I didn’t know what a “city reading program” was. You cannot imagine how shocked I was to learn that a city-wide reading program such as Salt Lake City Reads Together took three books (one of them being mine) and will focus on them for six months. I want to tell you something that isn’t in that book I wrote but I want you to know.
Reading saved my life.
From reading I went to writing. Writing was a fighting back. Let me explain: We didn’t have too many books in the migrant camps I grew up in. There weren’t too many books on the Navajo reservation, either. As a child, I really didn’t know much beyond the world of the reservation or the migrant camp. I thought everyone had an outhouse. I had no idea that people had running water. School and education were “sometime” things. We had driven through big, urban white people towns. We lived like mice in cars and pickup trucks. These glittering cities were a mystery to us.
A big brown truck-like vehicle arrived in the parking lot of the migrant camp. It looked like a UPS truck–which was odd because UPS did not deliver too many things to migrant workers. I remember that vehicle like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the branches of a tree (where I could and did escape the fields as no one could find me) looking down. If I wasn’t working in the fields then the rule was I had to go to school, but I broke that rule, too. They told me in school that I was just a stupid Indian there and if I talked in Navajo they washed my mouth out with soap. I refused to go back there ever again. It wasn’t even the taste of the soap. It was the agonizing humiliation of having your head held down into the sink and the soap crammed into your mouth while all the other children watched. I would take the taste of soap over the taste of humiliation any day.
I hated white people.
I rebel against being humiliated. Especially by white people. To this day, I cannot and do not and will not tolerate it. This is not a good stance to take as a writer but there it is. I had a rope with me in that tree. Suicide among young adolescent Native American males is an epidemic. Still. I would choose death over being humiliated. I am not sure I have changed all that much, but my ability to have a voice that could stretch beyond the limitations of the reservation and the migrant camp changed that day in a parking lot.
Looking down: BOOKMOBILE.
What in the world was a bookmobile?
I scrambled down. Leaving the rope I would hang myself with in the branches of the tree. They say curiosity killed the cat. I think it saved this one.
“All your strength is in your union. All your danger is in discord; Therefore be at peace henceforward, And as brothers live together.”
— The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
They had books in the bookmobile. There were no teachers there with sinks and soap. The lady in the bookmobile (she was the driver, too) was very nice. She showed me books I might enjoy reading (I could barely read English) and she wasn’t humiliating, overly stern, or even very organized. I wasn’t very organized, either, and we hit it off. I was her only customer.
She came every week. She even looked the other way when I stole some books I knew I had to have.
You know those kind of primitive (today they’re artistically chic) cameras that take photos through a pinhole? That was my view of the white world. A pinhole.
That changed the day the bookmobile arrived. It was my personal bookmobile. I would read at night with my flashlight. When I got really good at it, I’d read stories to my brother. “Do you think white people really live like that (they all seemed to have moms and dads and bathrooms)?” My brother asked. “It says so right here in the book.”
The migrants complained that the bookmobile took up too many parking spaces. I staunchly defended the right of the bookmobile to be there, but I did not encourage the other migrants to check out books. That was my terrain. In time, I would be reading things for migrants: speeding tickets, summonses, subpoenas, the driver’s test booklet. I could read. They needed me. I went from a kid who was going to hang himself to a person who was needed. Do you have any idea of how far a journey that is? I was illiterate. Now Salt Lake City is reading my book.
This cannot end there. Because this is not the end of the story.
Those stern people with the soap to wash our mouths out are all still there. These are the people who would make it pretty when perhaps pretty is your vision through the pinhole, too. There’s a song that keeps running through my head like those rivers I write about: Now my hands are bleeding and my knees are raw. Now you’ve got me crawlin,’ crawlin’ on the floor. And I never met a girl like you before.
When I think about all the people in life I owe, I think about the librarian who drove the bookmobile. I write it like I see it. I owe her that. I saw her one last time. Then, we were moving on to pick other crops. She had a gift for me. It was a book, of course. I still have it.
You might think it silly. It is anything but. Allow me to quote from it. Today my battles are not with racist teachers. They’re with racist editors and publishers who will protesteth (very loudly) that they do not exist. That I overstate the case. That racism in publishing is a thing of the past. I still get letters from editors who tell me: We’ve published enough black books this year. And I’m not even black.
I am, however, a mongrel, and I owe it to that librarian who taught me how to read and how to write to tell it like I see it. The literacy battles have changed but the literacy battles have stayed the same. Racism will hang you from the nearest tree. These are not polite cultural arguments over the appropriate use of words.
These are battles of life and death. Still.
I don’t see you through the pinhole anymore. I see you for who you are. I write about what is around me. For the past few years, I’ve been traveling from Indian reservation to Indian reservation. Did you know there’s an Indian reservation on Martha’s Vineyard? There are many white people (some on Martha’s Vineyard) who don’t know that. I call my book: Islands In the Dream: A Journey Through the Indian Nations of America. The dream is the dream of America. I have dedicated it to a librarian. But there’s not a single publisher in America who will touch it. I get spit at by editors every day. “Poor people shouldn’t be writers,” an editor at the Penguin Group in Manhattan tells me. There is more racism in the publishing hallways of Manhattan than Salt Lake City will ever see. When she says “poor” she means people of color. Poor people shouldn’t be writers?
This would give publishing one monotone voice. I deeply resent this washing of my mouth with soap. New Rule: One voice. And it won’t be mine.
You are reading a book I wrote. I want to drive the bookmobile into the parking lot and heft boxes of books into the migrant shacks. Like vegetables. I want to take it another step. I want to thank Salt Lake City for even daring to think my book was worth the time to read. There’s a war out there. We are still fighting to stay alive. Any librarian who has ever looked out into a room of reading children knows exactly what I mean.
In publishing, I am still considered to be a stupid Indian. That rope is still in that tree I jumped down from. I do not need it. I have found my voice. And I have escaped through the opening of the pinhole.
Thank you. I am Nasdijj. (c) 2004 The Salt Lake Tribune, 12/10/04. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.
Author: Yinishye Nasdijj authored The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: A Memoir, a selection of the SLC Reads Together program. For a review of this and other selections, visit: www.slcgov.com/mayou/reads/pages/nonfiction.htm
To visit the author’s webpage, go to: www.nasdijj.exactpages.com/