Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Matthew Komatsu: Alaska and War Writing

On the night of September 14th, 2012, a team of insurgents armed to the teeth and wearing US uniforms slipped through the wire of Bastion Air Base, Afghanistan. Once inside, they unleashed hell. Firing RPGs, they lit an uncovered jet fuel depot that contained millions of gallons of JP-8 ablaze, destroyed several Harrier jets and killed two Marines. I know this because I was there alongside three of my men. We answered a call for help and got a little more than we expected. In the days that followed, I had an idea to write my way through the experience. It took me over a year to get it down and published (link to the NYT essay is below) but I was hooked. It was time to quit screwing around. Time to write.

I came up with an idea for a short story about a veteran; a veteran I dropped into the Alaskan backcountry I have come to know and love. My wife’s final trimester frenzied the writing with the knowledge that time would soon grow scarce and I wrote with a sense of purpose I’d never found before. I am proud of what emerged, even if I wasn’t able to get it published. War was merely the beginning of the story, not the end. By the final drafts, Alaska emerged as a character as strong as my protagonist, and as deadly as war itself.

To return from war is to grapple with your place in the world. Hemingway knew this when he wrote “Big Two-Hearted River,” even if he was bit limited by the landscape of rural Michigan compared to what lies outside our doorsteps. And surely I’m not the only one to ask whether the story itself would have grown beyond the confines of In Our Time should Nick Adams have found respite on the Kenai, or in the wilds of the great Alaskan Interior. But Nick Adams isn’t the only veteran who turned to the natural world for whatever it might offer. Post-Vietnam, Ed Abbey placed George Hayduke in the Desert Southwest. Homer left Odysseus in the mythical wilds for a full decade. Which of you, I wonder, will write a veteran into Alaska?

Because here’s the thing: few other writers live with what we have outside our doorsteps. No matter where you live in Alaska, from Anchorage to New Stuhoyak, the natural world influences our lives in a way that is not well understood by our friends in the Lower 48. We are privileged with access and knowledge that begins not with a drive or a flight, but with mere steps. The natural world is a constant force within our lives, more so than anywhere else in the nation. It makes perfect sense we tend toward writing the natural world.  I would argue, then, that we’re even better placed to produce the next Odyssey or In Our Time by examining the story of a veteran in such a place.

But should your ambitions be lower than being the next Hemingway or Homer, there is this: our history as a state is intertwined with the twists and turns of both hot, and cold, wars throughout the 20th century. There is a trove of material awaiting research and telling. From the forgotten battles of WWII’s Aleutian Islands Campaign to the Shackleton-esque survival story of the Clobbered Turkey, fell deeds await your words. Socially-minded authors might pay close attention to the untold story of the Alaska Territorial Guard, whose members were not granted veteran status until 2000, and whose example is a forgotten scion of the integration of minorities and women into the military.

I guess that all this is to say that there’s a wealth of material at your fingertips, and it all begins with a keystroke, a scribble in a worn notebook, or a lingering question. I hope you accept the challenge. It’ll make a hell of a story.

Matthew Komatsu is an author and currently serving veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he enrolled in the University of Alaska-Anchorage's MFA in Creative Writing program as a Nonfiction candidate. He has published essays in The New York Times; War, Literature and the Arts; and on stage at Anchorage, AK's Arctic Entries. War, Literature, and the Arts nominated his memoir-essay, "31 North 64 East" for a Pushcart Prize. He also has a flash essay upcoming in the September 2015 issue of Brevity. You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu.

2 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great essay, Matthew. And I agree that Alaska is a natural for war writing--I'm writing about WWII in Alaska myself. :-)

Matt said...

Glad to hear it, Lynn! I look forward to reading it in the future. Hope to see some female Natives behind rifle scopes in the story line...