Hello Byron. Thank you for agreeing to this interview & for your beautiful contribution to Cloudthroat. You mentioned in a previous conversation that image & landscape were primary in your storytelling. Could you tell us more about this?
As a child, I grew up in the desert. I had a lot of time sifting my hands through the sands while watching the lizards run past me as dust devils twirled through my world. I had time to pat mud cakes and make mud pies and even had time to eat them because the sand tasted so good. My dad was a coal miner and drove draglines. He was that urban cowboy, who was Indian, rustling coal so his family could survive. I grew up with the intentions of being my dad, so I could provide for my family. I wanted to be an engineer because that’s what was instilled in us as children: to be successful in school meant you were going to be successful in life. I was semi-successful in school. I can’t say if I’m successful as an adult.
I spent time in Wyoming, as a civil engineer intern, and noticed the backdrop of the land. It was stunning and a reminder of home, my childhood. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to uproot the earth no longer. I left school and began exploring. I was 22.
How does your family history and cultural preservation play into your unique style of writing?
My dad is a storyteller. I grew up with his stories of Indian boarding school. I grew up with him telling me and my brothers about our family history and our lineage connected to greatness. I never believed him because I thought they were, just that, stories. I recently revisited those stories and did research of my own, only to learn my dad was telling the truth with slight variances—like all stories there are differences—and my dad was speaking truths of his way of learning through oral storytelling.
My mom and dad gave me chores which have transpired into life lessons. This makes sense as an adult, but as a child, we think it’s just stupid because a lot of cultural knowledge was given to me during my youth, but not its meaning. In my writing, I reintroduce myself to those teachings and create magic.
I now think it’s important to document them before they are gone, before I am gone. I was a child once, now I am an adult. Soon, I will be a child again and will want to go back to the desert where mud pies are made perfectly.
I appreciate that in your Cloudthroat submission that your poem utilized Dine’ Bizaad sporadically throughout the work. Could you talk about language and preservation in your writing?
My dad is the last fluent speaker within in our family. It scares me because as time grows, loss will occur. It will occur as time grows in my life and I want to share a little of me and my family and my experiences with those in our future—just in case. I feel it is coming to my time where I will need to return home and give back to the community I grew up in by giving back to the people.
I remember my mom and dad talking in the early mornings, drinking coffee and speaking in a language foreign to my ears, thinking they could hide their thoughts from us. We heard that language so much, it instilled itself into our minds and planted seeds within our voice. Time and time, again, I water those seeds when I revisit home and listen to the language spoken. It is not foreign anymore. It’s now a part of me and my family and my voice. I feel it is time to return home and harvest those thoughts, that language, and reseed them where they are needed. Sometimes, it’s just planted within my writing because it sounds so much more beautiful and poetic than the English language.
I have read that you describe yourself as an accidental writer. Can you expand on that for our readers?
I enrolled myself into one class at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Within that class, I wrote my final paper about the experiences of losing my brother to leukemia at age 13. My friend read that paper and suggested I submit it to the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association. It was accepted and the only way IAIA would help me pay for it was to be a full-time student, so I became one. I paid for school out of my own pocket, so the help from IAIA was important to me. My mom was sick at that time. I had two nephews born within that year. I lost my mom that summer after the conference and my thoughts involved my nephews never knowing their grandma. In a way, I wanted to preserve something foreign to them that was familiar to me. I wanted them to know their grandma and their parents through a language they’ll understand.
I didn’t intend on finishing a college degree in creative writing because I disliked reading and writing, cold-heartedly, as a child. As an adult, I somehow finished a masters’ program in creative writing, as well. It’s not engineering, it’s not coal mining, but landscape appears so much in my work that it is like excavating and creating and building by utilizing a craft I learned to love and accept into my life because of my family.
Because of this, my instructor called me an accidental student.
Do you have any words of encouragement for young queer and indigenous writers?
I grew up in a time where Indigenous writers were not exposed to me until I was twenty-one years old. I was introduced to Luci Tapahonso and Esther Belin, then Simon Ortiz and Louise Erdrich, through their work as a student in Advance Composition. I had no idea that Indigenous people wrote and my instructor pushed me to write. She loved my writing and loved my stories, but because I was too afraid of the English language, itself, I chose to continue down the same path of engineering.
Within that time, I struggled with my own sexuality and learned through others within my culture that being nádleeh should not be an embarrassment—I grew up with that term being derogatory. I grew up knowing nádleeh as a put-down, when it should not be. As I learned and as I grew, I began to accept nádleeh as a spiritual guide and wield its knowledge towards self-discovery as a Diné male.
I am now in my 40s and I grew up in a time where being a Diné was an embarrassment. I grew up in a town where the Diné are known as an embarrassment. I grew up when being a queer was wrong. But, what I had learned was being both Diné and nádleeh are not an embarrassment, because being a Diné and nádleeh is the change I needed within me which has translated itself into my work and has led me towards a completely different path than the trajectory I had planned for myself.
Change happens whether or not we are nádleeh or Dine’é. Change happens to everyone; it’s something we, as the people, have forgotten. Nádleehí occurs within and around each of us. There should never be cause for shame or hindrance.
We each have a story to share. Continue to share your knowledge with each of us.
You mentioned that your mother is your greatest influence. Tell me this story.
I remember my mom asked me what story can do for me when she sat back in her recliner, her eyes closed and head tilted back. At that time, I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I told her I wanted to teach and write and become a storyteller. I’m not sure what went through her mind, but I know she was proud of me for going back to school—or at least that’s what my dad told me. She died a month later. I was 33 at the time and a grown man by standards. Without my mom, my life would not exist. For nine months, I was nurtured and cared for inside her belly. For thirty-three years, she continued to nurture and care for me each time I came to visit in the belly of her home. My mom has always been an influence in my life. In my cooking, in my cleaning, in my way of living, I am my mom and I thank her for that.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming memoir?
I recently put away the memoir I was writing in grad school. When I began this journey, I began by writing essays that were strung together by experiences that wove themselves. With the aid of poetry and dialogue and experience, I was able to craft complete stories in lyrical form. I am fortunate to have the teachings I gathered while roaming through this beautiful garden of exotic flowers—each had their own scents, their own beauty, and their own beginnings—and now, I think it’s time to bloom into my own.
I recently began writing a collection of essays that will probably coincide with the memoir that is sitting on the shelf, right now. I’ve been playing with poetry and reading, more and more, books which helped redirect my thought as a writer. It’s hard for me to refer to myself as a writer, but it was recently expressed to me that I have a gift of voice and the world needs to hear those words I have because they are important.
The collection I am working on will be a blend of the desert, my home; the people, my family; the world, my experiences. It’s considered different and I hope I can complete it soon, so I can continue making mud pies for you and me and my family when I return home to give back.
Thank you for taking the time to share with our readers and many good wishes to your family back home and in Colorado.
Byron F. Aspaas creates stories using images of landscape, which are etched upon white space with words of experience. Aspaas, who is Diné, has earned his BFA and MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His ambition is to incorporate writing towards teaching and becoming a storyteller by influencing readers along this literary journey. His work is scattered throughout journals and anthologies; among them are RedInk, Yellow Medicine Review, 200 New Mexico Poems, Weber: The Contemporary West, As/Us: A Space for Women of the World, Semicolon, The Denver Quarterly, International Writing Program Collections, and The Rumpus. He is Red Running into the Water; born for the Bitter Water People. He resides with his partner, Seth Browder, his three cats, and four puppies in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he is working on his memoir.
Read his poem "The Desert Bares my Weakness" in the second issue here.