A gripping tale of ghosts, crime and justice is back to where it all began: New Mexico.
University of New Mexico alumnus Ramona Emerson has returned to her alma mater to showcase her wildly successful supernatural crime thriller Shutter.
Shutter morphed from Emerson’s own life experiences on the Navajo Nation, and as a forensic photographer into the first ever Diné horror novel. It follows Albuquerque police photographer Rita Todacheene, who has the ability to see the ghosts of victims she captures on camera. Although she’s managed to deal with the hauntings so far, Shutter dives into one case she may be in too deep. The book also places a strong emphasis on Indigenous values, and growing into your own on a reservation.
“I observed film and photography as a vessel of history and memory and how our ancestors exist in these spaces. Their voices are a part of who we are. For the Diné the idea of talking about death is very taboo but I felt like it was something that needed to be discussed in the context of our own survival and in turn Rita’s survival,” Emerson said.
That’s something Emerson highlighted in her visit to campus on Nov. 16. She met with students from Intro to Native Lit and Indigenous Memoir and Story at Zimmerman Library. Assistant Professor Sarah Hernandez and Professor Jennifer Nez Denetdale say they, along with their students, love the award-winning book.
“It's a novel filled with suspense and it is welcomed because it centers on a landscape that Indigenous people and Diné are familiar with,” Denetdale said. “The themes of the storyline are familiar to Diné as the main character struggles with her gift of a second sight that allows her to relate the world in which death and violence could possibly overwhelm and overpower. And yet, Emerson delivers a fast-paced story that draws upon her Diné sensibilities to show us that we must talk about such sensitive issues as death and violence. For only then, do we have an accounting of the wonder of life.”
Emerson has worked tirelessly since she graduated to make ends meet as she delved into documentary-style film. Back then, she was even the only Native woman in UNM’s film program. It makes this soon to be trilogy and TV series all the more worth it.
“After over 20 years in the film industry and feeling like I was going nowhere, I decided to join a writers workshop where I went back to writing,” Emerson said. “My high school English teacher always told me I was a good writer but it was something that I put into visual storytelling for almost 30 years. It was hard to convince myself that other people would be interested in the writing work. It really was my mentor Joan Tewkesbury who believed in me enough to tell me to make the leap from screenwriting to fiction. I never believed I could do it until she insisted.”
Emerson’s thoughts and experiences as an Indigenous woman are not something to be taken lightly. Years of tribulations, including a full decade to get Shutter to where it is today, have set her up to provide exactly the right advice to UNM students.
“I am only one of many unrecognized voices in literature and film. There are so many of us out here waiting for someone to notice that we are telling our own stories. We don’t need or want anyone outside of our communities taking and telling our stories,” she said. “It’s time we took our stories back. That is what we are doing. Don’t give up and don’t compromise your vision. We have the weight of our communities on our shoulders and we should be honored to tell those stories that we hold inside of us. Our voices are important. Never forget.”