Title: BELAGANA-BELAZANA: An Outsider’s Quest in the Navajo Nation
Author: T. Lloyd Winetsky
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Education
Series: The American Teachers Series
Published On: January 2, 2017
Publisher: Pen-L Publishing
An educator for four decades, T. Lloyd Winetsky's dedication to teaching was spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King. Since that day, he has worked tirelessly for those who lack access to quality education. Winetsky is the author of the American Teachers Series, a fictional line of books that reveal a spectrum of intense issues that teachers sometimes face. From racism and cultural conflict to political upheaval and blind bureaucracy to apathy and substance abuse. His latest novel, Belagana-Belazana takes place in the Navajo Nation, where Winetsky taught for five years. In the book, Sean Noland—a middle-aged, recently-divorced English teacher—takes a job at a remote U.S. Government school in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. An outsider to the Navajo people as well as his employer, Sean begins to bond with his students despite their deeply ingrained distrust of the belagana, or white man. Some bitter staff members and an oblivious bureaucracy complicate matters. Sean forms a surprising connection with his half-Navajo dormitory assistant, Leonard Santos. When Leonard and Sean discover that the school's water is contaminated, they covertly set up a temporary drinking system—but know they will eventually have to answer to their agency supervisors. One frigid night, two boys flee from the dormitory because one fears his family's lives are being threatened by his alcoholic father. Sean and Leonard embark on a manhunt to find the boys before they freeze to death. Their desperate search is complicated by a disabled vehicle, the ensuing trek in a frozen wilderness, and Sean's worsening hypothermia. They struggle on toward the boy's house, not realizing a hostage situation awaits them there. Can the men and the runaway boys survive the forces of nature and the volatility of human aggression?
Q&A with T. Lloyd Winetsky
- Can you tell us more about your background in teaching?
Forty years in teaching and administration, K-12, some college and several years in adult education. Various subjects, but mostly English, ESL, Spanish, and Bilingual Ed.
- BELAGANA-BELAZANA is the fourth book in The American Teachers series, a line of fiction books that reveal a spectrum of intense issues that teachers face. What made you decide to start this series?
Some teachers face those issues head on and are truly dedicated to do their best to teach and help kids. Others, sad to say, are oblivious or even hostile to the educational and/or personal situations that kids bring to school. I want to make that spectrum as clear as possible.
- You have four children. Do you ever wonder what your kids will think when they read your stories? Does that affect the writing process?
Not much, the only one of our kids portrayed in the four books is a daughter who died due to medical malpractice.
- What was the most difficult part of writing BELAGANA-BELAZANA?
The story itself came easily. The most difficult part was researching parts of Navajo culture, language, and history to verify my memories when living there many years ago.
- How did you decide on the unique title?
The title means “white man—apple” a rhyme some kids would say when a white guy was walking with an “acculturated” Navajo, like Sean and Leonard in the story.
- What is the value in producing literature on the Navajo Nation?
The story is more about how the white man deals with the Navajo people in different ways. It does NOT pretend to “know” or “explain” Navajo culture.
- When the main character Sean gets to Raven Point, the boarding school on the Navajo reservation, he befriends his half-Navajo dormitory assistant Leonard. What elements test the developing friendship between the two?
Their developing friendship is central to the story; they are both outsiders in a much different way– Sean the Belagana, and Leonard the Belazana. They grow closer dealing with the main elements of Bel-Bel: Leonard helping Sean adjust to Raven Point; their struggle to deal with the contaminated water; their challenges in searching for the two runaway boys in a snowstorm; their unexpected conflict in a hostage situation at the end of their search.
- How much-if any-of the obstacles Sean faces at Raven Point (racism, child abuse, prejudice, cultural friction) did you experience first-hand teaching in the Navajo Nation?
All of these and more–some of them more common with the white man and others more common with Navajos.
- Despite the widespread distrust of the belagana, or white man, amongst his students, Sean eventually begins to bond with them. Having taught in both urban and rural environments, to various ages and cultures, how were you able to form a sense of unity and trust within the classroom?
I wouldn’t say that I ever got that far. Classroom teaching was most successful when I could structure hands-on activities (like Abby in the story). Basketball was a key path to communicating better with both the kids and the communities.
- In the book, both Sean and Leonard deal with cynicism from staff members and school council members. How imperative, would you say, is it for educators not to subside when dealing with education bureaucracy?
It is often difficult to confront the bureaucracy in this kind of school because the agencies have been so entrenched in their habits and in what THEY think is best for the kids—often without genuine contact with parents. If the issue is important, you just fight it, which is probably why I taught in three schools while I was there.
- What do you hope readers will take away from BELAGANA-BELAZANA?
That missionaries of English, education, and the dominant culture (including religion) often have an agenda that does not align much with the communities they serve. On the more positive side, I hope readers are inspired by Sean and Leonard’s relationship in the face of so many difficulties.
- Do you currently have any other projects in the works?
We also taught 5 years in Alaska—I’ve done some thinking and outlining with that setting, and I’ve been doing the same with a story that has little or nothing to do with teaching. At 71, I want to be sure that I am “into” the theme for the new book as much as with the others.
About T. Lloyd Winetsky
Born and raised in Los Angeles, T. Lloyd Winetsky has been an educator for more than four decades. After a stint in the Peace Corps, his first teaching post was in South-Central L.A.—six classes of low-income seventh-graders. It was the spring of 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
That event, the violence that followed, and then Robert Kennedy’s assassination all had a great impact on Winetsky’s life. They validated his life’s mission, and he devoted his work to those who lack access to quality education. Those first teaching experiences were germane to both the setting and conflicts of his historical novel, Los Angeles, 1968: Happy Ranch to Watts (Pen-L Publishing, 2014). Pen-L also republished his first two novels (below) as part of the American Teachers Series. All four of Winetsky’s books are “stand-alone” novels, and also available for e-readers at Pen-L and Amazon.
After 1968, Winetsky returned to college for his certification, then taught English and Spanish to students of all ages in the Southwest and Northwest, including four years in Alaska. A school administrator for some of those years, he retired from full-time work in 1998 after surviving a brain aneurysm and stroke. He was a bilingual education specialist in Yakima, Washington, where he is currently a part-time volunteer for La Casa Hogar, working with adult farm workers.
Winetsky faithfully writes every day. His rich stories are woven with real-life experiences. He lives near Yakima with his wife of 47 years, Kathleen, a Special Education teacher. They have four grown children.