Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Mixed Thanksgiving Post

It's winter now, cold and getting colder. The sun lingers just below the horizon during the day. It's a time when those of us who are growing older start thinking we maybe are not cut out for all this cold stuff, after all. Maybe, we think, we will go someplace warm, like...Arizona!

But then we remember how the State of Arizona effectively shut down the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson by threatening to withhold a large amount of money from the school district there.

Teaching them about their own history and culture was leading Mexican-American kids to be too much Mexican and not enough American, detractors said. Dangerous stuff. It was also making them smarter, studies showed. That's dangerous, too.

And here we are, in northern Alaska, trying to meld culture into everything we do educationally. We want our kids to be smarter. Watch out world.

Oh never mind. I really just wanted to say Happy Thanksgiving and, for my writer friends, I wanted to share a poem by Louise Erdrich which seems apropos to all the unnecessary stress we put on ourselves in this and other seasons.

And to think of thanksgiving, not associated with any bogus holiday because, really, why do we celebrate, with thanksgiving, an event that either marks the time when the Native American tribes on the east coast tried a temporary truce or a time when they were first subjected to genocide, depending on who's telling the story.

I don't suppose, though, that this is a real reason to quit eating turkey.

I  am thankful for this, from a student at Barrow High School:

Its a poster for My Name is Not Easy. I especially like what she chose as "Significant Quotation":

I was a leader, testing the safety of the frozen world with my own skin.

I am thankful for books and book people and those who test the safety of the world with the skin of their own bright words, left behind, leading the way for those who follow in this frozen and thawing world.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Summer of Light and Memory

Summer is gone. There is a light dusting of snow on the tundra and the fall light is with us, full of soft pastels and evening fire. The whales are passing by us, headed south. 

So I am behind on posting of summer, mostly because I was un-wired for a good part of the time. Here are my summer memories to share....

It began on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, traveling eastward from the northernmost point of land on the North American continent, to the Chip River and then southward--inland--to the Ikpikpuk River, the place of big cliffs in the foothills of the Brooks Range.

The one thing that stands out about this trip (aside from the fact that I intentionally left my laptop behind and went an unprecedented eight days without it) was the light. We traveled all night, some nights, but it wasn't dark. The sky around us, bigger than life, was translucent. Luminous. There is nothing in the world quite like the 24-hour light of an Arctic summer night deep in the country.   Absolutely nothing. That kind of light has it's own flavor as though the air itself is made different by its presence.

We flew up the river in our new river boat, the sides of the cliffs sprouting with red and purple flowers and the waters were alive with geese and goslings. As they saw the boat approach, the niglik--the adult geese--would run flapping along the top of the water in front of us, fleeing--or perhaps trying to divert us--and the goslings, the nigilingnaurat, would dive in unison, butts up,  as though they had been drilled in the procedure.

And the caribou. They were there by the hundreds along the shores of the Arctic ocean, escaping the mosquitoes and crossing the river, up inland,  migrating.

It was a breath-taking journey.

The great thing about a river boat is that it can fly through shallow water where other boats get stuck. The bad thing is that when it gets stuck, it really gets stuck.

When we got stuck, it took seven hours, all night, for the four of us--my husband, myself, our son and our daughter's fiance, to push us out. And trust me, my husband and I are fairly past the prime of our brawniness. In fact my husband has had serious health issues and yet was up on the bow of the boat, dancing, even after five hours of being stuck. (Don't tell him I told you that.) 

He was so happy to be back inland, the place that feeds his soul.

It was 7 am. by the time we broke free. We should have stopped for the night but we didn't. A milky fog drifted along the water making the world seem magical. It hard to see, but we kept going...and we got stuck again. As tired as we were, it looked hopeless. 

"When are we going to go for help?" my son asked. At that exact moment it really did look like without help we would be there forever.

My husband, who still had his humor about him, laughed and told him to quit being silly. In this country, you help yourself or  you perish. We did not perish. We made it all the way to our cabin, where a bear had preceded us. One of the hunters we ran into said something about those grizzlies that tickled me: "you know, you can look into one of their dens and it's so neat it looks like they have maid service, but when they get inside your cabin they leave it totally trashed." Our cabin was totally trashed. The pots were all punctured by huge teeth and the floor was covered with rotting caribou fur as though a bear had dragged an animal, or several, into the cabin and eaten everything but the fur. The mattress appeared to have been slept in by something big and wet and smelly and bear-shaped. We still have a lot of work to do there.

It was the longest I've been separated from my computer in something like 18 years.  I also lost my cellphone along the way. It was a silly thing to bring in the first place. We were way beyond the world of cell service but it helped me keep track of the time and date, when I felt the need to know, which in that timeless world, I rapidly quit needing to know...

From the tundra of Alaska we went to northern Minnesota, the place of my childhood. My oldest brother Dave passed away on Septemeber 28, 2010. His wife of 47 years, my red-headed Swedish sister, Barb, followed him six months later. 

How fast our lives fly by. I remember well, the autumn day nearly fifty years ago when they got married and waved goodbye, smiling, from their little car. They spent their honeymoon in northern Minnesota duck hunting. Now they are both gone.

They never had children and so left me their cabin on an island in the lake, the lake just south of the Canadian border, the lake where they spent their honeymoon, a lake I know well. 

I spent every summer of my childhood there.

It is a place of enduring beauty, a place that somehow doesn't seem to have changed all that much since those lazy summer days of my childhood, when Mom and I stayed there alone, painting and reading and dreaming.

It's a place where one steps out the door to a world of water, Norway pines and northern skies...

A small island where one falls asleep to the sound water lapping against rocks and wakes to birch trees shaking their leaves outside the bedroom window.   

It's the world I grew up in. It has electricity now, but only very limited cell service. I got a lot of writing done there, a lot of big picture thinking about my current work in process, a work which was in a huge knot when I arrived--a wonderful, totally hopeless mess of scenes and odd events and things which I, as the writer, was surprised about, delighted with, but which ultimately left me feeling helpless. What did it all mean? Where was it going? Who knew? Not me.

Okay, so I still don't know entirely, but I am a whole lot closer now.

My brother had a wood burning hot tub on the side of the island facing the sunrise. I stoked it with wood at night and took hot tubs when the sky was red with sunrise and not a soul was around to see this 60 year old woman, floating in the cold northern waters, looking up at the pines and listening to loons.

My sister had a kitchen, stocked just the way I would stock it, right down to the spices. I felt her presence there, sometimes, looking for something I knew she would have...come on Barb, were is the cumin? And it would appear. Right there on the shelf in front of me.

 The cabin has it's stone fireplace. It's sixty years old, that fireplace, built by one of Dave's mentors, Carter Wetzel, an old man who lived all alone in the woods and knew its ways like he knew his own mind. We called him a hermit. Dave spent time with him, learning what he knew. He knew hunting and fishing and trapping. He knew where to find diamond willow and how to make furniture from it, how to notch logs and build cabins and stone fireplaces and even--he showed us once--how to make cane strips, the kind you use for chair seats. I was very small, but I remember vividly, the huge white pine, stripped of its bark, and the way he covered it with mud and pounded it down, very systematically, with a mallet, until the strips peeled off, one by one.

Do you see, in the picture below, the white stone in the bottom center? Its quartz.

That's my brother's flag above the mantel, honoring his four years in the Air Force. I couldn't bring my self to rearrange the furniture. I couldn't bring myself to remove the utensil container that says it's "Barb's Kitchen." I couldn't bring myself to remove my brother's camouflage hunting jacket from the coat rack. Maybe I never will.

I am just grateful to be able to reclaim this piece of my life, grateful that I was able to be there this year, just as the trees were changing. I love fall. It's my favorite season. It's been so long since I've seen fall in Minnesota.  Swimming in the chill northern waters one dawn, I heard the sound overhead of geese returning north. It's been over 40 years since I last heard the sound of geese in the skies of northern Minnesota.

I remember, I told George, how the skies would fill with the geese, their calls deep and pervasive, how the sound would always make my heart flutter. No, they no longer do that, George told me. He, too, remembered the geese in the skies of northern Alaska, so numerous they darkened the sun with their numbers. Those numbers of geese are gone, George said, gone in Minnesota as well is in Alaska, gone as much of their habitat is gone to malls and suburbs and parking lots.

How sad to think that that sound now only exists as an echo in our aging memories.

And now, I am returned to the tundra, my front yard russet with fall, the light falling in the chill air, wonderful and life affirming.


Monday, July 9, 2012

The Conditions for Art

"Great art—or let’s just say more modestly, original art—is never created in the safe middle ground but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. If you want to increase the sum of what it is possible for human beings to say, to know, to understand and therefore, in the end, to be; you actually have to go to the edge and push outwards. Originality is dangerous…and there are powerful sources in many societies, including this one, who don’t want those boundaries to be pushed outwards, who don’t want us to be allowed to think new thoughts, to think dangerous thoughts, to think original thoughts. There are forces in every society, including this one, which push back against the efforts of artists and intellectuals and thinkers to increase those boundaries. And that pushing back can sometimes be dangerous for the artist concerned but if we believe in liberty…. this is the kind of art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Celebrating Life's Passages

It's been a month of travel. I was in New York City at the end of May for Book Expo America. It was huge! I signed a lot of books.

The panel discussion I was on at the PEN America Festival is now up! Click here to listen. It was a discussion of children's rights. I spoke of educational rights.  I referred to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people, Article 17:
"Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."   
This has been eradicated in the Untied States. My point is that when we talk about the rights of children and the horrific violations occurring in many parts of the world, we must not forget to look at ourselves and our own violations.

After New York I went to Dartmouth for the graduation of my daughter, Anna Bergitte Ahgeak Tuuluk Edwardson on June 10.

She is in the middle, above, with some of her NAD (Native Americans at Dartmouth) classmates. The NAD program at Dartmouth is powerful. As I heard one visitor say, it's like a United Nations of Native American nations.  Most of the NADs wore tribal dress for graduation. Anna graduated with a degree in Film and Native American Studies. She wants to teach Iñupiaq. She wore a green atiqluk (Dartmouth colors) and kamipiaq or mukluks, which I am really proud of because they were made by one of our very young Barrow seamstresses, Jerica Aamodt, and they are beautiful! Bearded seal, calf skin and beaver:

The photo doesn't quite do them justice. My camera broke in the middle of graduation.

Fortunately there were plenty of cameras around to record the birth of my granddaughter when I returned to Anchorage. Annabel Rose Nuyaagik Tavialuk Kalayauk. She was born on June 28 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage and she was born with her eyes wide open.

She is beautiful and very wise, I think.

What else is there? Life is good.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering Ellen Levine

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dear friend Ellen Levine, who lost her battle with cancer yesterday. I started rereading her emails, pulling out bits and pieces of her words, trying to recreate the essence of her--like people who catch the scent of a loved one they’ve lost in an old coat and just want to hang onto it.

Right before going to bed last night I looked at the stack of books at my bedside. On the top of the pile was Art and Fear. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. For some crazy reason, I said, “Okay, Ellen,” and picked it up. I tend to be fearful whereas Ellen was fearless. The first thing I read was this:
“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult.”
--Hippocrates (460-400 BC)
Life is short. Hippocrates only lived to be 40. Ellen was 70, which looks young to me these days. But art is long and yours, Ellen, will long outlive us. 

Opportunity is fleeting but you, Ellen, knew how to grab it by the horns and run with it. And you knew, too,  the treacherous nature of experience and were always ready and willing to pin it to the floor.

Oh my wise and scrappy Ellen!

When I questioned my judgement I always went to Ellen and she always made me see what I already knew but was reluctant to admit. When I asked her whether she thought I was foolish to speak out publicly about the sale of Marshal Cavendish to Amazon, for example, here is what she said:
"Those that disagree with the M/C sale can't hurt you any more than they already are by not carrying the book. You, George, Rachel, et al., may talk about stepping warily as you wade into political waters, but thank god you all never have.  You're fighters and say what you think.  Sure there are times when it's wise to be silent.  My 2 cents is this ain't one of them."
And another time, when I was worrying over reviews:
"...listen, there's nada we can do to combat stupidity except to keep writing and speaking truth as we know it."
And here, when I was plagued by the thought of those who might question the authenticity of my work and my right to write it:
"Seems to me we spend way too much time in life locking ourselves and others in boxes that we think are important definitionally.  But when I read My Name Is Not Easy, one thing so very moving to me was the way Luke talked and thought about his far north landscape.  It's not mine; I don't look out on vast unhemmed in openness, a true bowl of a sky, etc etc, but I related and was deeply moved.  It reminded me in a sense of my grandmother's kitchen, as it were -- i.e., that I have a landscape and it has meaning to me." 

And this, when I asked her to write a blurb for the book:
"Meanwhile, my fine writer friend, why in hell do you want a quote from this NY urban Jewish radical woman..."
Ah, my dear Ellen, that’s an easy one. As it turns out I happen to love NY urban Jewish radical women….or at least one of them.  

And her quote, part of which is on the cover of the book:

"In My Name Is Not Easy, Debby Dahl Edwardson has given us an
extraordinary tale of love, betrayal, and above all, survival, as a 
group of young Alaskan Natives are transplanted from their home
villages to a parochial boarding school in the Alaskan wilderness.
Through their stories, Edwardson reminds us that the landscape we see
is also the landscape of our soul, whether arctic tundra or urban canyons.
This is a novel that, like landscape, marks a reader's soul forever."
The line about love, betrayal, and above all, survival was used on the cover--but it's the last line that carries the essence of Ellen and the mark she's left.

PS--Her Books (some of them):

Darkness Over Denmark, the story of the Danish resistance that saved the Jews in Denmark during World War II

A Fence Away from Freedom, about internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s

I Hate English, which has become a resource for ESL teachers.

Freedom's Children, the story of the young black civil rights activists of the 1960s, which the New York Times called, "nothing short of wonderful."

Henry's Freedom Box, the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom, a book which earned her a Caldecott Honor

Catch a Tiger by the Toe, of the MacCarthy era.

In Trouble, the story of two pregnant teenaged girls in the l950's, pre Roe vs Wade, written in a voice pitch perfect, which nails the era. I know; I was there. Much I had forgotten. Thanks to Ellen we will remember.

I am particularly fond of this line from Ellen’s introduction to Darkness over Denmark:

There were “good people” in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors said, “What could we do?” For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: “What else could we do?”

The essence of Ellen Levine, her passion for social justice and her willingness to always act in its defense.

Go buy one of her books right now.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Two videos, totally unrelated

The first one was made by my daughter in opposition to offshore oil development in the Arctic.

I am really proud of her. That's my granddaughter on the image above (and later on in the film, my grandson appears, as well.) This touched my heart.  I hope it touches yours, too.

The other one is Neil Gaiman's graduation address to the University of the Arts. The Christian Science Monitor calls Gaiman, "one of this year's best commencement speakers." Well worth a listen. The two takeaways for me:

  1. Regardless of what life gives you or doesn't give you, make good art.
  2. Be wise and if you can't be wise, pretend to be a wise person and do what they would do.
These both work for me on this spring day in the arctic.

And speaking of graduates, I wanted to share a picture of our oldest high school graduate, from this year's graduation ceremony at Nunamiut School in Anaktuvuk Pass.

At 77 years old, with the help of teacher Inge Lisa Jensen, Grace Ekak (pictured above with grad Megan Ahgook) learned to read and write. When she read her first letter--a letter from her doctor--she was amazed. "Is this right? Did I read it right?" she asked. The letter said she was cancer-free.
 And hey, people, don't be afraid to talk to me here. I won't bite, or at least it won't hurt if I do.

Friday, May 18, 2012

On the trail of dark & light to New York City

I'd meant to post from New York where I attended the PEN World Voices Festiveal of Internal Literature  earlier this month, but, well, I didn't. It was a wonderful gathering of writers. I was slated for something called a Literary Safari, advertised as an event where one could see writers in their "natural habitat.  I had joked with friends prior that I was either supposed to arrive with a spear in hand or I would be ensconced in a bed with a laptop, my "natural habitat." Happily, I did neither but was, instead, a guest at the home of artist Stephen Hall and his wife Samantha who live in the Westbeth artist's community. It was a wonderful evening of reading and discussion, which Lyn Miller-Lachmann blogged about. Actually she posted on Tumblr so maybe I am supposed to say she Tumblred about it. Okay, maybe not.

I was hosted by writer Susanna Reich whose book, Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, was released on May 1. I stayed in the East Village which just sounds incredibly cool to someone referred to by her capitalist eldest son as an old hippie. In fact Susanna and her husband Gary Golio were driving me back to my hotel when Gary said: look, there's Bob Dylan! My head turned so fast I nearly got whiplash. It wasn't Bob Dylan, of course. Gary was just pointing out that we were in the middle of Dylan's old digs. He had no way of knowing that I was once a Dylan groupie (well, figuratively speaking) and I did not yet realize that he was the guy who wrote When Bob Met Woody.  Small world.

Dylan was from Hibbing, Minnesota. My mother was raised in Buhl, Minnesota, right next door, and my dad was from Virginia, Minnesota, right down the street, all three towns in the heart of the Iron Ore Range, the source of Dylan's early ballads. What's not to love? When my dad complained about "that godawful noise," my brother and I sat him down and made him listen to the lyrics of Mr Tambourine Man. Dad was a writer. He loved words. He never complained about Dylan again. In college I Shall Be Released was pretty much my theme song. Still is.

Which all leads to the next NYC experience. I finally met my agent, Faye Bender, (stay with me) who is absolutely just as lovely in person as she is on email and I told her about how the hotel I was staying at had bikes and how I was biking around New York. How cool is that? But Faye scolded me about the fact that I wasn't wearing a helmet and I thought about my kids--who would be horrified to see me biking NYC without a helmet--so I started wearing a helmet.  In fact, I took a ride that very afternoon wearing a wool jacket and a helmet. But then it got really hot for this Alaskan, so I took off the jacket. And there I was, biking around New York in black jeans, a black t-shirt and a helmet. Tough, huh? Then I stopped at a light and some old guy, rather worse for wear, asked me if I was Janis Joplin.

Of course I immediately thought of Amos, an Inupiaq from Point Lay, Alaska who is said to have dated Janis. We call him Famous Amos. Ever hear the song Quinn the Eskimo?

Just to set the record though: when I was younger, nobody ever mistook me for Janis Joplin.

Oh, and this is for my oldest son, who loves New York: I now know what it's like to be at a penthouse party in NYC. How amazing to stand in the night sky with the lights of the city and all its iconic buildings, spread around one like jewels on black velvet.

Hmm, maybe I do look like Janis.

Backtracking---Before New York, I visited my daughters at Dartmouth which was wonderful but I went through a total sense of culture shock when I arrived there. I had, after all, left the near 24 hour brilliance of sun on snow--springtime in the arctic, in other words--and I arrived into the darkness of  a New Hampshire night, where I was in the middle of a woods. It was not just dark at night; it was black dark, inky dark, soul-sucking dark. No streetlights no visable stars and apparently no other guests that first night at the little motel where I stayed--the one with the wooden Indian in the lobby. This was beyond culture shock for old Janis here.

I was glad to get these pictures of my granddaughter Josie, fishing in the intense Arctic light.

There's a wonderful Greenlandic movie called Heart of Light. Exactly so. My home is in the Heart of Light.

They were camping near Anaktuvuk Pass, my son in law's home.

I really wanted to be there.

At PEN I participated in  the panel on children's rights  with Wojciech Jagielski, Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick. Patty's new book Never Fall Down was released earlier this month. It's Arn's story of how, as an 11-year-old boy in Cambodia, he survived the Khmer Rouge by playing music in the Killing Fields. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it, “One of the most inspiring and powerful books I’ve ever read." I read it on the plane home and it was. Sorry to sound like an old hippie, but it blew my mind. It was that good. It will win many awards. Read it.

I also read my friend Jane Buchanan's wonderful Gratefully Yours on the plane trip home and I cried. A wonderful story about grief and healing set in the orphan train era. How can a book like this go out of print? Someone is asleep at the wheel. We--VCFA classmates David, Hatsy and I drove up to Greenfield, MA from Hanover NH to surprise Jane at her book launch for newest book, Seed Magic.

Another wonderful book.

Thank God for wonderful light filled books, for people who pour their souls into story, for story standing witness, painful and transcendent; for story illuminating trails through the abyss.

I dedicate this thought to my dear mentor Ellen Levine, whose books have always done exactly that. Ellen lives in New York City, but she's battling cancer and was too sick for visitors when I was there.

Always, I hear Ellen's indomitable voice with it's Yiddish wisdom:  so what's against it? Be well Ellen, and follow the light.

What's against it?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Writing is a lot like Chopped!

Maybe it's a sign that I'm a writer or maybe I'm just increasingly ADD, but when I start thinking about something, suddenly I see it everywhere. Lately it's writing metaphors. Now it's Chopped! You know, the TV cooking show.

Based on posts about writing metaphors, you might think I watch TV all the time. In fact, I really don't  really like TV. "Don't like" is an understatement. Actually, I pretty much detest TV, especially the part where they turn the commercials up really loud and these obnoxious guys with auctioneer voices start screaming things at you, things you wouldn't want to hear about even if they were speaking politely.

I have to admit it, though. Sometimes these commercials are really funny--like the whole family that was walking around in hooded Snuggies like members of some fuzzy cult, which you and yours are cheerfully invited you to join for only $19.95.  Or those drug commercials that show handsome gray haired men walking along beaches with lovely blond women who shake their tresses in the wind while some guy in the background says, "if you experience an erection lasting more than four hours..."

Seriously, though, TV is pretty much all just so much noise to me. But I live in a family of TV addicts. Sad but true. So sometimes, in the interest of appearing at least slightly social and conciliatory, I watch TV with people. With my daughter and her boyfriend, lately, I've been watching Chopped!

It's pretty engaging.

Here's four professional chiefs, each given a basket full of ingredients--odd pairings, like cotton candy, star fruit, matzo crackers and shrimp. They have to create a gourmet meal with these things in thirty minutes flat.  With each course of the meal, one of them is going to get chopped from the show. The skinny one is going to use her winnings to pay for an operation for her son--if she wins. But, yikes, she's allergic to shrimp!  It's drama, suspense and a ticking clock--with three critics watching their every move and poised to pass judgement. (We didn't miss the significance of three, did we?) Hey, what's not to like?

Which takes us back to the topic at hand.... writing is a lot like Chopped!

I won't drive it into the ground, I promise, but here we are, our baskets bulging with disparate story ingredients, odd things we've been given, things that cling to us, bits of a recipe that eludes us. We smell the aromas and savor the tastes and we're starting to make interesting connections...a cotton candy star fruit glaze with a shaving of ginger? How about a kosher salad with matzo croutons? A shrimp flower?

And of course there's the guy in the commercial hollering that for just $19.95 we can buy a phone app that will create an outline for us and find the storyline for any combination of ingredients...

We don't believe it, do we? We know better. We just grab the double boiler, turn up the heat and dig out that old the egg timer, the one with the loud tick...

Okay, okay. I'm done. No more writing metaphors. I promise. Let's just quietly get back to work, shall we?

Here's a parting shot, one of my favorites from Anne Lamott:

"I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)"

I bet you can guess where I am at in the process.....

Friday, March 30, 2012

What I am Reading

This is the heart of it, yes? What we read, what touches us, what inspires us. I read like a writer most of the time. It's both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I long for the book that doesn't beg me to analyze it, doesn't even leave me wondering, how did she do it? and force me to figure it out. Sometimes I just want to immerse myself in a good story, like I did when I was 12, and get lost with a few people I love and  a story I care about. Too often these days, though, the quality of the writing gets in the way and I spend more time thinking about the book than experiencing it. Sigh. It's a writer's affliction. We love books so much we want to write them and when we do, part of the magic is lost for far too many of the books we read.

Enter John Green's latest (is it his latest?) The Fault in Our Stars. I'm not going to show you the cover or link to it or anything. It's selling like hotcakes, to cop a cliche. John Green does not need my help in marketing so I just want to weigh in, briefly.

Confession: I did not love Looking for Alaska. It was good, competent, clever even, but I did not love it. I won a promotional copy of The Fault in Our Stars and it came in right before a trip. Now that I am a Kindle owner, I travel with this great little light weight library. But I need a book for take off and landing. I just do. So I tossed The Fault in Our Stars into my carry-on. I started reading it on take of and kept reading in the air, on landing, and in the hotel. I reread it on the return trip. I love this book. I am in love with John Green. Yeah, okay, he's married and young enough to be my son, but still.

And that's all I'm going to say. It was good to get lost in a book again. Thank you John Green.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Courting Diversion

I just got an email notification: a Gifted Giraffe is following me on Twitter.  I am tickled, of course, wondering if there are other gifted animals out there who might be persuaded to follow me. I imagine myself as the pied tweeter of gifted animals. Gifted polar bear, wolverines, flamingos and fleas.  What stories, one wonders, will they respond to? What links might inspire? What kinds of antics might a group of them engage in? Dances, improvisations, the occupation of various institutions. Ah, the possibilities...

Get back to work, Debby.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

About the connections we make with each other

Erin Hollingsworth, the children's librarian at Tuzzy, our local library, told me something wonderful yesterday. She said that one Inupiaq girl checked out a copy of Blessing's Bead and said she had read it four times. It was her favorite book, she said, and she and her mom read it together sometimes.

(Erin told me this in answer to my rather snippy question: why aren't my books displayed with the others? They are all checked out, she told me. Yes, I felt appropriately guilty for snapping.)

This is why I write books. This is why I started writing books for young people. This is why I write books set within the context of  the culture I live in. There were not enough books that reflected Inupiaq life as I knew it. Understatement. I would be happy, I said at the start, if just a few Inupiaq kids could read my books and say: yes, that's us. 

I'm happy.

Sometimes, though, as our careers progress, we have to remind ourselves of why we write. We have to remember to see the faces of our first readers and see them clearly. My first readers are Inupiaq.

We want all readers to relate to our work, of course. And when we start to receive wider recognition, it's wonderful. When I got my first review for Whale Snow, a review in the prestigious Publishers Weekly, and when the reviewer clearly understood the book, even though it was about the whaling--not a politically popular subject beyond my world--when they liked it, even, I celebrated. When I went to an Alaska Library Association meeting in Anchorage, years later, and saw saw a young Barnes and Noble sales rep, Renee Sands, hand selling Blessing's Bead, I was deeply touched--and surprised. I hadn't expected it. I thought I had to go out and push my books, but she'd found it on her own and she was celebrating it. And when I got that call saying the My Name is Not Easy had been named a finalist for the National Book Award, I was breathless. Who knew my books could reach so far?

Now I am in a political tug of war within the industry. Renee writes with regret to say that My Name is Not Easy will no longer be sold at Barnes and Noble because my small publisher was bought by Amazon and Amazon is at war with Barnes and Noble. Publisher's Weekly writes stories about the war that make Amazon look like the devil itself. But they've been good to me. And what about me? What about my books? I take a stand. I take multiple stands. Remember, people, I say, it's about writers, readers and books. That's the core of it, isn't it? It's the young girl reading my book for a fifth time because it touched her--that's what we're talking about. And the boy in New York City--as far removed from the Inupiaq world as it is possible to be--who said he'd read My Name is Not Easy twice, less than a month after its release. That's it, really. That's the heart of it. That's all there is of importance.

So this is me, reminding myself to remember this. Telling myself to just keep writing. Artists are not politicians. Books are about the connections people make with each other, nothing more and nothing less.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sinking nails into the edge of the boat

My husband is watching this fishing show on TV where the guy has put nails around the edge of his boat to hold the different fishing lines. Apparently the nails keep the lines separate, keep them from getting tangled. My husband is impressed with this idea.

I've probably got it wrong, but it makes me think about writing. Writing is like fishing, after all. You drop in a hook, jiggle it around a bit. Let it sit. Come back to check, jiggle it some more. And yet some more. And, if you're lucky, pretty soon you'll be fighting the legendary big one.

You will be relentless, tough, focused---maybe even graceful---engaged in this dance with this fish.

Me? I'm with the guy on the fishing show. I like to have a bunch of story lines out at once. I'm not sure it would be a smart idea to secure them with nails though. Some of these story fish are very skittish. They only come when you pretend you're not interested, when you act like you're looking the other way, thinking of somethings else, ignoring them. If you turn to look too quickly, too soon, they disappear into the deep water, or dart off into the rocky part by the shore where you lose lures trying to catch them. You can't nail them down.

Actually, maybe it would be good to sink those nails into the writing boat. Then you could turn your back and feign disinterest. Which means I have driven this metaphor into a dangerously shallow water because what, exactly, is the craft equivalent for writers to "sinking nails into the edge of the boat?"

And the bigger question: why am I comparing writing to fishing? I don't even like to fish although I never admitted this to my big brother, Dave, who left us a little over a year ago. Dave used to take me out in the boat with him and basically plant fish on the end of my line.

Somewhere an old high school boyfriend has a photo of me as a five year old, holding a pike as tall as my little self. The one Dave always bragged about. I never did get that photo back.

Hey, maybe I was good at fishing and maybe this means I should be good at story fishing. Okay, it's a long shot. And if I am going to continue with this frivolity, I will have to go through the whole story equivalent of cleaning the fish and cooking it in a way that will make even non fish lovers say, "hey, this is good!"

Okay. I'd say that's the sound of the buzzer:  Time's up. Back to work.

Oh. But wait. It really is amazing how one can struggle and struggle with something and then, with just one little change in the way you hold the rod, you are able, suddenly, to land the fish. Okay, never mind. That's silly. It's probably not even true about fishing. But it is true about writing and I have had some of those experiences this very week so I am happy.

For real now.  Gone . . .

. . . fishing.

(Sorry. Couldn't help myself.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Addendum to Arizona

CNN blogged about it. I had to quit reading the comments. Some where just too hateful. Some of these uber-Americans need to take a look at American history and acknowledge it for what it is. There are some great and inspirational things in our history, but the basis of our claims are, well, pretty shaky.

Two students of mine--adult teachers--were chatting before class a while back. They were talking about immigration and expressing the, "they should all just go back to Mexico" perspective. I smiled at them and said, "I bet you two are grateful that they didn't think that way about your great grandparents."

One looked at me shocked. "Mine immigrated legally," he said, highly offended.

"Legal according to whose law?" I asked.

It is not a matter of debate. When our great grandparents immigrated "legally," there were a bunch of people, who had already claimed this land as theirs, standing on the shore, watching. No, not a bunch of people--there were nations of peoples.

Do people really have to be reminded of this, over and over? Would it even make any difference if they were? Sadly, it would not.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

American Apartheid?

A friend of mine--Jana Harcharek, Director of Iñupiat Education for the North Slope Borough School District--sent me a link about the affront to education that's taking place in Arizona:

American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL): Teaching critical thinking in Arizona: NOT ALLOWED

"This makes me especially grateful for the work we are doing with the Iñupiaq Learning Framework," Jana wrote. Me too. I'm president of the North Slope Borough School District Board of Education and I'm proud to say that unlike the school district in Arizona, which is shutting down its Mexican American Studies Program, we are not only teaching Iñupiaq Studies, we are creating a framework that will make "Iñupiaq studies" an integral part of academics on all levels. Unlike Tucson, Arizona, which is apparently afraid to teach alternative versions of history, we are actively creating materials that tell history from an Iñupiaq perspective.

I had been following this story on Debbie Reese's blog before Jana emailed me and I was, and am, shocked. Sherman Alexie referred to it as American Apartheid. I think that pretty well sums it up.

Aside from the obvious racism, aside from the fact that the powers that be in Arizona didn't care that the program was creating academic success among its Latino students, aside from the fact that this is the kind of thing that is gutting our educational system and sapping us of our strengths--aside from all of this, I am deeply disturbed about what it says about us as a country. This is not a version of America we can be proud of. This is not the land of the free; it's the land of the oppressors and the oppressed. This is a group of people who hold the balance of power saying, "our story is the right story and all other stories will be suppressed." Whatever ugly things students in that program may have been learning about American history, these things have just been validated.

It is such a serious affront to the truths we claim to hold as self-evident that it should be front page news, nationwide. Sadly, it is not.

I know this is a buzz phrase, but honestly, it makes me think of Nazi Germany.

Which in turn makes me think of my friend Ellen Levine's book Darkness over Denmark about the Danish resistance during World War II.

And in thinking of Ellen's book makes me want to share this, from the book's wonderful introduction:
Something unusual happened in Denmark during World War II: Hitler's plans to kill the Danish Jews failed. Like many American Jews, I grew up hearing stories of how Denmark saved its Jews. That Denmark chose to protect its Jews was an astonishing and extraordinary act. What happened, and why did it happen in Denmark and nowhere else?
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century English political philosopher and member of Parliament, wrote, "The one condition necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I believe that this is the essence of this story. Evil did not triumph in Denmark because most Danes simply refused to allow it.
 There were "good people" in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors, said, "What could we do?" For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: "What else could we do?"
This is how I feel about the oppression happening in Arizona. One of the students, in fact, said that watching them box up those books and remove them from classrooms--which they did in the middle of class--was like looking at what had happened in Nazi Germany. We can't all just say, oh well, Arizona's a long way off and it's only one school district, only a small group of students, only one program.

No, I don't know what to do about it, either;  I'm just a writer. But as they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. And it must be true, too. Those people down there in Arizona appear to be mighty afraid of a few words in a few books. They must see those books as truly dangerous. Those books must be subversive. They are literally tearing books out of the hands of students. They are actually monitoring classrooms to make sure teachers don't secretly continue teaching those books. Those books must truly be powerful.

We must keep writing, we must keep reading and we must keep teaching those books.

In fact I'm going to put a few of them on the syllabus of the class I teach at Ilisagvik College. We're a tribal college and the Tucson Unified School District can't touch us.*

I'm also ordering a few more of those books for myself. Matt de la Pena's Mexican White Boy is about a boy negotiating the line between being Mexican and being white--This could be the story of my own kids, negotiating the line between being white and being Iñupiaq. It's time I read it....

That's what I'm doing. It's a start. What are the rest of you doing?

***Added 1/24: The decision to shut down the MAS program and pull books from classrooms has it's roots in the Arizona state legislature, which threatened to pull a significant amount of money from the district if Tuscon did not comply to their reading of the law.  What would I have done? In our district 75% of our budget goes to personnel. If we faced that kind of cut, we would have to make serious cuts to our teaching staff. I would challenge the state's interpretation of the law and seek an injunction.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On being where one belongs

I liked Melinda Moustakis' National Book Award behind the scenes advice, especially the second bit of advice:  
Find the Alaskans—they’re a friendly bunch. 
This is true. When you're traveling in the lower '48 or beyond and you run into an Alaskan it's like running into an old friend. Actually, when an Alaskan runs into another Alaskan on the road a lot of times they are old friends, or at least old acquaintances or most certainly  people who are acquainted with or somehow related to mutual old friends.

So it was great running into Melinda at the award ceremony. She was recognized by the National Book Foundation as one of the promising 5 under 35 writers and she was born in Fairbanks. I was from Barrow, was a finalist for the Foundation's National Book Award and had once lived in Fairbanks. Small world!!! We instantly had a lot to talk about. She was absolutely the only other writer in the whole room of hundreds who could relate to an experience I'd had two days earlier at a reading. I'd read a section from My Name is Not Easy that gets to the core of some fairly powerful feelings--powerful for me anyway. When I finished the reading, one young woman raised her hand.

"What's a snow machine?"

This is a snow machine, okay? In Alaska, snow machines have replaced dog teams as the accepted mode of transport in the roadless wilds. In terms of the scene I was reading, understanding this was critical. And yet the audience at Books of Wonder in NYC didn't know what a snow machine was.  

Maybe it's like, a snow blower, they thought. I had just read what was supposed to be an emotionally charged scene in which the Inupiaq narrator is mourning the loss of a way of life. The presence of the snow machine is significant and yet it's significance was lost on the audience I was reading to. They were imagining the uncle and the long lost brother roaring around on a snow blower. It wasn't actually supposed to be a humorous scene but Melinda and I had a good laugh over it.

In Whale Snow, when I compared snowflakes to cotton grass the editorial staff at the Charlesbridge office in Boston envisioned sheets or maybe t-shirts, fluttering from the sky. But that's another story.

Cotton Grass
(My granddaughter, in the upper right hand corner of this blog is holding a bouquet of it.)

So I'm an Alaskan writer. My stories and images come from the Arctic. So deeply is this embedded in me that I generally don't think of how singular the imagery is until I find myself reading my work, far from home, in a place where these images, and the world they come from, simply don't exist.

How did this happen, I wonder sometimes. How did I become an arctic writer writing of things alien to much of the world?

I came north in 1974, fresh out of college, looking for adventure. (I know, I know, this makes me really old but forget about this for a minute. It really doesn't matter.) I traveled the Alcan highway, which was not then a highway, not by any stretch of the imagination and I rode in the back of a windowless van. By the end of that trip I thought maybe I knew exactly what it felt like to cross the country in a covered wagon.

Yes, like every other white person who came to Alaska in those days, I felt like a pioneer.

When I arrived in Fairbanks, it was springtime and it really was forty below (you don't know Johnny Horton, either? Okay, never mind.) The pipeline was in full boom and Fairbanks was wild. I lived in a log cabin heated by a 55 gallon drum laid sideways to make a wood stove. The lighting system was powered by kerosine and I traveled by dog team. I worked at a log cabin Greek restaurant where one of the Greek brothers who owned the joint threw knives at the wall if we didn't pick up our orders fast enough. (Hey, maybe he was related to Melinda! I should have asked.) The patrons were rough and tumble pipeline workers on R&R who dropped hundred dollar tips like kleenex. Every night after we closed down, we had Greek feasts replete with the best mousaka you ever tasted, washed down with wine.

I had a lot of adventures in Alaska in those days, some amazing and some, to paraphrase Doug Swieteck in Okay for Now, well, some are just none of your business.

And then I went north and lived with the Eskimos.

Hey that's a great book title, don't you think?  . . . And Then I Went North to Live With the Eskimos. Actually, it was the Inupiat I went north to live with and from day one, their way of looking at the world just made sense to me.  

For a long time, though, a part of me clung to the little shred of an idea that someday I would "go home." Or at least continue on in my travels.

Then one day, something strange happened.  As my plane was landing in Barrow after a long trip, I looked out the window at the wide open tundra, red and gold and full of twisty rivers. I got off the plane, with ducks and geese flying overhead in wavering v's and went inside the terminal, where people were hugging me and saying welcome home! And I realized, suddenly, that  I really was home, in every sense of the word. It's funny how this works.

Maybe I'll write a book about it someday.

We don't think of it much, but a place and its people, its landscape and its images--these become a part of one. I remember reading Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas' poem "Snø og Grandskoq" when I was 21 and a Norwegian-American living in Norway. I recognized, in a very personal way, its impetus. I grew up in country like the country Vesaas writes of. I loved and still love this country. I knew the feeling. Here's the translated version: 

Snow and Spruce Forest  

Talk about what home is--
snow and spruce forest
is home.

From the very start
it is ours.
Before anyone has told us
that it is snow and spruce forest,
it has its place in us--
and then it's there
the whole, whole time.

Waist-high drifts
around dark trees
--it's here for us!
Mixed into our own breath.
The whole, whole time,
though no one sees it,
we have snow and spruce forest.

Yes, the hill under the snow,
and tree upon tree
as far as you gaze--
wherever we are
we find ourselves
facing this.

And have in us a promise
about coming home.
Coming home,
going out there,
bending branches,
--and feeling so it flares in you
what it is to be where you belong.

The whole, whole time,
until it's extinguished
in our inland hearts.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why this book and not that one?

I think a lot about this question. Especially when it comes to recognition and awards.

The average reader probably doesn't think much about it, but we writers do. Most people probably assume that the best books rise to the top--the survival of the fittest and all that. But of course it's not that simple. It's not even always true, strictly speaking. I mean, think about it. There are something like 20,000 children's books published a year, give or take a few thousand. No one can possibly read them all. There are a few very influential awards and reviewers. This means that there are a few people, generally well read and respected, who make the decisions about which books deserve stars, awards and recognition. Award committees generally deal with only a very small pool of books--only those that have been nominated or submitted by the publisher, the writer, a librarian...

Some writers are blessed with publishers willing to pull out all stops to make sure their books get noticed and seen in all the right places. Some are not so well favored. Some writers are pros at self promotion and know how to create avid fans on the strength of their personalities alone. Some would rather have root canals.

Laurels go to those books that manage to come to the attention of reviewers and committees through promotion of one sort or another. And yes, awards and recognition are given to well written books, but these must first be books that appeal to the taste of the individuals in positions to give them recognition.  There really is no way around this. Readers understand this, surely. How many times have you read, and been totally unimpressed, by a book that's received multiple kudos? Or adored a book that no one's noticed?

Think about what this means for books of color, if you will.

Where am I going with this? Well for one thing, I think we should all champion the books we love, especially the ones that don't receive as much attention as we think they should receive.

I just read Helen Frost's newest book, Hidden. What a beautiful cover--one that exposes our prejudices in a very subtle way over the course of the book. It's a  compelling story: a  mom goes into a quickstop to pay for gas. There's a gunshot and the little girl in the car dives to the floor, hiding. Someone gets into the car and speeds away. It's not the mom. The girl hiding is Wren. The daughter of the man driving is Darra. The two girls meet, years later at camp... I couldn't put this book down. It's taut and well written and goes to the core of things.  Here's a book able to make kids say, whoa, who knew poetry could make you bite your nails? Frost has even invented a new poetic form, ready made for teachers. Will it find it's way into schools? I don't know. It will fare better than most because of Frost's reputation.

How many good books are out there there with nothing working in their favor, promotionally speaking?

We writers  tend to worry about our books once they're published and out in the public. Our books are like our babies, after all, and we want everyone to love them. Our maternal--or paternal--instincts kick in and we want to protect them and defend them from attack but we can't. We count their stars, proudly. We view every star not given as a death toll. We've been known to spend inordinate amounts of time tracking their travels via Google searches, all of which does little to feed our writing life.

Yes, we're extremely gratified when our books receive recognitions and awards and sell well. But deep down inside, I think we all understand that a lot of what happens is happenstance. Deep down we know it would be better to ignore all of the hoopla, or lack thereof, and just keep following the whisper of the stories given us. Because in the final analysis, that's what it's all about.

Jo Knowles has posted a wonderful post on just this her blog. This resonated with me:

I want to get back to those pre-published writing days when, while in the writing mind, I was truly IN the writing mind. I wasn't thinking about what my agent or editor might think of the sentence I just wrote. I wasn't thinking about reviews. Or sales. Or best-of lists. Or snarky GoodReads.

I was thinking of story. Of character. Of words.

There was a purity to that time and I want to get it back.
Me too! For me, this means a New Year's resolution to severely curtail time on the Internet, to quit worrying about how my published books are doing, to quit taking what readers see or don't see personally--remembering that I cannot control what a reader brings to a book. And most of all, it means returning, fully, to the real work.

I think I'll start now.