This post continues the discussion from Kleven's post last week, Rural Alaska Lit: Poet as Witness.
As an outsider writing about rural Alaska, I was conflicted about my right to speak at all. The idea of poet or writer as witness, would in time give a channel, a justification, for my words and perceptions. The introduction to Holy Land, the narrative poem that represents my first effort to get Bush Alaska on paper, reveals my process as I struggled to recognize my purpose and to validate the right to write:
Holy Land was written by one pilgrim—one refugee—just to get it down on paper. It’s not the insipient tragedy that leaves the wanderer misshapen and begging for release. It’s the burden of the untold story. These are the tentacles that begin to wrap about the gut and squeeze in dark hours. I don’t claim to understand this holy land or these fine people, but I do have a stake in the story.
Before I fully internalized my “right to tell,” I read the work to people in Bethel and eventually read a significant part of “Holy Land” onstage, at a Bethel talent show. Not sure of my role as witness, I looked for permission.
This was compounded, at the time, because Linda McCarriston, a nationally known poet and a faculty member at UAA, was being decried in the press over a single poem, “Indian Girls.” Protests about the poem were led by Native activist Diane Benson, who was also McCarriston’s student. McCarriston’s classroom was picketed, her job in jeopardy.
Living in Bethel and reading in the Anchorage paper about “Indian Girls,” I was inexplicably drawn to pull “Holy Land” from a six year hiatus in a drawer. I re-keyed all 30 pages into my newest computer and, after getting the local nod—“It’s about time somebody said all this”— I submitted “Holy Land” to Alaska Quarterly Review. I would blunder toward this fray.
“Holy Land” was published in the summer 2005 issue of AQR, my first literary publishing credit. In my own opinion, “Holy Land” goes much further than McCarriston’s toward what one might call trespassing. Dark secrets are told, by way of a Native man, whom I imagined was addressing the reader or an off-stage character, much like myself. The words he speaks came from my experience. He’s wise, compassionate, and fed up; in that, he is a lot like me. I expected to be taken to task for the act of putting words in his mouth. The only reason I have been given for why it is going over without comment is that he says it right, somehow. I wanted him to say it right.
Stories demand telling. Wrongs force voice from witnesses, don’t you think? I can’t stay quiet about all this. Curiously, one of my unpublished manuscripts is titled, “The Story Thief.” The thief of the title was one of the first to take tales from rural Alaska, publishing them for personal gain – and, yet, the people of the village take pride in them, today. Sins are various and we have all done something.
A broader, deeper literature of rural Alaska is yet to come. Here are some early entries. The making of the list, below, triggered recall of additional books including those involved with my relocation to Alaska, Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss, and Lael Morgan’s account of a visit to Bethel, embedded in a larger work. More writing from Alaska’s Native people will extend this literature into new realms.
A School Teacher in Old Alaska – Jane Jacobs gives shape to her great aunt’s journals, creating a teaching memoir from 1904.
Tisha Must be the most widely read story (1927) of a teacher in an Alaska Native village.
Daylight Moon Not as widely read, Elizabeth Chabot Forrest tells of teaching in Wainwright, a village on the Arctic Ocean.
Raising Ourselves: A Gwitch’in Coming of Age Story Velma Wallis has also written two books based on cultural myths.
Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being Harold Napoleon of Hooper Bay implicates post-traumatic stress as cause of current troubles experienced by Alaska native families.
Ordinary Wolves: A Novel Seth Kantner’s novel draws on his childhood in Northwest Alaska.
Place of the Pretend People: Gifts from a Yup’ik Village Carolyn Kremers. A teacher’s memoir of Toksook Bay, Alaska.
Hollow Out, Kelsea Habecker. This collection of poems five years teaching in an Inupiat Eskimo village on the Arctic Ocean.
The Hide of My Tonque: Ax L'óot' Doogú Vivian Faith Prescott. A collection of poems that give a familial and historical account of the loss & revitalization of the Tlingit language.
Slick Vivian Faith Prescott’s online chapbook with a focus on oil. Love “October Checks,” a nod to the PFD and our greasy fingers.
The Last Light Breaking: Living Among Alaska's Inupiat Eskimos Nick Jans' work was introduced to me by instructor Oscar Alexie in a Yup’ik culture class at Kuskokwim Campus, College of Rural Alaska.
Always Getting Ready Jim Barker has been the photographer of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for about 40 years. I typed and formatted his resume when he was hired to teach photography at UAF. He gave me a photo as payment. This book includes many well-known pics.
Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People – Alaska native leader Willie Hensley account of growing up in Northwest Alaska.
Harmonious to Dwell – Jim Henkelman’s history of the Moravian Church in the Y-K Delta.
The Raven’s Gift – Don Rearden’s doomsday thriller is set in the Y-K Delta. Having grown up in Bethel, Rearden gets the culture right.
My Name is Not Easy Debby Dahl Edwardson’s novel of brothers set in the ‘60s at a Copper Valley, AK, boarding school.
Bethel: The First 100 Years. Pictorial and narrative history of Bethel.
Turn Again Kris Farmen’s novel of old Kenai.
Lucy’s Dance Deb Vanasse’s children’s book about the return of traditional dance to a Yup’ik village.