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10 Questions for Shaina A. Nez

‘Ałk áą́’i’, long ago.
Bąą, on account of, before our people emerged to the fourth world, Nihalgai, Glittering world.
Chahałheeł, darkness, happened, and we would adapt to newness, the light, ‘adinídíín.
Ch’ah and the western wear—the urban Indian cowboy, and for some, ranching became routine and we honored the animals since we emerged with them. Now we live to serve the łíí’, beegashii, dibé, tł‘ízí, na’a’ho’he, na’a’ho’hebiyazhi.
—from "Diné Abecedarian," Volume 61, Issue 4 (Winter 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In elementary, I was captivated by the novel Harriet the Spy written by Louise Fitzhugh. Journaling was my outlet and earliest form of writing during my childhood—I documented my surroundings and often wrote profiles of my relatives (which they didn’t like) and knew there’s always a story waiting to be told. Writing, in a way, chose me. Journaling my day-to-day activities and eventually tapping into emotions was a way to exercise my thought processes—I’m constantly in my head and am known as the ‘quiet one.’ I began writing fictional stories in high school after reading young adult authors like Francesca Lia Block, Sherman Alexie, Sarah Dessen and others. I knew by the end of high school I wanted to write and study writing in college. My guidance counselor didn’t know where to steer me to study writing—he thought I meant Journalism. For a bit, I studied Journalism but wanted to broaden creatively without limitations—I graduated with a B.A. in English-Writing and a minor in Native American studies from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. My foundational stages continue to follow me when I teach and write and the spy in me lives on.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I’ve admired many Native American women authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Toni Jensen, Terese Mailhot and many others. Silko’s work—Storyteller, Ceremony, The Almanac of the Dead, Turquoise Ledge and others—have taught me growth and to look for stories within yourself to give life to. Erdrich’s The Beet Queen, Love Medicine, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and The Round House showed me how characters and personalities are composed within a community. Harjo gave me strength to write about our journey in Crazy Brave and I look to her words and passages as scripture—to remember my worth. Jensen perpetuates my inquiry and need for creative language—in Carry there are voices that evoke such humility and courage that I try to alleviate in my language. Jensen’s mentorship in my graduate program taught me such unique qualities to have in the writing life. Mailhot’s Heart Berries continues to teach me about myself and motherhood—my stumbling blocks and learning about the stories that connect and shape our worlds for our children. Another classic author I’ve admired from the beginning is Sylvia Plath. I remember reading The Bell Jar and getting chills at the depiction of Esther’s mental illness, sadness, and suicide attempt. Her sadness gave me reasons to accept vulnerable stages in my life and write about it.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked as an intern for the Tribal College Journal (TCJ), as well as a contract writer for TCJ Student website under the pseudonym Red Storyteller in 2015-2016. After completing my Post-Baccalaureate Teaching program at Fort Lewis College in 2017, I had the privilege of teaching Early Child Education at preschools like Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy, Southern Ute Head Start, and with Navajo Head Start in Window Rock, Arizona. I currently work at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona as a Bachelor of Fine Arts Program Coordinator and Adjunct Faculty in English.

What inspired you to write this piece?
"Diné Abecedarian" is a piece embracing the Diné bizaad. I began this piece in January 2020, during my graduating residency program, at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pam Houston was our residency leader and assigned the writing exercise. Each letter represents a story beginning with‘Ałk'idáą́’ meaning long ago—a saying often used in oral tradition. Diné storytelling resembles a form that evolves storytelling carrying aspects of Creative Nonfiction and Creation stories. I wrote this piece to remind myself of the foundational stories I carry and surroundings that shape my art form.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The spaces and energies I write about take place in Lukachukai, Arizona. These spaces are dreamlike and involve my childhood. My homeland is near the Chuska mountains—when describing the scene, painted cliffs and the earth I feel their essence and presence.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
My playlists on Spotify have evolved (thanks to my dearest friend Chelsea, in the Bay area) for sharing and making playlists that range from Dance, Hip-Hop, and Indigenous artists like A Tribe Called Red, Wake Self, and The Marias.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I usually refer to my journal entries or notes from my iPhone to begin an essay. I’ve handwritten first draft essays and revise/edit as I’m typing into a Word Document. If there’s a time I feel unproductive, I will set a timer for 10 minutes and describe anything within my reach—timer goes off, I will compress my words for another 10 minutes—set timer again for writing and repeat this cycle until there’s a page of refurbished sentences. The tip is to paint a picture and experiment with syntax—incorporating your Indigenous language in these types of exercises fills in what cannot be said in English. I carry my Navajo to English Dictionary with me anytime I travel.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I let my best friend, Chelsea, read my work. We’ve swapped our work since we met at our graduate program at IAIA. She studies fiction and has such remarkable talent—I owe her many thanks for reading and providing feedback to me. We motivate each other to keep writing and believing that our words will one day save us.

What are you working on currently?
I’m currently working on a manuscript, entitled “Sun Child.” A collection of essays to my daughter, Hailee, and some family traditional stories that take place in Lukachukai, Arizona. This manuscript means a lot to me—the stories I’ve generated comes from the authors I mentioned who truly taught and given me strength to display these words on the page and give life to them. I’m continuing to apply to Fellowships that will assist me in completing this work and I’m hopeful these stories can be appreciated and accepted by the Native Literary world.

What are you reading right now?
I’m currently re-reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and waiting to read Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark.

SHAINA A. NEZ is ‘Áshįįhi born for Táchii’nii. Her maternal grandfather’s clan is Ta’neeszahnii, and Kin łichii'nii is her paternal grandfather’s clan. She is from Lukachukai, Arizona, and currently lives in Mentmore, New Mexico. Nez received her MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts with her focus in creative nonfiction. Shaina has one daughter, named Hailee April.

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