At home with words

Navajo poet to return for Read Across Lawrence programs

Writer Luci Tapahonso has known many homes.

She spent her childhood amid the regal mountains and painted deserts of Navajo country in Shiprock, N.M.

A decade passed while she taught English at Kansas University, taking in Jayhawk basketball games and watching her grandbabies toddle across her front porch.

Since 1999, she's been helping develop young writers at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

But no matter where life has taken her in body, Tapahonso's spirit has always felt most at home with language -- spoken and written, Navajo and English.

"I write every day," she says. "I just like the idea of writing things down and being able to go back and look at them. ... It's so much a part of my life now that I can't not write."

Tapahonso's credits include five collections of poetry and short stories, three children's books and inclusion in numerous poetry anthologies. Her most recent project, "Blue Horses Rush In" (University of Arizona Press, 1999) has been chosen as this year's Read Across Lawrence book.

Tapahonso, whose daughter Lori still lives in Lawrence, will return March 14 for a talk and book signing. We caught up with her in Tucson, where she's anticipating her homecoming.

Q: You write in "Blue Horses" that the function of stories is to entertain. Do stories also play a wider role in Navajo culture?

A: I think storytelling, as well as other literary forms like songs and prayers and different kinds of ritual, have a really important part in Navajo culture in that many times they virtually sustain the culture. These forms held different kinds of information during different periods of Navajo history. The people were able to gain direction and guidance and sustenance, in terms of knowing how to plant and knowing what kinds of vegetation was edible and how to raise livestock and how to live in particular areas. So storytelling is entertainment, but in Navajo ... it has been a necessity in terms of how people think about themselves and how they live.

Q: Why is it important for you to write in your native language in this book?

A: Because I'm Navajo and I speak Navajo. A lot of what I do in terms of talking and everyday life contains the language, and so it's a reflection of the way my life is, I suppose.

Q: You explain in the book's preface that readers always assume you are the main character in your stories. Why do you suppose that is?

A: A lot of the stories were stories that were told to me, and it's kind of a Navajo literary technique that when you're telling someone else's story, you always say this is so and so's story or this is the way I heard this story. And then, when you make that transition into the story, most of the time you assume the first person. When I write it down, it sounds as if the story's my story, but it's not, literally.

It's really the way stories are told. Storytelling in Navajo is very immediate. There's not the same idea in terms of language structure of different verbs or verb tenses. The pronouns work very differently, so the way that people tell stories is very immediate.

Q: When did you begin writing?

A: I didn't publish until I was in college, but I had been writing in the literal sense since I was probably 8 or 9 years old. At that point it was mostly copying things from books. I really liked reading stories like "Nancy Drew" or "Bobbsey Twins." And I used to rewrite those stories, but I would put characters in like from my family or place it in Shiprock or someplace that I knew. It was blatant plagiarism (laughing). So that's how I started writing. I really liked doing that. At that point I was probably too young to realize that people could write their own stories.

Q: You frequently honor Navajo women in your writing. Are women central to Navajo culture in a way they may not be in other cultures?

A: I think they are. I think there's more of an equal status given to women, primarily because our major or our primary deity is a woman and we're a matrilineal culture, meaning that we trace our ancestors through our mothers and our grandmothers. Traditionally, the status was much more equal than in Western culture.

Q: How do you and your family maintain Navajo oral traditions when you gather together?

A: It's very natural. It's about place, first of all, but it's also the people. My family and my relatives are very close, and part of it is catching up on what's going on and telling stories about what people have done since the last time we saw them. But it always turns to memories of what so and so did, and sometimes a lot of laughter and sometimes tears when we talk about people that have passed on.

It's really important for my children and myself and my grandchildren, as Navajos, to understand that there's a lot of encouragement and support that exists in our lives that help us to be strong and to be good people and to be generous -- to try to make the right choices and to do well by our ancestors. So there's a lot of emphasis on my parents and their parents. It's kind of like you're preparing for the future but you also very much realize that the past is what makes us the way that we are.

Q: What do readers stand to learn from reading "Blue Horses"?

A: I would hope that it shows that people have basically the same concerns. Maybe the setting and the people and the language and the way into the stories might be a little different, but I hope that the heart of the work is universal.

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