Natanya Pulley is different from the average english professor at an American university or college. Pulley is one of a growing number of Native American professors in America and is the newest tenure-track professor in the English Department. In her first year at CC she is focusing on teaching Fiction classes, Native American Literature courses, and is set to teach a Diverse Forms and Diverse Voices course later this year. Pulley, who hails from Utah, is figuring out the Block Plan as she goes. “The Block Plan is a totally interesting, innovative, dynamic experience. I think I’m still kind of trying to figure it out,” said Pulley. In addition to her classroom presence, Pulley is in the midst of editing the literary journal Black Candies and is an integral part of bringing the Hairstreak Butterfly Journal to Colorado College. The Hairstreak Butterfly Journal will collect professional submissions of literature from around the country but will also look to get students involved in the editing process.
David Andrews: What are some pieces of art that you have been spending time with lately?
Natanya Pulley: There are two different kinds of things that are happening right now that I’m seeing a lot of. First is all of the pipeline art and indigenous art that is coming out of there. It’s pretty amazing. Luckily, I mean, I love Facebook for this reason, I get a chance to see new pieces that are out there all the time. So that’s really nice. It’s a really exciting time for native art right now when there’s an issue like the pipeline that is happening and there’s a huge movement, so it’s creating a bunch of interesting pictures and depicting this pipeline as a snake and you have all these people that are fighting against it. It’s just really beautiful stuff. So I enjoy all of that that is going on. Also, all of the art for the journal that I am working on. This is the first time that I have edited a journal where we’ve had stories that include pieces of art and the art is all created for the story. We found the artists, we sent them the story, and they sent back a picture or a piece of art to go with it. It was really kind of scary wondering what it was going to be, but it’s all so beautiful. It was just a really great, kind of amazing piece to see come together. I’ve actually had a hard time editing the copy because I haven’t wanted to ruin the book itself. Those were probably the two types of art that I’ve been interacting with the most.
DA: What is the journal called that you are editing?
NP: It’s called Black Candies and this issue is called “Gross and Unlikeable,” so it’s all stories of female figures and all the ways that they are coded as gross and unlikeable. It’s a pleasurable, entertaining read but there’s nothing overtly feminine and sexual about it. It’s really kind of nitty-gritty and abject. The art is too. There are a couple of pieces that are really surprising in there.
DA: What’s one major challenge that you could point out of teaching writing classes on the Block Plan?
NP: I have to build in reflection time in a way that I didn’t have to in a semester long class. A student could work on something the first week and return to it in week 13 and have some time learning new strategies, learning a new approach, kind of being able to look at their work from another point of view. It can be like looking at a stranger’s work when you’ve waited long enough. You can’t really do that on this plan. I’ve had to reimagine what it means to do that kind of reflective time. Luckily, Colorado College has so many opportunities for kind of building in new structures. We have class time to do a collage project that kind of gives us enough space to be away from the work, but still connected to arts and expression. Or we were able to do our workshops up at the CC Cabin so that we were just removed to a whole new environment. Even if it wasn’t a lot of reflective time, just being in a new place did a little bit of that work. So imagining reflection in a shorter amount of time has been really interesting.
DA: I was wondering how your Navajo heritage plays into your existence as a writer and as a teacher. How have you seen your identity play out in the classroom?
NP: It’s interesting the way that sometimes identity becomes this really obvious thing for me in my teaching and writing. Particularly when I’m working on nonfiction or when I’m teaching native texts it feels like it’s very obvious and it’s external and it’s right on the surface there. There are other ways, and those are the ways that maybe I’m a little more interested in, like seeing my heritage play out in internal, quieter, surprising ways.
Sometimes in my writing I’ll look back at stories and think, ‘This story doesn’t look quite like a traditional story. Do I need to change it so it has a beginning, middle, end?’ Or, ‘Am I doing something different and is this a way that it looks more like a Navajo story?’ Sometimes even its metaphysical properties are more in touch with what I see as my Navajo belief system. Sometimes it’s like that.
I think it’s also in my teaching. The fact that I’m here stands for a lot as well. The fact that there may not be a lot Native American professors out there, but that number is growing. I see more and more. Every week someone I know has gotten into a Ph.D. program or been offered a position somewhere. So that’s changing. Sometimes it feels like the very fact that I’m there, sometimes it feels like it’s happening in the text, sometimes it feels like it’s happening in a more community-based environment as well. I’ve never really been comfortable with the kind of academic structure where a professor just kind of lectures and takes over an entire room, and Colorado College is really good about allowing that type of space for discussion and community-based things.
DA: Could you point out two or three things that you would want people to see on the surface, or below the surface, of differences between what we’ve classically been taught as literature and what we’ve missed out on or not learned in that process about Navajo storytelling?
NP: I think we are not really introduced to literature as a type of environment to enter. I think students are introduced to themes and setting and kind of those structural, elemental pieces of a story, and we can walk away from a story with a type of feeling and say, ‘I feel good, or I feel sad, or I feel confused.’ But to actually imagine reading as walking into an environment, as creating a new type of space, is probably the link that I see.
Navajo and indigenous storytelling also has a ceremonial element to it. It’s not just relaying expression, it’s also about building a moment in time where ideas have room to grow, where seeds of healing are sprouting, or wounds are being opened up. All these things happen in ceremonies but they also happen in stories. I think it’s too easy to read something and close the book and walk away and say, ‘I learned something and I feel good about myself as a reader.’ It’s another thing to imagine a whole world where people are reading and developing these ways of being that they can carry around with them as well.
DA: Was there someone or something in your educational or family past that pushed you to pursue this path?
NP: It really was my mentor at the University of Utah. He didn’t really give me the idea for graduate school or that I could or should, but he was the only professor that I had that looked at my work and said, ‘Natanya, you are doing something different and that’s why you are not seeing it in the things around you and the books you’re reading. What you’re doing is different and you need to go to graduate school and understand how it’s different, and what it’s doing, and have that better wealth of knowledge. You need more hands on experience with other writers and other professors to kind of help build that literary area for you.’
Of course, my parents were thrilled that I had graduated with my Bachelor’s, and I was thrilled as well, but it really was that mentor that saw something. I didn’t believe him at first. I said, ‘Oh, I’ll apply and we’ll see,’ but the more I researched and thought about it, and that first year, which was really tough, but I think it was that first year that I realized that writing was not a solitary thing that I was doing, but a community-based kind of thing, and that being native and a writer was political action within itself. That’s when the momentum built for me. Maybe some Native American students that aren’t thinking about going to graduate school haven’t been able to imagine this future building in front of them.
DA: Where did you grow up before University of Utah and what ideas did you have about your future?
NP: After high school, I worked at a few different jobs for quite a while, for six to eight years I think. I would try different classes now and then, and I lived in a bunch of different places. I lived in Alaska, and New York City, and Boston, and I worked with rare libraries, and website content, and writing reports, and insurance adjusting. I kind of did a lot during that time before I was really ready to go back and get my Bachelor’s. I always knew that if it wasn’t going to be graduate school, I could find another place that valued writing.
It was really something about the idea of being able to write my own stuff and having the time and energy for it that propelled me towards graduate school. I never really thought of myself as a teacher when I was younger actually. Sometimes now and then, when I think about being a professor and how I got here, I see myself as a writer first, but I also see how my ideas about what a professor was were incomplete when I was younger. I didn’t realize how much I would be learning from my students and my colleagues, and the institution, and all the research I would be doing. I didn’t really see it as this huge open system that happens.
DA: Have you experienced a long streak of lack of inspiration or creating content that you’re not happy with?
NP: I have to write everyday and I have to shut off my brain about whether it’s going to be good or what I’m going to do with it later, and just open this time up for possibility and going with what is created. Just being willing to fail over, and over, and over again. It’s a time of trusting myself and working and hey, I might write something really sh-tty today, but that’s okay. It needs to be about the process and not the product.
Much like any kind of other skill, you just get better as you go. You don’t learn how to, I don’t know, kick a field goal and then you’re done learning how to do that. You have to do it regularly. It’s hard and I don’t really believe in having an artistic block at all, but I do believe that I have to write some crap and just get through it. It’s a daily thing to do. I’ve realized that I have a hard time writing when I’m not reading something I like and engaging in other materials I like. I make myself sit in front of the computer for a specific amount of time and just type.
DA: What do you think about writers writing from the perspective of characters of a culture or race not their own?
NP: It’s a very tricky area and a dangerous area. I don’t have all the answers for it, but I do know that telling anybody not to write in a certain voice seems like a problem. It seems like a way of shutting down discussion. So that can’t be the solution.
There has to be research, there has to be questions about why this character needs to be this race or color or have it be this particular body. There has to be some sort of deep, thoughtful introspection and research. I think like any good character, they can’t be all about one thing and they can’t live their identity.
Identity isn’t a stable thing to begin with so that’s an important part. Identity needs to be something that is changing and switching around, especially in different environments. So being able to capture that is really difficult if you haven’t experienced that.
Stereotypes are so easy to latch onto, even the good stereotypes. I’ve seen it a lot and I usually try to talk to the student about it, but try and open it and make it about, ‘What is it that we’re doing when we’re writing about someone that is otherly abled or looks different than your lived experience?’ It’s a really interesting area to explore and I don’t think there’s a quick or dirty answer for it.
DA: Here’s a quote from Salvador Dali, and I wonder what your thoughts are on it: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
NP: I don’t really know if there is, like, an original idea out there ever, you know? I think there does have to be some sort of imitation involved and one’s work only comes from the work that they are reading and the texts they are experiencing regularly. I think that there has to be a play with genre. There has to be a play with other words and phrases and other kinds of texts and imitations of things before someone finds their way into the world. We’re trying to capture a world around us all the time, so we’re kind of imitating the world all the time. Even if you’re not writing realistic fiction, you’re trying to capture real emotions. So it’s always an imitation.
DA: I saw that you have two dogs. Do you think that dogs can teach us anything about how to improve our existences as humans?
NP: Patience. I think it’s really hard for me not to imagine my dogs as people, and so I have to try and remember sometimes that they live in the present and they are creatures and they’re experiencing something very different than I am. I do love that, that kind of experience of trying to live in the moment and be present with them. Definitely yes, they’re constantly teaching me about the limits of being a human, and how I can have an amazing day and I can come home and think that I did all these things right, and I’m brilliant, and I was able to succeed at a bunch of stuff. But no matter what, my dog is kind of existing in that moment in maybe more pleasure than I am because they have something very small and tangible that they can enjoy in that moment.
DA: Do you have any thoughts to share as a professor and educator following the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States?
NP: I believe in creating space for marginalized voices and I choose the texts, discussion topics, and community aspects of my courses with this always in mind. I will continue to do so now more than ever. Additionally, I think artists, writers, poets, musicians, designers, etc. will be creating some phenomenal work in response to this nation’s future and there’s something beautiful in that.
Lastly, I do believe in honoring emotional responses and I hear a lot of fear for the years ahead. It’s easy to throw one’s self into critical thinking in order to avoid voices of frustration, fear, and despair and to find stability during uncertainty. But we must not forget that thinking our way through another’s fear or despair is a luxury. So I will continue to fight for empathy in all the work I do.