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Know the West

Voices rising from the desert

  I say the writers of the Southwest, we are like horses that have gone out on the llano and eaten locoweed, and madness is what is unique to us.
–Rudolfo Anaya

It’s one thing to read the printed words of your favorite author; it’s quite another to actually hear his or her voice. Almost 10 years ago, University of New Mexico professor David King Dunaway produced "Writing the Southwest," a radio series featuring Southwestern wordsmiths (HCN, 12/11/95: Southwestern writers hit the airwaves), which was followed by a companion volume. Now, the University of New Mexico Press has reissued Writing the Southwest, an updated and expanded collection of interviews with 14 writers, ranging from the late curmudgeon Ed Abbey to popular authors Tony Hillerman and Terry McMillan to Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso.

But the book is more than another rundown of the same old biographical tidbits; instead, Dunaway and co-editor Sara Spurgeon have woven interviews, literary excerpts, and analyses of the writers’ influence on American literature into the collection. The book also features a CD with excerpts from the radio series, and it’s a treat to listen to the cadence of the writers’ voices: Anaya’s trilling New Mexican accent, Joy Harjo’s clipped Oklahoma words, Tapahonso’s soft-spoken Navajo voice and Stan Steiner’s faded, but audible, Brooklyn snap.

Beyond desert fetishes and canyon addictions, an overriding theme is that of disenfranchised writers seeking recognition from the East Coast publishing houses, while remaining true to their own cultures and ideals: Harjo speaks of what it’s like to not only be a female poet, but an Indian one at that. Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez and Alberto Rios speak of their Spanish roots; John Nichols defends "political literature," and Simon Ortiz, an Acoma poet and professor, explains that he writes his poetry for "that great mass of people who I think need to be reaffirmed of their humanity. Kind of a tall order, but what’s a poet for?"

You can also listen to the Writing the Southwest radio series at www.unm.edu/~wrtgsw/.

Writing the Southwest
Edited by David King Dunaway and Sara Spurgeon
320 pages, 74 minute CD, paperback: $17.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2003.