Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Brendan Jones | Writing Alaska: People & Place

Brendan Jones's novel The Alaskan Laundry,
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2016)
One question I’ve been getting these past couple days, reading in San Francisco a couple days ago, Los Angeles, and preparing for Powells here in Portland, goes something like this: “What have folks in Alaska thought of your book?” I answer in two parts.

1. First, I talk about reading aloud in Sitka from a section where a Tlingit character in the book instructs Tara, the main character, on where best to gather beach asparagus, and dip-net sockeye. Following the reading a very thoughtful, intelligent woman invited me to her home for a beverage, and to discuss the book. At the time I was using the name of “Sitka” for my town, calling Chatham Strait “Chatham Strait,” and so on. Real names for real places. Tara went with this particular character – Betteryear is his name – to harvest beach asparagus at X, and to dipnet sockeye at X.

It was the naming of X that concerned her, the woman explained. And she predicted, when the book was published, it would raise the hackles of people in Sitka, native and otherwise. Subsistence areas were special, if not sacred, she explained. To name these places would not only break a trust invested in me by people of town, but would also put at risk these spots that couldn’t take the pressure of more people. They would risk being ruined. Furthermore, to gain the knowledge of where to go to get this food, one needed to first gain the trust of someone who might show you such things. This meant committing, for example, to a winter on the island, and so forth.

I should mention here (and I sometimes talk about it in this answer, depending on the crowd) that I hate Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, a book that re-imagines Roosevelt’s far-fetched idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Southeast Alaska. Sure it’s a well-written, charming story. In the process of coming up with it Chabon spent just a few days on the island, but no more, worried his imagination might be tainted. (He also scored a New York Times out of the deal, complete with him walking in the harbor where I live in his newish-looking Uggs.  Here’s why the book annoys me (I think I’ve mentioned this elsewhere in a blog on this site, forgive the repetition, but this one bears the repetitions). For some odd reason Chabon, despite his well-endowed imagination, insisted on calling his imaginary town Sitka. Thus writing over, quite literally, those people who actually lived in the town in the 1930s, his imagination like a bulldozer. Why not just come up with a new name for town? I’d love to know. It’s a gripe I’ve long had, one that others (mostly from outside Alaska) don’t seem to get.

And so this woman who listened so carefully to the reading, and provided such a kind beverage, made sense. I went on to change not only the names of subsistence areas in the book, but also the name of town, from Sitka to Port Anna. This was both freeing and frightening. I could do anything. In this way, I think, the book – and the place you have in your heart as you write it – teaches you how it wants to be written.

2. If folks aren’t falling asleep at this answer I go on to speak about the Tlingit myth of Lenaxxidaq, a gorgeous, lush story of a curly-haired woman who gathers mussels at low tide. I used the story in my book, and read it at that same reading in Sitka. A few days later I received a text from an intern at an environmental organization in town informing me that I needed to ask permission to use this myth. Initially, both the message and messenger struck me as bizarre, if not annoying and insulting. Permission? I’ll use whatever damn story I want, said the hot-head kid from Philly. That’s the great thing about being a writer. You wear your antenna high, and report back on all those frequencies you pick up. Except in the case of close friends and secrets, morality plays small part in such decisions. If it moves the plot forward, enriches the stew, then in it goes.  

Or so I thought at the time. Once the hot-headedness passed, I made my down Katlian Street to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and asked for permission to use the story. Thus began a journey moving between various figures that weevils so quickly into the heart of the most basic question of all: what are white people like me doing in Alaska in the first place? What am I writing over when I call my book The Alaskan Laundry with the idea that the state works as one big washing machine for stained people to use to come clean, to come clear? Like, really? I wasn’t born in this state. I came here when I was 19, I worked my tail off, I’ve given sweat and blood to its fishing boats and its trees and its buildings. Does this give me rights?

In the context of this second answer, which – as you can probably tell – ends with no good answer at all, Christopher McCandless occasionally raises his head. As in, why are people in Alaska such jerks to him? Like, they had no sympathy for what he did, or was trying to do.             

When I think about McCandless, especially when this question arises, I think about respect. He was blithe about the wild, casual, heedless when he walked out to that bus in borrowed boots. If this land teaches you one thing, it’s fear. And humility comes at the heels of fear.

But here’s the thing with McCandless that I think so many Alaskans miss. He wasn’t unconcerned. He wasn’t uncaring. That’s the worst. That’s what deserves to be taken down with those fine-tuned tools of theory and intellectual thoughts.

As long as you give a shit about the people and land around you, I think you’re fine. As long as you don’t play fast and loose with place, and people, you’ll be fine. Quakers teach this. It’s a good lesson.
Brendan Jones is the author of the novel The Alaskan Laundry, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Fundacion Valparaiso, and Ragdale, he is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has had work in the New York TimesPloughsharesNarrative MagazinePopular WoodworkingThe Huffington Post, and has recorded commentaries for NPR. Raised in Philadelphia, he took the Greyhound west at the age of 19, ending up in Sitka, Alaska. He graduated from Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team, then returned to Alaska to commercial fish. He was a general contractor for seven years in Philadelphia, before heading back to Sitka, where he now lives, commercial fishing and renovating a WWII tugboat. | www.alaskanlaundry.com

1 comment:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Good food for thought--thanks, Brendan.