Shaina A. Nez

Diné Abecedarian,” an essay

10 Questions Interview with the Massachusetts Review

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.


“Tachii’nii Women,” “What Not to Say During a Family Court Hearing,” and others were published in the Yellow Medicine Review, Spring 2021.

“Diné Bizaad Meets Bilagaana Bizaad,” “To My Daughter’s Future Bullies,” and “Haz’a (Space)” forthcoming in Wordhall Press, Spring 2022.

“Artwork that complements and enhances my writing are photographs from my family. Navajo silversmithing is the artwork and legacy my family lives with. In the photos, my grandfather is posing with his customers. My mother is the last in our family to practice this form and stories are forthcoming about this history.”

Our Interview

An abecedarian uses alphabetical order to complete its lines, and this essay does so with the letters of Diné bizaad (Navajo language). Were there certain letters that were more difficult to complete than others? 

SN: Yes! The last letter of the alphabet (ZH): it made me wonder how any essay ends? And so, when studying the Navajo dictionary, I noticed that ZH didn’t have its own section. I decided not to pay attention to the ending until I began revising and ensuring I was correctly spelling the terms used. It was then I realized that I was speaking out, using this dialect and using English–I felt the only way I could end this essay was circling back to shi (myself). “Hear my voice,” was used after listening to conversations between my relatives and the repetition of other Native writers whom I admire. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller made me think of the prose poem about witchery and colonialism, the repetition of “set in motion,” and I wanted this essay to evoke words in their creation. 

MR: In our last interview, you said that “Diné storytelling resembles a form that evolves storytelling carrying aspects of Creative Nonfiction and Creation stories.” Traditionally, the abecedarian has been recognized as a poetic form. What led you to classify your piece as an essay?

SN:I was exposed to this form by my former Workshop Mentor, Pam Houston. During Winter Residency 2020, Pam gave this exercise to use as essays and gave the history of its poetic origin. I wasn’t sure about this exercise because I knew I wanted to use the Navajo Alphabet. Understanding that the Navajo Alphabet has more letters than the English alphabet, I thought of this as a challenge to forming both languages in one sequence/narration. I say mini-essays because with the CNF genre, we are able to manipulate these parts into larger chapters or choose to keep them short/compressed/glimmers (another neat technique I learned from Pam).

MR: Was this piece inspired by other abecedarians you’ve read? Did you spend much time with the form prior to writing? 

SN:I was inspired by many pieces, and now I think of  “A Poem for S.” by Jessica Greenbaum and think of the imagery. I tried to place images using both Navajo and English. I was intimidated by the form before the exercise was given. Figuring out how this sequence can capture images and use of time/space. I had to be very mindful when writing and using Navajo language, asking questions and discussing the placings of terms. This poem was actually put onto two canvases for a Diné College Staff & Faculty Exhibition. Seeing the words on the page, I knew the visual helped when it was accepted by MR and used the paintings as my guide. (Photo below, Abecedarian on Canvas) 

MR: In the “K’e” section, the speaker addresses the “you” of this essay, their daughter Hailee. How do you see personal family connections influencing your work? Do you write with particular people or audiences in mind? 

SN: My stories would not have any life if it weren’t for my family and the stories from previous generations. Connections are dire and are the main influences in what I am piecing. I write with my daughter in mind. Of course, I write for single mothers, their daughters, Native and Indigenous women, my community, and my grandparents (maternal and paternal) who are alive on the page. I write knowing that conjuration becomes when words are formed and stand together.

When students read my essay, I hope they get a sense of my language practice. I’m not a fluent Navajo speaker, but I’ve developed a language practice throughout high school, higher education, teaching 3-5 year olds at Navajo Head Start and by listening to my family’s daily conversations. I am no longer ashamed of this fact and I’m encouraging student readers to develop a language practice that best fits their needs….

MR: How did the length of this essay shift? Were there any stories or images that you remember wanting to include that weren’t in the final draft? 

SN: It has shifted quite a lot since January 2020. It was all handwritten in my journal and once I started typing, I’d say it went through 3-4 different drafts. There were some interrogation pieces toward injustices that didn’t make it on the essay. I decided to save those pieces and transform it to a memoir. To see the final version in MR is unreal and I am very proud to see it live and be out in the world.

Writing Prompts from the Author

Prompt 1: Using your ancestral language, or English alphabet, compose an abecedarian essay from beginning letter to end (EX: Navajo Alphabet, ‘A-Zh). Use each letter to compose mini-scenes, dialogue, and capture your surroundings by using all five senses. For language incorporation, refer to a language dictionary, consult a friend or relative who’s fluent, and/or research the web, if applicable (YouTube, etc).

Prompt 2: Using your favorite piece of literature (poem, fiction, or nonfiction) take a line or paragraph from the author. Write the full sentence or paragraph from the author at the top of your page–read, reread, and think about why this is your favorite line? Does it spark a story or memory? How does it make you feel? Do a stream-of-consciousness writing for 10 minutes. Begin reading your work and take a moment to see what lines or words are alike with your quoted author–what’s different? Can more be added? As you begin adding or compressing words, you might be at the beginning, middle, or end of a new story!

Resources for Learning Diné bizaad (Navajo Language)

1. E.C. Parnell and Marvin Yellowhair. The New Oxford Picture Dictionary: English-Navajo.
2. Leon Wall and William Morgan. Navajo-English Dictionary.
3. Irvin Morris. From the Glittering World: A Navajo Story.
4. Chelsea T. Hicks. “Learning Our Languages: An Indigenous Language Acquisition.” Online Support Course (Native American Health Center – Bay Area 2020).