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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
June 21, 2004
Volume 39, Number 16

On the Bookshelf

English faculty captures best of the Southwest

By Carolyn Gonzales

Writing the Southwest UNM Press, 2003 Edited by David King Dunaway and Sara Spurgeon, revised edition.

Imagine a cocktail party where all your favorite authors are gathered. You overhear Ed Abbey talking about the need to respect the environment. Luci Tapahanso adds that Southwest writers are concerned with the land, that it influences work ethic and philosophy of life.

Rudolfo Anaya talks about the llano, vast flat plains carved with arroyos and pushing up mesquite. Denise Chávez, too, paints a picture of the panorama of the Southwest, comparing the region’s writing to its food, “spicy and pungent, como chile colorado.”

Tony Hillerman says New Mexico skyscapes have “immense clouds that stir my spirit.” Terry McMillan talks about how she learned black history through literature. Joy Harjo says she opened another part of herself when she went to school in Santa Fe. Others chime in. . .John Nichols and Simon Ortiz.

You pass on the drinks, happy to soak in their words, their insight.

David King Dunaway, professor of English, planned the party in his recent book, “Writing the Southwest,” the second edition (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) of his 1995 publication. The new edition features a CD with the authors telling their own stories. The text, with a foreword by Rudolfo Anaya and preface by Paula Gunn Allen, was co-edited by Sara Spurgeon, Women’s Studies and English at the University of Arizona.

Dunaway is uniquely skilled at bringing the authors and their literature together. A gifted writer, Dunaway counts an oral history on Aldous Huxley, a biography on Pete Seeger and a sound recording of oral histories and stories on Route 66 among his other published works. Author, biographer, oral historian, radio personality, journalist and folklorist, Dunaway pulls together the best the authors offer.

The text touches on the literary history of the Southwest dating back to the 19 tribes who trace their ancestry to the Mogollon and Anasazi settlements from 600-1400 A.D. Dunaway points to Acoma poet Simon Ortiz as one through whom the tradition lives. Ortiz, too, describes the red, orange and brown canyon lands, describing the region as vast and engulfing, enclosing. He says his job as poet is to reaffirm humanity. “Kind of a tall order, but what’s a poet for?”

Dunaway writes, “Included in this volume is Shiprock poet Luci Tapahanso, whose poetics spring from the lyric Beauty Way of her Diné heritage and evoke the musical quality of her tribe’s oral traditions.” Tapahanso speaks of the reality of writing about racism and economics. All her work is from the perspective, she says, of a native woman in contemporary times.

Each chapter includes excerpts from the writer’s work, further discussion from the author, descriptions of the body and scope of the work and notes. Primary and secondary bibliographies appear at book’s end.

Stan Steiner says that the Southwest needs a Homer or a Shakespeare. He says we’re waiting for a Herman Melville. He thinks perhaps some lady from Pecos might turn out a manuscript. You can’t help but think, I’m not from Pecos, but could it be me?

As you leave the party you overhear Frank Waters reminding those still seated around the table that the Indians always knew the earth is a living entity. “It is to be protected and respected,” he admonishes.

As you get in the car you realize that Abbey, Steiner and Waters have passed on.

That really was some party.