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David Romtvedt: “I didn’t want to write another version of the stereotype of all things Basque in America revolving around the lonely sheepherder”


The author included many different topics alongside Zelestina's life's events (Photo: D.R.)
The author included many different topics alongside Zelestina's life's events (Photo: D.R.)

Portland, Oregon author David Romtvedt is back home from his second book-presentation tour in less than three months. He’s visited Montana, Colorado, and Idaho, but he has mostly given talks in his home-state, Wyoming, about his latest book: Zelestina Urza in Outer Space. “An absorbing tale about a Basque woman from Iparralde who settles in a small Wyoming town,” as described in the Center for Basque Studies' blog . “I didn’t want to write another version of the stereotype of all things Basque in America revolving around the lonely sheepherder,” added Romtvedt himself, in a conversation with

Ander Egiluz Beramendi. Poet laureate and professor of the University of Wyoming, David Romtvedt (Portland, Oregon, 1950) is a hard worker but, on top of everything else, is a tireless creative person −despite being on a sabbatical this year, he continues to work on new poems and that he has “a large and difficult project just beginning.” “I can’t say too much about it now, except that I hope to combine elements of my musical and literary lives.” In the meantime, he continues presenting his novel, Zelestina Urza in Outer Space.

In 'Zelestina Urza in Outer Space,' you create a portrait of the immigrant experience in the American West of an individual, instead of a group. Why did you decide to do it that way?

-My goal wasn’t as much to chronicle the immigrant experience as to reveal, through specific moments, the texture of one person’s life, and the way that life was shaped by particular experiences, both in the Basque Country and in Wyoming. I was most interested in the narrator’s relationship with Zelestina.

She merges two completely different worlds?

-Correct. To the narrator Zelestina may as well have been from another planet and, for Zelestina, Wyoming was another planet. What’s the meaning of being so touched by another person that our own life is forever changed, forever new to us? Perhaps in seeing clearly through another’s eyes, we become beautifully strange to ourselves.

Who is Zelestina Urza?

-Zelestina Urza is a fictional character based, in part, on several different older women I have known in Wyoming. One was my father-in-law’s mother, a second was his aunt, and a third was one of his sisters. All these were Basque women, two of them born in Arnegi (Lower Navarre), in the northern Basque Country, and one born in Wyoming. There was another non-Basque woman whose experience got into the character of Zelestina. I never met this last person but heard a lot of stories about her—stories revolving around lovers and automobiles. A part of Zelestina also came from my mother-in-law, a woman who, as I did, married into the Basque community. I wanted to tell the story of a Basque woman coming to Wyoming, while also being able to wander around in the vastness of Basque culture and history. It has been pointed out that the stereotype of all things Basque in America revolves around the lonely sheepherder, and I didn’t want to write another version of that story.

Did you include any history in the novel?

- I did, there is a lot of history in the book that appears alongside the invented story set in the fictional town of Wolf, Wyoming. The narrator is central to the book, in that his presence allows the book to tell not only Zelestina’s and her friend Yellow Bird Daughter’s story, but other parts of the larger Basque story. The narrator skates around, touching on the Roman Empire’s presence in the Basque Country, the Spanish Civil War, the tension between fascism and the church, the paleo-history of the Basque people, etcetera. The half Arapaho, half Northern Cheyenne character Yellow Bird Daughter also allows the narrator to address the collision of European and native peoples in the Americas.

All that opens the possibility to a wide range of topics…

-Various readers have commented on the large number of threads that appear in the book. Threads that are picked up and dropped by the narrator, like the nature of modern warfare, the historical and current treatment of indigenous peoples by governing powers, the place of Christianity in society and the possibility of religious diversity, tolerance and acceptance of others, Basque and European history, the Plains Indian experience in the face of the European invasion of the Americas, gender equality, the real site of the Garden of Eden, ownership of traditional native lands, the possible connections between people of very different backgrounds, the lure of the automobile, the place of music and dance in personal and social experience. And of course, language. The place and meaning of small languages such as Basque and the power of large language groups to dominate thought. Also the nature of literary language and, above all, the slippery beauty of language. How many more topics can we take?

Prior to this book, you also worked, for instance, on books like 'Buffalotarrak: An anthology of the Basque People of Buffalo.' What or who sparked your interest in the Basques and the Basque culture?

-When I moved to Wyoming I met and married a woman who was part of the local Basque community (Margo Iberlin Echemendy, whose grandparents migrated from Arnegi). I began performing as the musical accompanist for the local Basque dance troupe (Zaharrer Segi). People began to ask me questions about Basque history, Basque music, the Basque language… And I saw how little I knew. I began to study, to gain some deeper knowledge of a world I was now a part of. But I also had a pre-existing interest in the inequality of power in society. How those with power push around those without power.

You also decided to learn Basque, and now you speak it.

-Long ago, a friend told me I would never really understand a community until I learned a little bit of their language, the language of a smaller population group. Boy, was my friend right! I have been working away learning Basque and see how much more I’ve learned. Doors into places I never knew existed opened in front of me!

'Zelestina Urza in Outer Space' can be purchased here


  • Romtvedt interview

    My wife Margo Brown is the stepdaughter of Simon Iberlin whose mother was Jeanne Etchemendy.

    David Romtvedt, 11/29/2015 18:45

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