An Interview with Writer-In-Residence Danielle Emerson

The Associates of the Boston Public Library recently announced that Danielle Emerson, of Providence, RI, has been awarded the 2023-2024 Writer-in-Residence. Danielle is a Diné writer of fiction, poetry, plays, and creative essays from Shiprock, NM, on the Navajo Nation. She has a B.A. in Education Studies and a B.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University.

To celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, we are delighted to shine a spotlight on Danielle, whose background, influences, and creative thinking process offer a unique perspective, which we had the privilege of gaining access to:

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your Diné heritage?   

Of course! Let me start by introducing myself: Yá'át'ééh shí éí Danielle Emerson yinishyé. Tłaashchi’i nishłí. Ta’neezaahníí éí bashichíín. Ashíí’híí éí dashicheii. Ta’chííníí éí dashinalí. Adóó Nataaníí Nez éí shíghandí. Kot’éégo éí Diné asdzáán nishłí.

My name is Danielle. I am the Red Cheek Clan, born for the Tangle Clan. I am from Shiprock, New Mexico. And I am a Diné (Navajo) woman. I’m from Shiprock, but I also spent a lot of time in Upper Fruitland at my grandmother’s farm. Being there with my family, surrounded by open land, really encapsulates the love and care that comes from and goes into my Diné culture. It’s kind of hard to speak to a 'Dine heritage,' there are some things like my connection to culture and family that just make sense and don’t really need an explanation or are difficult to explain because they’re felt and lived. I love talking about my family and my home—which are all huge parts of Diné values. They're all inherently a piece of who I am. And I love that aspect of myself and my Diné community.

How has your Diné background influenced your writing?   

I think a lot of it comes from the stories and teachings my family passed on to me. They taught me the importance of strength and perseverance. And as a writer, I feel like their voices stay with me, even though I’m so far away from home. I also feel like being a Diné writer means making space for the voices that impact your own, like my sisters and my father’s voices. I want to acknowledge their influence in the stories and poems I write. For me personally, writing as a Diné person comes from a place of warmth, healing, and home. Being Diné and a writer brings care into my work—whether that’s care for my family, my friends, my community, my language, or my wellbeing—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

As the Associates of the Boston Public Library’s first Writer-in-Residence with Indigenous heritage, what are your thoughts on this unique opportunity and the potential impact it may have on Indigenous literature and storytelling?   

I’m super excited to bring Indigenous and Native storytelling into this space. I had no idea that I was the first Writer-In-Residence with an Indigenous heritage. As a low-income person, this residency gives me the chance to write without worrying too much about living expenses. And so many talented voices are impacted by financial barriers. I see this opportunity with the Associates as a chance to strengthen the Native and Indigenous storytelling community—to uplift any other Native writers, any other Indigenous storytellers, who might be interested in disrupting the literary canon. These spaces need more Native and Indigenous voices—I just see myself as the first of many to come. 

Do you have any favorite books that have particularly resonated with you or highlighted your Diné heritage? How have they shaped your perspective as a writer?   

I love love love Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller. I read her memoir directly after losing my father and so much of her words resonate with me. I just read her book at the right time. 

Recently a collection of short stories came out titled The Missing Morning Star by Stacie Shannon Denetsosie. I took a fiction workshop with her through the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute, and I learned so much from her! I’ve been reading her short stories and so much of what she does as a writer, I would love to someday do as well. 

I’m also super into Dinétics (Diné Poetics), so I’ve been reading a lot of poetry books by Jake Skeets and Amber McCrary. They’re both really talented Diné poets and storytellers. 

But, to go back in time a little bit, the first book I read by a Diné writer was a collection of poetry by Luci Tapahonso titled, Sáanii Dahataał / The Women Are Singing. I remember being really excited—I think I was in high school. But I bought the book and spent the whole day reading over it. I was so inspired to see a writer like me published and featured at my local bookstore. I think that feeling of excitement is a feeling I want to keep recreating and sharing, especially as I build my own writing. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers from Indigenous backgrounds who may be looking to explore and celebrate their own heritage in their creative work?   

I’d tell aspiring writers to not be afraid to write what they know and what they want to share! You are a storyteller. You are a writer. Even if you feel the need to put ‘aspiring’ before your work. If you write—in any capacity—you are a writer. Don’t let ideas like prestige through awards or education tell you otherwise. Claim it and make it yours. There’s no one way to be ‘a writer,’ let alone a writer who celebrates their own heritage in their work. Embrace the ambiguity of writing. I write to ultimately heal. Others write for similar and/or different reasons. Write what you feel compelled to write and know that that makes you “a writer.” Don’t be afraid to celebrate yourself and your culture through your writing!