The 'Voices Of The American West' Series Closes This Month With Readings By Terry Tempest Williams And Simon Ortiz.
By Richard Shelton
TERRY TEMPEST Williams is a writer with such passion that her nonfiction often bursts into poetry. Simon Ortiz is a poet who writes with such conviction he often turns to nonfiction to reach a broader audience. Both make appearances in Tucson this month as part of the Voices Of The American West reading series, sponsored by the English Department and the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona.
To both writers, the Mormon woman and the Native American man, the Western landscape is sacred; but Ortiz treats it as something holy, whereas Williams approaches it as something sensuous, even erotic.
In Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape, she writes: "I am dizzy, I am drunk with pleasure. There is no need to speak.
This is all there is."
And in A Good Journey, Ortiz says: "These few things then/I am telling you/because I do want you to know/and in that way/have you come to know me now."
Until her recent move to Castle Valley, Utah (near Moab), Williams lived in Salt Lake City, where she was Naturalist-in-Residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Her five books of nonfiction and passionate environmental activism have earned her a Lannan Foundation Award, a place among the UTNE 100 list of "(People) who could change your life," and a prediction by Newsweek to make "a considerable impact on the political, economic and environmental issues facing the western states in this decade." She has also received the bitter, angry words of many of her neighbors in Utah who oppose her views on the environment.
Terry spearheaded the successful attempt recently to save the Escalante Staircase region of Southern Utah, which was given National Monument status to prevent extensive coal mining and other destructive activities. First she went to some of the state's elected officials, and they laughed at her. That was a serious mistake on their part. The next door she knocked on was Robert Redford's. He said, "Let's go," and they went. Goddard, Gore, and even Clinton got on their bandwagon. If Terry Tempest Williams were ever to run for president, she would, I firmly believe, be elected...but it would be a terrible waste of good material.
Her book Refuge juxtaposes her mother's dying of cancer with the simultaneous rise in the level of Great Salt Lake and its effect on the birds in and around the neighboring bird sanctuary. It's filled with passionate grief. Many have told me that they wept while reading it, as I did. And yet, as Wallace Stegner said, "Terry Tempest Williams is too full of life herself, and too fascinated by all its manifestations, to write a gloomy book. There isn't a page here that doesn't whistle with the sound of wings."
SIMON ORTIZ, THE final reader in a series that has included William Kittredge, Annick Smith and Luis Alberto Urrea, is the author of more than a dozen books. He writes poetry, nonfiction, fiction and children's books. Raised on the Acoma Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, he later worked in the uranium mines nearby, as did many men from the Acoma Reservation.
Ortiz is a storyteller with a sharp point, a wise elder with a disturbing message hidden beneath his peaceful and kindly face.
"I tell about myself," he says, "so non-Indians can see themselves much more honestly, much more clearly."
And we do.
His work, however "clearly" it makes us see our cultural failings in regard to Native Americans, is tempered with a sweetness and a gentleness that is rare today. His dry, wry sense of humor is always understated. His poem about a woman who calls him because she is in search of a "real Indian" to put on a float in a parade has got to be a classic of contemporary Native American literature--or any kind of literature. The more you think about it, the funnier and more horrible it gets. That's great writing in my book: that fragile and permeable curtain between humor and pain. Wasn't it Aristotle who said all humor is based on pain?
Ortiz has, for a long time, been regarded as one of the most important Native American poets in this country; but here he takes his place as a major voice in the field of nonfiction. Please don't ask me to draw hard lines with either of these writers. Where does the poet begin and the nonfiction writer end? It's the chicken and the egg, the tree falling in the forest, the unanswerable question. And it might be that very thing, the willingness of these writers to ignore genre lines, to cross borders artistic and cultural, that gives them the edge they need to reach, really reach, their communities--and ours.
Voices of the American West concludes with a reading by Terry Tempest Williams on Tuesday, April 6, and by Simon Ortiz on Tuesday, April 27. Both readings are free and begin at 8 p.m. in the Modern Languages Auditorium, on the UA campus. For other information, call 621-1044.
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