I was eavesdropping on my mother’s and grandmother’s gossip again. They were telling stories about relatives and people we knew. Listening to my extended family tell stories was something I grew with until I got older and could join the storytelling sessions, and to eventually use the oral tradition to launch my own stories and poetry. On that day my mother caught me eavesdropping, she sent me to wash dishes or on some errand. Did she think I was going to repeat the gossip? Did she think the gossip was too adult for my young years? Or did she just not like me being idle when domestic chores needed attending? If I was going to listen to their stories I would have to be more discreet. I wasn’t allowed to break into adult conversation, lest it show rudeness and improper upbringing. “T’áadoo ‘ádá yáníãti’í.” Let not your speech talk over your elders. At the time I didn’t know that listening was one of the best ways to become a writer, especially for my last book, Code Talker Stories, an oral history book. Nevertheless, storytelling wasn’t denied me by my extended family.
On other days my mother told my brothers and me stories as we drove “to town” to shop or visit relatives. My mother was raised by her great grandmother, Meteorite Woman, who didn’t speak English and told my mother a wealth of mythic and extraordinary stories. I was not yet a teen when my mother told us about the brother and sister who turned into prairie dogs due to their parent’s neglect. That story made me shiver and stayed with me for years and was the first story I wrote in a fiction class taught by my instructor and mentor, Rudy Anaya, who helped open the door into my writing world. His only instruction had been to start our story with “Once upon a time,” nothing more. What stories did I have? I asked myself when I got the assignment. Growing up reading the Dick and Jane reading series and library books made me think only non-Indians wrote stories. Absent were Indigenous writers’ voices that are writing and publishing today, writers who I might draw inspiration from. I was to blaze my own trail.
That trail led me back to the stories my mother and her great grandmother told. The prairie dog children story floated onto the page written from memory. Pleased with my story, Rudy Anaya said something that radically transformed me from a wannabe writer to applying for a graduate degree in English and creative writing. Anaya, a New Mexican writer and author of the critically successful, Bless Me Ultima, had also grown up in a community with a strong oral heritage and told me to write stories from my community. I think that was the first time I heard oral tradition. “The stories are all around you.” That was the impetus that I must have needed to give me confidence.
Though I still write stories from my community’s oral tradition, my work does not necessarily solely come from that source anymore. Nevertheless, I see great value in the oral tradition and writing poems and stories to keep them alive for the next generation. Some fiction instructors say not to write what is familiar, while others say, “we write best what we know.” I appreciate the former, especially when working with beginning writers who are learning to scratch below the surface to get to the deeper meaning, to get to the place where the voices of poetry, story, and character can emerge. Dine mythic stories say humans, animals, insects, and birds came into this Glittering World at the place of emergence. Hajiinai. The place of birth, the place of coming into consciousness, the place of a people’s transformation into the present world, the place that marks a story. It must also be the place where creative work comes. I see now that I’ve gone to that place when I’ve written poems and the libretto for Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio, about a veteran who returns with PTSD. The work that I’m most pleased with has come from my visits to Hajiinai. I think it only happens when I release myself from my ordinary life and allow myself to let creation reveal itself. I won’t say one must drop into that place of emergence because I don’t know what is there, but one can certainly draw creation there, like water from a well.
Perhaps as writers, we are saying the same thing but in different words and contexts. In many ways we also have to blaze our own trail as to what works for us and against us. I know I’ll return to the place of emergence to listen when I begin my next major work.