“dá’ák’ehdi (in the cornfield),” a poem
10 Questions Interview with the Massachusetts Review
Lemanuel(Manny) 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 PhD 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.
Your poem, “dá’ák’ehdi (in the cornfield)” appears in its original Diné. Can you tell us about your intention to write the piece in Diné?
LL: I am not fluent in Diné bizaad (Navajo language; the language of the People). While the older people in my family are fluent, my younger siblings and I can only understand the language and partially speak it. My relationship with Diné bizaad is a complicated one. Growing up on my tribal nation, there was often internalized colonization that urged young people to not speak our language because it was seen as being “too rez” and being “too rez” marked someone as “lesser than.” Even being too dark was seen as degrading and so a lot of my peers were obsessed with staying out of the sun. On top of this internalized shame and the historical impacts of colonial violence, substance abuse and addiction added to the disruption of language and culture. Many families experienced alcoholism and older relatives didn’t pass down any cultural teachings nor the language itself.
After moving home in March of last year, due to the global pandemic, I wanted to relearn more of my language and to write more in Diné bizaad. There were several reasons for this. First, shimá sání (my grandmother) is a natural poet and when she speaks in Diné bizaad, it is a poem without trying to be a poem. I wanted shimá sání to be able to engage with my work and to mentor me in a way. Now, when I read my work to her, she will suggest edits here and there—rephrase this, your pronunciation on that word should be like this, or there’s another way to describe that image. Writing in Diné bizaad allows me to exist closer to shimá sání in a language that means so much more to the both of us.
Second, shiyé’ (my nephew) Jaiden is a curious kid. He takes Diné culture classes in school and shinaaí (my older brother) teaches him what he knows—but shiyé always wants to know more. Each time he comes home, shiyé has questions for me about certain Diné creation stories and certain Diné words. Shinaaí told him that I’m a storyteller, which is a serious undertaking along with being an uncle. I’ve committed myself to collecting Diné stories and words to pass on to shiyé’ so that he’ll always have a strong connection to our homeland and to our people. Someday, I hope my poems and stories inspire him and remind him that he is so loved.
MR: Do you always write your work in Diné? Do you ever translate your own work? If you do, do you write that work in Diné first before translating those words into English, or vice versa?
LL: Being Diné and speaking/writing in Diné bizaad are two parts of a multilayered existence. To be Diné is to exist within a rippled being that obscures the parts of ourselves that might be considered “fluent,” such as language and cultural knowledge. While I don’t speak Diné bizaad fluently, nor can I write in Diné bizaad without consulting a fluent speaker or using a Diné bizaad dictionary, I believe that deeper understandings of Diné being reside within me. These deeper understandings show themselves in ceremony and in those sweet moments when shimá sání (my grandmother) or shimá (my mother) tell me stories. It’s a feeling of connection, of some external thing uttered in Diné bizaad that unlocks something in me, something that says, “Yes, you are Diné and will always be Diné. Forever.”
Most of my poems are written in English because that’s my first language, although not by choice. Some of my poems in Diné bizaad found their breath in English first before being translated into Diné bizaad. But these poems aren’t any less Diné because of their origin; rather they represent my Diné existence, one that has to face colonial interruptions of language and culture and being and to heal itself by making its way back to the mother language. Translation, in this way, is a return, is a coming home, is survivance.
When I first started writing poems in Diné bizaad, it was difficult to retrain my brain to use and understand language. Diné bizaad is verb-driven and some phrases, when literally translated from English to Diné bizaad, don’t make sense in a Diné worldview. So there are language structures to contend with as well as worldview.
MR: What is it like to work with multiple languages?
LL: Writing in Diné bizaad and English is complicated, necessary, and healing. As a living person, just like all living things, change is inevitable. Trying to maintain a one hundred percent “pure” Diné being is not possible and isn’t something I strive for. Instead, finding a balance between Diné bizaad and English and thinking about how the two engage with each other is the work that I’m interested in.
MR: Could you speak a bit about the significance of corn in this piece, and/or culturally?
LL: I tell shiyé’ (my nephew) that Diné are time- and space-travelers. At emergence, the Diné traveled through four previous underworlds before reaching the fifth, or glittering, world. During this journey, turkey had picked up various seeds in their tail feathers as the Diné escaped a great flood. Once turkey emerged into the fifth world, our current world, they shook their tail feathers and all kinds of seeds fell out, one type of seed being corn or naadą́ą́. The word “naadą́ą́” doesn’t literally translate to “corn.” Rather, naadą́ą́ can be understood as “naa,” meaning movement or moving around, and “dą́ą́,” as relating to time. So naadą́ą́ can be glossed to “something that has moved through time” and harkens back to the story about turkey and the emergence of my people into the fifth or glittering world. This understanding of naadą́ą́ as a testament to the strength and history of my people finds its way into a lot of my poetry and storytelling. Naadą́ą́ also has great spiritual significance for Diné, but I won’t go into detail about that here.
Naadą́ą́ is also influential in my work because of my family’s history with gardening. My great-grandmother, my grandfather’s mother, had a huge cornfield at their homestead behind Crow Mesa in my community. Every summer, all my relatives from New Mexico and Arizona used to gather at my great-grandmother’s house to help her plant and then again to help her harvest. It was a big celebration, with lots of food and laughter. Somewhere along the way, perhaps due to family disagreements and substance abuse issues, this tradition was discontinued. My grandfather didn’t plant nor did he teach any of my siblings or my mom and her siblings how to plant. For Mother’s Day last year, my older brother and I decided to revive my family’s gardening tradition. We planted a small garden in honor of my mom and my grandmother. This year, we added onto the garden and now it’s doubled in size. Gardening is both calming and a way to reconnect to our cultural traditions. It is something we can pass on to my nephew and future generations.
MR: How does community influence your work?
LL: Shimá likes to say that I didn’t appreciate my homeland until I was away from it. In my childhood years, as mentioned earlier, there was a lot of internalized shame about being Diné that I had to unlearn. Leaving my homeland for school was tough and much of my cultural work was inspired by my homesickness and realization that my homeland, my community, is the center of my universe. Shicheii (my grandfather) Rex Lee Jim, Diné poet and medicine man, once said that his response to a person who told him, “You live in the middle of nowhere,” was that, “No, I live in the center of my universe.” This stuck with me because it’s true. My community is in the high desert, so it’s not completely flat. Where my family lives is surrounded by mesas on all sides, and there are various birds that fly around and sing their songs at all times of the day. It’s a beautiful place. But even more than that, there’s a spiritual connection to my homeland that reminds me that I am human. There are several spots where my family collects sage for ceremony and different purposes. I can’t relate to anywhere else like I relate to my homeland. I know my homeland and it knows me.
1. A map of the Navajo nation.
2. The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature collects important writings from Diné artists. It is a crucial resource containing ancestral and contemporary maps. Its introduction contains excellent information on the literary history of the Navajo people.
3. A Diné History of Navajoland by Klara Kelley and Harris Francis (2019) shares Diné history through oral traditions, interviews, and origin stories.
4. Diné: A History of the Navajos by Peter Iverson (2002) traces Navajo history from its origins to the present.
5. Navajo History by Ethelou Yazzie (1982) was written for the Navajo people, and contains writings by Navajo citizens through the centuries.
6. The opening to From the Glittering World by Irvin Morris contains vital information surrounding these resources.
7. The website for the Academy of American Poets’ new program, the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Program.
8. The Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute. The Institute was created out of a joint partnership between the Navajo Women’s Commission and Navajo Technical University in 2017. It aims to connect Diné high school, college, and community members with acclaimed Diné authors, writers, and local publishers. Loley is currently the director of the Institute.