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Generational voices: 40 writers to contribute to ‘High Country Public Reader’ anthology

TWIN LAKES, N.M. – A forthcoming print and digital anthology will enrapture generational voices about negotiating place through literature.

This means expanding the voices of writers outside the traditional borders and boundaries from Northern Arizona, the Colorado Plateau, the Southwest, and beyond. It would amplify the anthology further.

Around 40 selected writers will contribute to the anthology, potentially called “High Country Public Reader.”

This journey began in 2022 when the board members of the literary nonprofit organization Northern Arizona Book Festival, known as NOAZBF, proposed the anthology idea. They have led efforts to ensure it became a reality.

The organization then received the Creative Flagstaff Innovation and Capacity Grant Program, and this year, it is leading the way in publishing its first anthology in print and digital form.

According to Lawrence Lenhart, the executive director of NOAZBF and associate chair and professor at Northern Arizona University, the print version of the anthology will be ready this May.

The organization is currently preparing for this year’s festival, which takes place annually from April 5 to 14 at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Lenhart said that during the festival on April 12, a small launch of the digital version of the anthology will be on display, with selected work from the anthology at the Oeno Wine Lounge, with an open mic.

This will have QR codes ready to scan so attendees can read the selected poems on their devices.

In May, Lenhart said 200 copies would be printed and distributed.

Lenhart said that each nominated contributor selected by the organization’s board will be granted a small honorarium for their work.

“We want an authentic experience in the place we live in,” he said.

Nurturing literature

Established in 1997, the Northern Arizona Book Festival cultivates the literary community through the creation, publication, showcase, and investigation of contemporary literary arts. The festival coordinates readings, panels, workshops, contests, and more that reflect the literary interests and cultural issues that define life, according to its website.

While the print anthology will be a static snapshot print, the digital anthology will be an ongoing digital project incorporating a Geographic Information System.

This will allow the selected contributors to coordinate points for readers of where their poem or essay takes place.

This means the readers are the drivers, and the poems and essays are the destinations.

For the digital anthology, the board members have advised the contributors to submit pieces that do not embody the location of their personal residence.

“We don’t want any home to be having someone stepping onto their property,” Lenhart said. “We didn’t want to promote sacred sites that are off limits,” which he recalled having a conversation with the late Klee Benally.

“He (Klee) said everything is sacred,” Lenhart said.

Benally was an ideal contributing candidate with the amount of respect the board members admired due to his involvement with the Flagstaff community before he passed in December 2023.

Traveling with words

Moreover, the digital anthology does not to promote off-limit sacred spaces or tourist attractions but more of speaking to the original places one contributor wants to write and share.

“Our hope is that readers will travel with the anthology,” Lenhart said, but to also respect the landscape and perimeters.

For example, hypothetically speaking, a poem written about the Circle K in Winslow, Arizona, would appear on the map at 35.045684444513036, -110.7288202211263.

As the digital anthology map becomes saturated with poetry and essays, routes will soon emerge, said Lenhart.

These routes will function like “issues” of a journal, whether organized by theme, motif, neighborhood, or others.

“Ideally, the piece will be influenced by the place from which (the writers) are writing,” Lenhart said. “The more idiosyncratic the place, the better.”

Lenhart said the print anthology will be ready later this year in April, during which the NOAZBF takes place yearly.

“We’d like to at least have a copy of it and have pre-orders and probably won’t distribute them until May,” Lenhart said.

Regarding the digital anthology, it will slowly be built throughout this year.

Diné literary landscape

Thus far, nominated Diné writers have been selected, and roughly 12 or so have confirmed to contribute to the anthology.

Lenhart said the number will hopefully change, given that all nominated writers who were contacted have not confirmed yet. He’s staying optimistic.

The anthology will include familiar voices such as Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Laura Tohe, the second poet laureate after Luci Tapahonso.

Since 2015, Tohe has served as the poet laureate. She said the Navajo Nation is the first tribal nation to have its own poet laureate.

Given the language recognition and the embodiments writing holds, Tohe said being part of a milestone of Northern Arizona’s first anthology is important, especially for the Nation, but for the U.S.

“We’ve been invisible in our writing as poets, fiction writers, essayist,” said Tohe, who is Tsé Nahabiłnii and born for Tódích’íi’nii. Her maternal grandfather is Haak’oh and her paternal grandfather is Mą’ii Deeshgiizhnii.

“Our work is pretty much unknown,” Tohe continues, “and I think this anthology will help bring visibility and presence to the work that Navajo writers write about, which are very important.”

Through different interludes of her life, Tohe’s writing is inspired by her family’s textile weaving in her family.

Tohe holds a Ph.D. in creative writing, Indigenous American Literature, and American Literature, and she graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., in 1993.

“I have many gifts from my grandmothers, aunt, and my mother, who are all weavers, and they gave me these beautiful woven rugs,” she said.

One day, she observed them in her home and wondered what the rugs said, one line at a time and one design at a time.

“I start to realize there’s a lot of stories and songs embedded into (these) rugs,” Tohe said, who grew up in several areas of the Navajo Nation, such as Crystal, Tohatchi, and Coyote Canyon, New Mexico.

In 2021, an anthology of Diné literature was published called “The Diné Reader,” published by the University of Arizona Press, demonstrating the passion and persistence of what Diné literature holds and includes.

However, given the expanded horizons of the “Northern Arizona Anthology,” it will enter homes that will hopefully inspire emerging writers.

“I would like the Navajo Nation to know who our writers are,” Tohe said. “I would also like the students in our schools to know who our writers are.”

If real, authentic Indigenous literature of various genres were taught in the Nation’s schools alongside American writers or writers who have been part of the mainstream genres, Indigenous literature could impact many aspiring minds.

“People’s culture is expanding through literature, and this anthology is part of that (by) giving a space for those writers who have a presence in this world,” Tohe said.

As a poet who makes a living reading poetry, conducting workshops, and giving presentations throughout the U.S., Tohe can share her knowledge with youth and Indigenous communities.

Finding a niche

Hershman John, another contributing writer to the anthology, said his niche is poetry and that he is honored to be nominated to contribute to the anthology.

John grew up in Sand Springs, Arizona, he is Bįįh Bitoodnii and born for Tódích’íi’nii. His maternal grandfather is Kinłichíi’nii and his paternal grandfather is Hashtł’ishnii.

John said the anthology is close to home for him.

“I get a lot of inspiration from hearing stories, reading poetry, reading novels, or watching TV,” he said.

Most of John’s contributing poems, which he plans to share in the anthology, will be new and never published.

As a published author of his poetry book, “I Swallow Turquoise for Courage,” published in 2007, his work has been enticed by Diné heritage, and he has been known to write creation stories.

However, since 2007, he said his writing has transposed, and he is eager to share a few new poems in the anthology.

John earned a master’s in creative writing from Arizona State University in 1998 and now teaches at Phoenix College in the English department.

With gathered thought and creative direction, poems or essays will ripen each writer to create a destination for readers.

Diné literature exists

One other Diné writer, Roanna Shebala, who shares sheer excitement as a contributing writer, said she is “really excited” about this opportunity.

The Whitecone, Arizona, resident who also goes by her penname, Rowie Shondeen Shebala, said, “It’s really nice to see (and know) a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different approaches to the literary landscape.”

Shebala is Tséńjíkiní and born for Deshchii’nii. Her maternal grandfather is Tótsohnii, and her paternal grandfather is Naasht’ézhí Dine’é. She holds a master’s in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Shebala believes the anthology is important because it will allow space for those in the area to contribute stories regarding stewards of the land.

“The personality of the land,” she said. “The land is a living, breathing entity.”

Additionally, contributing is Diné senior lecturer Shaina Nez, who is from Lukachukai, Arizona, said she is honored to include some of her work in the anthology.

Nez teaches English and creative writing at Diné College-Shiprock campus and has been creating and writing more since she graduated with a master’s in creative writing from IAIA in 2020.
After that, she sought opportunities to share her work, such as this anthology.

“When it comes to writing, I had taken some time to consider what it is that I am doing with (it),” she said, who is Táchii’nii and born for ‘Áshįįhí. Her maternal grandfather is Ta’neeszahnii, and her paternal grandfather is Kinłichíi’nii.

“A fruitful journey,” Nez described regarding one’s writing journey regarding land and relationships.

“I wrote a piece about my mom praying,” Nez said regarding her recent work. “I remember the scene, and I thought, maybe that’s one other thing I can start writing about, just the relationship with prayer and some of the aspects of being a Diné woman.”


About The Author

Boderra Joe

Boderra Joe is a reporter and photographer at Navajo Times. She has written for Gallup Sun and Rio Grande Sun and has covered various beats. She received second place for Sports Writing for the 2018 New Mexico Better Newspaper Awards. She is from Baahazhł’ah, New Mexico.

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