Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where We Write

In the inaugural essay of the new “Where We Write” feature in Poets and Writers Magazine, Francine J. Harris wrote about Detroit, an urban setting that could not be more different than the place where I write. Still, her observations on regionalism, integration, and forgetfulness helped me think in new ways about Alaska, where I write.

Fresh out of a Midwestern college, I boarded a series of planes, each smaller than the last, until a single-engine Cessna dropped me on a muddy runway in the middle of the Alaska tundra. I saw no houses, no roads, no school where I’d planned to teach, only wind-rippled grasses and a brown, winding slough. The wind stinging my face, the plane droning into the gray sky as it circled and then disappeared, I couldn’t fathom then what a place like that might mean or, within it, who I might become.

Thirty-four years later, I’m still exploring those questions in my writing. Happily, I have company, in the form of what Oprah Magazine book editor Leigh Newman has dubbed an Alaska Literary Renaissance. In the sixteen years since I began publishing, first out of New York, later with regional presses, our once-marginalized Alaska literary community is growing into a sense of itself.

Breeding misconceptions even as it inspires, this place where we write is iconic—wild, vast, and in many ways unfamiliar, even to those of us who live here. To write within such a place requires resisting stereotypes and the rehashing of familiar themes. Geographically, culturally, and socially, we have many Alaskas to explore.  Beyond the familiar “man versus wild,” there are multiple tensions to consider, too—outsiders and insiders, colonial intrusion and aboriginal integrity, preservation and development, community and isolation.

I’m fortunate to have been writing and publishing here for a long time. I’ve lived in places few can pronounce, much less imagine— Nunapitchuk, Tuluksak, Akiachak—places that in many ways seem a world apart, and yet beyond the windswept tundra and the bitter wind and the collision of cultures run hopes and heartaches that inspire stories everywhere. On any given day, I may look up from my laptop and through the window spot a moose with her calf, a black bear sneaking across the yard, or a late winter sunrise cast a pink light over Mt. McKinley.

Where do you write?