A Space for Writers of the World
“Love is or love ain’t; thin love ain’t love at all.” – “Beloved,” Toni Morrison.
De-colonization first requires the recognition of historic settler nation-building projects regarding political, economic, linguistic, and spiritual epistemological dominance. The production and ultimate participation in these systems work against another way of knowing created by indigenous people. The tiny prefix, de-, is a violent act against previous ways of knowing. As its Latinate origins suggest, the prefix depicts a reversal, a dismantling, a search for some original, a prime. As a writer and storyteller, I view the blank space and subsequent populating of words and meaningful pauses as a political act, a way to de-colonize the narrative.
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First, I turn to one book that has informed my sense of what a type of storytelling is. It is one source available to almost any student, one circulated in the mighty English departments, gate places for stories: The Norton Anthology of English poetry (2005).
In its survey and presentation of what constitutes worthy poem-stories, the editors of this Anthology have surveyed, “more than eighteen hundred such records from the ‘round earth’s imagined corners’’ – a phrase borrowed from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet VII. These producers of such texts include a handful of anonymous sources, spirituals, hymns, etc., but most importantly, it spans 1,343 years –the collection begins with the Caedmon’s hymn published in 658-680 and ends with Greg Williamson’s “New Year’s A Short Pantoum” published in 2001, which is Malayan form in origin.
Of the 344 writers surveyed and presented in this Anthology and 2,025 pages devoted to these sources’ works; there are 2 Native American writers. About ½ of 1 percent. Of the colossal 2,025 total pages, 3 pages are devoted to these 2 Native American poets’ works. That is 1/10 of 1 percent. These writers are N. Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich.
The two distinct writers produce work within and against the history and form of Anglophone poetry. A pair of lone s/heroes battle for space against the Faerie Queen, Beowulf, Shakespearean couplets and American Structuralists.
In 1,343 years, in this particular edition, there are only 7 poems written by these Native Americans “worth” re-telling, worth printing on a page. 7 poems.
Curiously, Audre Lorde’s poem, “Echoes” is placed right before the first Native American we hear and read in the Norton Anthology of English, which begins:
“There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing noticed only
by others not heard
for the same reason (pg. 1860).”
From not being heard.
Noticed only by others not heard.
I am here to tell you that there is a vast body of knowledge, another epistemology that rivals the form and content of this Anthology.
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Like most stories, I begin with childhood and at home.
The most powerful story gifted to me by my father concerns an old community member from our Navajo reservation named “Hastiin Jahii.” In English, it translates to Man who Doesn’t Listen. Almost every weekend, Hastiin Jahii would drive up to my family’s stead and hail all the kids to get into his truck. My father and his siblings would climb in and clamor with delight. His truck, however, was invisible. A phantom vehicle. He would shift gears and drive all the kids in his invisible truck. And in our language, there was no ‘proper’ or standard way to re-tell this story, no primacy of its verbs or its main character. To everyone, there was a truck, in the story he created for himself and the one that we created with him. There was a valuable man who brought joy and imagination and freedom to children. As such, people would explain that the kids were being driven to the store, and they did not walk single-file behind a man who was hard of hearing. One winter, Hastiin Jahii’ was not seen driving his truck through the drifts of snow. A party went out and found him. In respect, when they returned, and because the story demanded it be told truthfully, the community said, “We found him; he froze in his truck. His tires must have gotten stuck. Got cold waiting for someone.” In the end, our community lifted him, carried him, like he had done with all those kids so long ago, in word and in story. We give him his proper narrative, respected the power he gave everyone listening to and reciting the story. He belonged to something. A place. He simply belonged.
* * * *
Who is listening to our story, noticing when we are absent or silent, as Lorde asserts in her poem? How do we teach our youth that their individual stories deserve not simply to be published, but most importantly, are worth reading, worth hearing, worth telling to themselves?
Many of our Native people create narratives for themselves that involve suicide. A few years ago, a mother and daughter dressed in all black and walked out onto our highway. No more verbs in their story. A caesura. In our Navajo language, we say, adeen, “gone.” As in missing, no more quantity. Just highway.
Years later, a small 10 year-old boy. Oldest of 4. Left at home to watch his siblings. His parents leave to the casino. One weekend he writes a note “I just want to be with you.” And he swallows a constellation of pills.
12 years ago, me. At Stanford, where N. Scott Momaday writes his thesis on the poetry of Emily Dickenson. Death stopped kindly for me one day, with my own hands. I slowly slipped away from the gravity, from the two poems in my Anthology book, from the man with the invisible truck, from the dark highway. It was the ending to my story that I thought I needed to write.
Little one, relative, listening out there. I say to you, please tell us your story.
The books to be published, the articles to be written, the storylines to be embellished need you. We need your voice, be someone’s north star. If not for someone else, do it for yourself. Because we are still inventing ways to tell your story, and adjectives and endings. Stay with us.
I need you.
My whole business about the Anthology of Poetry was to show that it’s broken; it’s not for us; we need something better, more truthful.
Perhaps the sharing of your story, reader, will show the fire for someone else.
* * * *
I know that there are a great many people who are told that they do not belong to a story to a narrative. The Maori of Aotearoa. The Inuit of Alaska. The urbanite Indian in New York. The child in the back of a reservation classroom.
This indigenous system of knowledge, this epistemology writes you into its pages. If it wanted to take form of a book, with 2,025 pages, every word, footnote, title, author name would be indigenous in origin. A new way of knowing, a new way of understanding the world.
A way to decolonize the narrative. Together.
When we are asked what is our story, we can point and say here.
* * * *
The body yearns to remember its first way of knowing.
Let the weight of the world fade away, let the comings and goings fall silent, and there, in one moment, in one story, tell me, yourself, what keeps you tethered to the force of the world.
The fact that this is written in English and it critiques systems of knowledge is an act of de-colonization. We can assert indigenous sovereignty.
The body yearns to remember its first way of knowing, in the incremental pauses of a day, throughout the interruptions of technology and during the slow silences of spirit. Listen to it; it is your body telling its story. You belong.
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Marlon Footracer attended Stanford University where he majored in Creative Writing. Currently, he works as a non-profit strategist for development and capacity building. He also is the co-coordinator for Project 562.