Since long before we moved to New Mexico, Ms. Ché has been deeply involved in the literary scene. She was a member of a number of writers' groups in California, and for about ten years, she'd been coming to New Mexico for writers' conferences.
She's been a writer herself for as long as I've known her. We met 53 years ago this month in high school. She was a graduating senior, I was a junior who would do my senior year at a new high school built specifically to educate the white students separate from those of color. I've mentioned from time to time how segregated neighborhoods were in Sacramento in the early '60s, and this was an example of how officials sought to maintain segregation even though it was illegal by the time the new high school opened.
At any rate, the high school she graduated from -- where we met -- published a literary anthology the year she graduated (1965) that included a number of her haiku and one longer poem from me along with a wide variety of fiction, non-fiction and "think pieces." We were encouraged to write and at the time I had a habit of doing so in a journal.
Ms. Ché on the other hand had greater ambitions. As we got to know each other, we corresponded back and forth frequently as she entered college and I completed my senior year of high school. As I recall, she was bored in college. She hated taking so many classes that seemed like such a waste of time, but it's what you had to do, so she did. She saw herself eventually as a serious writer, writing stories, novels, poetry, essays, what have you. The only thing she didn't like about writing was journalism (which I found out later, she's very good at. Go figure.)
After we got together and became a couple some time later (two years or so later) she decided to try learning to write on a more professional basis through a correspondence course which taught her a lot, she said, but she really did not like and ultimately rejected the commercial aspects of the literary business. Her correspondent instructors (who seemed to be very good and were published writers themselves) wanted her to write for the Market, and they tried to help her shape her submitted works for the Market, saying she had such potential, they just needed to be tweaked this way or that. She said no, that wasn't the way she wanted to go with her work.
Over the years, she wrote a lot of... stuff: poetry, a long novel, many, many short stories, plays and so on, each in her unique style which she privately circulated among friends or had published in local anthologies, and occasionally had fiction or poems in magazines.
To say she's lived an adventurous life is putting it mildly. A lot of that is what she wrote about, and that is what her readers wanted more of. But she always wrote to satisfy herself.
In California, she felt stymied despite the fact that she was involved in many literary activities and forums and was being published from time to time. She was pretty well known among a circle of writers and there was a growing audience for her work. Her plays, especially, were very well received. But she didn't feel 1) she wrote as well as she wanted and needed to; 2) that she was really getting anywhere. Also she found the literary atmosphere to be stultifying. She wasn't getting anywhere because a writer couldn't where there was so much negativity and pure bullshit everywhere you turned.
She branched out by coming to New Mexico to the Hillerman Writer's Conference and then to its Word Harvest successor after we had purchased a house here. At these conferences, she was mixing and mingling with some of the West's prominent writers of mysteries and genre works, and she was also able to practice her craft among them. Every time she came back from one of these conferences she was exhilarated. Then she became depressed again as she saw how crabbed the whole literary scene around her in California was. It was night and day.
So when we moved here, she was itchy to start on a serious "grown up" writing path. She workshopped with good writers she respected and she stayed in touch with many of the writers she had met over the years at those conferences. It didn't take long before she became convinced she could "do this" -- write, seriously, in her own voice -- and she was given so much encouragement by so many other writers who wanted to see her succeed just as I did.
We'd been giving money for scholarships to the "Indian Art School" -- IAIA -- for a while, and she'd gotten to know some of the faculty, particularly Jon Davis, the head of the MFA creative writing program, and at the time, the Poet Laureate of Santa Fe. One thing led to another.
Long story short, she decided to enroll in the "Indian Art School" as a student. Initially, her idea was to go directly for the MFA, but she became convinced that it would be better for her to obtain a BFA first for the grounding it would give her, and so, for the last two and a half years, she's been studying and writing very hard with some instructors she respects and indeed loves, among a lot of other Native and non-Native students. And yesterday she graduated with her BFA in creative writing, accepted for the MFA program starting in July.
She's been pretty widely published during her time as a student, both short stories and poetry, but she wants to focus her MFA studies on poetry. "Why?" ask some. "There's no money in it." Well. So?
She laughs, and she will be going to the Naropa University for three weeks in June to study at the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics." So there. She's really looking forward to it.
And as an Elder -- she's 70 -- she's been inspiring all kinds of women of age to follow their bliss and do... don't fret at lost opportunities, just do, including returning to someplace like IAIA or work with artists/writers you feel can help your native (or Native) talents to blossom.
Yesterday's graduation was quite an event. Her cousin came from Nevada and other friends from California and Texas sent cards or came through to wish her well. The day before, there was a swell party at friend's house in Santa Fe.
And at the graduation, Ms. Ché was honored as the Valedictorian for the Class of 2018. She wrote and delivered one of the most compelling and touching speeches of its kind I have ever heard.
She wore her mother's dress which she altered with tucks and ribbons to resemble traditional Cherokee garb, but which she had made very definitely her own. She wore a tiny Zuni-made quail pin on her mortar board because part of her name in Cherokee means "quail." She wore a carved shell necklace made by a Cherokee artist in Oklahoma because that's where her mother was from. She wore another shell necklace made by a California Native artist from abalone shell because she was born and raised in California. She wore moccasins hand made at San Ildefonso Pueblo north of Santa Fe because she now lives in New Mexico and studies among Pueblo peoples, and she wore a Pueblo sash in honor of those Pueblo students and faculty she's come to admire.
Her speech was mostly about her mother and the sacrifices she had made and the gifts she had given her children during her life time. (Readers of this blog may recall that Ms Ché's mother passed away in her sleep at our home in 2009). She wove a story of her mother and the life she had passed on to her daughter that seemed to touch everyone attending. Her speech was near the very end of the ceremonies, and people were tired, babies were fussing, and there might have been a few thoughts of "oh no, not another speechifier..." And then as she told her story, a hush fell over the crowd, the babies stopped fussing, and some in the audience were simply mesmerized. Awed I think is not too strong a word. More than a few wiped away tears running down their cheeks (including my own self.)
And as she came to her conclusion they started cheering and applauding enthusiastically, and as she stepped down, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, also a Cherokee, stood at the mic, took a beat, and simply said, "Wow."
Yep. That's right.
Oh, yes, and Happy Mother's Day!