Lessons In Refusing Description

N’dee, queer, nonbinary. There is a certain level of difficulty I experience in trying to remember a time when I did not feel anxiety in relation to how others talked about me. My selfhood has regularly been up for interrogation by those with power. Even as I felt the elation when learning my first manuscript was accepted for publication, dread closely followed. It wasn’t related to the quality of the pieces or even the stress of trying to plan everything related to its publication. I was feeling fearful as countless scenarios swirled in my head about how others might discuss my work, and the risk of it being stripped down by people who have had the luxury of a validated existence.

The second time I decided to get serious about writing (which meant me actually letting others see what I was doing) was about three years ago. I submitted a poem, exploring my relationship to heartbreak as a nonbinary, N’dee (Apache) person for feedback. A day later I went back to see if there were any comments. There were two types of comments I saw in all of the feedback. The first was criticism of my usage of gender neutral pronouns (I use them/they/theirs). People said that by using those pronouns, they couldn’t focus on the story, mostly because they were confused by the identity of the person. The second was people misunderstanding the nuances between Indigenous cultures and telling me that I could really “benefit” from incorporating more imagery into the piece. My uncle has always told me that white people will only expect two narrative choices from us: we are either the mystical shaman or the savage.

I felt angry. A friend of mine at the time, who is cisgender, told me to not let it get to me. They couldn’t understand the hurt I experienced. I was not given space to acknowledge the erasure of myself by others, as both someone who is Indigenous and not cisgender. Where could I find places that would genuinely care for my words? Were there even people who would work to create room for me in places where those like myself are not given access to? As I became more involved in literary spaces, I saw others like myself having similar experiences with invalidation.

Billy-Ray Belcourt, a writer from the Driftpile Cree Nation, recently published the essay “Fatal Naming Rituals” in Hazlittabout his award-winning poetry collection being called “simple” in a review. Belcourt interrogates the incidents involving Indigenous people who create to prove their humanity and often are reduced to the “trauma of description”.” As Belcourt writes, “There is an art to spinning words so that they are always-already against the monotony of voice and for the polyphony of political speak. This is the terrain of Indigenous writing. It always has been and always will be.”

Art is not exempt from the workings of the many-headed hydra that is white heteropatriarchal colonialism. Indigenous and queered narratives are often subject to the criticism of the work being “political” or “plain” when we talk about our experiences that can’t always be shared with the majority. Even editing choices, such as italicizing non-English words, risk reifying an Otherness in the literary canon that has been allowed to exist and propagate itself for too long.

To be who I am, and to write, is to know violence. I am misgendered and belittled by others. Editors have written my N’dee name incorrectly, despite multiple corrections on my part. I have had to ask, with immense apprehension, publications to offer gender-neutral options in contracts when I read through them and see only “He/She” used. My heart lurches with grief to know how the onus is on myself and other marginalized people to create equitable literary spaces, instead of being done by those with power. It has made the imperative even stronger that my work affirms the fullness of my existence and resists colonial gazes.

As I move forward with writing and the potential for more obstacles to come, I find myself coming back to a quote from Dafina-Lazarus Stewart. Stewart, a nonbinary professor of higher education at Bowling Green State University, wrote about language shifts involving diversity and equity. Ze wrote:

 “Diversity asks, ‘Who’s in the room?’ Equity responds: ‘Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Who presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?’”

My mother taught me that I should always be ready to do the work. It didn’t matter what the work necessarily was, but that it was getting done, because there was likely someone who could have done it but refused. She had originally meant this when navigating conversations as an Indigenous person in the world. I had to be prepared to create space and language for myself when I existed in a world that actively works to take those things from me. That lesson is what has allowed me to process the pain of erasure so that I can do the work. If there will be gatekeeping, I will nurture a borderlessness.

I’m cautious in hoping that white writers and editors will leverage their power to dismantle systemic issues within literary spaces. There are definitely those who actively, and transparently, create discourse and work focused on addressing the problems I mentioned. But it isn’t enough. Simply acknowledging privilege and power isn’t justice. Creating “special” issues of magazines, instead of working to make publications more inclusive of work from marginalized communities, is not progress or cause for celebration. I want more. I demand more for myself and my communities. I’ll continue working to honor who I am and where I came from. I will not be made malleable and easy to digest; these words have learned to bite back.


A photo of the author, Moira J., N'dee or Apache non-binary person with shoulder-length hair and red lipstick, standing in front of a lush green shrub.MOIRA J. is a nonbinary, Dzil Łigai Si’an N’dee (White Mountain Apache) poet who lives in Boston. You can find their work at www.moiraj.com, or follow them on Twitter @moira__j.