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Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural literature’s most celebrated memoirists — by passing himself off as Native American?

Monday, Jan 23 2006

“So achingly honest it takes your breath away.”

Miami Heraldon The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping

In June of 1999 a writer calling himself Nasdijj emerged from obscurity to publish an ode to his adopted son in Esquire. “My son is dead,” he began. “I didn’t say my adopted son is dead. He was my son. My son was a Navajo. He lived six years. They were the best six years of my life.”

click to flip through (7) Illustrations by Ronald Kurniawan
  • Illustrations by Ronald Kurniawan

The boy’s name was Tommy Nothing Fancy, and Nasdijj wrote that he and his wife adopted Tommy as an infant and raised him in their home on the Navajo reservation. At first, Tommy seemed like a healthy baby, albeit one who consistently cried throughout the night. “The doctor at the Indian Health Service said it was nothing. Probably gas.”

But it wasn’t gas. Tommy suffered from a severe case of fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. Though Tommy looked normal, his crying continued and as he grew older he began to suffer massive seizures. “I thought I could see him getting duller with every seizure. He knew he was slowly dying.”

Nasdijj knew too, and he tried to give his son as full a life as time would allow. Fishing was Tommy’s favorite thing to do and they went often — sometimes at the expense of his medical care. “For my son hospitals were analogous to torture. Tommy Nothing Fancy wanted to die with his dad and his dog while fishing.”

Nasdijj’s wife wanted Tommy in the hospital receiving modern medical treatment. “She was a modern Indian. .?.?. She begged. She pleaded. She screamed. She pounded the walls. But the hospitals and doctors never made it better.”

Though the conflict tore his marriage apart, Nasdijj continued to take his son fishing and, true to his last wish, Tommy died of a seizure while on an expedition.

“I was catching brown trout,” Nasdijj wrote. “I was thinking about cooking them for dinner over our campfire when Tommy Nothing Fancy fell. All that shaking. It was as if a bolt of lightning surged uncontrolled through the damaged brain of my son. It wasn’t fair. He was just a little boy who liked to fish. .?.?. I was holding him when he died. .?.?. The fish escaped.”

The Esquire piece, as successful as it was heartbreaking, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and helped establish Nasdijj as a prominent new voice in the world of nonfiction. “Esquire’s Cinderella story,” as Salon’s Sean Elder called it, “arrived over the transom, addressed to no one in particular. ‘The cover letter was this screed about how Esquire had never published the work of an American-Indian writer and never would because it’s such a racist publication,’ recalls editor in chief David Granger. ‘And under it was .?.?. one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’d ever read.’ By the time the piece was published in the June issue, the writer (who lives on an Indian reservation) had a book contract.”

The contract was for a full-length memoir, The Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000 to great acclaim. It was followed by two more memoirs, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping (Ballantine, 2003), and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (Ballantine, 2004). As if losing a son was not enough, the memoirs portray a lifetime of suffering.

Nasdijj was born on the Navajo reservation in a hogan in 1950, he claims, the son of an abusive white cowboy “who broke, bred, and bootlegged horses” and a Navajo mother. “My mother,” he writes, “was a hopeless drunk. I would use the word ‘alcoholic’ but it’s too polite. It’s a white people word. .?.?. There is nothing polite about cleaning up your mother in her vomit and dragging her unconscious carcass back to the migrant housing trailer you lived in.”

Nasdijj says his father would sometimes pimp his mother to other migrant workers for “five bucks” and that she died of alcoholism when he was 7. Though their time together was short and turbulent, Nasdijj says his mother instilled in him the Navajo traditions that now inform his work.

His father, he says, was a sexual predator who raped him the night his mother died. Because his father was white, Nasdijj says he was treated like an “outcast bastard” on the reservation. Like Tommy Nothing Fancy, Nasdijj claims to have fetal alcohol syndrome and to have been raised, with his brother, in migrant camps all over the country.

Nasdijj knows how to pull heartstrings. Both The Blood and The Boy revolve around the lives and deaths of his adopted Navajo sons. “Death, to the Navajo, is like the cold wind that blows across the mesa from the north,” Nasdijj writes in The Blood. “We do not speak of it.” But Nasdijj does speak of it. In fact, he speaks of it almost exclusively. Death and suffering are his staples.

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