10 Questions for Lemanuel Loley
- By Edward Clifford
Niłtsą́ Bi’áád yiilzhoł
—from "dá’ák’ehdi (in the cornfield)," Volume 61, Issue 4 (Winter 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I attended a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school from tenth grade until graduation. It was one of those schools that was originally intended to eradicate Indigenous identity, but it changed to a place that celebrated Indigenous personhood and encouraged all students to pursue their ambitions. The BIA held an essay contest and I entered an essay about the importance of Diné culture. In the essay, I wrote about my mother’s teachings and how those informed my writing and my personhood. For me, it was a way for me to honor my mother and her many sacrifices raising me and my brothers as a single mom. The essay received an award and it meant so much to my mom. I think that was really the first time I realized my writing was important and could convey the important aspects of my world.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Whenever I write, one of my writing practices is to have works by my literary ancestors on hand. Sometimes I’ll carry works by Diné writers like Luci Tapahonso, Laura Tohe, Rex Lee Jim, Norla Chee, Nia Francisco, Della Frank, Esther Belin, Tacey Atsitty, and Sherwin Bitsui. Other times, I’ll have works by non-Diné writers like Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Natalie Diaz, Janice Gould, Ofelia Zepeda, Leslie Marmon Silko, Layli Long Soldier, Carolina De Robertis, Ocean Vuong, Justin Torres, Pam Houston, Fenton Johnson, and others. These writers have made all the difference in my writing practice. The Diné writers listed here have shaped my voice and writing so much and I’ll be forever grateful for their laying the foundation for Diné letters. Dwelling in the energy of certain literary works, and some non-literary, helps me to unlock stories that I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to tell.
The writer I’ve been spending the most time with through their words is Rex Lee Jim. I’ve been writing more poems in strictly Diné language and thinking about how Diné language interacts with English and how meaning changes between the two. English is latent with so much colonial violence and trauma, but also the memories of family and place. It’s a tense relationship.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked for my tribal nation’s department of health, which wasn’t the best experience. It’s funny how tribal nations encourage younger people to return to the reservation to make a difference for our people, but when we do come home, we’re met with so many obstacles that it becomes discouraging. Maybe I’ll work for my tribal nation again in the future. Who knows? I’ve also worked as a career services coordinator for one of my tribe’s colleges. That was definitely the most meaningful experience because I was giving back to my community while living in my community. That’s the biggest thing for me: making a difference for my community while living in my community. I think that’s the heart of being Diné: giving back to our families and communities and seeing them thrive. My ultimate goal is to return to my tribal nation and teach at one of the tribe’s colleges. Currently, I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver where I work in the university’s writing center.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I grew up in a mobile home with no running water and no electricity until I was in high school. We used to fill water jugs at my grandparent’s house next door and carry them back to our trailer. We used that water for bathing, cleaning, and cooking. I spent a lot of time reading. I read so many books searching for a story that mirrored my own: a gay Navajo boy growing up on the Navajo Nation. Needless to say I never found that story in the books in the library. I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, whether people read my stories or not wasn’t the point. I just wanted to write stories and poems that spoke to my experience growing up and my continued lived experience. The first poems I wrote were in second grade and I’ll forever be grateful to Mrs. Smith for fostering in me a love for story and language. I also want to teach creative writing and literature on my tribal nation from our own perspective using our own texts in our own language. That would be the greatest experience. That’s what I’m working towards in my own writing.
What inspired you to write this piece?
As a tribal nation that experiences third world conditions in the most remote parts of our communities with some people having no running water or electricity, the global pandemic was especially hard on the Diné Nation. My home community was designated as an area with “uncontrolled spread” by the Navajo Nation Department of Health. There were many losses in my community and sadness. Within my own family, we did our best to ensure my grandparents health. An integral part of our wellness practice was being outside and growing our own food, especially corn. My great grandparents had corn fields but that tradition was disrupted by alcoholism introduced by the continued colonization of our homelands. My older brother and I decided to restore this tradition as a form of healing, meditation, a food source, and for our overall wellness practice. I spent a lot of my time in our garden watering the corn and other plants, talking to the plants, and just taking a breather. For many Indigenous communities, the global pandemic has reconnected and reaffirmed our cultural traditions while fortifying our well-being. That’s what my poem is about.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
My musical choices change so much during my writing process. If I’m writing a romantic scene, then I’ll listen to romantic songs, which for me, means Diné song & dance songs or something more sultry like Liane La Havas. I try to match the tone of what I’m writing to my musical choices. Other times, I’ll just put my playlists on shuffle and listen to whatever comes on. According to my Spotify, my top 5 artists of 2020 were Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion, Todi Neesh Zhee Singers, and the Martin Sisters. The last two are Diné artists. I think this list displays the drastic shift in my musical choices.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Since I work a lot with Diné cultural themes, my family reads my work first or listens to me read my work. My mom and my grandma are usually the first to experience my stories and poems. Sometimes they’ll have notes about what cultural themes shouldn’t be used in certain ways and other times they’ll see connections I didn’t see in my writing. By helping me with the cultural aspects of my writing, my family is ensuring that the power contained within our cultural stories isn’t misused and won’t have an adverse effect on my health, including the mental and spiritual. This has meant so much to my writing practice and I am forever grateful to the strong Diné womxn in my life.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’ve been curious about photography and other visual imagery. Some of my favorite reads are Joy Harjo’s Secrets from the Center of the Earth with photographs by Stephen Strom and Laura Tohe’s Tséyi: Deep in the Rock with photographs also by Stephen Strom. The connection between the visual and the printed words on the page is interesting. However, I’m not sure I have the eye to capture photographs. I’m still working on getting one of Luci Tapahonso’s earlier works which contains drawings by R.C. Gorman along with her poetry.
What are you working on currently?
Since I have been going to school and working from home, I’ve had more time to be with my grandma. She is a phenomenal Diné womxn who is strong, patient, and loving. She speaks little English and sometimes it’s hard for her to engage with my poems and stories in English. Thus, I am working more on poems in Diné and combining Diné and English. This also helps me to reconnect with my language. I’ve also been working on integrating Diné songs into my poetry. Interweaving Diné songs into my poetry gets at what I think is the purpose of poetry and storytelling: to heal.
What are you reading right now?
Since I’m in graduate school, most of what I’ve been reading lately has been academic journal articles and other books pertaining to constructions of time. I’m working on research about constructions of time in Diné worldview. Outside of school, I haven’t gotten much time to read for fun or to read to get my mind off of things. I did start reading Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis. I love their writing and world building so much. Before that I read Boys of Alabama by Genevieve Hudson, Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski, Lie With Me by Philippe Besson, This Town Sleeps by Dennis Staples, and Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. I also just ordered several anthologies including Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigequeer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead and Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis edited by Kathryn Mockler et al.
LEMANUEL LOLEY is ‘Áshįįhi born for Tó Baazhní’ázhí; his maternal grandparents are the Tódích’íi’nii, and his paternal grandparents are the Kinyaa’áanii. Loley is from Casamero Lake, New Mexico. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts and he is a current Ph.D. candidate in English and literary arts at the University of Denver. Loley is a member of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́: Diné Writers’ Collective and director of the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute. His work has appeared in HIKA, Pollentongue: An Indigenous Poetry Salon and Reading, RED INK, the Santa Fe Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Diné Reader: an Anthology of Navajo Literature. His short story “Na’nízhoozhi Di” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the Santa Fe Literary Review in 2019. Loley is at work on a novel titled They Collect Rain in Their Palms.