This is a short book of poems and stories by Navajo author Luci Tapahonso. I found it completely enjoyable to read in a quiet, personal way: it feels as if Tapahonso is talking to me, telling me about her experiences, musing a little bit, taking me with her as she goes about her day or thinks about anecdotes or connections she’s making. When the book was finished, I was sorry to find myself alone in my own world again.
The book begins with “Shisóí,” a poem about her granddaughter, She-Who-Brings-Happiness. An excerpt:
She was born on a bright fall afternoon,
already chubby, and quivering with wetness.
She gasped for air, and for her mother’s warm body.
Her name is She-Who-Brings-Happiness because upon being carried,
she instinctively settles into the warmth
of your shoulder and neck.
She nestles, like a little bird, into the contours of your body.
All you can say is, “She’s so sweet, I don’t know what to do.”
And we smile, beaming with pleasure.
There are stories of everyday life: Tapahonso comes from Shiprock, New Mexico but now lives in Kansas, so she tells about going to visit her family. There’s a wonderful explanation of how long it takes to leave the reservation to get on her way back to Kansas, because everyone recognizes her “white-person” rental car and stops her for a chat — it’s not a Ford or Chevy pickup. There’s another story about how she was involved in an archeological dig to uncover some Pueblo ruins, and how that made her think about the connections between the past and the future: the Kiowa call it “throwing prayers” for seven generations. She explains about the Navajo love of mutton, and how if someone is going home to the reservation, they’ll bring mutton back in a cooler on the airplane for anyone in their community — “just a little piece of backbone is okay.” There’s a hilarious anecdote about when she was just married and her friend bought a used orange Karmann-Ghia that needed all kinds of repairs and wouldn’t start again if she stopped it.
I have read a reasonable (not exhaustive) amount of Native American fiction by this time, and of course so much of it deals with racism and oppression and sometimes the feeling that it’s hard to belong to both — or either — of two cultures. This book… is not that. I think there might be one white person mentioned in passing in this book. It’s about the everyday experience of being a modern Navajo woman, surrounded by family, history, tradition, language, and tenderness. Of course bad things still happen — there’s a story about the time Tapahonso’s 14-year-old daughter ran away, for instance, and even worse things. But those are life events, and she talks about how she deals with them in the context of family and community.
Tapahonso was the first poet laureate of the Navajo nation. These poems and stories are so straightforward and so gentle that I was surprised at how immersive I found them, and how much I was touched.