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Noel Lyn Smith
ICT

"The Diné Reader," reflects disparate ideas on many levels; the work within its pages combines English with the Navajo language, new writers and established writers published in various formats.

"It is the first book of its kind to collect writing from a comprehensive range of Navajo authors," states the introduction of "The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature."

The introduction explains the evolution of Navajo literature from the earliest published book of poems by Navajo children in Tohatchi, New Mexico in 1937 to present writing that continues sharing the Navajo perspective.

It also notes that many of the compositions in the book mix English and the Navajo language.

"This book contains numerous examples of mastery of both languages by Diné writers, including artistic and linguistic devices of code-switching," the introduction states.

The book, released by The University of Arizona Press in 2021, offers a mixture of compositions by esteemed and developing Navajo writers.

The book, released by The University of Arizona Press last year, offers a mixture of compositions by esteemed and developing Navajo writers. The anthology was announced as a recipient of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation earlier this month.

The foundation names award winners each year to recognize "outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community," states its website.

Winners will be formally recognized in an online event on Oct. 9.

"This valuable collection holds the poetry, prose, and thoughts of several generations of Diné, or Navajo, writers, with numerous foundational heavy hitters in literature alongside emerging writers and fresh voices," former U.S. Poet Laureate and foundation member Joy Harjo (Muscogee) said in the foundation’s announcement.

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Esther G. Belin (Navajo) is one of the four editors who worked on the book, an effort that took nearly a decade.

"It’s such a surprise," Belin, who is an award-winning writer, said about the acknowledgement.

"The fact that we created a book, which is out there – and it's needed. Now the fact that it's recognized is just a beautiful compliment and reception of the work that we did," Belin said.

It also broadens awareness of the Navajo writing community, she said.

Esther G. Belin helped edit and gather poetry and stories from Navajo writers for "The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature."

Esther G. Belin helped edit and gather poetry and stories from Navajo writers for "The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature."

Byron F. Aspaas is an emerging writer whose prose is in the book – a story about how his experiences in growing up on the Navajo Nation eventually lead him to becoming a writer.

It is a profession he did not intend to pursue when he was in college to study engineering.

While at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, he took an advanced composition class from Connie A. Jacobs, who also edited the anthology.

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Aspaas admits that he was unaware of Navajo writers until Jacobs had him read the poems, "Hills Brothers Coffee" and "Raisin Eyes," by Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso.

He said Jacobs planted the kernel of English and literature in him.

"There's always a finite answer with engineering as far as two plus two equals four. But in writing, you can make two plus two equal whatever you want," Aspaas said.

That freedom drives his writing, and though he was surprised when Jacobs asked him to be part of the book, he is honored to appear alongside Belin and Tapahonso as well as Laura Tohe and Irvin Morris.

"Those people I read, and I was nervous to be in a book with them. It seems like they can swim for miles," Aspaas said. "I’m still dog paddling. I guess I found my voice. It’s always been there."

Byron F. Aspaas

Byron F. Aspaas

It took time to bring the book to publication because editors Belin, Jacobs, Jeff Berglund and Anthony K. Webster wanted to include as many writers as possible, even if that meant reaching out to some by mail.

As the book's introduction notes, Jacobs and Berglund are educators - Jacobs is emerita professor at San Juan College while Berglund is a professor of English at Northern Arizona University - and recognize that Navajo students benefit from reading other Navajo writers.

Belin said they did not want it to be perceived as a sample of Indigenous writing because Navajos have a long history with literature from oral to written and Navajo culture is in the literary process.

"Hopefully, this is the start of more texts, more books like this where people can get excited about what we are doing with literature," Belin said.

All proceeds from "The Diné Reader" goes to help writing programs, Belin said.

Recent royalties went to the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute, a creative writing program that takes place at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

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