I have a couple buddies who are always introducing me as “Kris Farmen, the famous Alaskan writer.” I don’t mind this so much because they often do it while introducing me to attractive women. Still, it can be a little embarrassing. I’m an Alaskan, and I am a writer, but my fame is, shall we say, somewhat dubious.
I mention this because of something the Australian songwriter Paul Kelly once said in an interview. The exact quote escapes me, but it was words to this effect: I don’t write songs about Australia, I write songs about people. And many of those people happen to live in Australia.
Kelly, who is a household name Down Under (sort of Australia’s Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen rolled into one), is one of my favorite writers, the fact that he works in the medium of song notwithstanding. I’ve thought about his words quite a lot in the years since I heard them, particularly now that I’m writing novels set in Alaska.
The label of “Alaskan writer” can be useful both as a marketing ploy and for meeting potential bedmates at parties, but as an artist, I’m far less interested in writing stories about Alaska than I am in writing stories about people.
This is at least in part a reaction against the dominant paradigm in Alaska’s literary canon, namely, the Coming to Alaska narrative. You know the story. Someone chucks their old life Outside and moves to Alaska, maybe builds a log cabin in the bush, or lives on a fishing boat, or starts working as a bush pilot. Along the way they undergo a spiritual transformation through the experience of adopting Alaska as their home. Closely linked to this concept is what we might call the “Wow, ALASKA!” factor, something which more or less speaks for itself. These concepts dominate any number of stories that can be found on bookshelves throughout the state. I won’t name any names, but it’s often non-fiction, memoir type stuff. A few prominent novels come to mind as well. Whatever the characters happen to be doing in the story seems to be far less important than the fact that they’re doing it in ALASKA!
I can hardly be bothered to yawn any more when I see these titles. It’s not that building a cabin, living on a boat, or flying a super-cub—or even undergoing a spiritual transformation through adopting Alaska as one’s home—is somehow uninteresting or silly. It’s neither of those things. The problem is that this paradigm rests on how different Alaska is from the rest of the world, rather than recognizing the fact that human beings are all basically the same regardless of where they live, be it Alaska, New York, Somalia, or wherever.
The key here is that ALASKA! (uppercase) needs to start taking a backseat to the human drama that occurs here. I’m not a big fan of the notion that Alaska (lowercase) needs to be just as much a character in the story as the protagonists. The underlying assumption here, an assumption rooted in our forebears’ delusions of Manifest Destiny, is that day to day life in Alaska is a pivotal struggle of man against his primeval environment.
I spent this past April hiking into my surf shack on the lower Kenai Peninsula, pounding nails on the roof all day, then walking back out to my truck because the road was too soft and muddy to drive, but that’s hardly what I’d call an epic battle. It’s just me living my life, or to put it more plainly, it’s a pain in the ass. The idea that a human struggling against his or her ecosystem is inherently the stuff of great drama seems pretty silly to me given the destruction our species continues to wreak upon the Earth. So it’s cold and the snow is deep and you’re way out in the woods. Big deal. The Eskimos and Indians were dealing with that kind of thing for millennia, so what makes you so damn special? And for that matter, during the ten years I lived in Fairbanks, I can’t recall ever thinking that coaxing my pickup to crank over on a forty-below morning rated as high adventure.
Instead, I want to know about the guy you’re crazy in love with but doesn’t like you back. I want to know about the basketball coach you think is a first-rate asshole. I want to know why your stepmother always thought you were a useless dope-smoking punk, or what that priest whispered into your ear when you were alone with him in his room, and was it the smell of onions on his breath that made your skin crawl?
And if you happen to be cutting notches in a cabin log, or picking silvers from a gillnet, or taxiing your super-cub down a gravel bar when these things come to mind, then so much the better.