works: speak. (The Oral Tradition)
How it works: read. (The Written Tradition)

House continues: "It's the easiest thing in the world to tell people how to reverse Navajo Language shift, but actually doing it is going to be hard; it's going to be an everyday, day after day, year after year, commitment—at home, in the community, in the Chapter House, at the Trading Post, at school, at work, at prayer, at the polls and wherever else a person happens to be. And just talking about it won't make it happen."

Every day, year after year, a commitment to language, memory, exactness of expression is what carries the people and their knowledge forward. Every day, year after year, we can manifest this commitment in our own speech, in the stories we tell, and those we read. Calvino's belief that literature, maybe even literature alone, can protect us from this plague holds within it the knowledge of a certain attention to language made by writers and readers. We can share this in our speech and in our reading—if we tenaciously endeavor to.