Last Thursday, the College welcomed back Lemanuel Loley ’16 to give a poetry reading in Horn Gallery. The reading followed his talk the previous day on incorporating indigenous narratives into curriculum and pedagogy. The small space where the event was held was warmly lit and comfortable, setting the stage for an engaging and insightful reading.
Loley founded Indigenous Nations at Kenyon, and went on to receive his MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2018. He is currently an adjunct professor at Navajo Technical University’s School of Arts and Humanities.
Most of Loley’s writing centers on his experiences as a Native person moving through the world and living in the Navajo Nation. As a short introduction, he told an anecdote about being the only person of color in a creative writing class he took at Kenyon. A classmate told him he needed to “get out of the Native lens he [was] always writing in,” and the comment baffled him because he was not writing through a “lens,” only his worldview. He began his reading with the poem he wrote in response to his classmate’s comment, which introduced the audience to the entangled themes of Navajo identity and love present in his writing.
The other two poems Loley read were influenced by the Navajo Nation’s ban on gay marriage enacted in 2005. In his poem, “Man Made of Stars,” Loley explores the themes of love and gender. The poem is rich with metaphor, comparing the speaker’s lover to the galaxy, capturing the enormous and all-encompassing nature of love.
Loley then read an excerpt from his novel, They Collect Rain in their Palms, which details the experience of a young gay Navajo man who gets caught up in a political debate about same-sex marriage as he enters into a relationship with another man. The situation is further complicated for the protagonist when his aunt, a devout born-again Christian, supports the marriage ban, a circumstance through which Loley explores the influence of colonialism on the reservation. Loley smoothly weaves poetry and prose, incorporating cultural narratives by putting them into poetic form.
Translating cultural narratives from Navajo to English presented a challenge to Loley. The nuances and pacing of the language are difficult to translate exactly into English. For example, in Navajo, one word often represents a series of actions, so the brevity of the poem was altered by changed in his translation, which slightly changed the original meaning and feeling of the work.
“You can feel the weight of [Navajo] in your body,” Loley said. “The feeling of it is different in my body than English. It feels like I remember [Navajo] without actually having spoken it.” Loley successfully captured the beauty that language has taught him to see in the world through his insightful and carefully chosen descriptions of the landscape and people.
After the reading, an audience member asked if Loley ever thought of writing in the Navajo language instead of English, to which he responded that he was not completely fluent in the language, so his novel was a project of self-discovery: “I do a lot of research on the etymology of language and stories and things like that, so it’s really a process of decolonization, because my first language was English. So I’m re-learning the Navajo language, and I’m reclaiming it and finding my ancestral self.”